New Beginnings

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.

So long, Skokie, and some artwork left behind…You were a warm home for our family!

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.

“What do they say, when you close a window, a door opens?”
The Ohio door seems welcoming….


OSP–it has been awhile

Mandala collage (My witness writing in this post does not correlate to the collage)

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.

Taking a walk along Grey Street

imageI 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.

Grey Street
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
to grey
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
To grey
And it breaks her heart
To grey.

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?

That I Could be Good


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.

That’s Not My Name…well sort of

My parents did not name me Penelope, I did.  Penelope isn’t my official name, she is one of my parts.  Penelope was born out of my need to cope with feelings of fear toward my Dad, when I just didn’t know how to connect with him. Penelope is my trickster protector—she wants me to be brave, but helps soften the edges a bit.  She coaxes with childish whimsy, kicking my pants with her clown shoes.  I know in my heart Dad did the best he could.  As for the wounds that remain–sometimes like scabs, that just beg to be picked–I accept them as a part of me, albeit I would really love them to fade away completely like a bruise, because I love my dad and I think he would feel sad and ashamed if I admitted to him that I had felt this way, and still do at times, even in my forties.

I read once that I fit a profile called a “highly sensitive person,” one whose response to stimuli is reactive and vulnerable. My melodrama-scabs are not literal and I wasn’t burned or physically abused by my father— he lacked in the ability to be tender or gentle–qualities we HSP’s need while developing our emotional control panel.  He was an earnest provider for our family.  He worked more than one job, while taking classes too so he could finish his bachelor’s degree. He was tall and imposing, with large hands and broad shoulders. His working hands always looked swollen, like generous sausages filling the casing. He worked on cars in the garage, cut plywood and drywall so he could finish our home that he himself built.

We feared the hands when they started swinging—usually over the front seat of the car to the back seat where we squirmed and cajoled each other.  My brother and I knew we better shape up when the mammoth hand flew over the seat—sliding  to inner and outer edges of the seat, as the hand smacked upholstery instead of fleshy legs or arms, staying  just out of reach, a cat-and-mouse bit that served only to frustrate him more. Not that we wanted to be smacked, but we took some pleasure in the blind searching of his hand while he tried to keep his eyes on the road.  It was not quite as exhilarating as taunting our grandparents’ cat, Mittens, who hated us and when cornered under my grandparents bed would resort to whacking our hands in cartoony-fast thwaps.

Dad worked daily in his garage, shelter from the reality of an overwhelming life of being parent to 4 kids.  Before we had a phone extension out there, we would rock-scissor-paper our way out of having to be the messenger if a phone call came for him.  WHAT do you WANT?!  He would bellow from beneath the chassis he worked on.  Later, he got an extension out there, but I never understood why, because interrupting his process served only to infuriate and annoy him. If the phone was allowed to ring more than 2 or 3 times, he would inevitably lumber to the phone, answer and terrify the caller, because they were sure to hear, “HELLO!!!!” roaring like a grizzly, volume stretched above his stereo and engines.  Everyone knew this was the reality if you had to call our house. Our friends were either terrified or amused by his antics, depending on their previous exposure to his cursing and bellowing.

Calling the house inspired major dread for me.  Of course this was pre-cell phone time, so I couldn’t just choose who I called specifically. Calling home from a friend’s house, so I could ask for a ride, would summon boiling gut-acid.  If Dad answered the phone, I hung up; couldn’t face it and I didn’t dare try again—I would do anything possible to delay making the call again–I’d find a ride, or walk. When I went away to college, I was homesick and really missed my mom, but I continued to hang up if Dad answered. His greeting never changed— he had no idea back then if it was me, no caller ID.  So I would call and pray that my mom would answer and thankfully, most of the time she did.

By the time I was in my twenties, I was really bored with the phone call game, tired of hearing his annoyed barking, when in fact I wouldn’t have minded a conversation with my dad.  I couldn’t reconcile the startled emotions I felt when considering telling him off.  So one day, I braced myself and prepared for the inevitable retort when the lines connected.  I managed to stomp my foot and say, “hello.”  “WHO IS IT?” he yelled, channeling his inner Archie Bunker.  “Well……. it’s …..Penelope,” I offered hopefully.  Pause.  Surprisingly I heard him laugh with surprise–I took him off his guard, reduced the churn of annoyance that so often led his responses.  “Well well well, Penelope who?” he mused and I laughed too, relieved by the way this was going.  We actually talked for a few moments until gruffly he said, “OK, talk to your mom.”

To this day, when I get a message from my Dad to call him back, my first reaction is that child-remembered dread, a slight jolt as the contents of my stomach take a little tilt.  With slight delay–it depends on my vulnerability on a given day– I return the call and wait for his answer, which is much less barky these days.  His “bellow” has “mellowed” over the years.  He still asks, “who is it?” when he answers and my reply remains “It’s Penelope.”  One of my sibs may have told him why I address myself as Penelope on the phone—he’s never asked me why though.  I’m sure a part of him understands down deep, that it would be ok for him to be a little vulnerable…but Penelope is my part, she helped me be vulnerable enough and I love her.