GALA, Ready or Not

 

Phoenix

Bad ass choir t-shirts

 
Ok. So, for anyone who has been like “Angie / Gayan / Verdana Leviathan Strong, WHY have you not replied to the email I sent you two months ago / done the thing you said you were going to do??? I’m WAITING!!!” I have a four letter word for you:

GALA. 

(Warning – that wasn’t one, but there are lots of f-bombs below.)

The GALA International Choral Festival that’s being held in Denver this weekend, where queer choirs (LGBTQetc) from around the world get together at the Performing Arts Complex and sing to each other for like 5 days. 

This time, I’m singing with Phoenix: Colorado’s Trans Community Choir

It’s a very new group founded by my partner Sam less than a year ago. We’ve been busting our asses to get our set ready since we found out in April that we could actually get on the program. 

Our rehearsal schedule has been steadily increasing in the fashion of a snowball rolling rapidly downhill. 

And our set, which is made up entirely of original pieces written by choir members, includes one of my songs, for which I wrote a choral version, with parts & everything. 

We’ll be performing right before a choir from Beijing, for an audience of a couple thousand people. 

I think it could safely be said that one of the unofficial themes of our set is Everybody Outside Their Comfort Zone (Together).

For some folks, this is about being in a choir at all … Singing with a group … Learning to blend and taking the risk that someone might hear their voice. For others, it’s about discovering a whole new vocal range after beginning the hormonal journey of transition, and the uncertainty of opening one’s mouth and not knowing what sound will come out. 

I’ve often said that one of the things I value about this group, and my personal experience in it, is that it’s an equal opportunity comfort zone challenger. I really mean that. Although I’m pretty at ease with group singing as a general concept and I’m not dealing with any big changes in my voice (or my gender presentation), I sometimes feel like I spend almost as much time resisting the process as I spend engaging with it willingly. (And yes, that’s my excuse for being slow to attend to other commitments, like that email I really do intend to reply to … )

For me, the stream of resistance looks like this:

– OMG what do you mean I’m the lead/only instrumentalist on this song? What if I fuck it up???

– OMG I’m fucking it up!!! It’s happening!!! In front of people!!! What do I do? How can I even continue living after this horrible fuck-up???

– OMG. Sam wants us to perform this song that I wrote. How can I possibly make other people sing something I wrote? What if no one but Sam even WANTS to sing it? Maybe they think it’s dumb, or just not choral, and we’re only doing it because I’m Sam’s partner. How can I bear the shame of people hating my song and being forced to sing it?

– And – ok, if I DO agree to do it, I/we (really “I” because I’m too afraid to let go of control) have to come up with an Arrangement. And write it out. In notes. On a staff. Like a, you know, I think the technical term is real music person. That sounds HARD. And very time consuming. And intimidating. And I am bound to fuck it up. 

– And speaking of intimidating, how am I supposed to teach it? I don’t know how to teach a harmony. And don’t I also need to play it on the piano then? Like, 2 parts at the same time? Um, I can’t. I especially can’t in front of these, you know, real music people.

– Geez, and then there’s, what is my relationship to trans-ness, anyway? I have a transgender partner. A fair number of trans people in my life. I’m part of the “trans community.” When I am singing in a trans community choir, this aspect of my identity/life comes to the forefront for examination in a way it doesn’t usually. Are there certain things I should be doing? Fights I should be fighting? There’s an odd feeling of responsibility that comes with contemplating these things. A feeling that I should be … standing up more. 

And then there’s … gosh, GALA itself. 175 choruses. That sounds really fucking BIG. In case you haven’t noticed, this year I’ve been embracing my tendencies toward introversion. This is going to be thousands of people in a smallish area downtown, which is already full of humans. That’s a hell of a lot of small talk. And don’t get me started on the parking! Plus, I still have to work my day job. I’m going to be exhausted. 

SOOOOOOOOOOOOO that’s been my inner monologue over the past few months – I’m sorry you had to witness that.

But. 

It’s getting close to go time. 

In fact, it’s happening this weekend. 

And …

Ok, I’m excited. 

The resistance is still there, an underlying mutter. 

But there are these spikes of … This is going to be cool. 

The tide is shifting. The things I appreciate about GALA are coming more to the surface. The great concerts. The solidarity. Performing in this incredible space. When I think about it, how did I get so lucky?

Working and singing with the trans choir over the past year has been a really wonderful experience. This group is so vibrant. The energy of each rehearsal is uplifting and energizing. Every member is truly bringing their heart. And even though it seemed at first like Mission: Impossible, we have really pulled together on this set of brand new songs that didn’t even exist three months ago. And it’s sounding good. And they don’t hate my song. A lot of them seem to actually really enjoy it. Astonishing! In fact, when the choir joins me (in harmony) on these lines that felt so idiosyncratic and personal when I wrote them … It’s like … Man. An amazing feeling, actually. A wave of joy spreading through me like warm, gentle surf. 

I love singing with this group so much. I am really looking forward to our sharing this moment, well, this fifteen minutes, together. 

It is going to be fucking awesome. 

And after that … Sleep. And, yes, email. I promise. ❤

Angie - I Encompass All Pronouns - Colorado Trans Community Choir - Phoenix

Other side of our bad ass t-shirts

An Opening, A Turn

Humiliating experiences.
Continual verbal harassment.
Sustained discrimination.
Social exclusion.
Intentional cruelty.
Chronic, ongoing fear and anxiety.
Perception of being trapped.
Feeling powerless to stop an attack.
Repetition of the above.

These are some of the causes of trauma.

Trauma, in the emotional or psychological sense, refers to “experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless” (Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice). According to the nonprofit mental health resource HelpGuide.org,

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

The DSM, in its discussion of post traumatic stress syndrome, indicates that while this condition is typically thought of as resulting from one major event, an experience of violence or extreme horror, PTSD can also come about from an “accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents.” Bullying is one scenario that is noted as a potential cause of what’s referred to as “complex PTSD” (Psychology Today).

What are some of the lasting effects of traumas of this nature – the subtle (or not subtle) forms of non-physical violence that, repeated over time, deeply wound the mind, the heart, the spirit?

Severe depression.
Sadness.
Hopelessness.
Guilt. Shame. Self blame.
Feelings of disconnection from other people.
Social withdrawal.
Shock. Denial. Disbelief.
Edginess. Agitation. Anger.
Avoidance of things, people, places, activities, etc., that remind one of the trauma.
Emotional numbness, coldness, frigidity.
Difficulty in forming close, lasting relationships.
Difficulty in accessing one’s capacity for sexual pleasure.
Abuse of drugs or alcohol.

I mean.

I read all this stuff, and it is my story. Every word of it is me.

I read it and I feel relief. This is what happened to me. I didn’t make it up.

And then I read it again and another voice inside of me says: Hush. This doesn’t mean anything. This happens to everyone. Who are you kidding? You’re not a trauma survivor. You’re an ordinary person living a relatively privileged life. Trauma is rape, war, having your house burn down. Bullying isn’t trauma. … Well, maybe for some people. But not in your case. You were just a kid in school and that’s what being a kid in school is like. Sucky. Now close that door, shut your mouth and walk away.

I have a Ph.D. in American Studies. My specialization is minority literatures. I used to teach about privilege and oppression in college classrooms. I shared classic works by brilliant artists with students who were adult, educated, intelligent, and in some cases, quite worldly. And it was always this: When a writer described experiences of oppression related to their membership in a group targeted for discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or anything at all, the students cried out, “They’re so angry. All they can talk about is how they’re a victim. The mean old world did this, that, and the other bad thing to me, my family, my great grandparents, my group. OK, well, bad things happen to everyone. Get over it. Nobody wants to hear that shit.” The contempt, the revulsion, was congealed in and dripping from their voices, their faces, their written responses. Nobody wants to fucking hear it. OK. Point made.

It can be awfully hard for someone who experiences privilege in a certain area of life to understand that some of the things that helped put them in the position they enjoy, occurred at the expense of other people, people they’ve never met, people who may live somewhere else in the world or who may be dead now. That it’s not simply a matter of the lucky-blessed-by-fate and the neutral. Privilege means you got yours BECAUSE something was taken away from someone else. Specifically. And in my experience, just about no one wants to have that kind of responsibility put on them. Especially folks who are privileged on one axis – but oppressed on another.

I’m a fat, lesbian recovering alcoholic whose family background is working class (and back before that, just plain poor). With plenty of serious mental health issues in all the branches of the family tree.

You think I want to say anything that’s going to make someone call me a whiner, a victim, a blamer-of-society-for-my-problems? Fuck no.

And on social media. And among my friends. I don’t want a reputation for focusing on the negative. I certainly don’t want to come across as feeling wronged, limited, or damaged by what I see others as having supposedly done to me. People don’t like people like that – at least people I know don’t.

But yet.

There are these experiences. That shaped who I am. And the way that they shaped me was in the form of trauma.

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment, said, “I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival” (On Being interview).

I don’t want to talk about my trauma as something bad that happened to me, some outside force that stunted my chances for a health and happiness. I want to talk about it as a gift my soul gave me, a core set of lessons in the curriculum of my life, something written into the plan for my earthly journey before I incarnated into this lifetime, one of the cards in the hand I dealt myself before birth – in consultation with the Divine, with my guardian angels, with the highest wisdom and guidance available to my spiritual self.

I want to talk about it as something that really happened.

I want to begin to integrate it. So that I can move on.

Dr. Van der Kolk says that trauma is different from other difficult experiences (even the very most difficult ones of all) in that trauma exceeds a person’s ability to process what’s happening, to cope with the emotions, to sustain a sense of safety and fundamental okayness. This effect is compounded when the social or family environment surrounding the traumatic incident(s) does not allow the person to feel what they feel, does not accept the reality that the person is trying to express, essentially, does not surround the person with love, comfort, compassion, care, and reassurance that they deserve to have healing.

In these situations, a person cannot then integrate the traumatic experience as just another story, even if a painful one, in their self-history. The person can’t create such a story because there is no acceptance for it, neither internally nor externally. The person cannot, then, deal with the consequences of what happened, whatever those consequences may be.

The unintegrated experience remains in the body. In the tissues. In the cells. It is a felt memory, one that a person doesn’t so much recall as relive. The words to describe the experience don’t actually exist – even if the experience itself could theoretically be told about in the most mundane of terms. “He called me this name. Over and over. Everyone else joined in. Nobody would talk to me. It lasted for ten years.”

A few years ago, everyone was talking about bullying all the time, especially in queer activist circles. A lot of attention was being given to kids, especially queer ones, who committed suicide after being bullied. The whole “It Gets Better” campaign was started by Dan Savage, and it became viral. People started to talk about bullying, to take it seriously.

I could not participate in those conversations.

I couldn’t talk about my experiences of having been bullied. I couldn’t talk about other people being bullied, because that might lead to my having to talk about me being bullied.

Being bullied. Being bullied. Being bullied. I am saying it a bunch of times right now because the phrase has such a charge for me, because it scares me so much. And for some reason all of a sudden today, I am ready to, I NEED to, face it.

I shut the door tight on that period of my life. I can talk about my struggles around self love, I can talk about almost killing myself with alcohol, I can talk about depression and economic exploitation and all this other stuff, I can go on and on, I have a lot of passion for sharing these experiences that I’ve had in the hopes that what I have learned through those challenges may be of some help to someone else somewhere. But I can’t talk about being bullied because I am still so ashamed.

When someone else comes out about their experiences being bullied, I think they are brave – and that their sharing their stories helps make the world a better place.

When I imagine myself talking about being bullied, I feel exposed. I am too embarrassed to even go there. I imagine it must seem so terribly predictable, so cliché, so obvious. I tell myself that of course I was responsible for how people treated me; I was too shy, too weird, too unskillful in my social interactions, yes, too unattractive. I deserved it. Deep down, well, maybe not so deep down, I believe that I deserved it, I brought it on myself. In retrospect I think I could have done any number of things differently and my life in school would have been different. If I had known better. If I had tried harder. If I had forced myself to not be so … strange. So fucked up. Such an ass. So goody-goody. So difficult to like.

I don’t get to talk about being bullied. Because I deserved to be bullied. That’s how I felt when the conversation came up. How I still feel. That’s why I couldn’t say anything – why I wanted to run away when people started talking about this. All this shame would well up from the pit of my stomach and I would have to swallow it down and it just made me feel like puking.

Then today. At work. I read a blog post by someone who was coming out of the closet and asking her readers what it was that they were afraid to share about themselves. And I read this post on my friend’s blog, talking about witnessing others being outcast at school. And then I was editing an essay by someone else about the culture of weight hate. And then I was re-reading this other article on our company website about trauma and weight gain. And all these texts were crossing my path talking about what the body does to try to meet our needs for emotional healing when our minds aren’t actually able to deal with our traumas.

And somehow it all came together and I just wondered what energy would be freed up if I was able to actually look this trauma right in the eye and say:

Yes.

I was severely bullied throughout elementary, middle and high school.

Whole classes called me names, loudly discussed my ugliness, threw things at me, excluded me from group projects so that I had to make up my own solo assignments in order to pass.

I hated my existence.

Going to school was a torment. Any time I achieved an honor – such as being selected for the senior show choir – my actual life got worse, as these groups were full of people who missed no opportunity to mock and degrade me.

As is so often the case, telling adults only made things worse, because they belittled my emotional responses and accused me of tattling.

I was a child. I did nothing to deserve the cruelty that surrounded me.

I was suicidally depressed.

Long after I graduated and went on to become a successful adult, I pictured myself jumping off of bridges.

I tried to eradicate myself by drinking.

Luckily, I failed at that.

And here I am. I grew up fine. I have a life that I love, a sweet job, a wonderful home in an awesome city with my beloved partner and my beloved roommate, creative passions, dreams, goals, purpose, service, positions of leadership, a spiritual path. Many friends. Abundant, nourishing community. I’m utterly surrounded by love and support today. There is just about zero bullying in my life, and what bullying does show up is not personal towards me, but simply the outflowing of someone else’s fear.

And I have this trunk in the basement of my psyche that is tightly locked. I stand on the lid so that it stays down, so that I most of the time never even notice that it is there.

But it moves.

It shakes. It vibrates. It is full, full, burstingly full of energy.

I think the energy has actually grown over time.

I think that if I don’t open it, if I don’t look at the contents and see what is in there, I think it might, one day, explode.

So this is me – stepping down off the trunk, pulling out the key that I’d forgotten was there on a chain around my neck all along, putting it in the lock and

turning

turning

turning

to face whatever comes out.

  

Baby New Year

Baby New Year

  

Last year at work, my friend and I were trying to pick an image to go with our company’s New Year message. We both liked this stock photo but weren’t sure if it fit. 

“It totally does,” I said. “Look. It’s the baby New Year being born from the lotus.”

“Ooooh,” she said, or something like that. The concept charmed us both — the sparkles of unformed possibility bursting, no, floating, no, rising lightly and cheerfully from the flower that had finally bloomed out of the mud and the tears of the past year. 

Well, alas, our idea was vetoed by our bosses in favor of a more traditional narrative, but I held on to it in my mind. I love creating alternative mythologies, and once the story has been spoken aloud, it is in my opinion as valid as any legend. After all, every fairy tale was first made up by SOMEone before going the medieval equivalent of viral. So yes, I sometimes write my own myths and then live by their morals. I claim this as my creative prerogative. 

We did use the stock image for other posts throughout the year, and every time I saw it I remembered the baby New Year. And I decided that come 2016 I would use it on my own blog. And so I made an account and bought the credits and and downloaded my very first stock photo, and now I own it. 

Which brings me to my theme for 2016: Owning it. 

What does that mean?

2015’s theme, that is, the spiritual power I intended to claim by calling up and facing anything and everything in my inner world that stood between me and that power, was Self Love. Anyone who knows me knows I have been plagued (have plagued myself) with an ultra critical, downright mean and nasty inner voice of self judgment for as long as I can remember, certainly since wee childhood. This voice kept me living in a thick, heavy shell, kept me always tearing myself down, pushing myself to exhaustion, never able to fully receive love since I didn’t believe I was worthy, never able to really share my light because I believed I was so insignificant, so annoying, so bad at things, such an eyesore. 

I began last year finally wishing to change that, ready to let go of a way of thinking that I had come to understand was warped, dark, self defeating, unhelpful. I made the commitment to free myself from that sticky mental web in which my angry judging self held my heart captive and sucked its energy like a spider drains the life force from a bug. 

The challenges came. It was a tough year for my heart. But every time life asked me to do something that I thought I could never find the strength to do, if my deeper guidance whispered that it was the path of self love, I tried my best to do it. I took many steps into the scary unknown, following that faint and mystical light. Sometimes my only criterion for success was that I do it differently than I had done it in the past. And in this way I set about breaking habits. 

And as the year went on I noticed these habits, like broken chains, falling away. I began to feel lighter. More confident. Gradually, the balance shifted and the mean voice got quieter and the voice of my heart, my dreams, my inner knowing, got louder, until it was the first voice I heard instead of the last. I began to recognize my heart’s desires as a source of guidance, longings placed there by Spirit to help me find my direction in life. 

I’ve come to accept that this voice, this guidance, is true for me. But it’s still a little scary for me to make it the practical compass of my life, to really live by it, especially when it seems to sometimes take me in the opposite direction from the current of the “main stream,” or to go against what I perceive to be the preferences of the people around m

So that’s where I am today.  Working on owning it. Experimenting with living life according to my own quirky standards, with taking my marching orders from Spirit as I try to become a little better every day at decoding the instructions that bubble up from the depths of my soul. Just that. Living from my core, my essence. Not claiming to always fully understand the messages, knowing that at any moment I could be totally missing the mark, but trying, trying to hear, trying to hear better all the time. 

Having released a large portion of my inner self judgment, it’s time for me now to release my attachment to others’ approval. It’s time to face the degree to which I limit my choices out of the fear of not being liked. 

Call me crazy, but this feels like the easier of the two. 

When I understand that I have inherent value, I have less drive to find my sense of self worth in others’ opinions. Instead of a survival need, it becomes simply a habit. It feels comfortable, but it’s a false comfort — it’s actually just an attempt at distracting myself from the underlying anxiety, the gnawing fear that I am not and never will be connected to other humans in a meaningful way. 

Luckily, I have quit enough habits, enough methods of self distraction, to know that it’s totally doable. And I also know with both my brain and my heart that what I fear is not true; I am beautifully and indissolubly connected with all of life, and with all human beings. And I also know that — to paraphrase Marianne Williamson’s famous quote — it can be far more terrifying to embrace our connectedness, our interdependence, our strength, our beauty, our truth, our dreams, our magic, and to accept the responsibility that comes with our power, than it is to imagine ourselves small, helpless, and alone. 

So my intention, my challenge, this year is to own it. To own all of the above. To believe in my worth, my lovability, my vision, and to act like I believe it in front of the world. 

And here’s a really odd thing. Since crystallizing this intention a week or so ago, I have noticed a subtle but perhaps significant change in myself. I am normally very, very, um, VERY introverted when it comes to actually talking to people. (As a Leo I don’t have a problem being on stage performing, but as a Cancer cusp + moon I pretty much hate and fear social interaction, except with people I already know and feel safe around, and even then, it can be iffy.) Lately, though, I’ve been — striking up conversations. With strangers. And the exchanges have been — really nice. 

It’s like maybe, as I begin to let go of the fear of not being accepted, as I realize that I don’t truly NEED others’ approval when I have my own, I am less afraid of these other unknown humans walking around on earth with me, jostling egos with each other and with me, like we all always do. As I am less afraid, I am more curious. As I am more curious, I am more open. As I am more open, I am less defensive, and I allow more love into my heart. 

How funny. By caring less about whether others love me, I actually begin to experience more love. 

This understanding, like this new year, is still just a baby. I know I have many layers to work through before I really get this power of “owning it,” before I really feel it as part of me. But those sparkles of possibility rising from the lotus are so hopeful.  

I think it’s going to be a really good year.  

  

These Guys

Earlier this summer I tried on a sundress with a pattern of roses intermixed with human skulls. It was SUCH a cute dress, with vibrant neon colors and white accents on a black background, and I thought it looked good on me too. But the pattern hung me up. I imagined myself wearing it and people asking me, Why are you wearing a dress of skulls? I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to respond. The skulls seemed too powerful and magical for me to just wear them as a fashion accessory. (I’m really not that punk.) So I left the dress on the rack, a little wistfully, wishing I COULD have found a reason to make it mine.

Well, I guess skulls must be trendy in some circles because after that day, I started noticing them hovering around me – a lot. And as with so many things to which I’ve responded at first with an emphatic no – I found myself beginning to whisper – Yes.

Finally, one day in the bead store when I was Shopping With A Mission for a specific project I was working on, These Guys – brightly colored skulls carved in magnesite – captured my attention, and I decided the, shall we say, skull archetype must have some medicine for me right now, because they caught my gaze and would not let go.

What’s different now from the beginning of the summer? I’m conscious now of doing shadow work. I’m going underground to struggle with those aspects of myself I don’t normally want to face. And I’m dragging back into the light the gifts that I’ve disowned out of fear of rejection.

When we strip away all the elements of our lives in an effort to discard those that no longer work and rearrange those that remain in a hopefully more functional way – my partner, who studies the shamanic traditions, calls that skeletalization. That’s the short code for what I’m doing these days.

Suddenly Mr. Skull seems like he might have a relevant place in my life after all.

So I bought the colorful string of skulls that felt so beautifully heavy in my cupped hand. Without even taking them off the nylon string they were displayed on, I tied them around my rear view mirror. Now everywhere I go they are nodding and grinning at me and looking out in every direction (some of them upside down) and I feel surrounded by a lovely skully energy that’s somehow so deeply loving. I feel a sense of protection on my journeys to the underworld of my own being.

I call them “These Guys” and I quickly came to think of them as my friends.

20150913-125242-46362166.jpg

Here’s what the book in the store had to say about the mineral they’re made of:

“Recognize non-beneficial thoughts/ideas, revolutionary ideas via imagery, passion, heart felt love, cell purification, disorders of convulsions, bones, teeth.”

Well.

I stand prescribed. Thanks, guys!

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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.

IMG_0026

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.

Employment! Breaking News

Hello!  Today I’m departing from the usual opining and philosophizing to give you an update on my life!

After not getting a much-desired permanent faculty position at the community college where I have been teaching for the past four years (which shall remain nameless), I decided that rather than go back to cobbling together a semi-living from multiple low-paying, time-sucking adjunct gigs, I would go on the non-teaching job market this summer. I wanted to find a job in which I could grow, in which I could be creative, in which I could make a positive contribution to the world, and in which I could use and develop some of the skills and interests that my previous job wasn’t tapping into as much as I would have liked.

And now, lo and behold, I have been offered and I have gleefully accepted a job at the Institute for the Psychology of Eating just north of Boulder, CO. Wow! I am super excited! These folks have been doing amazing work in the field of people’s relationships with food, which has been a passion of mine for years, as well. The owners of the company write books, train coaches, produce conferences, and do all sorts of activities to provide information and education to the public about the ways we interact with food, both as individuals and as a culture.  I am of the belief (ok I guess I’m not totally departing from the usual opining …) that this is one of the most important areas of inquiry in the U.S. today, and that it touches every aspect of our lives — our energy bodies, our personal lives, our politics, our environment, our growth and evolution. I am very psyched to support this endeavor AND to learn more about it!

What I will be doing is working in the communications end of things — administrative support, student services, and editing, to start out. And I think it is going to be really fun. The tasks are things I like to do, and the workplace seems to be a perfect combination of my favorite qualities — fast-paced, driven, and committed, yet laid-back and positive in attitude.

When I started the job-dreaming-process back in the spring, a friend in my spiritual community suggested I check out the book Wishcraft by Barbara Sher, which is available for free online. She said that it had really helped her to get clear on what qualities she wanted from her next job, and had turned up some surprising hidden desires, too. The name of the book appealed to me — it sounded magical, like the way I wanted to manifest my next job, not through a bunch of hard struggle and slogging through mires, but through joy and magnetism and play. So I downloaded it and started working with the exercises. And indeed, although I had already come up with a sort of short list of qualities I wanted in my career, the book helped me to turn up the mossy stones in my brain and see what wriggling little dreams were squirming around in there. One thing I realized was that it had been hard for me to have clear and specific dreams for my life as a child. I had developed a great strength in finding something that I liked about almost any situation I found myself in, but had a very difficult time picking one thing that I wanted. A lot of my “job dreams” were not so much DREAMS as “well, if I do this then I should be ok” types of conclusions. But when I devoted some time and thought to clarifying what I wanted out of professional life, I realized that writing really IS central to what I love doing. (That wasn’t a surprise so much as an “oh, well, I guess I’d better take it seriously then” moment.) And it also surfaced that I would find it very enriching and soul-supportive to work in an explicitly spiritual environment. Not just one that espoused values that were compatible with my spirituality and ministry (as was the case at the college where I taught), but one that specifically addressed the spiritual side of human existence. The spiritual framework doesn’t matter that much to me — I am a universalist and I believe that all sincere paths are true, and I can get with the Baptist game as much as the Buddhist — but to work somewhere that would acknowledge the soul’s needs just felt like, you know, too good to be true.

But the thing about getting really, really clear about wishes is that the Universe hears. And, at least in my experience, when I’m able to bring my heart’s desires to a sharp focus, and own up to really wanting them, and also let go of the outcome and trust to Divine wisdom for the highest good of all, that is when miraculous connections really do happen. I found out about this position through another member of my spiritual community, with whom I was casually chatting about my life’s hopes and dreams. She said, “Hey, I just heard about a position just LIKE that,” and forwarded me the announcement. That’s synchronicity at work. And so here I am, three weeks later, about to start (tomorrow) what I could honestly say is a dream job, at least for this stage of my life.

With all this excitement comes, of course, a little nervousness. I want to do a good job. And I’m also aware of how different it’s going to be. Just the schedule change — from the all-over-the-place academic lifestyle to the consistent daily nine to five — is going to completely rewire my brain. And I’m excited about that too. There’s nothing like a big lifestyle shakeup to open the door to even more previously un-thought-of yet awesome possibilities. Above all, it feels like a quantum leap in self-value and listening to my own heart. So — wish me well, because I’m off to the Great Unknown!

From my back porch

From my back porch

Finding Courage Through Surrender

This post may be a little woo-woo-sounding, but it’s about something I’ve been going through and how I’ve been dealing with it — including looking to God for guidance, and the guidance I received, and where it may take me.

I’ve been struggling with this one class. Of the eight that I’m teaching right now (four college, four ACT prep), there’s just this one that I can’t seem to get into the flow on. It’s one of the ACT prep classes that the district has made mandatory for every kid in certain schools designated “underperforming” (code for all kinds of other adjectives having to do with disparity of resources).  Most of the classes of this type that I’ve taught have been challenging but ultimately rewarding for me as a teacher, and the kids have seemed to get something out of them too.  For this one, though, uh-uh.  Even though individual sessions may go well enough, given that the kids didn’t choose to be in this class and most don’t want to be there, there’s this palpable antagonism coming from the students that goes beyond mere not caring.

I had this group before. I get them for eleven days at a time, not all in a row, and I haven’t been able to shake the role of outsider. They hated the (pre-set) material and I felt like they hated me.  Their classroom teacher didn’t seem to like me, either, and that didn’t help.  She seemed to have sized me up in the beginning and dismissed me as ineffective and not worth her time.  I tried not to take it personally, but it took a lot of emotional energy to keep going in there, to keep smiling, to keep looking for ways to get them engaged.  I rotated out to another class for a while — a great relief — but I knew I would be going back. Man, I sweated it. I seriously did not know how I was going to get through the hour each day, let alone offer the students something that would actually be useful or helpful to them.

But it turned out that this was actually a good place for me to get to.  Because when I realized I was at the very end of my power to get through something that I knew I had to get through, a light finally came on.  If I recognize my powerlessness over life circumstances, I know my only choice is surrender to God.

I was drawn to a little book of daily meditations by Hazelden called In God’s Care for a message from my higher self.  The message was this:

“A consciousness of God releases the greatest power of all.”Science of Mind Magazine  ~~ Just thinking of God as we go into situations we’re uncomfortable with or perhaps even fearful of will relieve our troubled mind and lessen our anxiety.  Carrying God in our thoughts means we don’t have to, for that moment or hour or day, feel alone.  Quite miraculously, we’ll know that God can help us handle what we could not handle alone.  Most of us dwell more on negative thoughts than on thoughts of God.  And our life is far more confused and complicated than it needs to be as a result.  To replace one thought with another is really quite simple.  A quiet reminder to stop negative thinking and remember God is all that’s necessary.  We may have to repeat the process many, many times, but patience brings the result we want.  God will strengthen us and take away our fears if we remember to remember.  ~~ I will keep God in mind today.  I will concentrate on remembering.

Whew!  Yeah.  As soon as I read these words, my heart remembered and knew their truth.  I felt the blessing of them immediately.  So I did this.  I clung to that message as to a lifeline.  The first day that I went back to this class, I concentrated on remembering that just thinking of God would release a new energy into the situation.  When I went into the school, I inwardly spoke God’s name.  In the classroom, during a lull, I tried to turn on my spiritual awareness, to sense God’s presence — and of course the presence was there, as it always is, everywhere. And here’s what God showed me when I tuned in to God’s perspective: the stress, the distrust, the shields, the fear, the worry, the isolation that these students carried.  I felt the atmosphere as one of tension, of deep, deep guardedness. I knew that I could never know what types of circumstances and home lives they had experienced.  And all I could feel toward them was compassion.

And toward the teacher, I simply felt friendliness, a new openness that surprised me, that came to me without my trying.  If there had previously been a power struggle, my end of it dissolved.  I felt no hesitation about going up to her at every opportunity and asking her for suggestions, or what she did in her own classes.  I couldn’t make her like me, but I could send the message that I liked her, respected her, and wanted to work together.  After this, the vibe definitely shifted.

Since then, I have relied on God to get me through each class. I’ve been giving it everything I’ve got in terms of teaching ideas — there’s pretty much nothing I won’t try at this point to make the class worthwhile for the students.  But at the same time, I’ve surrendered the outcome and my own will and effort to the power of God — and I’ve needed to, because finding the courage to face it continues to be a daily challenge.

Yesterday, I was still having a tough time.  As I walked into the school, I imagined God walking with me, throwing an arm around my shoulder, encouraging me.  I got through the class; the activity I’d come up with was semi-successful (which is really saying a lot, compared to past experiences!).  And as I left the class and headed out of the building, I found myself still connecting to that feeling that God was right there with me.

God as I meet God through recovery literature is a lot like God as I meet God in the Baptist church: Real. Personal. Walking beside me. Speaking in direct and unmistakeable words, right into my heart. The Infinite One who still has both the time and desire to talk to me, the lowly straggler. I guess that must be part of the Infinity. This is the expression of God that I can have a conversation with, the one that will give me guidance, straight up.

So I asked:

Am I doing all right?

God answered:

You are doing fine, kiddo. That feeling of security and warmth that lets me know when I’m hearing Spirit’s word welled up under my rib cage.

I asked: Am I doing what you want me to be doing?

The answer came instantly: Honey, I don’t want you to have to be working so hard.

I felt the beginnings of tears as I climbed the long hallway ramp, heading out of the building.  My current seven-days-a-week teaching schedule has been taking a toll, and I’ve been feeling depleted of emotional energy.

I asked: What can I do to change this? I’ve been so stuck in this rut, working so hard and not making a living wage.

God answered, gently but firmly: You need to respect yourself. All the guidance about publishing your work is part of this.

Me: (Silence; reflection.  It’s been an ongoing crisis all spring.  I’ve been doing a daily practice to “remove obstacles” between me and the sustainable and creative work life that I want to manifest.  The practice had led me strongly toward writing.)

God: And when you learn to respect and value yourself and the unique gifts I gave you, I will place you where I want you. Don’t worry about figuring out the “right” job to pursue. I’ll put you there when you have learned this lesson.

As I passed through the door and walked to my car, I noticed the warming, fresh-smelling spring air.  I reached up to touch a branch of one of the gorgeous, thick-trunked pine trees that ring the school grounds. God will place me where God wants me, eh?  I felt a smile begin in my heart and extend across my whole body.

I know I don’t respect and value myself as God does, or as God wants me to.  And sometimes I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to.  But I’ve grown in this area, certainly, over the past many years.  It’s one of my life lessons.  In my family, it’s transgenerational.  Part of the purpose of my life is to heal this wound of self-unlove that has stretched so deep and wide.  This conversation with God made me feel like I had the inner permission to take another step, or more, into self-value, which would really be a step of greater closeness to God.

pinecone

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

Twice-Told Tales

Last Friday I went to a workshop organized by my department, called “Stop, Write, Reflect–Teach!” They pitched it as a chance to take time out, return to the writing that nourishes us, and think about why we became teachers. I was really excited for this because I’ve been feeling a renewal of interest in and motivation for writing lately, and the opportunity to have community support for my writing is just not something I’d pass up right now.

In this workshop we were led through a process of exploring our personal histories, specifically with regards to teaching, as narratives. The facilitator diagrammed a plot arc on the board and asked us to think about the initiating events, the conflicts, the moments of heightened tension, the crisis and the denouement of our teacherly lives. She had us do little five minute writings in which we would write continuously for the five minutes — a shorter version of what Natalie Goldberg calls writing practice. And as I was writing, I kept thinking about how “these are my stories…” as in, the stories that have congealed over the years into episodes in a narrative that I’ve told, I feel, too many times. These supposed standout points on the plot line of my life — I felt like I was watching once again a VHS tape that had been rewound and replayed too many times.

Natalie Goldberg was one of my first true heroes, one of maybe three writers who seriously influenced my intellectual, spiritual, and artistic development when I was in high school. I wrote about her in my college application essays. I still consider her mode of writing practice to be the foundation of all creative writing (for me), and I share her “Rules for Writing Practice” and “Beginner’s Mind, Pen and Paper” at the start of every single writing class I teach and probably always will. People who take more than one class with me get to read it multiple times.

Maybe it’s because of the ideal implanted in me when I first read her book Wild Mind in tenth grade, or maybe it’s just my own neurosis, but I am always striving to write something that’s not boring. I was afraid my teacher narrative (which is also to some inevitable extent my grad student narrative) had crossed the line from vibrant, illuminating, impassioned, to boring, processed, twice-told. It just felt like the same old stuff, and I felt ready to let go of it.

I think those memories, the “turning points” (in plot-speak) that I identify as part of my “story” of how I came to be an adjunct community college English teacher with a Ph.D. In American Studies, are important, and some of them even make good stories, but it’s just been so long that I’ve been rehashing them. I learned a lot through both living them and analyzing them, and now I’m wondering what it would be like to try on a different narrative. Like trying a new hairstyle, it could change my whole personality. I’m curious what it would be like: a story that would read my past a different way, and maybe thus shed light a little way into the future.

It feels like a story that hasn’t been written yet, and like all blank first pages, it’s a little daunting. But it came to me again that I need to imagine the teaching job that I actually want, and it makes sense to reimagine the context in which it — and I — would exist. A new read on my past; a new theory of why I care about teaching (and what else I care about, and why): It’s so — so — lit analysis circa 1998!

What first comes to mind for revision is this whole category of memories filed under “failures.” These mainly have to do with a. social missteps (large and small) resulting in hurt feelings (mine or another’s) or embarrassment or both, b. social ineptness related to shyness and insecurity, or c. lack of proper career development. Those are, of course, arbitrary interpretations of ultimately neutral material. I would like to free myself from those calcified, crusty stories, with which I punish myself whenever a random reminder causes them to rise in by brain. How I handled myself when a friend moved away. Various lies I told or petty acts of revenge I committed in high school. The reasons why I didn’t get promoted. These and unbelievably many other negative stories about myself, I haven’t yet been able to let go of. But I feel like in this go-round, at the writing workshop, as, out of annoyance, I struggled to find some new interpretations of the material if memory — that grip cracked open just a little bit. As a result, at least part of me feels not just ready, but straining to release those beliefs about what a failure I have been.

I’ll share an example of an episode whose moral I need to rewrite, one that has come up since the workshop: my relationship with my dissertation advisor.

I sometimes have moments of clarity when I realize that in general, I habitually see almost every aspect of my life as evidence of another dismal social failure, or maybe the next installment in one epic social failure that began exploding on my first day of preschool and hasn’t yet ceased to be a continual disaster. As I review my actions and my days, it’s automatic for me to think of how I screwed myself over by not being willing or courageous enough to initiate, or skilled enough to maintain, conversations, friendships, relationships. I just feel I suck at this and always have. It’s, in my estimation of myself, one of my greatest flaws and sources of shame.

Well, when I was in grad school, the process of finding and working with an advisor took me way longer than most people, because I just couldn’t steel myself to ask someone if they would be my advisor. It took me even longer to get a committee; my department actually started harassing me to to get these established already before they dropped me from good standing (it was close!). I ended up asking this wonderful woman, a queer Chicana who’d gone through the same program as me, and who shared my political orientation, to be my advisor in like my third or fourth year. It was really hard to do. But she said yes.

Then, I always felt like a crappy advisee because I never checked in with her about my dissertation. Unlike my colleagues, I never sent her chapters as I finished them, never workshopped anything or got her feedback or suggestions for revision. I barely talked to her except when I had to meet with her and get a form signed every semester. I thought she was great, I really looked up to her, but I couldn’t stand the idea of the possibility of her not liking my work. It had happened enough times — maybe someone thought I wasn’t theoretical enough, or didn’t claim my argument strongly enough. What if she thought my work was unworthy of my program? I literally couldn’t take the thought of it. So I didn’t send her a thing until I was about a chapter away from totally finishing my dissertation — then I sent it all to her and asked if she thought I could defend it in a couple of months.

Unbelievably, I got away with that! She barely had me to any revisions — said she liked it, and arranged for my defense. My committee members were all pretty hard core about what they liked and didn’t like, yet somehow they all gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. I had never heard of anyone avoiding their advisor, writing their dissertation with practically no input from anyone, and then passing like that! I considered my way of doing things a major failing; I continually berated myself for not taking advantage of the opportunities for intellectual development and friendship that can come with the advising relationship. I simply could not make myself do it.

As a result, I always assumed that she thought little of me — that she didn’t think of me at all. I figured I was a blip on her radar, an unmemorable experience, and I more or less tried to forget about what I thought if as my failure as an advisee.

But the other day, my partner, traveling several states away to our alma mater, actually ran into my advisor, and according to him, she said she really missed me. I thought, how could she possibly miss me, with as little as I talked to her? Yet apparently, whatever I thought of my own actions and appearance, she remembers me as a smiling person who wrote a great dissertation. She said she actually refers people to my dissertation as an example, and that she strongly hopes I will still publish it because some people need to read it, in her opinion.

What does it serve me to hold on to this idea that I was a sucky grad student? So all these writers and academics passionately loved and hated their advisors, were pounded into greatness by their advisors, went to barbecues with their advisors … so what? I always look at that as the standard, and see myself as deviant. It’s the same with so many things involving social interaction. I just feel like such a loser.

But could it be possible to really rewrite my story in a way that values what I did do? I’m wondering if there is a way for me to re-remember those years and determine that the way I went about grad school was just fine, it was just the way I personally did it, and it was a success, and I did everything exactly as I should have, in the right and perfect way for me. I didn’t develop into an academic superstar and I never became truly comfortable or confident in those intellectual-social-collegial circles, at least not in MN, at least not at that point in my growing up. But dang it, I pushed myself a lot; I didn’t hang around in my comfort zone. For as terrified as I was, I navigated the tricky situations and survived, academically and spiritually and physically (and there was some doubt about all of these at one point or another). I did get straight A’s (ok, one A-). I got a bunch of really awesome people to be on my committee. And the author of the book I based my dissertation on loved how I used her work. So maybe I didn’t totally wreck it, my grad school career. Maybe I could start being proud of myself and stop being ashamed.

… And now I have a sneaky feeling that the diss needs to be published. To which I respond: Oh, shiiiiiit. But returning to and finally finishing that project would be the perhaps the best dramatic rewriting of the old advisee story, the one with the sequel, “I’ll Never Publish my Diss.” It requires facing the same things again that scared me before: submitting for approval, exposing myself to criticism, plus revisiting stuff I’m out of the flow with, and my fear that revising that diss for publication would take all my time and I would dangerously overwork myself even more than now, and I would have a mental breakdown of some kind.

But something has shifted lately, maybe because I came to a crisis point in my life recently which has convinced me to be open to any guidance or any possibilities that I feel led to — especially, or really only, things I have not tried before. I just got simultaneously fed up with both the stagnation of my quest for a living wage and the worn out methods I’ve tried repeatedly with no success. So whatever I do, it had to be something different. And I have never seriously tried to publish my dissertation before.

Ok, although I have a whole ongoing string of thoughts and reflections I’d like to post here, I’m aware that this is already a really long post about my mental process — so if you’ve read this far and you really are interested, well, I’ll be writing more in other posts.

If you’ve stopped reading, although you won’t be actually reading this, namaste. And if you haven’t stopped reading, namaste, and thanks.

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Snow always makes me introspective.

Crying Allergy

Here’s something strange — or at least it strikes me as strange, though it may be perfectly normal. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed more of a physical sensitivity to crying. It feels almost like an allergy — in fact it’s almost exactly like what my allergic friends say happens to them when they eat an avocado, or a pine nut, or whatever it may be. I notice that I can’t cry as hard as I used to without feeling the consequences. Now ok, I can understand things like playing hockey taking more of a toll on one’s body as one gets past one’s twenties, but crying? Come on!

It’s true, though. The other day I was having a cry. It was some combination of hormones and life, and I was just suddenly tired of holding it in. But as I was crying, I actually stopped to consider whether I really wanted to do that or not, knowing that I could expect something like a hangover afterward. It gives me pause, anymore. These days if I cry for more than a minute, I have a headache afterwards, sometimes even the next day. My eyes get crazy puffy and that lasts, too. My head feels like a bunch of heat built up inside that can’t be released — it can only very gradually cool down. An ice pack feels very good at these times.

Maybe this is something other people are used to experiencing when they cry, but I’ve only just started feeling it. Maybe this is making me sound like a crazy person who cries uncontrollably. Is it nature’s way of saying, “Grow up, for crying out loud!”? I do cry when I’m upset, and I just think if that as part of my personality, part of being an emotional and dramatic Cancer-Leo, but now I wonder if it’s just weird.

On this particular occasion I decided to just go with it. For better or for worse. I thought it was ultimately for the good, even though I had very puffy eyes for the next two days. It just felt right to release my emotion through tears in that moment. Did I cry for too long? Why would I ask myself that? I cried until I felt done, and ready to move on, and lighter and more hopeful than I had before.

I guess now when I cry, because I can either feel it or literally see on my face for so long afterward, I really have to be aware that it is my choice to cry. Or maybe it’s the choice to continue to cry when tears arise spontaneously that I am becoming more aware of. I can’t really believe that I am anyone’s victim; I can’t help but remember that I am choosing my feelings. Still, I don’t think these feelings I am choosing are necessarily bad, even though I feel them as pain. I may not know why I choose them, but I accept the responsibility, and I try to value my sad emotions as much as my happy ones. I believe they are both important parts of life.

Hazrat Inayat Khan taught that “The heart is not living until it has experienced pain,” according to the Bowl of Saki the other day. It’s always seemed to me that one of the purposes of pain is that through it, one may learn empathy. I don’t think that’s its only purpose or that there is anything that can be learned only through pain, and I can imagine a future in which we’ve collectively evolved beyond the need for that particular teacher. For me, though, for now — call me old fashioned — I’m still learning from my pain, my occasional sadness, and the difficult feelings still lodged in my heart that have been there, underground, for years. Sometimes those difficult feelings just heal up and leave one day. Maybe they all will eventually. They’re part of the family, though, for now, and so I do my best to accept ’em. And help them pack their things when they’re ready to move on.