The Thirty-Fivesies

Alert readers will notice that I have not posted to this blog since I got my new job this summer. I actually got hired on my birthday, and haven’t really had time to update this blog since then. (Apologies to all of the people who read that post and have since asked “how’s the new job going?” It’s going great, and thank you for asking!)

But since it has been so long and since it is now sort of the New Year (I mean, it’s definitely 2015, but it would be a bit stretch to say it’s still, like, part of the New Years holiday) I kind of feel inclined to look at how my life has changed since last New Year, sort of like those holiday letters that my more organized friends send, only more about the inner plane. And I sense it is going to be a long ass post, so if you get bored and quit reading I won’t be offended. In a sense I’m drawn to write as much for my own integration of the past year as for anything else. With so much head-spinning busyness over the past six months I have been in need of a reassessment: where am I right now? How did I get here? And where the hell am I going?

Well, here’s where I am in time: 35 years old. According to the calligraphy sign hanging above me at the Mean Bean coffee shop right now:

35

I don’t know if either of those statements is exactly true for me — I wouldn’t say my head is together and my body isn’t quite falling apart yet (though when it does, there will at least be plenty of cushioning to soften the impact). But I did coin a term to describe this phase of life that I find myself in:

The Thirty-Fivesies.

Sounds cute, doesn’t it? Well, that’s deceptive. It’s an ass-kicker, but somehow a happy one.

For me, at least, the Thirty-Fivesies refers to a change point, and a kind of progression from one set of lessons to the next. Sort of like an elementary school graduation. Like, it’s not like I know everything or anything, but I’m going to a new school now and the desks are bigger and the hallways are taller and longer and I can pretty much trust that the multiplication tables are committed to memory so I don’t have to keep quizzing myself on them. Oh yeah, and since I’m moving to a whole new school I kind of have a new identity, or part of one.

To use a different metaphor, the Pagan perspective tends to view a woman’s life cycle as a progression through the three stages of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. It can be hard for those of us who don’t have actual children to know when we have moved into the Mother stage, but it’s associated with a general sense of competence, of being able to tend to the community’s needs, of being someone who basically knows what she is doing and is empowered to use her creative capacity in a variety of ways — to create her own life, to create that which she wants to see in the world.

It’s hard for me to say “yes, this is me” because of my long-trained terror of speaking well of myself — one of the strongest lessons I took away from my childhood was that bragging was one of the most “sinful”, possibly most dangerous things I could do — so I am almost pathologically incapable today of saying to anyone besides my partner, “Yes, I did a good job.” But here’s the thing: that’s part of what the Thirty-Fivesies and the Mother stage and the elementary school graduation are about for me: completing that lesson, and other lessons, that I’ve been working in since kid-hood, and getting to move on to something new.

It means I’m moving from practicing self-abnegation to practicing self-value. It means that when it comes to creating my life, I’m moving from “What’s the crappiest thing I can stand?” to “What’s the best thing I can imagine?”

And without all the self-hate and self-limiting and convictions of unworthiness, who am I now?

I think it’s no coincidence that I got the new job right on my birthday. It was the first evidence of my valuing myself on an inner level, and starting to believe that the work that I do is worthy of compensation. This has only grown since then. And this is part of the graduation feeling; it’s like I’m not stressing about or pushing for it any more — I’m just creating it. On some level I’ve actually taught myself to believe in my value, at least economically. That’s shocking to me. And it tells me I’ve actually finally learned something.

So maybe there is something to that catch phrase in the picture — maybe I AM starting to get my head together.

But then there’s my heart, and gosh, I feel like all year it’s been getting tenderized — like a piece of steak getting beaten with a mallet. Though not necessarily in a bad way. Tender is good, for hearts. Open is good.

And sometimes to open something, you have to smash it.

I have this heart-and-wings pendant that one of my Sufi friends in Missouri gave me on my 30th birthday. At one point this year I thought I had lost it and felt sad. Then it came back to me unexpectedly — but with a little dent.

heartwings

Man, I should have considered myself warned.

If you know me, you know I’ve always been kind of an anti-romantic — even cynical about love. When characters in books or movies fell in love, I was of the opinion that they were just spoiling a perfectly great friendship. As a kid, I never imagined my wedding day, but I had elaborate fantasies about my adventures post-divorce. (Some of these involved moving to Texas on a motorcycle with two Shelties in the saddlebags.) Even when I did get married I was very cautious about what exactly I was promising.

This year I realized how much I have kept my heart in check.

I realized that I had developed such an over-reliance on my brain as the “go-to” source of information, insight, ideas, dreams, plans, analysis, etc. that it was hard for me to even sense my heart at all. And if I couldn’t sense my own heart, it stood to reason that the people and organizations that I loved — probably didn’t know that I loved them.

I realized that because of my fears about letting love in (or out), I’ve tried to fill the spaces with all kinds of other things, not always to my benefit. I’ve refrained from putting my whole self into things. I’ve believed myself to be unworthy or incapable of experiencing all the love that is out there, constantly surrounding me and pouring over me and waiting with endless patience for me to become willing to receive it.

So I’ve started trying to change that. I started trying to pass my communications through my heart instead of my brain. (Or at least, through both. Darn, brain, where is that off switch???)

Here’s what happened:

I asked for Divine help in opening my heart. The whisper said, ask the Angels to help you open the door. And they did. And I was overwhelmed by the feeling of light pouring in … and out.

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I started calling it the energy of the Open Door Heart. Suddenly I started WANTING. And haven’t stopped.

I started allowing the true desires of my heart to guide what I am seeking for in life. And it is changing me.

It means I’m more sensitive. It means that I’m less guarded. It means that since I’m allowing myself to want, I’m more vulnerable to disappointment.

I’m trying to bring my full heart to my relationships and I’m finding that this too makes me want more. I want deeper friendships, I want family bonds, I want more-than-friendships. I want to expand …

And that challenges me to, well, get out of my comfort zone.

It’s chilly in my comfort zone. It’s restrained and controlled and there is not a lot of sizzle or surprise.

But as soon as I try to stick a toe out of the bubble I realize I have none of the skills needed to create something different, and I don’t know if I am brave enough to try. I guess that’s the definition of a comfort zone. Going out of it is like — graduating from elementary school and feeling lost among all the big kids in junior high.

And knowing that at some point I’m gonna get stuffed into my own locker because I’m such a darn dork. (That never actually happened to me in middle school so I know I’m overdue.)

But what the hey. Once you graduate, you’re stuck with the new school and the new curriculum. You can’t just keep doing the same lessons over and over again just because they’re easy and it makes you feel smart. You have to reach for something new.

Last year’s theme was “Year of Art.” This year it’s going to be “Year of the Heart.” We’ll see where it takes me.

Of the Dead and the Living

Yesterday some of my students came to class in costume.  With a few of them, I wasn’t quite sure if they were dressing up as somebody or something else, or if they were wearing an extreme version of their own true style — if those sunglasses, that muscle shirt, that fringe was what they would be wearing every day if it was socially allowed.  It made me think, I wear my costume every day.  Tonight I get to put on my real self’s clothes.  

I drove up to Fort Collins with a few friends (now that I live in the city, I can carpool!!  Much excitement!!) to attend a Samhain celebration that included both ritual and Dances of Universal Peace.  Oh, it was lovely.  The facilitator asked all attendees to wear black.  Although we were all invited to invite in loved ones who had crossed over, and this aspect of the holy day is the one that was most explicitly talked about, when I saw all those sisters and brothers dancing in unison in all-black sacred attire around a black-cloth-draped altar that really looked a lot like a cauldron, I felt most strongly connected to the starstream of my anonymous spiritual ancestors — pagans of ancient Ireland and Rome, blood-related to me or not — who have ever celebrated this, or anything like this.

Throughout the evening I kept imagining what it was doing outside — the wind blowing leaves, clicking along the concrete sidewalks and down the roads; the energy zapping back and forth across the sky.  As an adolescent I called this season between October and the New Year “the gathering together of power.”  I could feel it, though I didn’t know what it was or what to do with it.  I wouldn’t say I know those things now, but maybe I’ve developed a closer relationship with the mystery since then.  It’s sweet.  And wild.

Here’s a poem from the faculty reading I was part of this week.  I wasn’t sure what it would be like, reading without the usual academic costume.  It felt lighter than I expected.

“On the Cusp”

On the cusp, the world changing so quickly
or seeming to change around me, and I with it
know I am changing –
I am running both backward and forward –
 
Caught up in the spinning she tells me,
Abandon everything you have tried before.
Carefully reading the signs with eyes growing accustomed to new light,
She says, Those fables suited earlier times
when humans needed myth to shroud and disguise the Truth
so what they feared could sneak like a beautiful thief
into their hearts, to steal away their fear itself
and leave the jewels of faith behind.
Now we are grown, or part-grown anyway, enough to let go of the precious lies of childhood.
We must gird ourselves, be scientists, be brave,
take the laws of the Universe into our own hands now
and wield them without sentimentality to carve our way through to Love.
 
My soul, yearning for freedom, terrified of missing the chance to be
released from its captivity behind my questioning, worrying, analyzing mind,
like a soldier, rises at this reveille and scrambles to attention
gamely to follow the new orders –
but even as it leaps headfirst into the new day
there falls from the blankets the relic of the beloved saint
scent of the temple incense still clinging
much folded, much handled, and tearing at the edges,
but tightly grasped in sleep:
the letter from Home – the promise of reunion.
 
Though our memories of that time retreat more rapidly than Avalon,
and the great Teachers’ voices dim with distance
still I pick up the fragments they drop as they speed away.
In the palm of my hand the pentacle still glows with inner fire.
The crescent in the night sky still cups wisdom secrets
that may be poured out in crystal drops to the thirsty.
In poems, in spells, in gospels, beneath the tapestry of words
that decorate and hide, the Truth still whispers into the ear of the seeker.
 
Not every herald carries the Queen’s message.
For every true word that is spoken aloud,
songs beyond number are murmured by spirits
that fade from our senses and blend almost into silence.
Those ancient roads have not ceased to exist
but only made themselves hard to find.
Don’t be fooled: the signpost is not the road.
We will all arrive at the same place in the end
but some will see more beauty along the way.
 Milky Way Over Forest

Irish In Recovery

No, I’m not recovering from being Irish, as that title might imply.  I’m not even a “recovering Catholic,” as so many members of my family are – I guess I detached from the mass (so to speak) early enough that it didn’t leave any lasting trauma — just a fond memory of the smell of candles.  But seven years ago, just before St. Patrick’s Day, on a very snowy weekend in Minneapolis, I did give up alcohol for good.

The circumstances that led to this turn did not actually have anything to do with St. Patrick’s Day, though they did have to do with a certain Irish bar on Nicollet Mall and my reckless behavior there and thereafter.  And it did happen to be the beginning of spring break, which was also the week in which I had to write my preliminary exams, based on which I would or would not receive permission to proceed with my dissertation.  That was not a good choice of week for waking up in the hospital, not knowing how I got there, and not feeling (or looking) very good.  Soul searching, meeting going, and eventually essay writing, ensued.  That first SP day, four days after deciding to get sober, was a 24-hour period in which I stood outside myself, unable to touch what I was feeling.

One of the books I read at that time, called How to Quit Drinking Without AA (they had it at my local library in Northeast Minneapolis!), said this, which made a big impression on me: if it’s true what they say, about every cell in the body replacing itself over a period of seven years, then an alcoholic who stays sober will, after seven years, have a body in which not one cell has ever actually had alcohol.  Even though it’s a little cheesy, and biologically misleading, the whole image of a clean cellular slate appealed deeply to me.  Hesitant, as I always am, about any kind of lifetime commitment (somehow tattoos are exempt from this??) I remember thinking, OK, I will make seven years my goal.  At that point, if I make it that long, I can reevaluate the situation.  So seven years was always my big mountaintop in the distance.  And now, as of March 13, I’ve actually reached it, and now here I am hanging out with the view.

I’ve always had little celebrations over the various anniversaries, sometimes a private ritual, sometimes a gift to myself.  This year nothing really came to me in terms of an outward recognition, nothing seemed to appeal; I think I have just been experiencing the moment of attaining that specific goal on a more inward level.  It affects me in ways that don’t really express themselves in words.  I didn’t feel drawn to go to any meetings, because I just didn’t feel like conversing about it.  It’s more like an egg of light that I’ve been quietly honoring within myself.  But finally, one thing did occur to me as an appropriate celebration: I decided to do something to explore my relationship to St. Patrick’s Day from this new perspective.

Even though I only have one grandparent who was actually Irish, it was the grandmother after whom I was named.  She and all of her kids, my dad and my seven aunts and uncles, just seemed to embody that heritage to me.  I can’t really say why I was drawn to it, but I felt a heart connection with Irish culture, and it developed into a whole complex of things within my personal identity narrative.  Maybe I just needed something to organize that narrative, and Irishness seemed to do, but I really did love and passionately embrace and receive creative and spiritual and political inspiration and nourishment from a lot of things about Irish culture.  I didn’t go about it half-assedly; I traveled to Ireland twice in college.  As a leftist nerd into history and literature and folk music and drinking until four a.m., I pretty much found something in my interest in all things Irish for every part of my personality to do.

I don’t mean to be cliché about the connection between alcoholism and being Irish.  I’m not the only one in my family who’s encountered this particular challenge.  I know that historically there have been reasons, and those reasons have led to results.  I also know that I purposely adopted a certain stereotype as part of my persona.  I’m not outgoing by nature, and my childhood and school experiences did not equip me with any confidence or self-worth.  Maybe I thought, if I construct this “hardcore” character, a stereotypical drunk girl who’s into Irish stuff, people would mistakenly think they already knew me.  And they might talk to me.  And that would be a miracle.

The whole thing wasn’t insincere, even if it was partially constructed.  I was drawn to Ireland as a creative influence.  I identified politically with the resistance to British rule; I’ve had a long-standing scholarly interest in the meaning of “terrorism” in nationalist struggles.  And I loved going to live Irish music shows in American Irish pubs and rocking out.  I wanted to write ballads too.  And I honestly thought Guinness was the most splendid and tasty and aesthetically pleasing beverage in the world.  And I declared repeatedly that St. Patrick’s Day was my favorite holiday, because it honored all of my favorite things.  And it really was like a punch in the gut, the St. Patrick’s Day that fell four days after my first committed sober day.  I felt disoriented, realizing how deeply into the foundations of my sense of self alcoholism penetrated, or beginning to.  It wasn’t all about St. Patrick’s Day, but St. Patrick’s Day stood in for a lot of stuff.

In the years since then, I’ve mostly avoided this holiday, with that form of ignoring that is still attention.  To me, it was just so much about drinking, even sober events held the association.  But what I’ve been working on in the past year, as I’ve been revisiting the AA approach to serenity, is dropping the fight, dropping the last vestiges of the fight against things I felt uncomfortable around, like my previously-sober partner starting to drink now and then, or like St. Patrick’s Day.  This holiday, though strongly connected with drinking (for me), had also held other meanings that had been important to me.  But I had a suspicion that I needed a new connection to it; I needed to discover whether or not the holiday held any significance to me as the person that I am now, both the same as and different from the person I was seven years ago.

So I thought I’d begin with paganism; I thought maybe there was an ancient Celtic holiday around that spot on the calendar, over which the Christian conquerors had plopped their saint’s day.  And the sources I read said sure – Easter.  But that’s more often linked to the Pagan festival Oestara.  For St. Pat’s, pagans (and patriots) may wear snakes instead of shamrocks, representing those supposedly driven out by the missionary (for “snakes,” read “traditional Irish customs and beliefs”).  Upon reading which, I thought, as some women in my family might have said, oh hell!  I don’t want to adopt a protest instead of a holiday; although I agree with it, that just doesn’t sound like the kind of extra-positive healing energy I was looking for in this celebratory gesture of rebirth!  And call me sentimental, but I just don’t have much of a desire to observe holidays that commemorate colonization, exploitation, and religious oppression.  So I will probably do, as usual, nothing.  But I guess (or I hope) at least it will be a slightly more peaceful, conscious nothing.

In the end, maybe this was what I needed to “reevaluate” on my seven-year anniversary, as I’d told myself I someday would.  I don’t, after all, need to consider whether permanently quitting alcohol was the right decision for me.  It definitely was.  Even after seven years, the horror and the fear of experiencing another night like that last night is remarkably fresh and real to me.  On the other hand, I still don’t feel totally at peace with my relationship to alcohol in the culture that surrounds me.  My main reason for not drinking is still “I don’t want to die,” and somehow that seems to bring the fear and the resistance and the powerlessness right along with it.  I wish I had a more positive reason for this commitment, but when I think about calling it a spiritual pursuit for its own sake, I know I wouldn’t have chosen it if I didn’t have to, and I’m still too afraid of the substance to name abstinence from it a virtue.  And yet, the journey has been nothing if not spiritual.  It’s led to soul-searching and honesty and lessons and transformations that have been valuable to me beyond fathoming.  I am so grateful to have had this source of learning in my life; so let this, and my blessings to all who read it, be my St. Patrick’s Day tribute.

simbolismo triskellion