Monday, September 17, 2018

Necessary Evil

I have a special relationship with Darkness. Well, I don't really know if it is special, honestly. Maybe everyone has this relationship, and I am just late to the game, figuring it all out. When I was working or in school, I didn't notice this relationship; it was only after deciding to stay home that I noticed. During the summer, my life (and thus, the kids' lives) was extremely busy. We had visitors from out of town, we traveled, we hiked, we swam, we played at the park, we improved our homes, and I felt energy abundant enough for those tasks.

However, in the winter, we would become ill more easily, had less energy for activities, and generally, less tolerance for socialization. Perhaps being a mother exacerbates the minimum and maximum energies expended, but I think some of the delay in my realization relates to how one's perception of things change when one is inside vs. outside a system.

When I was growing up, we attended church regularly. When I say "regularly," I mean we were there All. The. Time. It was, and still is (as far as I know), an extremely liberal church, and low on the dogma scale. So, although I typically went to church twice a week or more, I ended up with a very open-minded view on religion and spirituality in general. After my confirmation class, I identified as Agnostic, recognizing the value of spirituality and a belief system, and later eschewing organized religion in general for its hypocrisy.

But back to my point - we lived at church. Of the four members of my family, three of us served as Elders on Session. My parents each served multiple terms.

The holidays were the busiest times, and that busyness reached an apex in early December. We all sang in the choirs, my sister and I were in youth group, and we attended multiple services a day during the holidays. This was all on top of work for my parents, school and extracurricular activitIES for my sister and I. I always had at least two or three extracurricular activities. And homework. And regular social events.

Really, it wasn't much different than what I hear many kids do these days.

Then, I went to college, switched majors twice, and still graduated in three years.

Then, I went to graduate schoo for three yearsl, and was 6-12 months from finishing a PhD in Neurobiology and Molecular Biology when I completed a Master's Degree.

What's funny is that I had more time to myself in graduate school than I had in any other part of my life. But I still didn't have enough time to notice any patterns in my mood.

*****

For the last 16 years or so, my body has been in relatively good sync with the moon. There have been a few exciting exceptions (two in particular I can think of right off the top of my head), but generally, for half the year, I ovulate with the new moon, and for the other half of the year, I ovulate with the full moon. In January/February and July/August, I go through a transition, which can be either a short or a long anovulatory cycle. Typically, these transitions are preceded by a tremendous amount of activity, and typically stress.

January/February and July/August are the months when I am most likely to face serious anxiety and/or depression.

Besides being exactly 1 month after the winter holidays and equinox, February heralds my birthday.

Besides being exactly 1 month after the summer equinox, late July heralds two birthdays, and two anniversaries in one week.

These are the times when I'm most likely to want to pretend I'm in a psychogenic fugue, walk out the door, and never come back. And it's not because of my little family; it's because of social pressure, which makes it even harder for me to spend time with my family, because I'm physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted.

*****

I kind of think everyone is on this schedule. Why do I think that? Because right as I'm having delusions of joining the circus because I am already fried, other people seem to be feeling stressed and typically enter our sphere looking for support.

And this is usually the thing that pushes me, head first, over the edge.

What's the edge?

The edge is when I think about disappearing myself, through whatever means.

Last month was really bad.

Through the Spring and Summer, I dealt with some very serious emotions related to things going on in the lives of several close friends who had approached me for help. Also, I lost a "friend" because she just couldn't hang with me through my midlife crisis. It's been a doozy. There was a lot of family stuff (including finding several lost family members through DNA testing). I had a few potentially serious health problems.

Any one of these things would have been difficult to handle, but they all came down on me at once. There were quite a few times when I wasn't sure what the point of it all was anymore, and last month was one of those times.

I knew I needed to be alone.

*****

Five days before my period should start (and usually does), the Flo app notifies me. And again at three days. At three days, I usually look at it, say to myself, "No shit, Sherlock!" and dismiss it. I can tell, because my fuse is way shorter than usual.

After this past month, the Husband now has it on his phone, too.

I was diagnosed with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) back in 2005. That was the year that started my real personal health journey, because I was having severe visual migraines. That was also the year I discovered bioidentical progesterone, which eliminated them.

Later, I also supplemented vitamin B6 (as Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate) to help with my symptoms, because I learned there was concern about progesterone use masking a vitamin B6 deficiency.

Every cycle, I take Progest-E from days 12 to 26. The progesterone in the formulation is extracted from wild yams and delivered in a suspension of mixed tocopherols. I do a number of other things nutritionally to help with this disorder, and for most of the year, these approaches are enough to keep me adjusted. I will write about those other things some other time, in case they help someone. But the point of this post is something entirely different, and something that was missing from my holistic health perspective for all these years. It was something I suspected, but now I know for certain.

*****

This August, I had hopes that my PMDD would be controllable. But as the day approached, I had this niggling feeling that things weren't okay. I had taken the meditation class, and earlier in the week had a particularly groundbreaking session, reaching a huge realization that made me feel, deep down, that I was done with people-pleasing for good.

It wasn't even a day later, the Universe decided to give several tests of my new resolve, including a huge fight with my daughter (we have only had one disagreement before, when she was six years old, and I still have tremendous guilt about it, even though she doesn't remember it), misunderstanding my therapist (leaving me wondering if I needed to go find a new therapist, or if I could even ever trust a therapist again), and also still processing the aforementioned stuff.

Then, the family came. Both sides. For one, I reluctantly accepted a self-invite, the other uninvited.

I think they got what they needed. I didn't.

Not for me, later, when I would again wonder why it is that I am so worthless that requests to be alone are constantly ignored. Maybe if I suffered from some physical symptoms, they would take me seriously? Instead of something I have "control over?" (I don't have control over it).

Why can't people understand? When it's dark, I need to go Dark.

*****

The thing about being busy, for me, is that I do not have time to process my feelings about things. I am highly adept at smiling, nodding, and then processing pain later. I maintain the appearance of someone strong, and can be strong, through having enough time alone. The time alone, is, for me, a necessary evil.

For many years, I would go over and over conversations in my mind, worrying that I might have said something wrong. I worried a lot about inadvertently hurting other people, because I learned a long time ago that people can misinterpret my shyness as aloofness, and my intellectual passion as snobbery. So, I try to be really mindful of my interactions with people, so that I do not come off as critical.

I have a lot of guilt about stuff that other people probably don't even notice or care about.

When I am in a good place - 25 out of 27 days a month, not too busy, replete with sleep and food - I can allow myself to think that if a person were upset with me, they would say something.

When I am not in a good place, my mind believes I have hurt others.

And being someone who feels so deeply, the thought that I might have hurt someone else, hurts me terribly.

*****

I read in Christiane Northrup's Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom a long time ago that it is normal for women to turn inward around the time of the menstrual cycle. In researching various spiritual modalities, I have found a wealth of information and support for accepting the natural emotional cycle that women experience during their fertile years.

On the Natural Shaman website, Cat Stone writes:

"The Autumn (Pre-Menstruation) is a time of harvest and withdrawal.  This energy can be really tough for some women.  During this phase, our focus begins to turn inwards in preparation for menstruation.  We can feel disconnected from life and our mind can become negative and critical.  We harvest and complete projects and tasks, ready to withdraw from the outside world all together, like the Autumn Equinox, we remember the past.  If the pressure is on to remain in the outside world, we can become even more confused and irritable.  This phase slows us down and brings our attention back to our own needs.  It is during this phase that women can feel out of control, and suffer from PMS or PMDD." - Cat Stone, The Magic of the Menstrual Cycle

It gets worse for Winter.

These are times when I MUST have time alone. I need time alone to think and process a lot of awful thoughts about myself. I need time to process the grief about who I thought I wanted to be and accept who I really am. I need time to process uncomfortable feelings like not wanting to be alive, so I can cry about it, and move through it. I have my own little Hero's or Fool's Journey every month! It's something that keeps me evolving.

Why can't people understand? When it's dark, I need to go Dark.

*****

"Why do you avoid your emotions?" my therapist asked me earlier this Spring.

I had just read Jung's Undiscovered Self, and I knew that he believed that the cure for most neurosis was in bringing thoughts and emotions into alignment.

"Because if I didn't," I said, "My life would be a shit show."

*****

A few years ago, I went on a feminist reading kick, first reading Gail Collins' When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women, and Betty Friedan's seminal work, The Feminine Mystique. I would learn from Friedan that I suffered from the "Woman Problem."

"Sometimes a woman would tell me that the feeling she gets is so strong she runs out of the house and walks through the streets. Or she stays inside her house and cries. Or her children tell her a joke, and she doesn't laugh because she doesn't hear it," says Friedan.

"I've tried everything women are supposed to do-hobbies, gardening, pickling, canning, being very social with my neighbors, joining committees, running PTA teas. I can do it all, and I like it, but it doesn't leave you anything to think about - any feeling of who you are. [...] There's no problem you can even put a name to. But I'm desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I'm a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bedmaker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?" says another mother in Friedan's book.

In the interest of curbing any arguments about my choice to homeschool, I want to be sure to say that having the kids at home was a great antidote to my "Woman Problem" for a number of years, for the most part, at least when we were at home together, because the kids are always changing and growing, and it is a delight to see them maturing. As they require less and less from me, however, my activities are more and more mundane. My contribution seems less and less "special."

The things that, over the years, contributed to that feeling of wanting to run away were the things that never stayed done. Dishes, laundry, paying bills, weeding, mowing, picking up pet poop, dusting, mopping, BUYING GROCERIES. The last one is my current bugaboo, with two teenagers. Sometimes I personally skip eating because I just don't want to have to go to the grocery store any sooner than necessary.

Again, we are almost out of groceries. We made it exactly one week on a $375 trip to the grocery warehouse. We ate at restaurants multiple times because everyone is sick and tired of cooking.

This is totally why fathers push their teenage boys out of the house. (Props to my kids who totally say, "Thank you for buying me food all the time!" and clean the kitchen without being asked - this isn't a rant about them, it's a rant about misogyny and the lack of a "Village" mentality).

*****

My mother told me once that a psychologist friend of hers asked when I would go "Supernova." I wondered what the hell he meant, and my mom explained that I was such an overachiever, there is no way that amount of effort could be sustained very long. I was a senior in high school at the time.

It's true - I did go pretty "balls to the wall" on everything I did, getting very close to a PhD by the time I was 24. And although I went to school in New Orleans, and have several really hilarious stories to share about Bourbon Street related shenanigans, I think that was kind of the last young person variety fun I had for many, many years.

I was 21 when I got married, my husband 22. We lived in Ohio for the first 2 years, then California for 3, then we moved to the Colorado Springs area for 4 years before settling in Loveland 12 years ago. I learned that it takes a while to make friends when I'm new to an area (and that has made me fairly outgoing), and I have also learned that children help you make friends. But I have also learned that the nature of the friendships I had before and after children is wildly different. Painting the town red hasn't really been in my lexicon. But then, it's only been about 5 years since I have been able to have an uninterrupted conversation.

Babysitters and the funds for concert tickets were right out. And, once I passed the 40 year mark, hangovers were significantly less fun. Not that they were ever fun, but even less so with kids to feed in the morning.

These are the things they don't tell you when you hear your clock ticking at 24 years of age.

"It's not a clock," the male standup comic's girlfriend had said, when addressing his fear of commitment, "It's more like a fuse."

Boom.

Do supernovas have fuses? I think my biological clock just broke permanently.

*****

I would like here to sing the praises of women comics. Watching Jennifer Kirkman*, Lynne Koplitz, Amy Schumer, Iliza Schlessinger, Ali Wong and others on Netflix has been a balm for my soul. They are the antidote to the superego. They're like a Jungian Adjustment. I knew, through having mom friends, that some struggles women face are universal, but there are things even mom friends don't discuss with each other. Especially if there are kids within earshot.

But these amazing women are opening up that dialogue.

Through their raunchy monologues, they're helping me see that the Darkness inside of me that needs acceptance is normal.

In fact, I noticed some time ago that during my "mood swings" I am much more likely to recognize and come up with effective solutions to real problems. I'm more likely to write philanthropic letters to correct unfair situations at that time. I'm more likely to make art that captures an emotion. I'm more likely to deepen a relationship with a friend by being more vulnerable than usual. I'm more likely to undergo some sort of beneficial psychological transformation during this time. But these things are more likely to happen if I am afforded the very necessary time alone, and if I am allowed to slow down.

This is another place where I have felt like "less than a woman" due to the feminism of my mother's generation. Talking about emotions, sexuality, fluctuating energy levels - all of this was still taboo until very recently. It helps to be able to laugh as I look back at when I got my first period, almost exactly 31 years ago, at the Gove Middle School Halloween Social, while I was dressed as a bride. All in white. Yep. I had to wait until after my parents got home from choir practice, after the babysitter left, to ask my mother if I was going to die. I don't remember if I was relieved or disappointed when she told me it was my first period.

Lack of discussion about this topic, I feel, keeps women from full acceptance of themselves, and perpetuates the misguided notion that needing a little more sleep or some alone time for part of the month is some sort of pathological state. Or understanding the natural fluctuations in sexual appetite! Growing girls need to know about it so they can better care for themselves when they are menstruating. Growing boys need to know about it so they can be more sensitive to the needs of female family members and future partners.

Discussion of this topic is a necessary evil.

*****

When I'm in this place, sometimes it is not solitude that I need. Sometimes I need radical acceptance. I think I'm just now finding the friendships where I feel like I can be myself, where I can share the Darkness inside of me without fear of criticism. The kind of friendship where I can laugh at raunchy jokes or dance to soul-shaking music, and want to do it again. The kind of friendship where we have secrets we would never share with others.

The kind of friendship which understands that there are necessary evils.

The kind of friendship that reminds me why it's good to be alive.

*****

I refuse to apologize if this piece lacked in "flow." My mind is jumbled; I'm writing out of emotion. I was interrupted four times while writing this. In a few days, again, my thoughts will "flow" and then I'll be back to my usual happy, horny self. Don't you worry.

Where can a girl find a nice Red Tent these days?

*Jennifer Kirkman on Netflix. OMG. Watch both her specials, but especially the newer one, Just Keep Livin'?

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

I feel you

I have a condition called Mirror Touch Synesthesia (MTS). I don't know how long I have had it. I didn't know that I had it until I listened to the Invisibilia Podcast on NPR back in 2015.

All my life, my family members have complained that I am "too sensitive," but really, none of them knew exactly how sensitive I was.

In the Invisibilia episode, a woman named Amanda suffers from MTS. She becomes housebound due to her condition.

How could synesthesia make a person housebound, you ask?

MTS, scientists think, happens when there is confusion between the touch and visual systems. People with MTS can, simply by looking at a person, understand what that person is feeling with their body. For instance, I can look at a person using a fork and feel that fork in my hand.

What this also means is that I can look at a person's face, and feel their expression - feel what they are feeling.

It is a condition, psychologists claim, of extreme empathy.

*****

Apparently, there is some comorbidity between having various types of synesthesia and being an artist and scientist, so much so that there is an organization for such individuals called The International Association of Synaesthetes, Artists and Scientists. I learned this fact after discovering founder Dr. Joel Salinas' book, Mirror Touch, at my local book store this Spring (2018).

Dr. Salinas is a Neurologist, which I found fascinating considering my own professional rabbit hole - neurobiology. Much of what he described in his book in his experiences from childhood onward were familiar to me, even down to what it feels like to watch someone die.

I'm thinking it must be pretty rare to  have had two near-death experiences and also have watched someone die, and have MTS. Dr. Salinas describes the feeling of watching someone die in the first chapter of the book - and since I had the same experience in February 2015, seeing my neighbor in cardiac arrest, I could feel it all over again. I can feel it now, just writing about it. During my working career, I had to sacrifice numerous animals for medical research, and the feeling was the same for me.

Last week I went to a concert with some friends at a local venue. During the opening act, around 9:30PM, six people carried another person toward the door. They put the young man on the ground, and he was unresponsive. I just stood there. I couldn't stop looking. I was having the feeling - the feeling of The End. A tightness in my chest that wouldn't go away.

I looked over at my friend. "It's ONLY 9:30." Was all she said.

"Huh? Yeah, it is only 9:30, but I have never seen that happen at a concert. Never." I was feeling old, as I haven't been to a concert in over two decades. But the last ones I went to were surely in New Orleans, and I don't recall seeing anyone near death back then.

"Oh, that happens all the time. But not usually this early." She replied.

"What the fuck." I shook my head. It was a Thursday night.

Another guy who was with us said he was certified in CPR and went to check on the victim. He came back and informed us that the guy had track lines and that it was probably a heroin overdose.

Not much later, an ambulance came. I was still standing there, eyes like saucers, unable to shake the feeling of death, until I saw a foot move. Only then did the odd squeezing feeling in my chest subside.

*****

"Om namah shivaya" is my preferred mantra for meditation. It is a salutation to the Lord Shiva, god of yoga, meditation and the arts. According to Wikipedia, he is often depicted slaying demons.

I am a very highly accomplished navel gazer. That comes of necessity when one is feeling all the feels. Of all the peeps.

In an initial discussion with several people who know me well, when asked if they thought I might benefit from meditation, they said, "Yeah, most likely not. You don't suffer from lack of self-awareness." And such things. I decided that shelling out $1000 for a meditation course was not really a responsible use of my money, even though it has been shown to reduce blood pressure.

A few months later, however, I started going to contemplative yoga with my artist friend, due to a lot of stress and a shoulder injury. Many of the class participants are dealing with chronic pain. Part of the contemplative yoga are two guided body-awareness meditations, one at the beginning of a gentle yoga practice, and another at the end. The first time I went, I was amazed at the amount of time spent moving blankets around (seriously, there is a lot of blanket rearrangement), but afterward, I felt the most profound sense of calm I had felt in a very long time. I felt like I was in a Bubble of Peace.

When I went home from class, I had the presence of mind to tell everyone swarming me in the kitchen, "Um... so... I feel this amazing sense of peace, and I would like to hold on to it for a bit. I am going to go sit outside."

"Whatever you just did, you need to do it more," my husband and kids all said.

*****

When I was a little girl, I spent a lot of time happily playing alone. I wasn't particularly imaginative - or at least I haven't thought I was. My favorite games were "Librarian" where I organized all my books by the Dewey Decimal System and wrote call numbers on their spines, and "Elizabeth Stevens" where I was a grown woman named Elizabeth Stevens with her very own (homemade) checkbook, purse made out of notebook paper, and a job in an office! I don't remember feeling lonely, although I do remember feeling disgruntled about interruptions. Hmm... that hasn't changed... although now I have too many books to organize, Costco makes my checks, my purse is made of vinyl, and I have several jobs at home.

The thing nobody tells you about marriage or motherhood is how your primary function is to protect everyone else's head space, and that you almost never have any of your own. Well, that's not entirely true - you just don't have any control over when you get that head space, so when it randomly comes up, you fail to think "I really need head space, too! How can I make sure I get productive head space?"

"Head space?" You're asking. "What's that?"

Head space is what produces brilliant people, like Einstein, Sagan, and Hawking. In fact, Einstein was a notoriously bad husband because he had strict rules for when his wife could and could not interact with him. What a douche.

A brilliant douche.

*****

I am surrounded by brilliant people. I can only attribute this to the values my father instilled in me - to protect the solitude of my loved ones. Anyone who knows my father will agree, he is one of those surprisingly brilliant individuals who accomplished such feats as graduating from high school at age 16 and winning a full-ride scholarship to any college he wanted to attend in New York State. He continued such successes through adulthood. Recently, I learned another interesting thing about him - he taught himself meditation and self-hypnosis early in life. And he fiercely defended his head space when I was a kid. In fact, I was pretty sure my parents didn't like each other, but now I see they did, and do, very much. They just protected each other's solitude, as the poets Gibran and Rilke both advised.

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.”- Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
 
*****

Dad shared some more of his wisdom with me, when I used to come home from high school with headaches from not eating enough. He would have me lay down on the sofa and he would do a guided body awareness meditation with me, while massaging my temples. It worked, every time. Because of that experience, I have always been reluctant to take any sort of headache medicine. I can usually rid myself of headaches by laying down and working through awareness of my body, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes.

When I let go of one desire (say, a $1000 meditation class), something even better often comes to fill its space. For example, one that costs a lot less, is closer, and just feels "my speed." My contemplative yoga instructor ended up offering a meditation course nearby. Close enough that I could walk. The Universe is wonderful that way.

*****

Sometimes when I am meditating, I feel like I am in a time machine. I meditate for 10 or 15 minutes, and it often feels like less than a minute. The first time this happened was in my second day of meditation class. When the instructor told us to start wiggling our hands and toes and take a deep breath, I was so disappointed it was over. But when I sat up, I felt profound peace. The peace was so enveloping that I looked at her and noticed that I could not imagine how she felt.

The following week, she would announce that she wanted to talk about synaesthesia, and asked what kind I had. She had been on my website, and knew I was an artist, so maybe that's what influenced her guess that I was a color-sound synesthete. "No," I said. "I have Mirror Touch."

"Oh," she said, seriously, "I wish I had known that before we started class."

*****

Another part of being a mother is having to interact with a lot of other kids and parents. If homeschooling, it might mean even more interaction with other kids and parents than one might have if one's children attended school, because one is being proactive about socialization, since that's what everyone will ask about when they first are shocked by the announcement that the kids within earshot are not attending school.

So, hauling them to at least one - no two, because more is better - "Park Days" every week becomes an imperative. On top of that, there are probably one or two private "playdates" at friends' houses, and then on the weekends time with extended family. In a week, a homeschooling mother might see, on average, fifty people, most of whom she has some level of personal knowledge. Maybe she even has some "thing" she talks about with each one of them, and since she is a neurobiologist, it is something along the lines of nutritional or psychological well-being. Technical, but simultaneously emotional stuff. Lots of the moms are worried or flustered when talking with them because one of their kids has some difficulties. Many of them are exhausted. That's a lot of contact. That's not even counting the internet forums, where one is feeling, either correctly or incorrectly, the words spewed forth by people from all over the world.

Maybe this mom had taken a personality inventory when she first got out of graduate school, during the interview process to become a technical recruiter, and the psychologist had said that she "Would be a great recruiter, except [she is] too empathic and it will be psychological torture." Maybe she was offered the job and had the wisdom not to take it.

She said, "No thanks!" and went on her merry way to dirty closets at the Veterans' Administration where she would be degraded by her boss for her ineptitude at being unable to keep 60-70 plates of Henrietta Lacks' cells alive (Hey - her cells are supposed to be immortal!). And that experience would be so insanely isolating that when she became a mother, she wholeheartedly embraced the community of fellow mothers, many of them also empaths.

*****

The thing about Mirror Touch is that sometimes it can have the effect of amplifying emotions, especially in the context where I'm with another empath.

This can be really fun, because it means I make a happy get together even happier!

Or it can be really horrible, as all non-happy feelings get felt deeply and transmuted into despair.

It means that if a person has a convincing mask, I really believe it, unless they clue me in otherwise. Because of the profound empathy I feel, it takes me a long time to give up on a person.

This is precisely the reason a few of my friends told me they didn't want me to do meditation. They were worried I would lose my empathy. That I would be a different person. The kind of person who gives up on others easily.

But what they didn't know is the intensity of my sensitivity - the enormous burden I was carrying. Before I started making art, I remember having the conscious thought that I was giving away little pieces of myself all day long, and that I didn't have anything left for myself. I actually had the thought that this must be what a sex worker feels like. I felt like it was my duty to make life richer for everyone else, without concern for myself.

*****

Invisible Labor is the type of work primarily handled by women in our culture. It consists of all of the thankless (and uncompensated) tasks of motherhood that make life richer for families, like paying the bills, planning vacations, taking care of the automobile maintenance, replacing broken dishes, weeding, shopping for birthday and holiday gifts, making dentist appointments, emptying all the trashcans in the house, going through household stuff to get rid of things... okay, I am going to stop because the point here is that it is all the stuff that someone has to think about, and regularly do.

The commonest complaint among my mom friends, kids in school or not, is lack of time to themselves. I can't even imagine, really... because I try my damndest to have time in Ye Olde Mind Palace, specifically through being fairly heavy handed with my evaluation of whether various "Invisible Labor" tasks are Worth It or not. And frankly, over the years, Elizabeth Stevens, office worker, has decided that All Work and No Play make her a VERY dull girl.

Luckily, play can just mean being alone. It can mean journaling. It can mean drawing, painting or any act of creation. As long as the mind isn't being directed.

And recently, I found, it can mean meditating.

*****

Yale Psychologist Paul Bloom argues that we, as human beings, should do away with empathy. He claims that compassion is superior because it does not incorporate unconscious motivations. With empathy, the feelings of another are felt - unless we are incapable of identifying with the other, for some reason. Prejudice and internal biases, for example, can prevent an empathic reaction. However, it is possible to have compassion for people, because it is a conscious response and can incorporate the conscious decision to ignore our biases. Compassion, therefore, is empathy evolved.

My meditation instructor would argue in favor of compassion in a different way. She explained that profound empathy was due to a loss of the life force, prana. Throughout our lives we are to learn karmic lessons, which essentially help us to reach higher states of consciousness. In Mirror Touch, and empathy, one takes on the karmic lessons of others. We were not meant to take on the karmic lessons of so many other people. Certain Saints were capable of doing this to heal people, but, she said, it is extremely rare.

So, the pain empaths feel for others are the karmic lessons of the other people. The pain manifests as samskara, which are repetitive behaviors, thoughts and emotions. Compulsive repetition of unhealthy behaviors, thoughts and emotions are due to an unconscious desire to avoid a certain pain.

During meditation, as visions are seen (like in my particularly quick trip in the time machine), and symbolize the burning of these painful karmic lessons. During our recollection of our time meditating, I apologized because I thought I might have vocalized, and the class said I had giggled. My instructor thought it was a manifestation of the burning of a samskara. This is precisely when I noticed I could not feel her as I gazed at her.

*****

"There’s some evidence that meditative practice and mindfulness meditation makes you into a sweeter person. There’s no definitive evidence of this, but the argument is that mediation makes you more compassionate by diminishing your empathy, so you can help without feeling suffering." - Paul Bloom, Yale Psychologist

*****

I had figured out, over the past two years or so, how to turn my MTS off and on. So not being able to tap into it at all was - weird. One would think it would be disappointing, but since the inability was accompanied by a profound sense of calm, I was thankful.

I always thought, when someone said, "I feel you," that they really meant it. It's not something I have ever said, but something I have felt deeply for most of my life.

Don't get me wrong - it hasn't been all horrible. As my mom said, once, because of my deep feeling, my life has been full of the highest highs, and the lowest lows. That's a gold mine for a creative person.

I feel like meditation has unlocked the ability for me to have power over whether or not I feel another. Maybe it is the power to fly too close to the sun and come back stronger than ever - one of my very favorite pastimes. So, look out Sun - here I come.

Monday, September 3, 2018

#metoo

I was just barely 16 when it happened. For the last 27 years, I have gone back and forth between wondering if he had been a stranger, taking me at knife point, would the experience have been less traumatic? Maybe then, the effects would have been limited to just being afraid to walk alone at night. But this was someone I knew - who I thought I knew well. He was the first person I felt safe opening up to about my childhood trauma. He was 19 and was volunteering by helping our creative problem-solving team, so we stayed up late many nights, building things together, talking about all manner of things. I was attracted to him, but never imagined he felt that way about me. So when my friends warned me about him, I did not listen.

There was, in my mind, no reason he would think of me like that. Certainly not, because my ballet teacher had shamed me when I was 5 or 6 years old for my abdomen, which stuck out much more than the other girls'. Certainly not, because in elementary school, several boys called me "Amy McBunnyfreak" for my large incisors and love of rabbits. Certainly not, because my close friend's mother had expressed concern for her daughter's weight when we were in middle school, and I was even heavier. Certainly not, because that one guy in middle school called me fat in front of my peers. Certainly not, because just the year before, in dance class at school, a classmate had asked me if I was pregnant. Certainly not, because I was one of the only girls in my high school with braces and glasses.

I have wondered, over the years, if he knew the full effects of what he did, because I was not the only one. He liked virgins. Someone told me there were 14 before me. I knew two of them. Did he get to know the soul of every girl before he degraded and discarded her? Did all of them say "no" like I did, under the influence of alcohol, and unable to defend herself? Did he prey on the ones with insecurities?

*****

I remember the day when the #metoo movement started. I remember thinking that it was great that women were finally speaking up, and also thankful that I had left social media, because I didn't have to concern myself with solidarity over an issue that was still actively eating me on the inside. A few months later, I would tell the only male friend I have had in twenty-five years, in the context of a discussion about the movement. It was terrifying being this vulnerable, even though it only took a minute. I am sure I was shaking.



The details I shared of my life with this guy - my hopes and dreams - my personal struggles - I had never shared with anyone before. So, when he used me for whatever validation he was looking for, and then discarded me - the effect was that I felt fundamentally broken. Fundamentally unlovable. Fundamentally worthless.

*****

Last week my husband was walking alone in the park by our neighborhood at dusk. He came home sad and upset that two women he encountered on his walk were clearly uncomfortable when he passed them. One had stepped off the path to dial on her phone, keeping a close eye on him. The other stepped well off the path with her dog and watched my husband pass. For years, my male doctors kept suggesting that I walk several times a week not just to lose weight, but also combat depression. It took a hypertensive crisis on January 11, 2017 to get me to face Fear of Walking Alone Dragon. Two weeks later, I began attending community college with my son, and so I felt safe walking around campus by myself when he was in class.

I still had trouble wanting to walk around my own neighborhood - one I chose for the safe feeling it gave me - by myself. So, I started walking regularly with a girlfriend. One day, I thanked her for walking with me, sharing that I realized I was afraid to walk alone because of several things I witnessed over the course of my life.

The worst of these was when I was 17 years old. I was fueling up my pickup truck at the Conoco station a few blocks away from my house when a homeless man offered to wash the windows on my truck. Well, he didn't so much offer as he started to actually wash them. I told him, "No, thank you," but he continued. I barely had money for gas, let alone money to pay him for washing my window.

"Leave her alone!" I suddenly heard. I looked up from the pump and saw another man, pointing a gun at the window washer. A gun. I can't remember if I paid for the gas or not, honestly. I got in my truck and drove down Colfax a few blocks, where I knew I would find a police officer. He immediately called dispatch and left for the Conoco station, so I don't know what happened after that.

That was the closest call, but I also witnessed two assaults from the front windows of my homes - one as a teenager, and another as a young mother when I first moved back to Colorado. For some reason, people yell when I'm walking, even if I am with my husband. Maybe it is not at me (although it has happened enough when I am all alone, I always wonder).

So, just walking alone feels like an act of bravery to me. This fear has impacted both my physical and mental health in a profound way.

It was interesting, last weekend, seeing my husband finally "get" how it is to walk through the world in fear. As a woman.

"Are women just always afraid?" He asked.

"Yes," I said. "I am, anyway."

After a few months of walking on campus, I felt confident enough to walk around a nearby sculpture park while my son was at class in Windsor. I walked there weekly on Sundays. Sometimes I would call my friend on the phone while I walked, and other times I would enjoy the sound of nature. One week, I became aware that there was a man walking fifteen to twenty feet behind me. I tried to walk faster to stay ahead, but quickly realized that I couldn't keep his pace. We were in an area with no other people, and no cars. If I could just keep up the pace until the trail came out onto the main road, I would be okay. There would at least be witnesses, I thought. I walked on the main road, passing two women and their children taking photos on the bridge. I rushed through their picture, apologizing. Then, I got to a fork in the road where I could either turn to continue the trail loop, or stay on the sidewalk along the road. I looked over my shoulder.

"I'm not following you," the man, who was now only about 10 feet away, said.

"Oh," I said, feeling like a tremendous idiot. "Sorry - past life experiences!" I shrugged. My mind was swimming. What if that man had been my son?

Or my husband.

Neither one would intentionally hurt a woman, I am sure of it. They are both acutely aware of the extent of the damage done to women by men.

So, for years, I have avoided men as much as possible. It's not hard, really, being a stay at home mom. Exposure to men occurs so much less - the ones I see with any frequency are my friends' husbands, and ones in a professional capacity (doctors, dentists, mechanics, store clerks).

For some reason, I didn't worry about older men. If they looked like my grandfather, and worked with lots of people physically every day, certainly they must be safe, right?

*****

I have gained and lost weight over the years like the tides. The first time I lost a lot of weight was through walking and counting calories, over the course of about two years from 1998-2000. Then I became a mother. I then slimmed down again through breastfeeding from 2004-2006. The weight came back as I threw myself into cooking nourishing meals for my children, and so in 2009 I lost it all again with a regimented exercise program and a low-carb diet. The weight came off so fast that my hair was falling out, and an extreme depression set in, so I added back carbohydrates in order to heal, and in the process, got up to my highest weight ever.

This time, I decided, I would take a moderate approach. The word "sustainable" became the cornerstone of my health routine. It has been challenging, where I live (everyone is on a diet and belongs to a gym, it seems), to dig my heels in and defend my sustainable approach. If I am tired from not enough food, lack of sleep, injury, too much drama, or because I am getting sick, I take a break from exercise. I try to walk 3-6 times a week, getting at least 6000 steps a day. Six thousand isn't very many, but it's enough that I have to put some shoes on and get out of the house.

I think often of my female ancestors who didn't have gym memberships, knew nothing of intermittent fasting, and lived to be at least 80 years old, despite exposure to significant lifetime stress and lots of second-hand cigarette smoke. They weren't concerned with what their long lost acquaintances from high school were thinking.

After my moderate routine was fairly well established (it is difficult to maintain over the holidays and the hottest months of the year), I found a physical trainer to give me a routine.

I chose my trainer specifically because I knew she and I would see eye to eye on nutritional requirements, but also I knew that she was not in the business of getting people "jacked" but trying to help people heal. Still, though, I expected she would give me a routine that would keep me busy while my son was in class, so I could use the rec center. What she gave me was so sustainable, it was ridiculous. The first time I did my exercise routine at school, it took me 45 minutes to change into my clothes, do the routine, add interval training, shower, and get dressed again. So, I decided to just do it at home, to make it a lifelong habit.

The struggle here has just been eating enough, and getting the right food, and feeling strong enough to do the very simple routine. Last spring, I made the mistake of pushing myself to do it when I was frustrated about something, and I hurt my shoulder, badly, trying to work out some stress.

My personal trainer helped me deal with the shoulder pain using some energy healing and hypnotherapy, but it was stubborn and kept coming back. So I went to see my chiropractor, who I hadn't seen in years.

This is when I would learn that even Grandpa sometimes isn't safe.

*****

I thought I was asking a professional question when I inquired if the size of my chest could be causing the shoulder and neck pain I was experiencing. I mean, he's a doctor, right? The weight had melted off the rest of me, leaving my breasts larger than they had ever been, so it seemed like a reasonable question.

The conversation got weird, fast.

He started talking about his own chest, and the chests of his friends. He asked me if I was thinking about getting a breast reduction.

And then, he sat down beside me and put his hand on my upper thigh.

"What?" I thought. "Is this really happening? This isn't happening. It's all in my head."

*****

A female friend recently talked to me about responding versus reacting. I had never really thought about the difference between these two things, because I realized I do neither. I realized, when she was explaining the concept to me that, "Oh, I am a freezer."

"A freezer?" she asked.

"Yes, a freezer. I do nothing." I explained.

In talking to other women about what happened with my chiropractor, they were all surprised that I did not do anything. But this response, or lack thereof, is common for survivors of abuse, I learned. Furthermore, the personal and private nature of most abuse makes survivors end up questioning their sense of reality. I now see a therapist at least once a week so I can tell her about my life, what happened, and how I responded, in large part because some of the things that have happened to me are so unbelievable I worry that it is all in my head. That's why they call it "crazy making."

In the months since this has happened, I realize how my silence over the years has enabled abusive relationships on many levels. And, thanks to therapy, and witnesses, I know I'm not imagining these things.

I looked at my silence as a way to remain easygoing and likeable. Maybe, on some level, it helped me feel lovable, at least consciously. But I wasn't loving myself, so I really wasn't lovable.

*****

The Universe is funny. Sick funny, I think, but still wise and wonderful. One of the ways I have been able to work through this tremendous pain, and still accomplish anything, is by being a life-long learner, and looking for lessons in my experiences.

When I was born, my mother was sure I was going to be a boy. She knew that she would name me "George" after my two grandfathers, George Graves, and George Robert McMullen. I always felt like I had escaped a fate worse than death since I didn't like the name George. But now I see how I have a little bit of St. George in me, and it probably would have been a great name for me, had I been male.

So many times in my life I have had the sensation that in following my intuition, questioning the status quo, I have been both foolish and brave. When this happens, I feel both exhilaration, and terror.

Writing this is one of those times.

*****

The last two years have been the most psychologically difficult in my life so far. One of the things I learned during my homeschooling years is that keeping busy helping others is a way for me to avoid facing my Dragons. Since my inner St. George actually loves the business of slaying Dragons, I am really good and finding unsuspecting Dragons to slay.

But when I finally slowed down a few years ago and had to be content just being for a while, the Dragons got a lot bigger, and a lot scarier. Like this #metoo Dragon.

Several situations, all at once, would force me to look at how focusing on pleasing everyone else was robbing me of my self worth. I made the decision to speak up. I spoke up for my kids, so they could see how to advocate for themselves. And, over time, I finally started speaking up for me.

I lost several friends, with whom I had abusive relationships. In trying to please these people, I gave them all the power in the relationship. There was a common thread - if they needed my help, they were aggressive and even forceful in their use of my time, which I enabled. But when I needed reciprocity, they were nowhere to be found. The relationships were slowly eroding my sense of self worth. My own needs were unimportant, it seemed, because their problems were worse, and I was not even deserving of an answer when I would reach out for connection.

I have thought, "I should have been voted most likely to be ghosted when I was in high school."

It was just a pattern, right? Sharing myself completely with someone, and then being ignored. Actively ignored. Avoided. Sometimes silence can be violent.

In these friendships, I constantly felt like that fly in the blue guy's soup on Sesame Street. An annoyance to the blue guy, and to Grover (the most lovable monster - who wants to annoy the most lovable monster?), and to the kitchen staff, and even to the contents of the soup, which were going to be wasted.

When I feel like that, I know it's time to speak up and let go, and that that is also an act of love, because letting people behave in abusive ways without speaking up lets them continue behaviors that absolutely make them hard to love, and make it harder for them to love themselves. Life is full of difficult discussions. I think it's important to have them.

*****

I developed early, so the comments about my breasts also started early. My middle name is Elizabeth, after my biological great-grandmother who raised my grandmother and mother after her husband committed suicide during a very long battle with tuberculosis during the depression. Adah was a gentle-hearted woman, standing not even 5 feet tall, with a generous chest. Her mother, Edith, for whom my sister was named, was slender and tall. My sister and I resemble our respective namesakes.

In high school, my sister was popular, always had a boyfriend, and a very close-knit group of friends.

I kept myself busy with clubs and after school activities, on the periphery of the various groups. I had one close friend from most groups, and was rarely invited to things, unless a friend needed a sober driver.

I was Miss Congeniality. For real. I participated in a pageant in high school and won Miss Congeniality.

So it is interesting to me that the majority of my body image issues have nothing to do with my relationship to men, and everything to do with my relationship to women. Being around women all the time for the last 12 years has done a real number on my self-worth.

Why?

Because, I swear, women hate their bodies. It is almost impossible to spend time with a woman socially without her complaining about how she has recently gained weight, or how she is bloated because it is her "time of the month." Discussions of what constitutes healthy and not healthy food is always a favorite subject. I have been very careful about what I say about myself around my daughter because I do not want her to have the same insecurities I do. But I have two family members who would regularly discuss dieting, juice fasting, and one of them even refused to eat anything but celery for a whole weekend while visiting. I was always nervous that my daughter was in earshot, and I worried that she would pick up their insecurities and hold herself to some ridiculous standard the way they did. They are both thinner than I am by several sizes, and so when that was going on regularly, it was nearly impossible for me to come away from being with them without totally hating myself, because in my mind, they were way more beautiful than I was.

Here is the really disturbing thing. Like I mentioned before, I am used to being ghosted, being treated like I am invisible. I mean, who wants to spend time with a pathetic SAHM who doesn't know how to have a good time? Everyone clearly wants a MILF! During the times when I lost weight, the craziest things happened. People I had known for a long time didn't recognize me. Certain people seemed intimidated. They called me beautiful. They wanted to know what I was doing to lose the weight. The cashier at NAPA hit on me when I was buying washer blades. The tire guy flirted with me. Women were kinder than usual. The tour guide in Prague suggested a kinky rendezvous under his breath. A guy bought our couple friends and us several rounds of drinks, while going on and on about my dimples in front of my husband. An older man in Australia in a bar went to a liquor store and brought me back a bottle of wine from his home town. I hadn't even exchanged words with him. Everyone was flirting with me, telling me how nice I looked. It was weird, because I was the same person on the inside. I can see how if one was accustomed to this treatment, it could be quite confusing if the treatment suddenly stopped. For me, all the attention made me confused, and a little sad. That is the hardest thing to accept about life, I feel - that ultimately people subconsciously treat you in proportion to how beautiful they think you are, and could care less about who you are on the inside.

And so we do this to ourselves - judge ourselves by our outward appearances, rather than by loving our whole selves. It is a terrible shame.

*****

So, to deal with the burning junkyard of existential crises in my mind (thank you, dragons, for setting everything on fire), and also my screwed up shoulder, I turned to contemplative yoga and meditation.

Soft woolen blankets, Indian meditation music, and my instructor's soft voice would help my soul, breath, and body finally relax. For a while.

My instructor looked at my website and decided to ask me if I would do line drawings of the yoga poses for her. I was flattered, and it seemed like an easy task.

We got together before meditation class to take photos of the poses. I thought maybe she would do the poses, but when we got there, she was wearing her baggy pants, and my fear was confirmed when she asked me to set up in shavasana.

"I must not look that bad." I thought.

Later in the week, she sent the pictures, and I was mortified. Mortified.

I was laying there, spandex-clad, little left to the imagination. None left to mine, that's for sure.

"I cannot do this." I thought. "No way. Is this a test? This must be a test. She must know. She's a guru. She wants me to push through this pain and fear." She probably had no idea.

Several other really difficult things happened that week when I was bloated and needed to be alone. The week before, I had been contacted about the acceptance of some of my writing into a book, but the pain of having to face the reality of pictures of my body in spandex, and several other intense psychological developments overshadowed any joy that brought. As the moon became fuller, the shadows took over my mind.

The funny (not funny) thing about mental health issues is the tremendous amount of guilt associated with just having those issues. Anything hurtful I have ever done has been at a time when my Dragons have hold of me somehow. Those Dragons - Fear of Failure, Fear of Rejection - tend to rear their heads when I haven't been taking care of myself. They really like to come out and play at the end of my menstrual cycle when I need most to care for myself. Because I am a caregiver, I desperately need this time to be alone. Maybe if I had a red tent tribe to sit around with, eat ice cream, and watch sappy movies with, I wouldn't need to be alone. Being alone allows me to have a little heart-to-heart with the dragons. It helps me to accept they are there, and that they are not all of me. If I don't get time alone, the worst dragon of all comes out, Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids. This one is the worst because it tells me that my mere existence is screwing them up. When Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids comes out, I know that I am in the state I call Not Fit for Public Viewing.

Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids Dragon is much, much less likely to come out to play if I have been doing things that make my heart happy. When the Obligation Meter is near full, and the Satisfying Experiences meter is low, Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids is ready to burn the whole house down. Feeling rejection while simultaneously having committed oneself to drawing pictures of one's own body falls squarely under Full Obligation Meter territory. So, I did not handle extended family obligations on top of all that very well. Lets' just say that Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids Dragon was like, "Let's do this thang! You have some kerosene, right?"

So, instead, I sat with Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids Dragon, and we had a little heart to heart about how whenever it shows up, when I win, I am stronger for my efforts. Ultimately, I feel tremendous guilt for bringing kids into a fundamentally screwed up world where they will be judged for their looks and used for their kindness, and think how great it would be to clock out, but then realize that each second here is a damn gift, and that with the great pain is always great joy. And I have so much left to learn. I locked myself in the guest bedroom for a whole day and studied something new, spent lots of time laying on the sofa in the quiet, and also meditated. When I felt strong enough, I worked on some art. I know, when I can bring myself to work on some art, that everything is going to be better.

*****

Having vanquished Fear of Permanently Screwing Up My Kids Dragon again (thankfully its arrival is not a regular thing, since I keep a close eye on the Obligation and Satisfying Experiences meters), perspective fully restored, Fear of Rejection and Fear of Failure Dragons were way easier fights.

"How do you eat an elephant?" a friend once asked me. "One bite at a time."

Humor often helps me feel a little braver, so I thought of something funny to draw to help myself feel better. A yoga hippo. I drew it in my head, doing warrior pose. It made me happy. I imagined Martha from the children's books George and Martha, doing yoga.

Then, I realized, a line drawing abstraction like what my instructor wanted was not going to give away too much. I just had to open the files again in my art program, swallow my pride, and start.

I told a few good friends what I had to do, and they responded in ways that let me know it would be very difficult for them to do. I am pretty sure they aren't survivors of sexual assault, but I know most of them have body image issues of some kind. One friend asked me, "So, what are you going to do?" And I said, "Well, I am going to have a good stiff drink and get to it."

So that's what I did. And, most importantly, I breathed.

It was terrifying. Every step of it from opening the file, to selecting the tool I was going to use, to tracing the first curve of my body. This body, that gave life to two people. This body that has known both pleasure, and pain, and nearly died twice.

But with each line I drew, I saw a beautiful me. I saw the peaceful me, who loves herself, who cares and feels deeply. I saw the me who will drop everything to be there for a friend when that friend is experiencing pain. I saw an Empress, The Divine Feminine, in myself. I was a freakin' Fertility
Goddess. Take that, Fear of Failure and Fear of Rejection!

I realized that the rejection, the ghosting, and the abuse I experienced over the course of my life are not a reflection of who I am. They are a result of the insecurities of others - those behaviors are how other people protect themselves from rejection, ghosting and abuse. It's a power play, an act of self-protection, for them, and they don't realize how it propagates that same behavior through society. And, I saw that the way to break that cycle is to learn to love myself. Loving myself makes it easier to let go so I don't fall into the same behavior pattern.

As long as a person is actively trying to better him or herself, in the attempt at self-love, I can forgive them for mistakes of all sorts. But if the relationship is like Einstein's definition of insanity (doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results), then I have to honor myself. Otherwise, it is just a dragon-feeding exercise.

And I'm here to slay dragons, not feed them.

That's what makes me worth it. That's what makes me lovable.

#metoo

Namaste.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Dear Jewel

Dear Jewel,

I am one of those people who has a virtual jukebox living inside her head. Your song, "Hands" often gets stuck on repeat, but specifically the part where you say, "In the end, only kindness matters." You wrote these words long before the advent of Genius, in the infancy of the internet, where I would finally find the rest of your brilliant words.

For so long, you see, I have been able to let go of so much, in the interest of kindness. Or so I thought. Unknowingly, due to not one, but two near death experiences (one because of an accident, and another during childbirth), I would see that we are all part of something larger, I would take on a philosophy that would constantly threaten to be my undoing. Seeing that the end is not something to fear, and that we all go back to where we began, I realized that your words are true - "In the end, only kindness matters."

So, I walked through life, trying to be the sweetest version of myself to other people. When they were hurtful to me, I would swallow it down. I thought I was letting go - I really did. But I wasn't.

I dedicated myself to a life of service to others. At one point, when I was still on Facebook, my place of employment simply stated "Wherever I am needed." I focused on empathic communication. Rarely did I receive the empathy I needed, though, and for so long, I have taken on the pain of others, mindless of what it was doing to me.

How I wish I had paid attention to the rest of the song.

"My hands are small, I know
But they're not yours, they are my own
But they're not yours, they are my own
And I am never broken." - Jewel

I know now that I had a disordered relationship with both kindness and letting go. I have, in trying to do the work of God/the Universe, in spreading kindness, not accepted my own humanity. I have not extended the kindness to myself. I have held myself to standards much too high for a mere mortal. Amy, you are human. You are enough. You are never broken.

In the interest of kindness, I would attempt to "let go" of some pretty hurtful things. I ended up in a lot of one way friendships which kept me from enjoying many of the better relationships in my life, and also stole energy from me that would have been put to better use on my children, who really needed me. What do I mean by "one-way friendships?" I mean those friendships where I would be there for someone in their darkest hour - bending over backward to help - when not only would that energy be lost for the time being, when I needed reciprocation, the person was nowhere to be found. In an effort to build trust, I would be vulnerable with people who never had any intention of loving me in return. Sometimes they would even use my vulnerability against me, or when I would try to advocate for myself in the relationship or clear the air, they would ignore me or even use my words against me. Yet, I would forgive them and welcome them right back when they were in a time of need.

"I won't be made useless
I won't be idle with despair
I will gather myself around my faith
For light does the darkness most fear." - Jewel

The message I internalized through all these toxic relationships was that I was not worthy of love. I felt useless. I wasn't just idle with despair, I was swallowed by it. Swallowed. Had I listened to this stanza, however, I would have seen what I needed to see. I would have been more diligent about seeking out the light. I would have worked harder to cultivate it within myself. This is my responsibility. It is the responsibility we all have. It is, in familiarizing ourselves with this light, that we can see and let go of toxicity, and limit its effects on us.

I had an experience quite a few years ago where I was helping a family member who ended up in very serious trouble because she had this same mentality, cultivated through an immature relationship with religion and authority. How many women get in trouble by thinking they can "save" individuals who have been swallowed by darkness? A lot, I think. We are not taught how to take care of ourselves, we are only taught how to take care of others. It became clear to me that if I didn't remove myself from the relationship, danger might come to my family. But another family member, not knowing the seriousness of the situation assumed that I was "One of those people who give up on people when they make just one mistake." No, not at all. Quite the opposite. I now joke that it's more like "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me thrice, shame on me, fool me four times, shame on me, fool me five times, shame on me... fool me eight times, okay. Fine. F&#k you."

I don't have time or energy for these kinds of relationships. I don't have time for lack of reciprocity. It is my duty to take care of myself, to cultivate my inner light, so I can do what I am here to do, which is to amplify love, not waste it.

Jewel, thanks for letting me see how to do that:

"Poverty stole your golden shoes
It didn't steal your laughter
And heartache came to visit me
But I knew it wasn't ever after
We'll fight, not out of spite
For someone must stand up for what's right
Cause where there's a man who has no voice
There ours shall go singing." - Jewel

The universe has put me in a position of having a lot of time and head space. I am not going to use this gift to help people who are capable of helping themselves. I am going to use it to help people who, despite having a tough road to bear, are constantly working to better themselves, to cultivate their inner light, to cultivate their laughter. I will sing for the people who have no voice, and stop giving pieces of myself to people who simply could care less, or feel entitled to my love.

I have to love myself, be kind to myself, and let go of toxic one-way relationships, so I am not inadvertently feeding the darkness in the world.

I have to let go, appropriately, to cultivate my light.

"In the end, only kindness matters." Yes, it's true. But first and foremost, we need to be kind to ourselves, and only then can we see what needs to be let go.

Thank you, Jewel, for using your voice to help me see how to help myself and others.

With gratitude for your gift,

Amy

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Dear Kahlil Gibran

"Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love." - Kahlil Gibran


Dear Kahlil Gibran,

By the time I became familiar with your writing, the Universe had already marked your words upon my heart. Life, it seems, is an exercise in loving and letting go. How appropriate, then, that your book The Prophet was given to me as a wedding gift by a woman I admired so much for her loving mentorship. I knew that the wedding gift - not china, or silver, or money - would be one of the most treasured things I would ever own. Your words crystallized the concept of Love for me, inextricably linking my mind and heart, giving me an understanding and bravery regarding Love that to this day enriches my life and the lives of those around me. Loving, you taught me, is enough.


"When you love you should not say 'God is in my heart,' but rather, 'I am in the heart of God.'
"And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course."
-Kahlil Gibran


You showed me that Love is not something that we possess, but rather something by which we are engulfed. In a life truly lived, we become the willing agents of Love. We live our lives in service of Love. We don't fear it, we don't shut it out, for fear of hurt; we listen carefully for its directions and follow them, if we want to know it. Protecting our hearts by eschewing connection keeps us from learning the lessons Love wants us to know, to effectively propagate itself through the hearts and even the minds of humankind. These lessons, yes, they hurt, but if we listen to each one, set us up to Love better next time. It is Love evolving within us.


"Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night."
-Kahlil Gibran


As a human being, it is all too easy to get caught up in a scarcity mentality, to think that Love is finite, rather than infinite. I believe one way this mindset manifests is from the finite nature of our relationship with Life. In this way, I have been blessed with the experience of near death, not once, but twice. So, my understanding of Death is one of absolute Peace and Love. I know that in the end, I will become part of the Love that engulfs us all - that it is an absolute certainty - and that I need not feel possession of any one experience of Love, because in the end it is limitless, like an endless river flowing through the cosmos. Therefore, I can in faith follow Love's whispering in my ear, and its meandering and timeless lessons, during my finite Life.


"To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully."
-Kahlil Gibran


Even before I became a mother, before the tired toddler I would feed from my breast would bite or scratch me, Love would teach me that it is most gratifying when given without condition. One of my best experiences of Love was a gentle young man in high school who was my closest friend. We spent many days together, before and after school, and over time my Love for him grew. Intoxicated by teenage hormones (the most powerful sort), I tried and tried to get him to Love me back, the way I loved him. "Why can't I get just one kiss? Why can't I get just one kiss?" I would sing along to the Violent Femmes while driving down Colfax in my Chevy S10. (How appropriate). At the time, I was consumed with angst, expecting Love to look a certain way. I was reminded of this passage in my life recently when I found my old diaries, and specifically in one an entry detailing the heartbreak I felt due to his inability to Love me back in the way I envisioned. He had told me he cared deeply about me, and that he even kept a diary where he wrote about me. "Why can't I get just one kiss, then?!?" I thought.

Finally, before leaving for college, I would write him a letter telling him how much I was hurting, and that I needed to move on, because I wasn't getting what I desired from the relationship, but that I would always Love him. This was after my first near Death experience at 14 years of age, when I had a bicycle accident, but before the second one during childbirth at age 29. Although I was wise enough to understand that Love is infinite, I wasn't wise enough yet to understand that I also could not control the way Love was shared with me, which is a newer lesson, learned through motherhood and marriage. I really didn't think he Loved me at the time, because I never got that kiss. But less than two years later, he met my fiance and the aggression he displayed told me otherwise. Later, I would find out, he was gay. We had two entirely different Love lessons which would inform our understanding of the nature of Love in its various permutations, for the rest of our lives. I still Love who he is at his very core, even though I have not seen him in 24 years.

Before that, I had another painful lesson. I had lots of crushes leading up to my deep friendship with the gay guy. I had a huge crush on a quirky guy friend from another high school, who felt deeply for my very good friend who was tall and thin. She was not interested in him, and it pained me to see how much he hurt. I wished he could see me the way he saw her. Even though he did not feel that way about me, the feelings I had for him both buoyed me and made me bleed. To feel this is to feel Alive. It is to feel the Eternal. Without it, requited or not, we are just bodies without Spirit.

Eventually everyone graduated from high school and went on to their respective colleges, where I met my eventual husband. Of course, I still always cared for this other friend, and I was pained to find out that he committed suicide a few years later, but also understood that he was released from the sorrow he felt and was finally engulfed in eternal Love. I was reminded of him earlier this year when a doppleganger showed up at school, seemingly everywhere. Love sometimes teaches its lessons through cruel tricks.

I was deeply enthralled with the work of Carl Jung at the time, and was carrying a copy of The Undiscovered Self in my school bag. I had shared with a new friend at school, just days before, how freaked out I was that this kid, who looked just like my old friend, seemed to be everywhere on campus. She told me, "Well, you HAVE TO talk to him." As Love would have it, he and I ended up in the 3D printing lab alone, waiting for our first assignments to finish printing. I asked him what he was printing, and he explained that it was a key FOB with an image from his favorite video game series - Persona. A young man, he explained that it was a Japanese manga series based on Jun-Gee-an psychology. "Jun-Gee-an?" I thought... "Could he mean "Jungian?" Then he went on to explain that his favorite edition of the game required shadow integration through an act of suicide. At the end of the semester, I gave him a copy of Jung's The Undiscovered Self, which covers the subject of shadow integration, specifically learning to Love those parts of ourselves considered embarrassing or undesirable by society.

Over the semester I ran into this young man quite a bit, and I learned that he shared a lot of commonalities with my old friend, not just in looks, but mannerisms, likes and dislikes. While trained as a scientist, I very much believe the old adage that "we don't know what we don't know" which enables me to embrace a Universe of possibilities. Is it possible, I have thought, that this young man has the Loving spirit of my old friend, or maybe they share a lot of the same stardust. As it turns out, this young doppleganger came into being around the same time my old friend died.

A few months into the semester, my diary would give me another blessing. My old friend, before he fell in love with my tall thin friend, had shared a secret with me. He Loved me, and I told him I did not feel the same way. I had broken his heart.


"To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips."
-Kahlil Gibran 


Mister Gibran, upon my marriage, I was given your words, which rang true because I already knew how fearless acceptance of Love enables both ecstasy and gratitude, which cannot help but ooze out of our pores into the lives of those around us. Reading them in your simple language opened my eyes to a purpose of Love in my life, and always guided me throughout my marriage and parenting journey, on some level. The deadness of heart which weaves its way through the machinery of society, measured by the ticking of the clock, punch cards, tanks of gas, discussions of mathematics curriculum, and the checkbook ledger was a constant challenge, and nearly took my soul. This deadness of heart reinforces the human belief in the finite nature of Love.

I still Love everyone, because I see it as my purpose here, unless they give me eight reasons not to; and even then, the reasons are usually due to an inability they have to Love themselves in such a way as to prevent hurting others. And so I still wish them Love. I know it is time to let go when the hurt I feel is so tremendous that it is impacting my ability to walk through my life and Love without condition. When work, obligation or toxic relationship impedes my ability to wake each morning with the purpose of Love, I know it is time to let go of that thing. Still, I continue to Love.

I worry for the world; its purpose now seems to be the manufacture of Wealth as a surrogate for Love. It does this by manufacturing the illusions of both scarcity and choice, which keep our minds working at mundane problems at odds with Love. At the end of the day, families return to each other from their roles in the industrial machinery of Wealth generation, wounded, needing Love, and unable to provide it for each other. How are our children going to learn unconditional Love when their performance, an outward manifestation of the Self, is constantly under scrutiny? How do we remind ourselves of the importance of Loving our children when our own performance and selves are constantly under scrutiny? Rather than follow our true Loving nature, society shames it. Children and parents dread waking, and gratitude is something that ends up forced rather than felt. Sleep, for many, is elusive. Ecstasy is usually felt through selfish means, and often at the expense of someone else.

Mister Gibran, I worry that since most people only know conditional Love, that it will take the experience of near Death for society to learn the Ecstasy of Love as you describe it. I hope, for the sake of our children, who were born out of and for Love, that more people read your book.

With Love, Gratitude, and Ecstasy,

Amy

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Dear Mister Rogers



“The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.”
Fred Rogers 


Dear Mister Rogers,

Thank you for being you. I also like you just the way you are. No, I love you just the way you are. I think people have screwed up the word "love." I think they confuse it with a feeling of desperation and possession. I think they confuse it with lust. Sadly, many people also equate money and love. Thank you for showing me how to love unconditionally, to meet people where they are at, and let them go while still loving them. It hasn't always been easy, in fact sometimes it has been so hard I was sure I wanted to give up entirely, but what you taught me has come in handy almost every day of my life.


“Love isn't a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”
Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember


I watched you regularly as a child, and you filled some holes where my teachers would have been, if they weren't getting to know thirty new students each year. You filled holes where my grandparents might have been, had they been alive. You filled holes where my aunts and uncles might have been, if they had lived closer. You filled holes where my parents might have been, had they not had so many struggles with their adult relationships and careers. You helped me feel wanted in the big, cold universe. You, and others like you, who stepped outside of the grownup world to be with me, helped me see how important love is in the world.



“Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me. ”
Fred Rogers


Some people say that your message of unconditional love, that we are all "special," led us all to believe we are entitled to things, and to special treatment. I know you didn't really mean that, because you lived a fairly humble life yourself, content with yourself for your ability to love your neighbor. You simply believed that everyone deserves to feel worthy of their life here. Sometimes it is hard to feel worthy of the life we are given, when so much value is placed on aesthetics and wealth. Many people suffer because our society values image and money over kindness. People who choose to value kindness over status end up struggling because they chose caregiving professions which require them to work long hours for little pay. Some of them give up because they cannot afford housing and go into a profession which makes better money, but leaves them feeling lonely at the end of each day.


“The thing I remember best about successful people I've met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they're doing and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they're doing, and they love it in front of others.”
Fred Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember


It was very challenging at times, especially due to the isolation which I had to fight constantly, but I was able to take your message with me into my adult life - nearly half over, now - so that I could do my best to raise two children into secure adults. I chose to give up my career as a scientist so that my kids would know without a doubt that they are wanted and loved in this world. Sometimes I feel guilty for bringing people into this world because I feel like most people have given up on the idea that being a kind person is enough. It seems that some people feel like kind people are faking it, or are just boring. Often I feel that people only like me for what I can do for them, and so I try very hard to please people. I worry all the time that I have failed at helping my kids feel loved, because I know it will be difficult for them to feel like they are "enough" just being kind people. Many times when I meet people and tell them I chose to educate my children at home, I get the feeling they think I thought I could do it "better." It wasn't like that at all. I received an excellent public education and got a graduate degree in a difficult field. I have no doubts about the educational system's ability to make economy-supporting individuals. Doors to many occupations are open to me because of my education. I chose to educate my children at home because I wanted to protect them from the stress and bullying I experienced growing up. I didn't want them to feel badly about their bodies, their interests, who they love, their haves or have nots. These are the worries that I have that keep me from succeeding in the "real world." They are worries I did not want my children to have. Learning at home is easy in the context of following our hearts and intuition, spending time with others who made the same choice for the same reason we did - they want to raise children who feel loved, who feel excited about learning at their own pace, whose confidence hasn't been stripped away by the trickle-down economics of narcissism that prevails in this country.



“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.”
Fred Rogers



Mister Rogers, I know that you were deeply saddened by the events of September 11, 2001. I was, too. I was alone that morning, nursing my 4 month old baby boy down for his morning nap. I had no deep friendships in California where I was living, and our families were so far away. I had brought another person into this cold, lonely world. We had made the decision to move back to Colorado to be near family, near where we thought we would find love again to support our little family - where we could be more than an employee in a company, a house in a planned urban development. But Colorado had its problems, too. A few years earlier, I watched, horrified and alone in California, packing my suitcase to go defend my thesis in Ohio, as helicopter footage of the Columbine High School massacre streamed across my television. In that moment, I had felt that the bloodbath was the result of children who did not feel love for themselves or other people. Very disturbed youth took vengeance on the community they felt had failed them. In the years since your death, entire industries have arisen to protect us from the wrath of the unloved, and people are becoming more and more distrustful of each other. Our elected officials are increasingly people who value money over kindness, and display these values in their business, career, and lifestyle choices. Political alliances end up being more about career advantages than helping constituents or communities. Me, me, me, the world cries, as everyone wonders why even though they got that bonus, they still feel empty inside.



“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say "It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem." Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.”
Fred Rogers


I can tell that people are scared. I am scared, too. But I do think that what we're dealing with is nothing new. It used to be that the common man had no choice in his life, and so this question of wealth and power over people was largely left to aristocracy alone. But in this democratic state, now everyone has the chance to "make it big." To live the "American Dream." To prioritize status. As more and more people have chosen paychecks over people since the 1970's, the basic things we need - shelter and food - have gotten more expensive. And it takes more time to earn the money needed for these basics, so there is less time to love one another, and that empty feeling seems to be growing.



“Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else.”
Fred Rogers


This is, I think, a huge opportunity for change. If, instead of frantically trying to fill that empty feeling, each person were to take the time to notice it, to become really aware of it, to really feel it, and then fill it with acts of kindness to others, rather than material acquisitions, the world would change. I really believe that if we were put here for anything, it is to love each other. A friend once asked me, when I proclaimed that I was certain that the reason I am here is to love other people, to help them feel less lonely, "But how do you deal with never getting love back?" Well, I thought in that moment two things (which I did not say), 1) that finally I had met someone who tried and understood how challenging it can be to love, and 2) how sad I was that this person had not felt love. This is, I feel, a casualty of people conflating love with possession and lust. If love of the variety that you practiced were everywhere, maybe we wouldn't be so afraid to really love one another. Love wouldn't be so much about loving and losing, as abundant love.


“When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
Fred Rogers


Mister Rogers, I am afraid that people will read this and think it is a bunch of malarkey. I do hope they will take the time to see the movies made in your memory - the recently released Won't You Be My Neighbor? as well as Mister Rogers and Me, which is currently available on Amazon Prime. I can't imagine what the world would have been like without you. You were the only one giving an unadulterated message of love to many of the children of my generation. You made it okay to feel anger, sadness, fear, frustration, disappointment, joy, hope, love... all of the feelings. Yes, I was a huge fan of yours. I know you met many, many people during your career. Do you remember spending 20 minutes with a little brown-haired brown-eyed dimpled girl in the narthex of your seminary colleague's church in Denver, sometime in the 1980's? Do you remember that the little girl gave you a snake scarf she knitted herself with a rick-rack tongue and button eyes? You were that girl's hero, and you were exactly the beautiful loving person she hoped you would be in real life. You are the reason that every time her heart breaks, she tries even harder to love more deeply next time, even though it's becoming so rare that people think she is weird and often hurt her.


“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”
Fred Rogers


Please, I ask you, help me to not give up on the world. It's so hard, and I hurt so much. I'm so tired, and I am having trouble being optimistic as my kids become young adults. People keep telling me this is a good way to be, but I just don't know if I can do it anymore. But I'll try, just for you. For humanity.

With all the pieces of my broken heart,

Amy