I Call Do-Over!

After seventeen years of no homework, it hasn’t been exactly easy to get started again.  I love my new field of study–in fact, I love just the title of it–expressive arts therapy.  This particular school uses the body as a road map for discovering-telling-integrating life stories, and our first month focused on the legs and feet.  This was all well and good until I got to the homework.  Among the drawing, dancing, and creative writing, the following sneaky question was slipped in:  What do you want to take a stand for and how?

I instantly hated the question.  It made me feel embarrassed that I am no longer doing something big and grand for the world.  I thought back on all the times I had “taken a stand,” both in and out of professional contexts.  They had all been so rigid, so exhausting.  It occurred to me that I don’t really know how to stand for something without locking my knees and digging my curled toes into the ground.  I was sure that was the kind of “stand” the question was asking me to commit to.

But, being the reformed perfectionist that I am, I sat down to answer the question anyways.  The words that tumbled out shouldn’t have surprised me considering who I’ve worked with and the life I’ve lived.  Needless to say, they did.

I’d take a stand for revision.  The right to change your mind, your mood, your life.  The right to keep reaching towards life even when it appears far away or others call you greedy for doing so.  The right to be many things.  The right to adapt quickly or slowly, whichever is more real.  The right to people who love multiple versions of you, throughout the years or within the course of a day.  The right to leave those who don’t, won’t, or can’t.  The right to stand out in the rain until even concrete gets wet enough to melt.  The right to invest resources in following whispers around corners or shouts off the edges of cliffs.  The right to not feel guilty when you stop telling the old stories.  The right to take generic advice until you know what you specifically need.  The right to dabble at the outside until you’re gutsy and well-resourced enough to dive into the center.  The right to fear and confusion.  The right to pride and astonishment.  The right to heart-stopping questions from unexpected places.  The right to dismiss other possibilities without wondering, “What if?”  The right to fail and make a giant mess.  Revision.  I have worked for this and will again.

My heart has been awake for some time now to the joy I have in helping people find their voices, but this was an update to that familiar theme.  Not only do I want people to know, value, and use their voices, but I want to help them follow the changes to that voice, preferably as they happen.  I want to sit next to people as they create, but also as they re-create an outgrown form.

The only part of the question I could not yet answer is ‘how?’  I’ll be getting new homework in about a week though, so stay tuned.

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The Loneliness of Leaving

Transitions are lonely.  Whether you asked for the change in front of you or not, you can’t be two places at once. Leaving an old way of being often requires leaving behind the people, thoughts, places, and routines that used to keep you company there.  Not only is this space inevitable, but necessary in preparation for the new.  You can’t see and adapt to something coming if you’re too busy to look towards it.  Small transitions may require less space, but the need remains.

However, this conventional wisdom seemed wholly insufficient as I read my writing partner’s daily writing yesterday.  He, like many in the Bay Area, is exploring the move towards an intentionally nomadic life–no fixed address, limitless possibilities. The writing starts with the story of his bad day, but the last few lines speak powerfully of the loneliness that can infiltrate everything during transition.  As I often do with his lean and elegant prose, I felt jolted.

Why is transition so lonely?  I turned the usual answers over and over in my head today, like suspiciously perfect pebbles.  After supporting people in transitions for almost twenty years, I felt like I should know this one.  I’ve also managed to stay friends with myself throughout deeply difficult transitions in the course of my life.  This has been no small feat of belief.

During the most recent, leaving public education, there were some astoundingly lonely moments.  I have arguably had the best friends of my life in the last few years, but knowing I was supported didn’t always help.  It definitely didn’t help knowing I had chosen to walk into this place of isolation.  Even when focusing on the beauty this move brought to me, and continues to bring, the beginning still felt like I was stranded on an island with no fruity drinks to take the edge off.

Of all the unhelpful, true things in these times of transitional loneliness, the most unhelpful and true is this: sometimes you are supposed to be lonely because of what you learn there.  Loneliness has gifted me immense healing, understanding, and love, especially when I don’t try to escape it.  But the moment before these gifts arrive?  I still want to know why I am sinking in the quicksand of dislocation.

I have been thinking a lot about the collective unconscious in the last week: the words, themes, and images that hide beneath the surface we present to the world.  Could it be that transitions are lonely because we don’t know what the big ones are really about till years later, if ever?

On the surface, yes, my writing partner doesn’t want to keep spending more than he makes.  He’s after a specific quality of life that can’t be created with those constraints.  On the surface, yes, I needed to leave teaching to learn to exercise all my gifts in a more sustainable way.  But almost two years later, I am more and more convinced that leaving teaching wasn’t really about leaving teaching.

So what was it about?  I am at the outside edge of that answer now, packing supplies for a journey into its forest.  I grasp its form in image and metaphor, and a moment later it’s gone.  But because it’s hard to know the real why, it’s also hard to explain it to people, to plan for it, to talk to yourself about it, to do a thousand other things that would make it feel less lonely.  You simply have to trust and keep moving forward.

Transitions aren’t going to get easier, but you and I can get more curious, more patient, more willing to close the door, draw the shades, and see what comes.

 

Wahooooooo!

Sofie.  A year ago, water poured in her mouth would come dribbling out.  Six months ago, she was accepting small sips and then trying to grab and fling the sippy cup.  For a two year old who came to the world five months early and still struggles with medical complications, this was huge progress.

Yesterday her mom says, “Sofie, should we show Miss Chelsea how we can drink?”  I had been gone for a week at a movement workshop, but I was confused.  I knew how she drank.  I had been shaping and holding her tiny hands around the sippy cup for a month.

Her mom put the cup in front of her and Sofie picked it up with both hands.  She took a big gulp, all by herself, before setting the cup down.  I teared up.  I looked at Michelle wide-eyed.  She was smiling broadly.  I looked at Sofie, already on her second sip.  We were enjoying this beautiful moment of awe together and we knew it.

Michelle stepped out a moment later to get the laundry, and Sofie continued to sip.  She grinned at me before each one as if to say, “This is pretty cool, right?  I’m not just making it up?”  I answered her in tears, laughter, and cheers: “This is AMAZING!  Look at this new shiny toy you have!!”  She laughed, yodeled, and yelled in gleeful response.  Drinking water was great, having her friend to witness it was great, it was all super great.

As always, she reminds me of a great many truths.

The relationship between teacher and student can be fraught with complexity, but at least one thread should remain intact.  There should always, always be a celebration at the point of attainment.  The best teachers are never too busy, too self involved, or too enmeshed in a rut to say, “Wow!  That’s it!  How frickin’ cool!”  In the reality of classroom teaching you may only have a moment for this practice, but a moment can be more than enough.

I was and am pretty great at this part.  Whether it’s sippy cups or thesis statements, my joy at someone else’s attainment has always been genuine and effusive.  I’ve shrugged off large portions of the embarrassment I used to feel for being “too childish,” and I usually ignore those who accuse me of hyperbole.

But, as Sofie reminded me yesterday, I don’t always do this for myself as I learn.  I tend to take my learning very seriously,  wondering why I can’t go faster instead of stopping to throw myself the party I throw others.  And while it’s true that integration and reflection are necessary for mastery, why shouldn’t I also celebrate Sofie style?  I still feel the same chaotic, invigorating thrill when I learn something new.  But, as the workshop facilitator requested while I shared with the group this weekend, I have learned that I am supposed to “slow it down.”

Thus, here is one part of the conversation about this workshop that I REALLY wanted to have with someone.  Trigger warning: for those of you upset by all capital letters, this probably won’t be fun, but read it fast enough and you may get a nice little head buzz:

“OMGEEZUS!!! HOLY CRAP. <jazz hands, karate kick> All these new embodied communication tools are SOOOO FLIPPIN FUN.  I can’t even handle it, I can’t even…you know how we did the me and the you and then the WHOLE first two days I was like, NO!!! Me don’t wanna look at you right now, let’s dance side by side, nervous system meltdown…AHHHHHH…and I just protected that space like nobody’s business. <wolf howl, princess twirl> And then Julian and I were talking Monday and I’m usually all…AHHH, ERRR, UMMM, about the subject, but instead I was all BAM, clarity, and he was all, BAMBAM impact, and it was THE FUNEST because then I learned stuff on top of stuff and I LOVE THE CRAP OUT OF THAT HUMAN even when I don’t always like him. Super crazy sauce.  And wait <dramatic pause for effect> Monday night at dance I was like, HEY, WHAT’S YOUR STORY ABOUT SOOOOOO MANY THINGS!! It was weird because then there was all kindsa room, VROOM VROOM, about these particular stories, and I was like WOAH…I AM COMMUNICATING THE FUCK OUT OF THIS DAY, and maybe I will only get better.  BWAHAHAHA…I AM CHELSEA, COMMUNICATION MASTER!!”

Compare this to: “It was a really powerful experience.  I can really see the impact already in the area of communication, integrity, and boundaries.”  You’re right, you can’t, because the grown up version is boring.

Don’t get committed by concerned friends and family, but seriously people, celebrate your learning the next time you get the chance.  Take your cues from your two year old, your dog, or even nature blooming into Spring.  We woke up today when others didn’t.  Everything else should seem miraculous as the first days navigating the sippy cup.

 

Advice for Getting Angry

Yesterday, I got angry.

I’m not talking about cut you off in traffic angry, but rather a vigorous scraping of the crust from the cast iron skillet.  It was desperate to be heard, and my body stands sore and curiously quiet this morning.

I was finishing up four days of an intensive movement class that focused on the process of feeling emotional intelligence in our bodies, not just our heads.  As we often do at these workshops, the last hour of the last day is open circle.  All dancers stand along the outside of the room, and one by one, if you have something left in you to dance, explore, integrate, or mark, you move into the circle.  You dance until you feel complete, and the witnesses on the outside hold their attention on you.

For something with so few directions, it is an immensely powerful experience.  I entered the circle with a fascinating point of confusion that had come up earlier in the day.  While working through an exercise on intent and impact, it occurred to me that I am not quite sure the difference between caring for someone and trying to get their attention.

As I moved into the circle, surrounded by other moving bodies, my confusion only deepened.  I moved as someone would who was being cared for, then as someone who was trying to get seen.  I went back and forth between these two modes, expending more and more effort in my search for clarity. Finally, I paused.  The thought in my head?  THIS IS STUPID.  WHO CARES WHY I DON’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THESE TWO THINGS?  NO ONE LOVES YOU ANYWAYS SO IT DOESN’T MATTER.  I was whiny, petulant, convinced I was invisible in a room of people dancing with great emotional depth and fervor.

This tantrum self is not new to me, but usually I cut her off pretty quickly when she shows up.  Tantrums are for children, Chelsea–wasteful, selfish, ineffective, burdensome to others.  I’ve always feared this self, that she would take me further away from connection, but I remembered our facilitator’s words before we started: “As you enter the circle, move toward anything that has an emotional charge for you instead of cutting it off or running away.”  I decided that I felt enough trust in the group to try it.  If I was going to tantrum, well I was going to really fucking tantrum.

At first I felt as stupid as I usually do–stomping my feet, making exasperated noises, flinging my arms.  I kept going anyways.  I added some jumping up and down.  I realized that this was about as far as I usually got, and I was suddenly very curious about what was next.  I flopped to the ground on my knees and started banging my fists on the floor.  Instantly,  I was awash in how good this felt…fuck this felt good….ridiculously good.  I felt my face pull back into a scowl, teeth bared.  My torso flopping this way and that.

I am not sure when the screaming started, or how I got back to my feet, but before I knew it, both had happened.  A woman I met during the weekend, clothed all in white, long hair whipping back and forth, was dancing one inch from me, furiously matching my dance.  I fear I must’ve screamed right in her face more than once, but in the moment I didn’t care, and more surprisingly, she didn’t leave.  At one point I remember planting my feet wide, dropping my knees, and letting out a scream that originated from somewhere deep underground–piercing, clean.

Who knows if tantrum to rage took five minutes or thirty, but when I was finished I wobbled off to the side where I would not get trampled, curled up in a ball, and cried like a baby.

That evening, up to my neck in Epsom salts and bubbles,  I wondered why my anger was so much more accessible that day than it has been in the past.  The cartoon light bulb flashed with an answer: the age where I was first denied anger would’ve needed that tantrum as a transition into expressions of pure anger.  It made sense.  Unless you were denied anger as a baby, where all you had were screams, every other age person has a developmentally appropriate way of building up to anger.  Toddlers and young children, the age where I had to clamp it down, had the tantrum as a bridge.  The very tantrums I have been holding back on for YEARS, may hold the key to growing up in this area.

Letting go in this way might seem scary to some, but what is much scarier to me is the isolation, repression, and passive aggressive behaviors that I used for years instead.  I’ve talked to more than one woman who feels a similar inability to access her anger.  The common wisdom seems to hold that it is the fault of hormones or how we are socialized.  While this is true, I think it may also be true that we need to understand where we were at when we stopped being angry.  What would that age child have needed in order to handle an emotion as big as anger?

I hope to not end up in a department store, sitting on the floor and wailing, surrounded by concerned looking adults, but I will be having more tantrums.  I will be having them until I don’t need to have them anymore, till I have emptied the anger reservoir and caught up to the present.

Rewriting the Robot

Onan.  At six years old, he is taller than some middle schoolers.  Highly sensitive, fiercely brilliant, deeply lonely amongst peers; he has been one of my favorite young minds to support through play.

Since the day I met him, much of Onan’s play has centered around narratives of being a robot, or on a good day, a cyborg.  These metaphors allowed him to show off his unique abilities, but this robot also had elaborate meltdowns which required complex codes and frequent rebooting.

His robot self has always been a part of our adventures, until today.

Today, Onan was a dragon.  He told me that his wings had only recently come in, and we talked at length about them and all the cool things they could do.  Baby dragons can fly to the moon, and adult dragons can get all the way to Jupiter even though they sometimes need a rocketship to give their wings a break.  In the midst of this he mentioned having a friend at school now.  It’s the first one I’ve ever heard him talk about.

After all this talk of flying, muscles, bones, and warm bloodedness, I was curious how his dragon self was received amongst peers at school.  “What does your friend and your teacher think about your beautiful new wings?” I asked with my fingers crossed.

“Oh, I can’t be a dragon at school,” he replied. “My mom says I have to keep my helmet on at school.  I also wear special t-shirts so people won’t know.  It’s very hard to find t-shirts that fit dragon wings, you have to cut just the right amount of the sleeves.”  I had a hard time believing that his real life mother would discourage dragon Onan, but this was his story to tell.  “What about your teacher?” I answered him.

“She would kick me out of school if she found out.”  He hung his head.

“How do you feel about that?” I asked.

“Bad,” he replied.  “Hold on a second Chelsea, I just have to kill this mouse that climbed into my lair.  We blocked all the mouse holes, but I think we forgot one.”  With this, he reached for his hobby horse and proceeded to beat forcefully on the ground.  I was surprised by my encouragement of this action until I realized, I have equal disdain of things that try to sneak in after I’ve plugged all the holes.

Clearly, dragon Onan still has some need to hide, so maybe it doesn’t mean anything that the robot self never showed up.  But it wasn’t just a metaphor change that was different today.  As a dragon, the speed of Onan’s play slowed down.  There were still moments when we paced the living room telling stories together at break-neck speeds, but that frantic edge was gone.  In fact, at one point he was engrossed in building an elaborate machine gun out of magnet tiles and he asked me to sit further away from him.  This has never happened before, and while some would say anti-social behavior does not seem like an improvement, I was elated.  There was something both tender and powerful in him protecting his building space.  As a cyborg many months ago, he repeatedly tried to get me to become a cyborg as well, but as a dragon we both had choices.

His movement from robot to dragon made for an unexpectedly emotional day.  I thought about my own robot years and wished I could’ve rewritten the story as early as he seems to be.  These thoughts are no longer an everyday part of my life, but when I look back I still feel the sadness of them.  I was also thrilled for him and a little scared–I know how wobbly transition times can feel, both for those undergoing changes and those offering support.  Finally, there was a deep tide of appreciation for both of his parents.  Raising children is difficult in the best of circumstances, but they’ve had to be extra skillful to help him both hold on to himself and enter the world.

As we danced joyfully in the dragon egg hatchery to a bass laden song that asked, “Where my freaks at?” I stopped thinking so hard. Dude, I met a dragon today!  Together we defeated a pernicious horde of zombies.  Moving forward is good.

 

 

Mess Makers

Figuring out how something started can be a waste of time.  It can also open up whole new ways of approaching an issue.

Recently, the subject of boundaries is on my mind: where I maintain them, where I don’t, and how it has affected my life.  At a party this weekend, I had a long conversation in a hot tub with a woman I’d just met.  The subject was not boundaries, but rather art and self exploration.  She told me about her recent, strong desire to fling paint at things, and I discussed what I was learning about expressive arts therapy.

The next day, I helped her make a salad in the kitchen.  We were having trouble finding salad tongs in this vacation house, and remembering last night’s conversation, I said to her, “You could also just hand toss it.  Your hands are clean.”  Her face looked at me guiltily, like a child about to steal a cookie, but she proceeded to plunge in.  Bits of beet and broccoli started to tumble over the sides of the bowl.

Her shoulders immediately shot up to just below her ears.  I was fascinated.  “Do you notice what’s happening with your shoulders?” I asked, gently curious.  She stopped, released them, and sighed.  “I just have such a hard time making a mess.  It makes me so anxious.”

“Understood,” I replied.  “But is there anything just below or next to that anxiety?”  She started mixing again.  “It’s really…powerful.”

She seemed surprised by her word choice, and this morning it has me thinking about boundaries and gender.  It is generally accepted that men have more practice, and thus an easier time, with boundaries, but how and why?  Could it be, in part,  because girls aren’t given permission to make a mess when they’re young?

Messy little girls are often called tomboys.  Girls are more harshly scolded for getting their clothing dirty, if for no other good reason than girls clothing costs more.  Stereotypical girls play is also indoors.  I know these norms have been in dramatic flux during my lifetime, but the fact that we still recognize them as norms means that they’re not out of our collective system yet.  A few days before I coached my anxious salad tosser, a dear friend of mine said to me, “We don’t know where the boundary is until we hit it.”  Is labeling and then encouraging little boys to be messy creatures, also encouraging them to start learning boundaries early?

It seems to me that girls and women crave mess just the same, and that we often find destructive ways to experience it when we’re discouraged from simple messes.  Gossip, girl drama, chasing boys and men who don’t want you or aren’t good for you to a whole host of disastrous consequences–just to name a few.

Of course, this is not to argue that all little girls who did make messes will employ that knowledge in constructing healthy boundaries.  I think of my own younger sister, a consummate tomboy when little.  As an adult she became a master manipulator, which requires an intricate understanding of boundaries, minus the healthy enactment.

The permission to make a mess clearly isn’t the only factor in boundary creation, but I wonder if it is an ignored one.  When I started painting large canvases in November, I quickly realized that part of what I loved about the process was ending up covered in paint.  During that same time period I started camping consistently, for the first time as an adult.  On these trips, I often notice the desire to slide down hills and rocks, cross streams, even pick up handfuls of dirt and rub them on myself.  I don’t believe that my parents would have restricted my mess making access as a kid, but the bookworm in me did it to myself for years.

As a teacher I often worried about kids who were forced to play a sport or pick up an instrument against their will, but now I wonder if maybe my position on that was too absolute.  If my parents had dragged me, kicking and screaming, to some field to play some sport, would I have gained proficiency with boundaries earlier?  If they took the book from my hand and made me play outside, would I be able to more quickly and firmly define my ‘no!’?

My mess making side is obviously calling to me these days, and I am listening.  Last night I covered the wild boar statue in my apartment with gold paint.  Number one, I’ve been really enamored with gold paint lately, and number two, I just wanted to see what would happen if I carried out this whim.  I laughed and smiled the entire way through, and yes, it felt…powerful.

 

Uncaptured

Sitting on the beach, watching the color of the waves breaking, comparing it to the color of the four white cranes, long leggedly prancing at the waters edge.  They do not share the same preoccupation with their own beauty, the same need to explain it.  They do not care that the third day of my dear friend’s 40th birthday is just about to start in the house on the cliff above us.  They are here now.

It occurs to me how silly, and maybe even arrogant it is for us to try and capture nature.  But we do it anyways.  I can still feel last night’s sunset in my throat and hips.  I was kicking myself for not bringing my camera as everyone else in my posse whipped out their phones.  I felt disconnected as everyone turned phone-ward, and annoyed for not being one of the cool kids.  However, as I sat with these feelings until they passed, other things began to take their place rather quickly.

I felt receptive to what this moment might teach me, my ear hairs prickling with concentration.  I felt the flirt that only nature can give when we are fully immersed.  Mostly, I felt the amplified gratitude that is all too familiar to me, especially in nature.  People have told me that my descriptions of joy and gratitude often feel a little heavy, but how can they not carry weight when there are so many presents inside each present?

How many times did that sunset change?  From peach ice cream to ripe peaches on a tree, from honey to cardamom, from rose to pomegranate.  It was stunning.  I have nothing against picture taking per se, but even those who took beautiful pictures as we stood there, still won’t be able to capture that moment when they look back at them.

So, my question becomes–do we pick posterity or penetration?  I believe either might be called for in a given moment.  Or perhaps we can achieve a hybrid, like with the joy-yellow acacia poms that I bought at Farmer’s Market this morning, and then proceeded to photograph for twenty minutes because I just wanted to give the near spring sunshine a playmate.

But, and I think I’m not alone, I long for penetration–to be captured of my own free will, store music in my blood, and come back only when the urgency has faded.  Though I listened well last night, and dropped to the space just below the picture taking, I still came back too soon, because everyone else was leaving.  But, just now, when a flopsy black lab came and made friends–first offering me her butt to scratch, and then coming to stand in my lap–I pet her till I was done, letting black clouds of hair float where they may.

In a moment, I will put down my pen and wade into the water, marvel at the blue-gold-green, under the warm sun.  I won’t try to capture anything, prove anything, or rush anywhere.  Like the cranes, and now the cormorants bobbling just a little further out, I realize that this place feeds me.