When the work is hard…

America is an individualistic society.  That’s not news.  The Bay Area helps lead the nation in this habit of ‘can do’ attitude–we’re dripping with educated, hungry twenty somethings from all over the world.  I know because for the last four years I’ve lived in Silicon Valley where there is a wunderkind around every corner and startups hold business meetings at Starbucks as if it’s a great adventure and not at all inconvenient.  Apart from inspirational memes and posters I see one large piece missing in this wave of positivity: what are we supposed to do when the work is hard?  Resilience, the ability to come back from struggle, is an ever burgeoning and valuable field of study that I would not want to discount.  But as I understand resilience studies, they are about what to do to come out of the difficulties.  The growth mindset fad is similar in its ultimate goal.

What do you do before you bounce back, before you breakthrough to that next level, after the illusions are evident but before they are dispelled?  I’ve heard it called liminal space, or limbo for those of the Catholic persuasion.  To me it feels like you’re not supposed to talk about it, that’s what.  Or maybe, because ‘the work’ is so different, so personal for everyone, it is hard to generalize.  I can see the book title now: What to do when things suck and you are worn out from working on your shit.  I don’t see it being a best seller.  And this wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that we’re always in transition between old and new, at least for those of us who are attempting to keep learning and growing.

So I ask again, why the hell isn’t this a huge and readily accessible conversation?

The work for me recently has been, among other things, trying to be my honest, fluid self, not a role or a set of habitual responses.  In my last post I hopefully gave you an idea of the role dance plays in that goal, and how beautiful and soul wrenching that practice can be.  After Saturday’s class, I spent most of the day in what I like to call hidey-hole mode.  This consists of reading, Netflix, naps, junk food, and a variety of other introvert-tastic activities.  I still did some chores and some writing, and despite the fact that I cried during multiple Sons of Anarchy episodes, I called it a good day.  I got up Monday exhausted.  I pushed my meowing cat out of bed and said, “If you’re not going to learn to speak English, I really have nothing else to say to you.”  I taught commentary, usually one of my favorite lessons of the year, with almost zero motivation.  By the time we were halfway through dance that night and a song came on about a beautiful stranger, I felt more alone than I had in a while.

Yesterday, I woke up and called in sick, hoping that heartsick was implied under the sick leave tab in the drop down menu.  Maybe I had not applied myself to Sunday’s hidey-hole day vigilantly enough.  After all, hidey-hole day used to be a fail safe cure for days I was spent.  So, I slept in later, ate more junk food, took more naps, cried and watched more episodes of SOA.  I literally got off the couch to pee, to eat, and to let the cat in and out.  This morning I woke up, not jubilant and refreshed, but hung over–more exhausted, more anxious about managing demands.  Clearly, hiding out for the day doesn’t do shit anymore.  I know Dr. Estes and many others  would say that I need to refill the cup creatively to keep going, and in theory I agree.  However, how do you do that when the circuits are so fried that walking twenty feet to get the mail is difficult?  Conversely, when I do open up to the drop kick of beauty, how do I then find the motivation for the laundry and the grading and calling of Sprint to complain for the hundredth time?

In short, it’s the same dilemma I always have in limbo–which is why I used to avoid it–holding both the mundane and the magic strips my resources till I feel I can’t adequately hold either.

And I don’t have an answer for my question besides ‘keep practicing what you’ve learned,’ which is wholly unsatisfying when you’re in it, and in fact I want to punch myself a little even as I type it.  Clearly I have not been practicing anything in the midst of this week of worn-out-itude.  The only other thing I can think of that might help?  If regular people would be more honest with their own struggles as they’re growing.  I know this is asking a lot.  I know that I feel more comfortable than most in broadcasting my life, but….pretty please? Because right now the main broadcasts I’m hearing don’t have much to do with me.  Don’t get me wrong, I respect the hell out of people who work for themselves, people who have earned a fortune honestly, people who have raised their children well and are still actively creating their lives.  But when those without bosses, those without significant money worries, those who have someone else to do the laundry or the dishes tell me to just “sit with the feelings of sadness and exhaustion, let them teach you what they have to teach you,” well then I’m back to wanting to punch things.

I have a few of those people to remind me that it’s normal to get worn out along the path: my vegetarian friend who says that sometimes she will just chow down on a burger, my dance teacher who will come in from a frazzling day and put her frustration into a frustration dance, and even a friend who will make her FB status about not properly feeding herself that day because of the brainweasels overpowering her knowledge and common sense.  When it’s hard, at the very least, we need to know we’re not the only ones it is hard for, the more reminders the better.

 

Endings: Not Just for Pole Vaulting Over Anymore

“You guys are jerks.”

No, I wasn’t talking to a student, a rude customer in line, or even a squirrel though always kind of strike me as jerks.  I was talking to the arches of my feet, standing in a Mason’s lodge, on a wooden floor, on a chilly Saturday.  The class was entitled Endings, and to start we were supposed to be bringing awareness to the physical ends of us, our feet and the tops of our heads.  My head was no problem, I could feel the balls and heels of each foot, but the arches?  Nothing. I bent down to look at them, and I could feel it when I touched them, but when I stood again and brought my non-visual attention there, it was simply void.

“You guys are jerks.  What am I supposed to do when even my physical supports cut out on me?”

“Ahhh, so clearly this is not about the arches.”

Lesson number one of the day: I have fear I won’t be held if I move.

I have always felt unsafe in life to greater or lesser degrees, which is why refusing to deal with transitions into and out of things made sense for so long.  The problem is, as the wise ones already know, just because you won’t look at it doesn’t make it go away. So a class on endings was both perfect and terrifying for me.  I spent all Friday night thinking of reasons not to go: a) PMS will make me overly emotional and I won’t be able to read things correctly b) it might start raining early and you will likely get in an accident c) it’s dark earlier now and you have terrible night vision d) I am sad about Paris e) my favorite shirt to dance in is currently a resident of laundry mountain.

Of course I forgot to mention the most important thing to myself that night–I was scared of what I might say that day.  So I woke up all unhinged on Saturday, announced my impending leave of absence to FB to put some skin in the game, told myself to put my big girl panties on, and drove the 90 minutes, crying roughly 45 of them.

Needless to say I was a little verklempt by the time I got there for warm up.  Two things kept me from bolting-the beauty of the opening song, and the words of our formidable, silver haired teacher for the day.  As the song fell like old leaves from a tree she said, “If nothing else this morning, connect to the basic goodness of moving your body in dance.”  I sensed her patience, like that of storms who gather out in the ocean, waiting for their time, being more about restoring than destroying order.  I decided to do what I ask my students to do, trust.  “Okay storm lady, I can move.”  I started to warm up, I found part of my smile…and then fast forward an hour or so and here we are again at me cursing my feet.

Sigh.  Run away and protect people from my hideously deformed arches or keep trusting?

Lesson number two of the day: endings require trust.

The tempo started to speed up, and although the music landed smack in the middle of my bloodstream, I did not want to move at the speed of everyone else.  As I dropped into slowness, there came my whole smile, and the teacher all of a sudden said, “You can move with or against the tempo of the music.” I almost wanted to go pick her up by her tiny frame and hug swing her, but I refrained and kept moving.  I have been thinking about my need for more slowness now for at least a year, but had never connected it to endings.  But as people dervished around me and sparks flew with the speed, I continued to slow down and realized that to end something I will have to be willing to be by myself and in opposition to a crowd.  However, far from being scary or isolating, it felt SO FUCKING good!  I could see everything, feel all parts of me, and my overload retreated.  This slow down happened multiple times during the day, and each time it was so yummy I wanted to name a national park after it.  Towards the end of class, in the midst of one of these slow downs, a speedy mover came to me, and although we started dancing, neither of us varied our pace.  We were just there, going fast and going slow together.

Lessons numer three and four of the day: endings, like anything else, are easier when you are yourself, and people don’t require as much costuming from us as we think (are you blown away by any of these yet, because every last one of them rocks my face off).

Heading into the meat of the day–who knows how much longer it was as time takes on the quality of a giant soap bubble during these classes–we got into groups of three for an exercise which I will capture poorly here at best.  Whoever started had a few minutes, while never ceasing to move, to describe what they were currently ending to their two partners, with the partners just moving with you, holding space and listening.  As I started to describe what it was like for this to be my last year at school, emotion choking every other word, the imperative to move made so much sense. Our silver storm had talked earlier about there being no such thing as complete or tidy endings and the tendency to concretize if we sit around and wait for it to be perfect before we go, but only as I moved and described the process of leaving did I really understand the need to not make one moment your home.  And as I opened up my mouth and these words spilled out, thought about in passing, but not yet spoken aloud, I realized how much more was knitting together with this ending than I had even realized.  “I finally gave myself permission to grow up, and so I don’t need them anymore.  I can carry my own weight.”  You can re-read that sentence again if you want, I have been since I spoke it yesterday afternoon. Strangely enough, I had even thought it the day before when a classic ‘mean girl’ of mine rolled her eyes at me, my top sin for those of you who know teacher me, and I just let it go.  “I’m so not 13 anymore,” I said to myself and then wrote on a post it because I loved the thought so much.  Later in our class the instructor asked us to bring into the room something non-tangible that was seeking an ending and my first thought was my stale narrative: ‘there’s not enough.’ Lack, as well as insecurity and a dozen other things, are all integral parts of my teenage self.

After speaking for a few minutes, you were to designate one partner your unknown future and the other the thing you were leaving.  You then placed them on opposite sides of a tightrope, one of our central metaphors for the day, and yourself somewhere in between.  I picked my partners without much thought, the lady seemed nice, so she could represent all the kids, men are generally scarier to me, so I made the male in our trio my unknown future.  I wanted to be closer to my future than my past, but I finally had to be honest and came right up to my past and placed my forehead against hers.  As the music started she put her arm around me and scratched my back.  I’m not sure how long I stayed in that position, but I know that pulling my forehead away, that break in thoughts, in agreement, was the hardest of all moves. I started to dance the tightrope near my past, trying to describe in actions the love I wanted the kids to feel, but finally even that was too close.  I made one large leap toward my unknown future.  I wanted to see what its dance was like, but I couldn’t look directly at it.  Finally it was too much and I turned back towards my past.  The look on her face was so like the kids that I wanted to die.  Only later did I realize that she used to be a teacher who had left teaching (nope, not making that up).  I dropped to the floor to dance, pressing my forehead to her feet, she scratched my back again,  I could come back if I wanted to.  I stuck my hand out behind me, and sent a thought to my unknown future:

“Please come get me!”

I can’t describe to you that moment of reaching out.  A gesture I made multiple times as the dance continued.  I realized I had been inviting this ending before I even knew I was inviting this ending.  I didn’t just find myself here, I have agency in this process (and for the record we’re on lesson 15 or 16 now but I’m no longer counting).  I let my future bring me away and we danced an awkward, funny dance, and he didn’t turn me away for not being more formal or well planned. And oh! I had such a sense of relief at his meatiness, his solidity.  I realized why I had actually picked him as the future.  I had needed to feel my future with weight and dimension.  But, I could still feel my past, I turned around and went back one last time, trying to show them that they didn’t actually need us as much as we needed them.  The past looked at me dismayed and pulled on the hem of my shirt.  I lost it.  I curled up in a ball on the floor to deflect notice.  The past started to pull on my pant leg and my future came for my outstretched hand.

My heart was broken.  I was there to feel it break and tear like scar tissue on a badly healed wound.

What do you want Chelsea?

I pulled away from them both and flattened to the floor.  I took one deep breath, full of the guts of the earth and the will to live in the radar, and leapt to my feet.  I turned to my future and we started the goofiest, most high spirited dance.  We danced for a while and then I invited the past to come dance with us.  When she joined the circle, oh I laughed, I wish I could describe it well, like the laugh of someone trying orange juice in their Cherrios for the first time because they are out of milk.  We danced like crazy Sufis, and then I suddenly felt done with her so I twirled her gently out of our circle as the future and I kept rumpusing.  I heard her applauding right before the dance ended.

The rest of the afternoon is somewhat of a blur, but my last dance of the night was with one then three other beautiful women.  Kathy asked us to take a partner and then dance the way we would if we knew this person’s life was ending.  I saw my partner, dancing on the floor and thought, if I held her ending in my consciousness, I would meet her where she is at. So we frolicked on the floor with such sweetness. Then we were supposed to take our two to another two. This dance started energetic and then turned into a hug-huddle-sway.  If you can love people you don’t know, just as much as yourself, that was what happened.

Lesson number ?? of the day (told you I wasn’t counting anymore): endings require support.  Those can come from strangers, friends, family, paid professionals, or oddly, yourself.

Following myself…Alternate title: La Loca’s Journey

I’ve wanted to write this post and yet I’m sure I can’t write it true. Kinda like I’ve been circling a labyrinth most nights for weeks now, even though I don’t really know why, and in fact I can’t even spell the damn word without spell check.

As all great books do, Dance of the Dissident Daughter swung me to a delightful book that I finished about a month ago—Labyrinths: Walking Toward the Center, by Gernot Candolini. It was a book so gentle in its approach that I almost failed to realize the epicentric truths it released. At the end of it I thought, in that voice I’m coming to realize as instinct, ‘you should walk the labyrinth for 30 days.’ I looked around my bathtub (where I am when conceptualizing many new endeavors) and thought, “Okay.” The me of even two years ago would have talked myself out of such a weird proposition, relying on the stale narrative that my instincts are not what they used to be. But damn it all to hell, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes and her big ass spotlights on female existence have got me realizing that “instinct injured” is a state that can be repaired, and that it’s worth it even if the repair bill is higher than the original estimate.

So I set out for the German school squeezed into the park near my house on a recent Tuesday night. There’s something calming about walking onto an elementary school campus—a place of beginnings, of trust. They are filled with tiny coat hooks by the doors, paper pumpkins hanging from the ceilings, and welcome signs proudly proclaiming the teacher’s name and the grand learning adventure that’s about to start. The courtyards of this school wind one into the next, studded with sympathetic trees that are great for hugging (yup, tried it one night last weekend just because I could), and a faded, but still visible, labyrinth painted in tangerine and teal. I paused before entering to set an intention:

“Hmmm…a question I need answered?”

“There’s a fucking lot of those.”

“True. Something overarching?”

Sigh.

“Am I doing the right thing?”

That was the question night one, not attached to any particular venture, genuine albeit vague. I have to love myself for my optimism, but leaving the labyrinth that night I had squat. No answers, no enlightenment, just weird looks from the cleaning crew who now refer to me as “la loca” on my nightly visits.

Night two. Same thing.

Night three. Same thing.

Night four—“What the hell am I doing this for. I hate this stupid damn labyrinth and stupid damn Gernot Candolini. Why can’t I just be at home watching TV like a normal person right now?” And although I’d love to say the heavens opened up with insight at that moment and paper bag monsters adorning the first grade classroom doors gave me a profound talking to, it didn’t happen that way. I grumpused for a few more nights before my true intention finally unwound one night while walking home through the darkened trees.

I am learning to follow myself.

If you’ve done this your whole life, or even a large portion of it, I envy you, please call me and let me know how it can be consistently done, but the enormity of this thought will not make sense to you. Maybe from a bird’s eye view I could’ve seen it coming. I found myself saying to my therapist about a month ago, “I feel like I’m finally learning how to speak my own language after all these years. I spent so long wondering what other people were saying that I kind of forgot me.” Then after a lesson on grounding at dance, I realized that I was no longer walking entirely on the insides of my feet and I thought, “I’m learning to carry my own weight.” Even last night, walking home from a massage, I was struck deeply by the phrase, “I live here now,” running through my head. It should make sense that learning to follow myself was next, but I’m still a little floored by the thought.

It is not a completely new thought. To some degree, I have always been able to acknowledge and move with intuition and whatever other deep forces were calling me: spending hours on a new lesson or curriculum idea that I know will crack students open, ordering ten copies of Women Who Run With the Wolves to give out to the women in my life, extending friendship to someone you suspect kinship with, etc. All beautiful acts of creation I’ve conceived and moved with, but do you see a pattern? I do. They are all for someone else, and they are all still very much within the confines of “normal”. Ask me to follow myself, for myself and not a man, a student, a God, follow myself out of normal, and you have a very big problem on your hands. As I get closer to the center each night, I’ve come to realize I’m breathing less. I’ve also come to realize these last few weeks that posturally I know how to either stand up straight with a clenched belly, or slump forward with a soft belly. Both of those reveal some safety concerns I have to/for/with myself.

Why this obsession with normal, with obedience? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, and even trying to be disobedient in small things like punctuation and capitals in Facebook posts, noticing a) how present that brings me to my writing and b) how no one seems to be as shocked as I expected them to be. Most of my thoughts have centered around how normality and obedience gets you love in this lifetime. However, as I continue to walk the labyrinth night after night, experimenting with fast and slow, realizing that there are few if any mistakes that can be made, a new layer of the onion peels free.

I somehow expected that if I did as I was told, someone else would do the hard work of living for me. They would owe me that. No one ever said I wasn’t capable to do it myself. In fact, I’ve been blessed to have very encouraging people in my life. Despite that, a part of me never grew up to claim creation of myself. It seems silly to spend too much time speculating on why at this point, especially when I am now old enough to give myself the permission to do so without waiting around for anyone else. It may seem like this attitude could be isolating, but strangely I’ve been more liberated to ask for help in the last year and a half than during any period of my life. Once I define my role as primary, there is no confusion in bringing in whole legions of supporters if need be.

So if I’m doing the work, don’t I get to define normal? Maybe, maybe not, but if I do I want my normal to be full of questions and question following: why do the colors of the labyrinth look so different in the day time? what would a writing group with adults and not students look like? when I walk it’s rarely in a straight line—what if I didn’t correct my ping pong walk? even after my year leave of absence from teaching, that I’m about to request next week, what if I never know if it was a good choice or not? what if the night I made a misstep and never made it to the center, it wasn’t a misstep? what if sometimes it’s a grace to miss the middle? could I thrive in a life without a significant other? what does it mean if I want to spend a lot of time in the center—lay on my back and watch the stars? could I apply for work study at Esalen this summer and just never come back? what does it mean if I am eager to get out of the center and integrate my learning back into life? did you know that poetry therapy and journal therapy are actually things? does something always have to happen in the center? what if I planned my whole life around the places I breathed the easiest? if I told the cleaning crew I was doing this because I was dying, would it be a complete lie? when is the last time you did not fit yourself into another’s script?

Learning to follow myself is hard. It is much harder than I thought it would be, much harder than the resting of the caskets because it is the integration of that work, the slow, non-ecstatic, invisible to others, everyday practice of creating a life that fits me, even when I have little idea of how to do that, even when the old grooves are begging to be inhabited. It is exciting, it is exhausting, it makes the everyday turns and straightaways seem magic, and it requires lots of editing old manuscripts. Is it worth it? I’m really not sure yet, but I no longer have this recording on the other end of the line: “Please hold. Your call is very important to us. Your call will be answered in the order it was received.”

Costumes

I don’t understand a key facet of Halloween–costumes.  I understand enough historically to know why they became part of this holiday, along with candy and pranks, but it doesn’t make any personal sense to me.  As a kid of course they made great sense as a portal to candy; but even then I don’t remember having that one perfect costume that I brought from concept to execution.  And now that my adult teeth are fairly sugar sensitive, I’ve tended to ignore Halloween the way I ignore a non-distinct twinge in my leg or a weirdly placed pimple.  Except for this year when I couldn’t ignore it.  I grew ever more aware of my own confusion in the last few weeks as I saw pictures of costumes in progress on Facebook, received invitations to ‘costume mandatory’ Halloween parties, and saw my students confused faces when “my most creative teacher” did not have a costume on Friday.

I have plenty of curiosity and theories on the subject:

  1. Maybe costumes are a way to reconnect with your child side–one of your closest ancestors–or give love to the child that some never got to be.
  2. It would make sense that they are a backdoor into more fantasy and less propriety than our normal lives allow.  And sometimes the boundaries only have to shift for a moment for us to consider shifting them for good.  If this is the case, I wish we wore costumes everyday.
  3. I guess it’s a social bonding ritual? (sense my quizzical face as I write that)
  4. Are people trying to disturb consensual reality for a night in order to feel more present on a day when the veil between worlds is thinned?
  5. If the ancestors are truly visiting us, would we really need to disguise ourselves from them or other faerie folk?

None of these thoughts actually make me want to put a costume on myself, despite the grand creativity of some (I have a friend who was a jellyfish for cripes sake, and the costume was amazing!).  The reason is fairly simple: I wear costumes all day.  There are the positive costumes like supportive teacher and helpful colleague.  These both bring me some measure of satisfaction.  There are the negative costumes like disinterested daughter and derelict granddaughter.  These concurrently serve me and weigh on me in different measures.  There are also smaller costumes like customer who chats with cash register operator and polite pedestrian.  One might rightly ask, “How can those bother you?”  Everybody has to do those.  The answer is that most days they don’t, but then there comes moments when I want to hop the counter and hug the worn out looking cashier or scream ‘get out of my way slow walkers!’ to the people in front of me, and it bothers me a lot.

These are all things I’ve learned, but I hesitate strongly to say that they are what or who I am.

So who are you?  I’ve been working on that in sustained and surprising ways in the last few years, but doubt I will ever have a succinct answer that lays down nicely for words to roll over it.  I just know that if I’ve done the work to strip my costumes with you, and be naked literally or figuratively, why the fuck would I choose to put one on again?  It feels sour, like having to wear clothes straight from the dryer that didn’t dry completely.  Even if I haven’t taken off the outer artifice completely with someone yet, why would I put unnecessary clothes on if I can meet you in a tank top and underpants or shorts and a short sleeve shirt?  I wouldn’t.

I sat at the train station last night after releasing the final casket in the series and then going off to see a movie.  The trees at this particular station are rather fierce and deliciously arrogant.  None of the usual patient weariness of trees situated near transit.  I had forty minutes before the train came to sit and stare, feeling anchored in as close to perfect peace as I ever get.  On first glance it would’ve been easy to think that the orange street lamps near these trees made them look harsh and comical, but the more I gazed the more I disagreed.  The light lifted them from below perception and made them tender.  I came very close to walking across the tracks to bite the bark and see if there was cantaloupe underneath.  At that moment I found myself in familiar territory–all channels open, feeling everything, and I thought, maybe costumes help some people have this.  This blurse (blessing-curse) that I find myself in so often may not be part of all people’s everyday lives.  And on a night like this, if the veils are thinner, we should all do what we can to understand that this space exists.

Perhaps next year that will be my Halloween party.  I will gather all my fellow Aspies, sensitives, witches, and weirdos and we’ll walk around together and stop and gawk as the world winks at us in multiple dimensions.  Maybe we’ll talk, and maybe we won’t, but we’ll wear regular clothes and have really good snacks.  You can come to our party too.  You can even wear a costume if you want to.