Shaft

shaft 1

I have spiritual blue balls.

I feel so full of energy, love, and power and yet I don’t know where to put, how to direct and share it. It’s building and building and building, yet no release. Because I don’t have a container, a place where it belongs.

It’s very frustrating.  I feel this incredible longing to use my power for service, and with no receptacle, I start to shut myself down because it’s too painful to bear. Like Marianne Williamson has reflected:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”

Because with this power comes a yearning. To use it.

And like with any blue balls situation, the options for relief are either release or to shut down the desire.

Rabbi Naomi Levy explores this need for a “vehicle” in her book Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul. “There is a Hasidic teaching I once studied that says the key to fulfilling your mission is striking a balance between fire and the container that allows the fire to stay burning….The container is a lot less sexy than the fire itself. It’s the vessel you must create and maintain to keep the fire burning”.

Because how can energy manifest itself, if not with structure? Even our beautiful divine spirits have chosen to live in human body form. Energy is like fire, as Levy explores, but it’s also like H20. It can exist in gas, liquid or solid form. If we are too much gas, we are not seen, we can’t be held. If we are too solid, we can’t move, we can’t be flexible. If we are like water, we are a force to be reckoned with: gentle, powerful, movable. But liquids need containers to hold their form.

I have, like many of us, a love/hate relationship with structure. If my time is too structured, if I always have to be some place, at some time, if I  don’t have time to stare idly out the window, or lie on my back on the kitchen floor and cry (oddly soothing), I feel like I am being strangulated. I can’t take full breaths, I imagine escape, and my connection to Spirit and Mystery starts to wane. Laurie Brown, of the dearly departed CBC show The Signal, once talked about watching the light pass through your house during the day. How it changes as the sun progresses through the windows. She remarked that most people can only observe this passage on the weekends, otherwise they are away from home all day long.  How lucky am I that I often have that opportunity.  The thought of being torn away from that experience 5 days a week makes me anxious.

However, the other extreme is difficult too. I am with so little structure right now. Things have really shifted with my kids in the past few months. For many reasons, including their increased independence and desire (and ability) to get to school and their activities on their own, they are not needing me in the same ways. For so many years, my life revolved around my kids and the custody and school schedule determined my schedule. Not so much anymore. My work, both my “official work” and my “self employment work” is very flexible. Both can get done at home, at 3 am, or 2 in the afternoon. I do drop in exercise classes. Oreo is happy to be walked at any time of the day. I started volunteering with the safe ride program, Ikwe, and I can drive whenever works best. I’m fortunate and grateful to have that kind of flexibility, to be able to be the architect of my own days.

But it’s also a burden to bear. I wake up in the morning and sometimes the day, with its many to-dos but no certain path to get there, looms uncertain and heavy. I don’t know where or how to begin.  Lack of structure can also be suffocating. Some days I just spin around my own axis, chasing my own tail, not really getting anything done– not really working, not really resting, not really having fun, not really tackling chores–because I have no weight to keep me grounded. That old joke: Need something to get done? Give it to a busy person to do.

The solution seems pretty simple: Just create a routine. Fill my days. Do things. Ah yes, just do it. Doesn’t work for me. There are two challenges to that seemingly simple solution. 1. Existential angst and 2. Internal rebellion. Lately, my need for meaning and purpose has become even more relentless and I cannot do things for the sake of doing them. Everything must connect to some meaning. I’m not saying it always needs to be profound–laundry, cleaning the toilet, and walking the dog aren’t always the most profound or profane activities but they make sense. They have meaning. The internal rebel recognizes the existential absurdity of making a schedule for myself. How arbitrary. I can see why people turn to God, or bosses or partners, or other external forces to tell them what to do. Who am I to come up with a plan for myself? How can it matter if it is only for me?

At the heart of it is some deep sadness, grief and incredibility that here I am, well into my adulthood, a community minded  person, not a sociopath or a wallflower but a fairly normal person with normal longings for connection, and yet I live with an exceeding amount of autonomy. Aren’t my actions needed by others? Doesn’t anyone else need me to be somewhere at some time? Am I the only one invested in my schedule?

What I am lamenting is the loss of the “tribe”. Although I am grateful for the autonomy and independence I get to enjoy, and recognize that as a woman it’s a fairly recent privilege, I long to belong to others. This freedom and impending isolation is both the gift and the curse of living alone. As Sebastian Junger recognizes in his powerful book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, “And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person…can for the first time in history, go through an entire day–or an entire life–mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone”.

Although it’s reassuring to know that these powerful structural forces contribute to my flailing, that it’s probably not just a me problem, recreating tribal ways of living is probably not going to happen anytime soon. So, in the meantime, yes, it’s clear that I need some kind of “kind structure”. I have started to play with options, including daily meditation, more clearly demarcated “work” times, learning to pay attention to my internal cues about when I need to move, eat, rest, dream, etc. However, I can also remind myself that my worth is not related to my production. Of course, I want to use my time and energy, but I can be driven by desire rather than by fear. I can unhinge from the panic that simmers underneath the surface of my freedom that perhaps it means that I don’t matter.

“Humans often think that they are here to create things. Even empires. Even movements. Even manifested things. And while all that is certainly part of this spiritually based exploration into the expansion of who you are, what you really are the creator of is You… Your can’t get off your path. You’re still becoming. You can’t get it wrong. All that is relevant is your relationship with the powerful becoming which you cannot stop no matter how hard you think you could try.”–Abraham Hicks

 

 

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Hole

supplies

In the middle of October, I unexpectedly got an extra hole in my body.

In some healing complications after a relatively simple breast reduction surgery, I developed wound dehiscence at the base of my left breast. The incision opened up. While the hole looked like almost nothing from the outside, it was deep on the inside.  4 cm deep in one direction and tunneling almost 6 cm in two other directions. Now, after months of healing, with a much smaller opening,  I  am able to reflect on just how fucking big that unexpected orifice was. I had a cavern in my breast.

Holes in our bodies are curious things. Any break in our protective skin makes us vulnerable to infections, foreign bodies, illness and capitulation. It is safer for us to have no openings. And yet, we have them.  We need them. According to Vedic tradition, the body is called “the city of nine gates”. Our nine natural orifices–eyes, ears, nose, mouth, genitals, and anus–is how we connect to nature and to others. They are the interface between us and them.

Since I’ve had the hole, I have literally fallen apart. The incision edges will not close together in a neat, respectable line as my life is getting more ragged and dirty. Recovering from a surgery of the chest includes many activity restrictions. I cannot: exercise, lift more than 5 pounds, vacuum, shovel, carry groceries, reach for things on high shelves (and I’m pretty short), hold my dog’s leash, take baths, or anything else that might damage the sutures woven throughout my chest. I’m a single mother, pet owner, home owner, employed and self-employed woman. The list of prohibited activities is basically my daily to-do list.

As well, I require a daily visit from a home care nurse to change the wound packing and dressing. Every morning I wait for them to arrive. It can and has been any time between 8:30 am and 1:30 pm.  Luckily, my work is very flexible, because I can’t commit to anywhere but my house in the mornings.

I’m not in control of my life anymore. I can’t be. I was often in pain, I am way more tired and experience intense emotional peaks and troughs as I go through this painstakingly slow healing process. In the course of the past two months, I’ve finished two rounds of antibiotics, met about 30 different nurses, grappled with a decision to undergo another surgery to undo the damage of surgery #1, oscillated care between my GP and surgeon, and learned how to sleep the whole night on my back.

It’s been hard. Very hard. Mostly for my ego. With all these restrictions and barriers,  I’m not productive, all my mechanisms for distracting myself from myself are prohibited, I can no longer cling to the illusion that I’m a decent person because I can get all this stuff done in a day. I have had to do the unthinkable: ask for help and let some things go.

But that’s the point of orifices. To remind us we are not in control. To remind us that we are vulnerable. To remind us that we don’t need to be whole in order to be perfect.

As a sexuality educator, one of my favourite instructions was that “vaginas are self cleaning ovens” as a means to deter douching (is that even still a thing? That Massengil commercial was a cultural centrepoint of my early teen years) or feminine sprays. If the vagina is left to its own devices, it will use its mechanisms to flush out what shouldn’t be there and balance itself out. Once we start to clean it with sprays and liquids, we mess with the natural balance.

Because our orifices are amazing structures. They each have their own protective, healing and survival mechanisms. The precisely effective pH level of our saliva, how our nasal hairs push out bacteria but the cilia draw in mucus, the flora and fauna of the vagina, the clear, delicate but also tough eye ball membrane, each opening is yes, open and vulnerable, but was also created with superb protective devices.  And then of course there’s that orifice that makes us feel the most squeamish. I found this beautiful piece to pay homage the asshole we all want to pretend isn’t there:

“The importance and intelligence of the sphincter is not to be taken for granted. This can be demonstrated by a thought experiment. Imagine your hands are cupped together and filled with water, sand and air; could you open your hands and allow only the air to escape? The anal sphincter does that routinely.”–Jim Upchurch, Orifices: The ins and outs of the body

Our solid bodies are actually holey.

And we, like our orifices, are simultaneously strong and vulnerable. As writer Junot Diaz said in an interview with Krista Tippett, “Vulnerability is THE precondition to contact. You can form no intimacy without vulnerability.” We need our orifices because that is how we connect with the world and with each other. Without taking in food and air, eliminating waste, allowing our senses to tell us what is pleasant and what is dangerous, without being able to speak and touch each other, we would be a life with no life. Yes, it is sometimes literally a pain to have these holes in our bodies, but we need them to need each other.

I spend a lot of time and energy pretending that I’m not vulnerable. Clinging to the idea that if I do it all on my own, I’m a superior and more enlightened individual. Distancing myself from neediness. Admiring my resilience. Well, nothing like lying half naked on the couch, watching a stranger packing two feet of gauze into a hole in your boob to let go of that illusion. Nothing like being unable to life a quart of milk to stop believing you can do it all on your own. Nothing like lying on your couch, watching the pet hair dust bunnies race along the floor, to realize competency does not equate worth.

It’s so ridiculously simple. We need each other. We were not constructed to be completely independent.  But I know how hard it is. We live in a world, in a system, that thrives, that derives off our separateness. It’s no coincidence we fear exposure. And I seem to love to write about vulnerability, read about vulnerability and yet avoid it at all costs in my non literary (ie real) life. I dislike the concept that we have to “hit rock bottom” in order to grow and heal, but this boob hole has taken me out at the knees (the boobs of the legs).

My wound is healing by “secondary intention”. And it indeed feels like a second choice. “Primary intention” is a surgical suture. I think all of us would prefer to live by primary intention–a swift closure under the hands of an expert. Secondary intention is slow, the tissue in your body needs to regrow itself, it doesn’t operate in a timely or linear fashion, and you just never know how long it will take. It leaves you open much longer than is comfortable. But as my surgeon said “You can’t mess this up. Your body can’t help but heal”.

Oh yes, we are open to getting hurt, open to being wounded. But it’s ok. It’s part of our nature and we can’t help but heal.

(Despite all the complications, I am so happy with my new rack!).

Your empathy
Inside of me
All I want
Your empathy
I want you
Inside of me
And I know
Your empathy
–“Your empathy”, Hole

 

Good enough 

tear monster

The usual excuses apply: I’ve been busy, been outside more, life with kids, I haven’t felt inspired, I don’t know what to write about, and a general lacking of motivation.

But those aren’t the real reasons I haven’t published a blog post in over six months. The real reason is that I’ve been trying to distance myself and explore my addiction. To the blog.

“Addiction” is a loaded term and there are many interpretations and understandings of what and why it is.  The diagnosis of addiction is often thrown around, often way too casually or judgmentally or the deadly combination of the two…and anyways, at the best of times I don’t post so often so how can I be addicted to it?

In her beautiful blog about motherhood and sobriety (and truly about everything), Laura McKowen explains what was happening the day she decided to stop drinking:

“It was one thing to see the raw, tangible consequences of my drinking: the fractured relationships, the days spent in bed when I should’ve been at work, the way my daughter grew afraid of me, and later, the DUI. But it was another thing to feel the more subtle ways it was stealing my joy, and even my pain, because it kept everything at a dangerous distance.”

It was stealing my joy, and even my pain because it kept everything at a dangerous distance….that to me is the true essence of an addiction. It stops you from feeling what you need to feel. In the short term it–and it could be drugs, alcohol, shopping, working gambling, cutting; oh there are so many tools at our disposal–provides some temporary relief and release, in the long term it just distances us from ourselves.

I began to realize that this blog, although so very personal and vulnerable, was becoming a deep chasm between me and my deepest fears. I was starting to treat the blog as “proof” that I was an artist, a writer, a creative, a worthy member of the human tribe. I’d feel some panic if I’d had gone too long without writing and posting, I’d feel the shame that I wasn’t really committed to the craft, I’d feel great need to be acknowledged by others as having something to say.

In my drafts folder are dozens of blog beginnings. Some of them are quite good but I couldn’t finish them. It’s hard to write from a place of panic. It’s hard to write, or really do anything,  from a place of “this will show that I’m worthy”. It’s hard to live in a place of needing everyone else, most of whom are struggling with their own feelings of unworthiness, to affirm your right to existence. Nobody and nothing should be expected to carry that burden. Including ourselves.

Worth is an elusive motherfucker. Like a vein, if you press too hard it escapes. If I were to be asked, “Do you feel worthy”, my answer would be an easy peasy resounding YES. We are, so we are worthy. It can be no other way. If we are not worthy of life, love, and belonging by the very nature of being one of the seven billion human souls to share this earth, we start getting into the tricky business of “who gets to decide who is worthy”. And we know what happens then. White supremacy. Ableism. Patriarchy. Capitalism. A whole set of criteria, anything from head shape to genitals, become the untenable hoops to jump through and validation for violence.

So, if asked directly, I would affirm that I believe I am worthy. Worthy of life, of my dreams, of space, of voice, of silence, of my body, to share, to coddle, to praise. And yet….and yet…how this plays out in real life in a whole other set of circumstances. My, own fears of being unworthy are so deep, so painful, so unbearable that they get so woven into the fibre of myself that I can’t see them anymore.

Thank god for therapy. My therapist and I are working together using the Focusing modality, where , I go deeply in myself and speak to these voices, personalities and parts of myself and engage in conversation with them. Lately, even the old lady who gives me some perspective, the 12 year old me desperate for escape, the cynical man who thinks what’s the point, and the tough talking mother telling me stop my whining….when I ask them what they are protecting me from, they all answer the same thing: feelings of unworthiness. One voice told me explicitly, when I asked him why he didn’t want to let me go, responded with  “It’s better to feel pain than to be nothing”.

I cry each time my internal committee voices my deep fears. I thought I was “over it”. I thought that I had grown, healed, learned, etc enough so that I was not still plagued by unworthiness. I thought I really thought I was good enough. I also cry with relief: ah, so that’s it. That’s why life can feel so heavy, so boring, so tedious, so unrelenting…because my self doubt is running the show. (Then again, life just sometimes feels heavy, boring, tedious and unrelenting. I must keep reminding myself of that).

What to do? If trying to fill the void with “worthy productions” doesn’t heal the wound, repeating to myself “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me” just doesn’t do the trick, and fighting with the voices only makes them meaner, how do I move through to the even-more-elusive worthiness?

In Taming Your Gremlin: A surprisingly simple method of getting of your own way, Rick Carson explains the three most effective and fun ways of learning to befriend your “gremlins” (ie unworthiness)as: Simply Notice, Choose and Play with Options, and Be in Process.

I’ve been playing with process with pencil crayons. It feels too difficult for me to play with words, since so much of my worth and identity is wrapped up in Adina The Writer (even though I never ever ever ever answer the question: What do you do? with “writer”…I don’t need a therapist to tell me what that’s all about). It feels easier to play with a medium I’m not good at. John Spayde explores this idea in his Utne Reader article “The Miracle of Mediocrity”.  He, his wife and a group of professional artists/designers would meet once a month for “bad art” night whose purpose came about because “there was always that inner perfectionist screeching, ‘Make a good collage, schmuck!’ Laurie began to realize that it was that voice, more than anything else, that kept any art she did, big or small, from being a joy.” In order to have fun with art, she needed to remove any expectation.

The picture above is the result of time spend simply noticing, playing with options and being in process. I started the “piece” with an orange squiggle and then drew a line through the squiggle and continued on until a woman emerged. The tear eating monster asked to be born with an abstract swish of a black pencil crayon. Ironically, through playful process I ended up depicting the fired belly monster who eats my joy with perfectionism and unworthiness. But then again, the woman is not separate from the monster, as her bonnet of horns demonstrates. If I had tried, or worked hard or planned or forced it, I don’t think I could’ve created a piece that so represents what I’ve been feeling. It only could come through play.

Of course, I’m not sharing the many totally boring, banal, ugly, and stupid drawings that have come through because let me tell you the process is not always productive. But that’s not the point. I fill the little notebook gifted to me for my birthday, aptly titled “General Badassery: A Practical Guide” with my not-artistic doodling, noticing sometimes it flows easily, sometimes it feels like work, sometimes I think and plan, sometimes I can just do. Otherwise known as meditation. Or creativity. Or being a (worthy) human being.

So that’s my recovery plan. A little tub of pencil crayons and no plan. And maybe, just maybe, when I’m feeling brave enough, when someone asks what I do, I’ll take off my horn hat and put on the writer one. Even if I haven’t published a post.

“We know this world is good enough because it has to be”–John K Samson, Winter Wheat

Bad Girl

bad girl

“You’ve just got to love yourself”.

That there is one phrase that drives me directly to bitter hate. Or its corollary:

“You’ve got to love yourself before you love another.”

That sentimet bugs me for so many reasons:

  1. What does that even mean? What does loving yourself look like?
  2. It’s not true. I know of lots of insecure people in relationships.
  3. It sounds so punishing. Like if you aren’t loved or in a relationship that nourishes you, it means that you haven’t worked hard enough to love yourself.
  4. We don’t need to be perfect to give and receive love.
  5. Loving yourself is complex, and also includes loving the part of yourself that sometimes hates yourself.

As you know from my previous blog posts, I have been feeling very low lately. I can’t remember the last time I woke up and felt any excitement or even curiosity about the day ahead. In “Flooded” I talked about how maybe this is just part of life and we need to wade through misery sometimes. In “Hurts so good” I talked about how it’s hard to know when we should accept or fight pain. In “Wrestling” I talk about the challenges of making decisions. It’s like the Serenity prayer–when do you try to change things, when do you accept things? And how do you make that decision?

In the last couple of weeks, however, the decision is being made for me. I’m so sick  of being so tired all the time. Of dragging myself through the sludgey life. Of waiting for some external occurrence to jump-start me out of this melancholy. So I’ve been reaching out to helpers–a mindset coach in the UK and a local therapist–to play with options for ongoing support.

About one minute into the session  with the mindset coach, after she hears the answer to a question, she drawls out in her southern accent, “Oh honey, that is self sabotage”. I start to cry and I don’t really stop for two days.

A couple of weeks later, I have an initial session with a local therapist . He asks me what I am looking for right now. I tell him about how I’ve been feeling lately and that I am frustrated with myself for not accepting how I’ve been feeling.

“Oh, so you have an inner critic?”

A few days ago, in the school gym, waiting for our children to present their French speeches to the school, another mother and I start talking about perfectionism. “I’m a perfectionist in recovery” and she laughs and says “Oh, I thought I  had coined the term!” (but no, we aren’t competitive).  She goes on to tell me that perfectionism is one of the most agonizing self-torture devices around.

Self sabotage, inner critic, self harm, self-mutilation–we all have tricky, subversive and downright mean ways of expressing our self loathing. We all do. Fighting or denying or pretending we have overcome our self loathing does nothing to help us. Because if we don’t love even our self hate, we don’t love our own selves. And we can’t be vulnerable, especially not with ourselves.

Our self loathing is sneaky. Like abusers and cancer, it constantly changes to keep one step ahead. Just when we think we nailed it, it morphs into another avatar. We don’t even know it’s there.That’s why I cried so hard when the coach said: Oh honey, that’s self sabotage. Part of my tears were relief–maybe what I’ve been feeling lately isn’t just a  part of life, isn’t just meant to be endured–she gave me hope that there was “something wrong” going on and so I could fix it and start feeling differently. My tears were also from  sadness–I feel I have done so much personal work, especially around my inner critic, and yet here she is, as powerful as ever. And she outwitted me again.

Yet, the therapist  reminded me to connect with, rather than override or run away from, my inner critic.

Let me introduce you to Sue (sorry all you Sue’s out there…I know you aren’t all bitches).

Sue has been working for me for a long, long time. She tries to make sure I don’t get hurt. It’s hard work protecting someone as sensitive and empathic as me. So she is tough as nails. When I get too many hopes or dreams, she is sure to keep me in check. When I want to expose myself and be vulnerable, she jumps in to remind me that it’s “not my place”. She knows I’m smart, so she always has to be smarter.

But she is tired of this role. She keeps thinking we will get to move on to a new kind of partnership, but then I just ignore her. Or pretend that she just left. She, like me, wants some recognition. She , like me, wants some love. She, like me, wants to use her creativity and critical thinking for something other than burning out fires.

So, Sue and I sat down together and had a chat. I didn’t realize how frustrated and alone she felt. How stuck in a role that wasn’t really serving me, or serving her. Sue and I made a pact: we will find a new role for her, together. I will learn to listen to her more. And she will learn to trust that I can handle pain. And we both won’t have to be so alone. As Puss in Boots says to Kitty, “When we go our separate ways, we go our separate ways together”.

Sue can finally clear out her cubicle and move into the light.

As I have been spending more time listening to my own inner critic, I can see more clearly how it sneaks into others’ experiences. Especially for those of us who are on a path of spiritual and self-development.

Oh man, can an inner critic ever slip into self-development undetected. Even the whole premise of self development–we need to change–is rooted in not accepting of who we are. Sues can sneak in with admonishments hidden as self-care or self care hidden as admonishments like:

I need to take care of myself more.

I should have more balance.

I’m not setting good boundaries with others.

I go to bed too late.

I skipped yoga class again today.

I’m eating out again.

I’m so self absorbed.

You get the picture. It’s a bit of a catch 22; going to yoga, eating well, setting boundaries etc are good for us and help us. However, giving ourselves a hard time about not taking care of ourselves doesn’t help us. And somewhere in there, we are worried that if we don’t give ourselves a good talking to, we might get lazy. We might never go to a yoga class or eat another bite of kale again. We got to be tough on crime.

Do we really want to treat ourselves like a crime? If not through a heavy hand, how can we address our shortcomings? 

Love. Even, or especially for our inner critic. Even, or especially for the parts of ourselves that feeds the inner critic. Even, or especially, for the part that is sick and tired of the inner critic’s bullshit and knows you should love him/her but still doesn’t  want to.

Hot damn, am I spinning. And Sue is just screaming at me to stop over thinking things, to just let it go,  to please just make an ounce of sense, s’il vous plaît.

I know, I know Sue, I can wear myself so thin with deconstructing and analyzing and seeing how far I can go with an “argument”. I could spare myself a lot of anguish if I got out of my head. I can’t even count how many times an internal or external person has told me to stop over thinking.

But I also love being in my head. I love over thinking. I love playing with concepts. It’s just a little harder to play when the concept is me.

As much as I may want to sometimes, I just can’t lobotimize myself. Nor should I. Because although my over thinking isn’t always comfortable and sometimes it takes me straight to the deep, dark woods, it is also my super power and  takes me on exhilarating adventures (I’m doing this type of therapy called “focusing” and it’s all about going into the wild depths of your own personhood…can’t wait to write about it in a future post….oh yeah, total cliffhanger). My over thinking, critical thinking self is also the one who made me wonder, “Is there a way to love your self hate?”. So it definitely has some positives.

But sometimes I put my over thinking into overdrive as a way to protect myself from difficult or uncomfortable feelings. Especially sadness. Because like many a cliché tells us, sadness does actually hurt. And if I can avoid it by staying way up here, in my head, far away from that breaking heart, why wouldn’t I?

So am I over thinking to play with a concept? Am I overthinking to remove myself from my feelings? As so goes more spinning.

Which is why a professional outside ear is so necessary. We can probably learn on our own to build a more nurturing relationship with our inner critics, our over thinking (or whatever your Kryptonite is), or with the help of books (Taming Your Gremlin is a good one), but we all have blind spots about ourselves. Our inner critics take a supposed day-trip to those blind spots and end up putting down first a tent, then a pop-up trailer and finally the deluxe Winnebago moves in and no one is going nowhere.

So why not have an outside voice remind us that our inside voice can sometimes be a real jerk? So we know who needs our love most of all.

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Hurts so good

img_1512

“Please be careful of this burn.”

I pointed out the painful part to the manicurist. I didn’t want my most favourite part, the hand massage, to unfortunately and inadvertantly become torture.

The customer beside me, staring off into space while her hands were under the dryer, looked over when she heard what I’d said, checked out my wound and then shared her own story. She had burned her knee badly when she dropped the hot pasta sauce she was cooking for her kids’ lunch. Just like I burned my thumb making grilled cheese bagels under the broiler for my kids’ lunch. Classic mom martyrs. She burned her knee so badly that her tights stuck to the wound but she still went to her class. I ran my burn under cold water while the cheese melted then plated the meal and went on with the day.

My burn buddy and I shook our heads at ourselves, but we both knew we were full of smug pride on our pain thresholds and our commitment to our kids. We don’t have time for wound care! We don’t need wound care! (Except that she ended up having to take expensive and strong antibiotics and I’m not sure how well my burn is healing, especially since I keep hitting it on things…).

A colleague and I were having a conversation about cutting and she couldn’t understand the level of emotional pain someone could be in to inflict physical pain on themselves. I didn’t feel like disclosing that I have cut in my life, especially since I don’t feel like I am fully allowed to consider myself as a “cutter” since I never really went that deep and didn’t draw blood (so many “clubs” I don’t feel like I am quite enough to consider myself a member). You know you are compulsively perfectionist when you don’t even feel like you cut right. But I know how good it feels to take all that self loathing, that frustration, that overwhelm, that “fuck this shit”, that anguish and slice a piece of your own skin. The ritual, the aesthetic, the sensation, the emerging pink then red–it’s fucking beautiful.

Despite what I’ve just shared, I’m not really a person who loves pain. I avoid it and crave a soft, loving life like most folks. Culturally, I observe this polarized attitude to pain:

One one hand, pain and suffering are glorified as proof of hard work. No pain no gain. Gotta earn your stripes. Baptism by fire. Walking on hot coals. This idea that hard work, pain, discomfort are the only ways to reach your goals and improve yourself.

And yet, on the other hand, North American culture is terrified of pain. We love to medicate our pain away, numb it out, pretend it doesn’t exist, pathologize it, run away from it, shop through it, smile through it–we are not a culture that is terribly tolerant of the dark side.

So what role can or should pain have in our lives? Expect it? Run away from it? Live carefully enough so that hot pasta and over broilers don’t get you?

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional–Haruki Murakami

No matter how careful we are, we can’t get through life without pain. We can’t control other people (that in and of itself is the source of so much pain). We might approach another with vulnerability and desire and they can reject us. We have so many losses–of dreams, hopes, expectations, people, places and things–in our lives. Our strong bodies are so delicate. One small vertebrae can be off a fraction of a centimetre and all our movements are orchestrated with pain. We can slip on the ice.  We often want to be other than the way we actually are.

Then there is all the pain that shouldn’t be inevitable but has become the outcome of the systems in which we live. The pain of working but struggling to make financial ends meet. The pain of micro and macro-aggressions towards brown skin or gender fluidity. The pain of raising children in isolation. The pain of loneliness that social media cannot alleviate. The pain of having to measure up at work, at home, at play. The pain of not knowing where we come from and not knowing where we are going. The pain of accepting political leaders who are afraid and are frightening. The pain of so many generations of trauma and loss we can’t see but we feel all the time. The pain of losing our tribal ways of being.

And then there is the joyous pain. The pain of childbirth. The pain of catharsis. The pain of befriending your darkest self. The pain of letting go of what you outgrow to move on to fresh beginnings. The pain of truly feeling. The pain of risk taking. The pain of uncertainty. Not all pain is a signal to stop, a signal that something is wrong, a signal that you are on the wrong path. In fact, since comfort and growth cannot co exist, we often have to choose pain to move on.

The wisdom of our bodies, like always, can teach us to live with seeming contradiction. Our nervous systems do not differentiate between pain and pleasure.

“Emerging evidence from the pain and reward research fields points to extensive similarities in the anatomical substrates of painful and pleasant sensations” (Lecknes, S et al).

It’s not so much that we can’t appreciate pleasure if we haven’t felt pain, it’s that pain and pleasure are mixed together. Seeming contradictions are actually connections. Our bodies know what we avoid: sensation is just sensation.They come from the same source and perhaps teach us the same lessons. They pass through our bodies and ask us to respond and reflect.

And they each have their own stigma. When I was advertising myself as a “pleasure coach” rather than a “sex coach”, I witnessed a lot of people’s discomfort. The word pleasure seemed to elicit more uncomfortable giggles than I had expected. I started to realize that perhaps pleasure is more “forbidden” and “taboo” in our culture than sex. We aren’t meant to have pleasure, we aren’t meant to have pain, apparently we are supposed to be neutral (beige) all of the time.

When we think of the mix of pain and pleasure, sex, specifically BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadomasochism) comes to mind. And while the BDSM community pushes the boundaries of sex, pain and pleasure, even if we don’t subscribe to their tenants, we can learn about the role of pain in pleasure from them. I love a good hair pull or bite while I approach orgasm. It somehow seems to ground or synthesize the pleasure. Complements the intensity of pleasure.

No matter if we are scared of pain, enjoy it, run away from it, sink into it or all of the above, at the heart of the matter, we don’t want to be blamed for our pain. The Buddha refers to the double arrow. If we were hit with an arrow it would hurt and if we’re hit in the exact same spot with another arrow, it would be excruciating. And that’s exactly what we do to ourselves. We experience pain–physical, emotional, spiritual, all of the above–and we further torture ourselves with judgment. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I hack this? Why do I complain all the time? 

Those are only the internal voices. Externally, there are many harsh others: You should appreciate what you have. You can’t really be in that much pain, are you just trying to score drugs. Real men don’t feel pain. You’re not taking care of yourself.

As well, we are often left alone in our pain. Pain can be so isolating. We might not feel safe to share, the pain might be indescribable, others may approach our pain with fear or with frustration that they can’t fix it, so that those in pain are often given an extra wide berth.  Particularly if we live in a culture that fears or glorifies it, we are expected to cope on our own. Pain can be hard to bear, but the isolation can turn it into suffering.

From that perspective, maybe the pain boasting the woman and I were doing in the nail salon, maybe the strutting of our suffering selves, maybe the pleasure we got from advertising our ability to withstand pain was actually a form of trying to connect to each other.. We didn’t have permission or language to witness each other’s pain, so we used an old and familiar spiel. But ultimately what were doing was looking at each other and saying:

I see your pain. And you are not alone.

And then, just when you think it can’t happen, we begin to heal.

On my knees

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We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. – Albert Einstein

As I was coaching with a client a few days ago, I started to realize I was also coaching myself. This happens often. Not that out set out to work through my own stuff– I am focusing on my client’s needs and words–but in the great synchronicity of the world we often give and receive simultaneously.

Through the coaching process we discovered that her “issue” was not an intellectual one, as previously assumed, but one of spirit and faith.

She didn’t need to figure out the “answer” so much as recognize that it was all part of the great spiritual questions and journey. Who am I? What do I have to offer? What do I need?

Identifying her struggle as a spiritual one was deeply reassuring, satisfying and exciting to her. It put a new framework on an old problem.

Let’s go back to my previous blog post (Flooded). First, thank you so much for reading and sharing your comments and relatability. Although I strive to live up to blog title and be as naked and vulnerable as possible, the last post felt particularly vulnerable. Admitting to being unhappy felt wrong. But you told me I’m not alone.

And you also told me that we are all in pain. We are struggling so hard to find meaning and connection in a world that feels so absurd and alone. We are hurting and we don’t know what to do.

Just like with my client, this is not a “problem” to be solved with thinking, with intellectual reasoning. They aren’t even problems. Yeah, no one wants to be hurting but our hurt is our longing and our longing is never a problem. It’s the path.

Since “an anxious mind is a searching mind” we need to weather the anxiety not by shutting down our feelings, fears and distress, but by giving ourselves full permission to explore. To even explore beyond the intellectual mind and logical reasoning.

I need to get down on my knees and pray.

For all my endless talk about spiritually and faith and connection, I really struggle with prayer.

I grew up praying daily. I leaned to pray before eating an apple or a slice of bread. as I went to bed, I learned prayers to mark the season changes, loss, joy and pleasure. In Judaism, there is a prayer for everything.

However, although I prayed daily, I never felt really connected to the prayer or to God. Maybe because the prayers were in Hebrew, maybe because they were written hundreds of years ago, maybe because they were a should, but years of prayer did not feel meaningful, in the way I know recognize prayer must feel for me.

In high school, when my supposed best friend broke my heart daily, when I struggled to maintain perfection at all cost, when I cracked under the pressure of being one person at home and another in the world, I never once thought to pray about it. If I did believe in God, I wouldn’t think he cares about my seeming trivial concerns and anyways I didn’t know the Hebrew word for “compartmentalization”.

In the twenty plus years since I “left” Orthodox Judaism I have unexpectedly been journeying on a meandering path to reconnect with  faith and prayer.

And so here I am, a smart, skeptical, critical thinker who longs so much for meaning and connection and I’m starting to figure that my well cultivated brain just can’t help me. I can’t think or plan or control my way out of this. Yet again I have come face to face with the need to surrender.

I recently re-watched the delightful (deeee-light-ful) film Maggie’s Plan. In the scene where Maggie is explaining to John why she is planning to have a baby on her own, she says:

M: I just don’t like leaving my destiny to-

J: -Destiny.

Ain’t that the truth! Who doesn’t want to control their future?  Or everything and anything, for that matter.  I *know* surrender is not even close to the same thing as giving up, giving in, running away, copping out, or denying…but it’s so hard. I *know* I can keep up this pushing through thing, keep banging my head against the wall, and it isn’t really any easier than surrender, but at least all this pushing is nice and familiar.

Enough already. The misery I spoke of in my last blog is telling me that the status quo, nice and familiar, just isn’t working anymore. To find what does, I need some help.

Now I know that there is not a wrong way to prayer, heartfelt is all you need, but I  am reminded of a scene in Eat, Pray, Love. Liz is so distraught and confused by her marriage she falls to her knees in the bathroom in the middle of the night and starts doing something she has never done before: praying. After tears and laments and prostrations on the floor she does finally  hear the voice of God–telling her to “go back to bed”.

Prayer need not be a tool only used in a moment of desperation or trying to overcome an insurmountable problem. Prayer is about cultivating a relationship with the Divine. And like all relationships, it needs regular attention:  Through drama, boredom, the grind, passion and struggle. Maybe it’s pride but I don’t want all my conversations with God to be “please please please I need I need I need”.

As well, I would like to align myself with the glory and abundance of the universe, with the recognition that there never is any lack (it’s an illusion). We are not so much praying for something that is not there but praying to align ourselves with what we might not see nor feel but is always there. It’s not so much they we are praying to god to give us something but praying to god to remind us we are already there.

What does this look like?What does it sound like? Liz brings up an important issue: how do you pray? I have learned much about prayer from a place of wholeness from Marianne Williamson. Her books are peppered with examples of prayer which convey courage, Love, grace, and heart. Her books remind me that I don’t always know what is best for me and sometimes my wishes are too small. She reminds me to pray not necessarily for something specific but for alignment.

” If our prayer is ‘Dear God, please use me to be of service,’ then that is what we will be. And it is not for us to judge either the size or value of our gifts. Our job is to try to get out of the way, to defer to the spirit moving within us and become open channels for the flow of God’s love”.–Marianne Williamson

On a dog walk (I have so many meaningful conversations on top of a hill made of garbage), my walking mate and I were talking about her life as an artist. She said things began to really change for her when she changed the framework from “Why can’t I have more?” to “I have more to give”. We all need recognition, money, and a community to support our art, no doubt about it. But she started to realize that her great desires to be a recognized artist weren’t based getting more but about sharing her gifts. Art is service. Not from a martyred place of “I must sacrifice myself for my art” but from a place of “this is my gift”.

Perhaps that’s what my last blog post was all about. Perhaps my unhappiness is because I don’t feel like I am being of service. I know I have more to give, but I’m not sure what that means or where to give or how to give without depletion or who even needs what I have to offer. Maybe that’s why Marianne Williamson’s prayer to ask to be of service, in the way God truly honours me, really hits home.

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to be of genuine service without prayer, without surrendering some control to the Divine. Without becoming “open channels for the flow of God’s love” is it too easy for our ego and our fears to take over. We may have a rating system in our heads of what is “good service” and what is “bad service”.

A friend of mine, a corporate lawyer has been recently talking about a change of career. She is thinking perhaps social work or non-profit is a better fit for her desire to do good, meaningful work. In her mind (and many others), corporate is bad and non-profit is good. But after almost two decades in non-profit work, I can promise her and anyone else, that it has its shit too and it’s not always clear whether we are being part of the problem or solution. And there are many ways to serve, even for lawyers.;) This is just an example of why we need prayer to help us serve, to help us overcome our judgments.

Prayer can feel so futile in the face of so many injustices, violence, and struggles, both on a personal and global level. Prayer can feel like a passive response to very alive problems. But prayer doesn’t replace action; part of the role of prayer is to guide us when and how to act. In my last year of a difficult marriage, I stopped asking  for the decision to be made for me (should I stay or should I go?) but started asking for a sign. And I got it. It didn’t look like what I would’ve expected, but I got the message loud and clear.

I am so grateful for what I have learned about the intersection of spirit, prayer and activism from the time spent  in Indigenous communities and ceremonies. Prayer, and reminders that we are all in this human experience together, is woven into meetings, marches, and meals. Ceremony is an act of resistance. Faith and activism (or, as noted in the top quote, science) are often viewed as opposites or mutually exclusive so what a relief it is to spend time in spaces where they can co-exist.

Should we ever doubt the power of prayer for transformation, the outcome of Standing Rock is a compelling reminder. In the face of corporate and political bullying, violence, and survival challenges, the water protectors of Standing Rock stayed put,  stayed strong and met daily in prayer and ceremony. And it worked! On December 4, permission for the Dakota Access pipeline was denied. Although the resistance isn’t over, this victory celebrates the power of ancient wisdom, non violent intervention and the guidance of spirit.

Have I convinced myself yet? In the weeks that I have been writing this blog, I have not prayed once. At least not in an intentional way. I’m the same way with meditation. I have read so many books by Zen Buddhist writers, but I will not get my ass on the pillow.

Dear God/Creator/Divine Spirit/Hashem/Source,

Allow me to be humble and wise enough to welcome your help along in this journey. 

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(https://www.facebook.com/chiarabautistaartwork)

Flooded

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I’m miserable.

Things are fine. I’m not sick, my kids are doing well, my finances are in order, I have paid work that is both flexible enough and stimulating enough, I am writing, but I’m miserable.

I’m not depressed or sick or in trouble or in crisis or having a breakdown or anything of the sort.

I’m just miserable.

I’m so fucking unhappy.

I’m in Groundhog Day mode. Every day, I get up do the morning shit, do the work shit, do the housekeeping shit, do the grocery shopping shit, do the pick up the kids shit, do the dog walk shit, do the pick up dog shit shit …I’m sure by now you get the picture.

I’m bored but too busy.

Lonely but anti social.

Exhausted but restless.

Every day I just pray that I will have a stimulating, loving, and creative dream that night. One small escape respite in the doll drums of daily life.

I’m desperate for a diagnosis. I’m reading about adrenal fatigue, about hormonal imbalance, about depression,  peri-menopause….this has to be something. Something that can be fixed. Something, anything,  so that I can come to a the great conclusion: “Oh, I’m not miserable, I’m just x, y, or z “and then we can move on with the cure.

That’s what is making me most miserable of all–there is nothing wrong. Sometimes life is no fun. Sometimes it feels hard and boring and stressful and tiring and lonely and pointless. Sometimes those feelings last a minute, sometimes an hour, or a day or a week or even months. Sometimes you just don’t have the excess energy to fight it, fix it, push against it, or make it go away. Sometimes the only thing to do is just accept it. Even if it’s unacceptable.

My engine is flooded; revving it will only make it worse.

When I was in labour with my son, my first born, at first I rocked it. I got to 8 cm dilation with only deep belly sighs and gentle rocking as my responses to contractions. I was zen, I was calm, I was powerful. Then things got interesting. I stayed at 8 cm for ten hours. It wasn’t what the books had told me would happen. I was in transition–it was “supposed” to be quick and painful and overwhelming. Instead it was just painful and overwhelming. And I had the dreaded “back labour,” signalling my (big) boy was grinding the back of his head into my spine.

After many hours, the zen wore off. Belly sighs and gentle rocking no longer cut it. I wasn’t handling contractions well. Each one would send me into hysterics. I begged my midwife to do something. I was hoping for a magic cure or some escape. Some ancient midwifery trick that she would share with me at the moment of my despair. Instead, she got my to lie down on the bed, with my partner spooning me and instructed me, “Don’t fight the contractions. Let them pass through you. You need to conserve some energy.”

I still remember those to be the hardest hours of my life. The pain was one thing, but accepting it seemed impossible. I managed to fall into quick sleeps between the contractions but would be awoken by the rising pain. I’d start to squirm my legs and move my pelvis, wanting desperately to wrestle, only to remind myself “Just let it pass through you. Don’t fight it”. Contraction after contraction.

The “magic cure” the midwife shared with me was acceptance. I had no idea for how long I’d have to do this. Another 15 min, an hour, ten hours, who knew? My labour wasn’t following the “rules” (as none do) and I had no prediction, no guarantee. I just had to take it one contraction at a time.

That is how I feel now. I’m in pain. I’m hurting. I’m sad and lonely and bored and feel like I should be doing so much more for myself, my family, my home, the world and yet all I can do is withstand one contraction at a time. I can’t wiggle or squirm anymore.

I know it might sound like I am depressed and I’m not sure exactly how I know but I know this is not depression. This is “my life hasn’t turned out how I expected it” pain. This is “I’ve worked so hard for so long, how am I here?” pain. This is “I have so much love to give, how am I so alone?” pain. This is “I’m grateful I’m not in crisis but I don’t know hot to tolerate this kind of pain” pain.

This is “I’m tired of trying to improve my life” pain.

I’m a life coach, wannabe therapist, and hopefully an advocate for social justice. My “raison d’etre” is improvement. Working with action and attitudes to create a better life for me, my clients, and the world (my Miss American speech is all ready).

But what’s the point of all the improving? Where are we headed? Now I want more than anything for our world to be just and equitable and the end of oppression and for people of colour to be able to walk safely in the street, and people who use drugs to access safe medical care, and for women to live and love without violence, but to what end?  What happens when we get to justice? Just barely more than barely surviving?

Which is why, if I had to name or diagnose where I’m at, I’d call it “soul exhaustion”. Sometimes also called “existential despair”. Like a teenager hopped up on JD Salinger, I keep asking “what is the fucking point?”

It’s not all misery and pain. The kids and I laugh together at a ridiculous Full House episode. I hum along with the radio as I prepare dinner. I behold the dusky glory of the sky during a sunset walk with the dog. I sigh with pleasure as I climb into my freshly laundered sheets. I read a passage, chapter or book that reminds me of the immutable sanctity of life.

Maybe that’s how I know I’m not depressed. I still have awe for life.

But it’s fleeting, momentary, and doesn’t feel good enough. Life shouldn’t be just about fleeting moments of joy and wonder. It should be at least 80% pleasure and fun. There must be some book that would tell me that is how life should be.

But maybe not. Maybe that is another thing I am finding unacceptable of my pain right now. Maybe this is what life is like. Maybe all the promises for happiness and joy are some false promise or a way to avoid accepting what is. Maybe this is exactly what it is supposed to look like. Maybe always waiting or working for it to “get better” is the sickness.

Disney isn’t the only one feeding me this “happily ever after” story. The places I turn to most for support and perspective, the self-help and spiritual heroes I call upon for guidance, that’s where I seem to get the strongest messages of “you can have a glorious life”. With enough love, self discovery, faith and gritty internal work you can have a blissful, engaged and fabulous life. Just change the sheets, change your mind, change your life and misery can be a part of your past.

So what am I doing wrong? I have travelled through the dark wood, slayed a few dragons, ate the poisoned apple, came out the other end, so where is my magical kiss? How can I still be miserable?

At the deep inflamed root of it all is shame. I feel shame that I can’t get myself out of this. Shame that I don’t want to. Shame that I can’t appreciate all the goodness in my life. Shame that shit is going down at Standing Rock and I’m busy using my privilege to navel gaze. Shame that I’m not asking for help. Shame that I’m slipping into martyrdom. Shame that I am not using all the tools at my disposable. Shame that I feel entitled to a storybook life.

If the quickest route to misery is shame, I’m speeding along on the autobahn.

Oh, shame. One syllable to express the inexpressible.

There might not be a magic cure for misery, but luckily there is one for shame. Simple yet terrifying. Share the vulnerable truth and end the silence.

Leonard Cohen once said, “I am interested in self expression but not self obsession”. The shame in me tells me this is self obsession. The faith, self expression.

Either way, thank you for reading these words. By doing so, just by allowing me to share my shame, you are helping to erode the monsters in my head.

 

conception of a sex coach