The last five years for me have been defined by new beginnings. The mid-life experience of an empty nest has been only one of a few for me in my personal and professional life. Ongoing transition and change has not only unhinged me during the peaks and valleys of recent years, but has also offered great opportunities to shift and grow, in spite of my fighting it all along the way.
The last time I posted, I had chosen to pursue a leadership opportunity in my workplace of the previous ten years. My responsibilities multiplied and my personal sense of responsibility intensified. The daily anxiety I experienced in my new role dominated the stories I told myself about what other people thought of me, how they were motivated to perform. I continually failed to see others as simply acting out their own daily story. I took it all personally and absorbed all blame for our lack of enterprise or growth.
When COVID-19 impacted the lives of our family, our community, nation and world, the anxiety I felt in my body surpassed anything I had ever known. I look back now and I’m so grateful I had sought learning opportunities over the years to practice yoga, meditation, manage self through psychotherapy and coaching, art making. While I had never consistently stuck with any one self-care practice, and had long relied on the leadership of others to cue and prompt me to take care of myself, the collective impact of those practices gave me with choices to make when the vibrations and tremors of worry seemed to much to bear.
My partner and I took part in the “great resignation” in 2020 when our tolerance of workplace politics and toxicity, had equally lapsed into resentment, frustration and burnout. A completely new learning opportunity presented itself for each of us and I have spend the last 18 months experiencing continual novice anxiety. We are now living in Ohio, after relocating to Michigan for 12 months prior. Two home sales and two home purchases later, we are unpacked, unfurled and settled? Lots more settling to be done, for sure.
While these new experiences have been no less challenging than what we left behind, they have for me, offered a greater sense that I am bolstered, supported and surrounded by fellow strivers in a new virtual environment. I am beginning to feel some integration, a sense of agency–these seeds I have been sowing have some hope and sunlight ahead for them. I do hope to practice more opportunities for inspiration, writing, art-making; practices I have parked in the boxes which have moved along with our new households. James Clear writes about tying habits to experiences that are enjoyable as well as making them easy enough to come back to regularly in practice. I’m thinking about making a point to visit here daily (ever ambivalent) and perhaps the sense of accountability will emerge again.
Some words have emerged repeatedly lately in different settings and with different people, but the words include seeds, harvest, planting, germination. “You have planted your seeds, now let them grow.” I also read a chapter from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, which I haven’t held in my hand for years, but resurrected because I asked to join a study group. The theme of the chapter is about recovering a sense of autonomy and it sums up so much about my life lessons recently.
I had the unique experience and privilege of an Akashic records reading last month and I wrote down as much of the reading as I could. My questions, as they have been so often in my life, included “Am I where I am supposed to be right now? Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?” Those questions felt unanswered for so long, that I stopped asking for some time. I began moving ahead jaggedly and backward and ahead, not really asking for help, and not getting as skilled as one might, for lack of wanting to ask for help. Because we make ourselves better when we ask for help. When we are in community with trusted others. Because asking for help demands courage and vulnerability, which I couldn’t afford to muster.
I chose opportunities to hone what came natural to me, and I think I’m fortunate that what comes natural is kindness, listening, supporting. While I haven’t been willing to reflect that back into my own eyes very often, if at all, I have to believe that at least faking it, projecting goodness–if that is what it was–even if it isn’t coming from a place of self-love, at least offers some redemption when the realization comes: Self Love Is The Heart. We can’t authentically share whole-hearted loving goodness with others until we hold and nurture it in our own hearts first.
The questions came up again. The answers: I am there for a reason. I am the right person for the job. Strong, sturdy, capable. Trust that it is right. More Soil to till. More Seeds to plant and crops to tend. Until the work is finished. No matter how I approach this job, it is supposed to be. Trust my training and experience. I am good at what I do. Growth and change, hang your hat on that. Those who put me there know I have the capacity for growth and I am up for it. Approach with a sense of knowing I have what it takes. Consult myself a bit more.
I have taken the stance of novice throughout my life, with the thought that others know better than I do. Self-doubt, hesitation and ambivalence have been my travel companions, but that gorgeous brown haired little girl inside has been persistent and nudged me along with her delicate hands. She whispered invitations to come play, so I took art classes, sometimes she made forts with the sheets in my bed when I couldn’t budge at the end of a week. She has been skilled at playing hide and seek, and I have been a frequently unwilling playmate, leaving her behind to wait.
New territory–this is to be expected. It is to my benefit to put myself in that person’s shoes to see what they need at that time to help build a bridge. Shock someone out of their way of perceiving the world with compassionate statements and a sense of shared experience. Engagement. There are new ideas I haven’t tapped into yet. More I can do in its infancy and early stages. More changes that are less drastic, but more research. Tending.
I frequently pause when people ask me if I like my new job. I pause, tongue tied every time and it isn’t that I dislike it. I feel really alive. I started out with great hesitation, not accepting my worthiness to be a leader, but as I have allowed self-doubt and ambivalence to fall away like tired leaves from a branch, new growth has unfurled toward the sun. A lot of new growth, and some sturdy foliage there too, if I am to continue with this metaphor.
I shared with a learning circle today, my seemingly disconnected parts–mosaic art, clinical training, family systems training, yoga teacher training (that actually doesn’t look so bad as it felt written in words!) but as I said it aloud my spidery inner critic began grumbling about what a scatter-brain I am. Without the improved force-field of self-care that I have been engaging in this Fall, yoga, meditation, choices to nurture myself, that spiny critic may have sent me back inside yet again.
Fear not, however because my reading also told me this: This requires creativity–rather than segmenting art and work, include it and apply it into your leadership role. Opportunity to bring creativity into your workplace. Your approach–a blend of linear and creative. It may not be art specifically, but creativity. Apply the creative mind and processes to the work I’m doing.
To my little brown haired inner girl, I’ll jump in the leaves with you this year! In retreat yesterday, Sarah Avant Stover led us in a prayer and this I said for you, especially, “May you be filled with joy. May you be happy and loved. May you be safe.”
An important memory from my twenties is having seen a Ginkgo tree for the first time, anchored in my memory by a defining experience of independence and capable adulting. The Ginkgo leaf has been a symbol of capacity and openness. It is now an image that my children also hold special, because they have seen and heard me point out Ginkgo trees wherever we go. It seems fitting to reflect back to that beginning of adulthood and know that I had a sense of being rooted in some self-love even then.
The trees are shedding their leaves now. Gorgeous hues of gold, auburn and green drift and float to blanket the ground, preparing to serve in a new role of fuel and rebirth beyond the dormancy of winter. The Ginkgo trees are now gold and they shed their leaves too. I’m letting go of some stuff. I feel lighter, more capable. Growth and change. Hang your hat on that.
I took an Open Studio Process to my daughter’s leadership group at school. I facilitated them in a process of witnessing the image and a mini collage/mandala process. It went well. I learned some things, felt humbled by their earnest brilliance, their pure intent to make the world a better place by ending racism.
Some of my notes from the morning:
Free writing, engage with yourself…I need to get some anxious energy out of my body. These kids are great and they are all here to do great work and I want so much to provide a gift for them, to honor them and hold them.
My witness: Trees, brown, olive, fatigue greens. Blankets on a line. Naturalist, he could be there as a thinker, a ponderer, looking out over the vista of trees and earth. His clothing and blankets hang on a line, a cup of coffee beside him. At first glance, I considered that he could be homeless, without shelter and this is his dwelling place, whether by choice or force. Curves and leaves, one trunk bends, as if a strong breeze pushes it over. I read about trees that are bent, and how ancient native people here used to bend young trees and tie them down to point toward a path or water source. It was a means of showing the way to those who would follow. A large stone sits to the side of this man. He doesn’t look lonely, but wise, at peace. He wears glasses and books, signs that he respects the elements, knows his surroundings and chooses to be there. The landscape of trees seems to go on endlessly and I consider with awe the amount of the earth and planet that is so unknown to me, a mystery, a gift to be discovered. There is darkness in the forest beyond him, darkness that does not appear ominous or scary, but reflective of the density of a forest and then to think of that going on for miles, with no obvious end. It is both hopeful and awe-inspiring. The notion of being small among such greatness, knowing there is space for all, every kind of creature to exist and be nourished. Sky and clouds shroud the background, fog obscures scale and size.
This is fragmented, I know. There is something about the reflection of it that feels good.
I have some bad habits. Although one might say there are worse things, one of them is laughing, a lot–often times incongruently with the emotions I feel inside. It is nervous avoidance that drives the chortle and somehow allows me to brush past the acknowledgement of a feeling. It is an involuntary habit and I’d like to catch myself doing it more, not because laughing is so bad, but I’d like to be more aware.
During the Christmas season, my daughter drew my attention to a habit I wasn’t really aware of until she named it. We were driving along Dempster at dusk and a woman with a long, gorgeous braid of hair, wearing an ankle-length patchy winter coat was draping twinkle lights along the hedge in her front yard. She had threaded the lights to spell “Love,” and we were both so touched by the gesture, the sense of embrace from a stranger in front of her home. I exclaimed, “Oh, that is so wonderful,” and immediately followed that with, “Oh, I’m really bad. I never take the time to hang lights or decorate my home so nicely.”
“Do you know you do that all of the time?” my daughter asked. She fumingly explained that every time I express admiration for someone else’s talent, attribute or deed, I habitually follow it with an affront to myself; self-deprecation, criticism. As I sat with that feedback, I understood she was right. I could see all of the “I am bad…” attributions floating around in my recent memory of blather that spews from me involuntarily.
First I felt shame to have modeled the behavior in front of my daughter. I would be saddened to hear any of my children talk about themselves in that way. Further, it gave me pause to consider why I do this and be more aware of the habit. I think somewhere along the way, I came to think of humility, a value that was reinforced by my family of origin, as denying my own value.
Humility doesn’t mean self-effacement, but an effort to remain grounded and refrain from thinking I’m better than others. Self-love is no affront to humility, but an opportunity to replenish and more authentically care for and love others. There is just so much to do and so much good to contribute, the self-ripping is over. I choose to love myself and all of the identified and unidentified parts that add up to Penelope.
I heard this song for the first time about 15 years ago and the lyrics registered immediately–I felt so heard, so understood and knew I wasn’t the only person to feel like I did. How could someone with so many talents, with so much going for her and with so many privileges feel so empty? There was no answer in the song, but validation, oh yes.
By: Dave Matthews Band
Look at how she listens
She says nothing of what she thinks
She just goes stumbling through her memories
Staring out onto Grey Street
She thinks Hey, how did I come to this?
I dream myself a thousand times around the world
But I can’t get out of this place.
There’s an emptiness inside her and she’d do anything to fill it in.
But all the colors mix together
And it breaks her heart.
How she wishes it was different
She prays to God most every night.
And though she swears it doesn’t listen
There’s still a hope in her it might.
She says I pray,
Oh but they all fall on deaf ears
Am I supposed to take it all myself
To get out of this place?
Oh there’s an emptiness inside her
And she’d do anything to fill it in
And though it’s red blood bleeding from Her now,
it feels like cold blue ice in her heart.
When all the colors mix to grey
And it breaks her heart
There’s a stranger speaks outside her door,
Says take what you can from your dreams.
Make them as real as anything
Oh it’d take the work out of the courage.
But she says please
There’s a crazy man that’s creeping outside my door,
I live on the corner of grey street
and the end of the world.
Oh there’s an emptiness inside her
and she’d do anything to fill it in,
and though it’s red blood bleeding from her now it feels like cold blue ice
in her heart.
She feels like kicking out all the windows and setting fire to this life
She could change everything about her
Using colors bold and bright
But all the colors mix together
And it breaks her heart
Grey, not blue, is a much better color metaphor for depression. It is an involuntary, bland and lifeless place tempered by a spectrum of grey–some days feel a bit lighter while others get dark and bleak and the darkness is where the pain is most crippling. It blinds and obscures the ability to see anyone else. Shame, pity and solitary confinement are a heavy, muddy cloak draping and pulling down.
I hope it isn’t redundant to reference song lyrics again. While I can’t be so histrionic as to say I’ve been “crippled” with grey lately, I have also been in the winter doldrums for sure. Imagining the connections I can make to other thoughts and heroes, in spite of the chilled dormancy, has helped to prompt and stimulate me, borrow some energy from creative heroes for some inspiration. And who isn’t inspired by some Dave Matthews?
Good. Adjective: of high quality;of somewhat high but not excellent quality; correct or proper.
The word is a trigger word for me. One part of good is like being a “good girl,” obedient, submissive, following instructions. As a child I was referred to as a “good girl,” a lot by the men in my life, my dad, my grandfather. Being told I was a good girl, was one of the warmest shows of affection from these men, my inference was they were proud of me, happy and grateful for my good behavior. For years I didn’t understand I was an actual self, and without intention of any kind, lived as the person I thought I was supposed to be, the “good girl.” Gradually, slowly, I saw glimpses of self, and I became less concerned about being a “good girl”–I was in my 30’s by then. The programming pretty embedded. I’m still trapped by the default “good girl” way of relating to men, at the core.
About 10 years ago I heard the following song by Alanis Morissette, “That I would be Good.” I had heard it before, but this was the first time I listened to the lyrics, took them in, understood the meaning of the words. It shook me, stopped me in my tracks and reduced me to red-faced crying, drool, snot and tears smearing together. I could hear the affirmation, that I am a good person, but also understood that I didn’t believe it, that I was not good for every mistake made, for inabilities to perform, for being less than I had hoped. A deeper part of me, one deeper than my more silly, avoidant, parts named so far has held this as truth for a long time. I don’t have much to go on here, but I know it relates to shame, an exile part, isolated and covered up by that hideous shredder guy and little miss perfect.
I told my therapist this song was an epiphany for me. He looked at me and said, “you mean, that you think you aren’t good?” His tone and expression were matching hues of, “I couldn’t be more sad for you, and I didn’t know it was this bad.” Oh the shame that rose up for me with that–I could even make his sadness for me a means of shaming myself. The song became the closest thing to an affirmation I could muster, because still many of the things Morissette said about being good, I didn’t agree with for myself personally. I definitely associated my fails with the opposite of good. Further, some of what she names–losing her hair, going bankrupt, being without someone–I have feared as the ultimate fails, experiences I have been fortunate enough to control and avoid, but would have me crawling under a rock if I did experience them.
That I would be Good
that I would be good even if I did nothing
that I would be good even if I got the thumbs down
that I would be good if I got and stayed sick
that I would be good even if I gained ten pounds
that I would be fine even if I went bankrupt
that I would be good if I lost my hair and my youth
that I would be great if I was no longer queen
that I would be grand if I was not all knowing
that I would be loved even when I numb myself
that I would be good even when I am overwhelmed
that I would be loved even when I was fuming
that I would be good even if I was clingy
that I would be good even if I lost sanity
that I would be good
whether with or without you
I still fill with tears when I read or hear the lyrics. It shows me I have more excavating to do, because how could I not believe I am good? I believe everybody else in the world is good–at their core–can forgive people for doing heinous things, out of compassion for the traumas that led to their behavior. I could share an inventory of the work I do, the kindness and compassion I have in my heart, and in doing so, could also tell you I’m bad–not good–for not being humble. What a mind fuck that is.
The Open Studio Project uses “intention” as a practice of making statements about the present, some are obvious descriptors framed in the positive, others are statements that take the possibility of something and present the idea as though it already is. Of course I struggle with this part of the process. It is very affirmation-like (although intention is not the same as affirmation) and means self-kindness, hopefulness. I’m going to keep working on it.
A recent disagreement with my daughter helped me to notice this part of me in a more honest way. She wanted to go to the beach with her girlfriend after practice finished at school. That meant it would be after dark. I was uncomfortable with it, as I know the beach closes before dark and usually the only thing going on at the beach after hours is a healthy dose of nothing good. I couldn’t give her an explanation she could accept for my “no” answer;” I could only say I wasn’t comfortable with the whole situation. She was angry and the silent treatment ensued.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust my 15-year-old daughter, although I know that seems naive. I really wasn’t that worried about what would be happening on the beach either. I was worried about breaking the rules.
In a later discussion about this, my daughter told me, “I know you want to be that hippie-happy-go-lucky mom that questions society and makes controversial choices with her head held high, but deep down, you just can’t do it.” So prescient and wise, that girl is.
Little Miss Perfect has been a major protector of me throughout my lifetime. Critical thinking did not come naturally for me, and furthermore, challenging authority was risky business for this highly sensitive person. Coping with an unpredictable emotional parent, I honed the skill of making safe choices, whenever I was alert to them. I was hyper-vigilant about following the rules, resulting in my dad calling me “a model child.”
This also extended to “being perfect” at school, getting good grades, making sure my teachers loved me. I stayed out of gossip, didn’t pass notes in class, turned in my homework and extra credit when the opportunity presented itself. I was that kid, “miss goodie goodie.” I prescribed to paternalism without ever considering a downside. Self righteousness defended any alienation that I experienced and my mom taught me to “kill ‘em with kindness,” so few of my peers were ever annoyed with me for too long because at least I was nice to them.
To the credit of some other more authentic part of me, I was attracted to kids who had the twinkle of “fuck it” in their eyes. I was too afraid to go along with them most of the time, but I listened to what they had to say with curiosity, wondered about what gave them the courage to face the consequences of their defiance. Admired their bravery. Even if I wasn’t following their lead necessarily, I was taking notes, tucking away their wisdom–because they were so smart in their anti-social way– in a place I could refer back to sometime.
Differentiation happened a little more slowly for me than it does for many. I came to understand my own identity, my privilege, appreciate the injustices suffered by so many of my brothers and sisters. I understand that my play-it-safe-condition can even contribute to and perpetuate injustice. It means that fear still motivates the suppression of indignation and outrage, speaking out and acting out in ways that would be risky–even if it is the right thing to do.
Bear with me in this thought, as it isn’t grounded necessarily in a studied discipline, but I think pain and trauma manifests behavior as if on two sides of a coin. On one side self-preservation is motivated by fear, cringing and playing it safe (Little Miss Perfect); the other side is motivated by defiance, radical questioning and brazen disregard for the pain and alienation that may ensue (Betty Friedan, Dian Fossey, Rosa Parks, Georgia O’Keefe, insert other brave ones here.) Both sides of the coin suffer, spinning and turning in the confusion. It can be hard to see straight with all of that spinning, but there are moments of clarity, for some anyway. Duality is so interesting.
I know Miss Perfect has had the best of intentions. She also has a lot of power. She has been a guiding force for a really long time, but I know I don’t need her anymore. She doesn’t step aside easily as she is self-righteous as hell. There is even a way in which she influences my efforts to be an advocate for social and racial justice–my thinking becomes wrapped up in how I can be the “perfect” advocate. Dialogue that involves speaking up becomes a dance of “one-up” instead and I trip over my own indignant judgement.
So, I’m working on it. While becoming a parent wasn’t done with a great deal of critical thinking or intention on my part, I have to say the privilege of raising children has really helped raise me. I’ve made all kinds of mistakes and I often wonder who is getting more out of all of this, me or them? I have enjoyed the Mom-part of me, the one who loves, cares, grins and giggles, smells the wonder of freshly washed baby hair and skin, holds, caresses and tucks the sheets in at bed time. She is also completely insane, but those are some of her good points.
I had a little run-in with my 7-year-old-ish part, Ramona yesterday. She is very concerned about what is fair and in keeping with the rules. She is too immature to manage her own problems when she feels disenfranchised and she’s inclined to go to the teacher when she just can’t get it out of her […]
I start something and don’t keep going. Not sure what the stopping point is about. I started a blog to provide some accountability for myself, but one week in and like everything else, the drive peters out, goes kaput. I want this to be a habit, writing, creating. I get interrupted–inter-errupt–hmmm. I never thought about […]
I went on vacation, a real vacation, a few weeks back and hoped I would have time each day to draw and write, post a little here and there. I did spend a little time a few of the days drawing zentangles, but I didn’t want to write. I thought about it a few times, but […]