Dark Night of the Soul

My sobriety date is July 14th, 2009.  God willing, in just over a month, I’ll have made it to the ten year mark. It’s no secret that this year has been one of the hardest of my recovery thus far. Pretty much everything I’ve written since last Fall has alluded to my dark night of the soul. It’s become a running joke in our household: “Guess we’ll just chalk it up to 2018-2019”. The reason I continue to write about it is because I want to be a voice of authenticity. In the recovery world, you read a lot of positive quotes and saccharine soberlogues. I’m guilty of sharing from these categories. What I read about less, however, is reality. Recovery isn’t a happily-ever-after affair. It’s unadulterated experience. It’s being more awake than most have the desire to be. Yes, recovery is the miracle of life – but when you live you hurt.

I want to read fewer commercialized yoga studio clichés and more truth. I guess that means taking Gandhi’s advice and “being the change”.

Although I believe in metaphysical principles like the Law of Attraction, I think there is a limit to their merit. Yes, if you fixate on how much your day sucks, you will attract more bullet points to support your argument. Yes, if you habitually complain, you will attract more things to complain about. However, no matter how positive you are, pain has its place. The question is – are you willing to learn?

I’ve stopped fighting my dark night of the soul. I’ve surrendered to the boughs of the inky forest. The darkness is a womb.

Marianne Williamson uses a building analogy to describe the rebirth process. She writes about how you can’t always renovate the rooms in your house. Sometimes you have to tear the whole thing down.

I hadn’t really penciled a demolition into my 2018-2019 calendar year. But that is recovery.

Over the last eight months, I’ve discovered that I don’t need a demolition so much as I need a stack of eviction notices. If you told me a year ago that I was subletting my identity for free, I’d tell you that you were crazy. In my mind, I had the whole authenticity thing in the bag. I wrote an entire post dedicated to the subject. As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t in the people pleasing business anymore. Little did I know, squatters were still overrunning the place and I had only managed to repossess a few closets. And yes, they were lovely, wild closets – Narnia-esque cupboards filled with shells and feathers, fireflies and baby animals. But they reached capacity, as cupboards do, and the suffocation became a sickness.

It’s one thing to recognize sickness and another thing to do something about it. That’s where pain comes in. Pain runs a twisted delivery service; it dispenses the gift of desperation and transforms anyone who dares to unpack the contents of the box. Without pain would I really be willing to change? Would I really be willing to ask for help?  Truthfully? No. It’s easier to doze off under the pretense of wakefulness.

Most of us say, “someday I’m going to [insert lofty accomplishment here]”. This sentence prevents me from ever being enough. It gives the squatters too much room to weigh in on the paint color.

What strikes me is that in 20,000 years, it’s unlikely anyone is going to know Shakespeare’s name. Or Mozart. Or Kim Kardashian. Or Mark Zuckerburg. (Definitely not Kim Kardashian). It will be impressive if the human species even survives. The real question is – did Shakespeare enjoy his food? Did he notice the sky? Did he love his dog? Did he smile with every ounce of his being? Did he see and experience everything he could? Did he use his gifts to connect with others? Did he know himself?

Part of recovery, for me, is giving up “the chase”. And it’s fucking hard. I’ve been publicly wrestling with it since I started this blog – and privately wrestling with it for my entire life. Just when I think I’ve abandoned all pursuits, I realize sweat is pouring down my chest and I’m still wearing my running shoes.

It’s so easy to forget that our lives mean something without “someday” or that “really big thing”. We don’t have to strive toward “enough”. We already are. In a purely scientific sense, our existence serves the purpose of perpetuating life on earth. If you leave someone to decompose in a field, they become part of the system that sustains all living things. If you consider the majesty of our planet, there is no loftier aim.

I don’t know if I will ever achieve all those big “somedays”. Most of them were never for me anyway. Someday the dust of my bones will become ocean silt. The simplicity of that is beautiful. And when I unpacked my box of pain, I learned simplicity was what I was trying to get back to all along.

A newborn has no memory of the womb. At the end of my life, I imagine it won’t be the night I’ll remember, but everything juxtaposed against it: I’ll remember J.L. slipping my wedding band on after a minor medical procedure, and how startlingly tender it felt for her to make my ring a priority when I was weak and unattractive. I’ll remember the warm smell of my dog’s velvet ears, my favorite coffee shop, and teaching myself to cook something new. I’ll remember the songs that defined me; the piano and cello. I’ll remember the cool, tall grass and the heady flowers. I will be grateful I was willing to unpack – to change the sheets in the guest bedroom – to make room for more of the simple things – the things that matter.

 

 

Boot Camp

I chose “quiet” as my word for 2019. I didn’t understand the irony of my choice in January.

This year has been the opposite of quiet as it’s traditionally understood. I already talked about some of the upheaval we’ve experienced, but life has added several more layers to a cake I’d like to return to the bakery. I don’t need to get into specifics but let’s just say I don’t dare ask, “what else?” Experience has demonstrated that I will invariably find out. These days, I try to laugh, throw up my hands, and say, “okay, we’ll play your way”. Sometimes my laughter borders on hysteria.

On Thursdays, my dear friend and coworker, Jen, often drives us to a local eatery to pick up lunch for our afternoon meeting. Sometimes she also listens to me rail against the onslaught of lessons the Universe has deemed necessary to assign. “It’s like boot camp,” she sagely observed, “sometimes the Universe has to tear you down to build you back up”.

“I thought I went through boot camp when I first got into recovery,” I whined. “I don’t want to do it again”. But Jen was right. These lessons – unpleasant or not – are all part of the spectrum of human experience. Walking through them with an open heart is the only way to move forward.

I don’t know why I was naive enough to think that once I got through early recovery it was going to be smooth sailing. I guess I felt like I had “paid my dues”. But so many people have paid a much higher price in pain currency. There’s no debt ceiling. Life is not fair…it just is.

Jen went on to tell the story of the Tibetan saint, Milarepa. Rather than try to recount the story from memory, I am excerpting it from a fabulous article by Aura Glaser, which appears in Tricycle magazine:

One day Milarepa left his cave to gather firewood, and when he returned he found that his cave had been taken over by demons. There were demons everywhere! His first thought upon seeing them was, “I have got to get rid of them!” He lunges toward them, chasing after them, trying forcefully to get them out of his cave. But the demons are completely unfazed. In fact, the more he chases them, the more comfortable and settled-in they seem to be. Realizing that his efforts to run them out have failed miserably, Milarepa opts for a new approach and decides to teach them the dharma. If chasing them out won’t work, then maybe hearing the teachings will change their minds and get them to go. So he takes his seat and begins teaching about existence and nonexistence, compassion and kindness, the nature of impermanence. After a while he looks around and realizes all the demons are still there. They simply stare at him with their huge bulging eyes; not a single one is leaving.

At this point Milarepa lets out a deep breath of surrender, knowing now that these demons will not be manipulated into leaving and that maybe he has something to learn from them. He looks deeply into the eyes of each demon and bows, saying, “It looks like we’re going to be here together. I open myself to whatever you have to teach me.” In that moment all the demons but one disappear. One huge and especially fierce demon, with flaring nostrils and dripping fangs, is still there. So Milarepa lets go even further. Stepping over to the largest demon, he offers himself completely, holding nothing back. “Eat me if you wish.” He places his head in the demon’s mouth, and at that moment the largest demon bows low and dissolves into space.

The tale of Milarepa revealed that I’d spent months in full on demon opposition mode. Resist! Resist! Resist! My one woman protest rivalled Occupy Wall Street. If my imaginary tent had a sign, it would say: Welcome to Occupy Cave – No Demons Welcome. But Jen’s words helped me lower my angry little fist. “Gag on this, demon,” I taunted. We had a giggle as the dialogue went further sideways.  As it turns out, “offering yourself completely” is a little easier said than done.

Not long after Jen bestowed her words of wisdom, I heard someone else say, “recovery is about making yourself visible”. I had to scrape myself off the floor. (I also have to eat crow for claiming I don’t hear new things very often. Maybe I just haven’t been listening.) These words resonated because I still love to hide – even after almost ten years. I’m the stereotypical alcoholic writer – without the bourbon and chain smoking. While I’ve been working on making myself visible in a very literal sense – like, for example, hanging out with our new (awesome) downstairs neighbors – this lesson also applies to hiding from my so-called dark side. Active addiction, in its most naked form, is the avoidance of pain. So recovery isn’t just about connecting with others, it’s also about connecting with our “shadow” selves – otherwise known as our humanity.

Glaser writes:

When we don’t acknowledge all of who we are, those unacknowledged parts will land in what Jung called the “shadow”… This is one way of seeing Milarepa’s encounter with the demons. He was encountering his shadow—all that he had suppressed and rejected in himself…We come upon our greediness, jealousy, or impatience, and the next impulse is to go to war… We don’t realize that all the while we’re strengthening the thing we’re fighting against. It’s like trying to push a beach ball into the water. Holding it down requires a huge amount of energy, and inevitably it pops back up with equal force, taking an unpredictable direction. But if you give the beach ball space and let it be, it will float effortlessly along the surface.

2019 has looked something like this: I shove each new beach ball under the water. It shoots up and smacks me in the face. I push it back down. It flies above the surface and lands 100 yards away. I swim after it – water splashing and limbs flailing – and it bobs just out of reach. I splutter and gag on the water… and it continues along undisturbed. Who is really causing all the commotion?

The infuriating answer is that it’s not the beach ball.

Glaser talks about being “willing to be with our experience, whatever it is, without judgment, without trying to fix it or get rid of it. And somehow this willingness, this gentle allowing, starts to calm things down..We discover that the journey is a dynamic process, full of alternating successes and failures. And we discover that failures are not dead ends. Every time we’re up against the wall, we’re also standing at a threshold. The invitation to open to our experience—whatever it is from moment to moment—is always there, no matter how many times we need to rediscover it”.

My definition of quiet has changed. It’s returning to center – the nucleus of existence – despite the noise. It’s the giant flamingo float in a pool of beach balls. It’s the eye of the storm. It’s the vantage point from which I can greet storm and sphere alike and acknowledge the purpose of our proximity.

September

I always hated my birth month. September signified a new school year – the arrival of which I despised more and more as the years passed. I was expected to sit still and think thoughts that were no longer my own. My teachers reported that I was easily distracted by windows or daydreams. They compared me to a butterfly… darting from one flower to the next. They wanted to pin my wings inside a glass case.

When I didn’t understand the math problem or possess the necessary patience for hours of bland nightly reading, I felt stupid, angry, and worthless. I wanted to read a book that didn’t traumatize me with religious teachings beyond my developmental capacity to process. I wanted to mix mud and decaying plant matter into secret recipes of my own imagining. I wanted to climb trees and survey the world from behind a lush screen of pine. At those heights, I felt momentarily safe from all who wished to enslave my mind and crush my spirit. My only agenda was freedom. My only obligation was to execute my own self-directed curiosity.

September was physically uncomfortable, too. The mornings were bracingly chilly but, by the time afternoon recess passed, the classrooms reeked of sweating children. At days end, an open lunch box smelled slightly sour; hints of warm milk and stale peanut butter and jelly.

Not much has changed in thirty two years. I may no longer wish to live in a treehouse or a boxcar (and even that is only a half truth), but I am still resisting the glass case. I am still heeding the call of wild meadows, tangled with blooms of freedom and self-directed curiosity. I still dread the coming of September. I  press each passing wildflower between gossamer pages and run my fingers longingly over the stationary. I know my ministrations won’t bestow the weight of permanence upon page nor plant, and yet I devoutly honor the ritual.

Dr. Gabor Maté – a man who possesses one of the most beautiful minds on our planet – describes this phenomenon as counterwill. I have spent most of my adult life hating this mysterious characteristic. “You need to fix it,” became my internalized mantra, born of years of external pressure. Much to my surprise, there is nothing to fix. The work is to accept my natural wildness and refrain from self-punishment. It is only from the safety of this space that authentic growth can occur.

Everything I know about healing is counterintuitive. The less I resist my own resistance, the more liberated I become.

September was somehow different this year. I never noticed it before, but everything looked so gold. The landscape was sun drenched and harvest-colored. Some website on color symbolism says that gold is “associated with higher ideals, wisdom, understanding and enlightenment. It inspires knowledge, spirituality and a deep understanding of the self and the soul”.

Maybe it’s not that September changed. After all, it was still cold in the morning and sweltering in the afternoon. School commenced as usual, congesting the highways with extra commuter traffic.

Maybe I have changed. Maybe I put down my sword and discarded layers of heavy armor. Maybe I grew weary of waging a war that had already been won.

Maybe the only thing left to do was surrender, propelled by easterly winds and the promise of foreign flowers.

The equator is middle ground. A halfway point between two extremes. Balance.

Maybe I am finally ready to drift in that direction.

If Anything Good Can Happen

I can’t remember the last time I woke up and consciously decided I was going to spend the day doing whatever I want. That may sound silly to those of you who know I recently returned from a trip to Chicago (more on that momentarily), but traveling has an agenda: to feast with all your senses. As the stereotypical Virgo, I feel a compulsory need to have a goal for the day. The same could be said for my writing. On this day, I am devoted to mental repose. The morning breeze feels good… a mug of peppermint tea feels good… listening to music feels good. These are the only things to which I want to devote consideration. However, when I allow myself these indulgences, I inevitably find myself longing to write.

One of my bucket list items is to become a travel blogger, so I would be remiss if I didn’t write about Chicago. In a nutshell, Chicago devastated me. That’s what the best things in life do; they break your heart with their magnificence. I think the experience was more shattering because – for some reason – I had very low expectations. Maybe it was because Chicago is not a coastal city. Or maybe it was because of the negative press. The Uber ride from the airport wasn’t particularly compelling, either. But as soon as I descended the stairs onto the River Walk, I was a goner. I doubt the architecture of any other U.S. city could move me so profoundly. Chicago is a marvel. It is the embodiment of the phoenix risen. The only thing I would change is the ‘Trump’ logo on the side of his namesake tower. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The sign mars the vista with its cheap arrogance. Ah, well. I digress.

Version 2
The River Walk view on our first night

We arrived in Chicago at the tail end of Pride month, and I felt welcomed and comforted by the display of support all over the city. Rainbow colors adorned buildings and buses alike. However, we weren’t there for Pride, although our cause for celebration was strongly related; J.L. and I were celebrating our 3rd wedding anniversary. And Chicago – a box we wanted to check off our destination list – became so much more than a check mark to me.

IMG_0410
Pride lights adorning a Chicago building

Sometimes when I fall in love with a place, I am vulnerable to brief moments of self-loathing. I start thinking about how I “robbed myself” when I was college-aged; how I should have gone to the University of Chicago; how I was capable of so much more academically and professionally. The stark reality is that, at the time I was applying to and starting college, I was barely capable of keeping myself alive. I had never been on an airplane. I had no conception of my own identity, let alone my geographical preferences.

Thankfully, I am married to the most beautiful human being to ever walk the face of the planet. She reminds me why my life needed to follow a certain course. On the morning of our wedding anniversary, she walked miles to find me a vegan donut. When she accidentally bought a non-vegan donut, she insisted on going back out to find one. It was at least ninety degrees in the city, and yet she tromped cheerfully down the humid sidewalks in a grand demonstration of unselfish love. What can I say?  The woman loves exercise (and me).

Despite its transcendent beauty, Chicago would be devoid of the same meaning without my wife.

J.L. and I are often complimented on our relationship, which is not something I will ever take for granted. We are either told a.) we are sooo cute together or b.) our love is enviable. The former makes me nod in not-so-humble agreement. The latter makes me sad. When someone says, “I want what you have,” my heart aches for omnipotence so I can distribute love like Halloween candy. Sometimes I wonder why it’s so hard for people to love each other but, when I catch myself in the wondering, I know I’m asking a question I can already answer:

Humans are increasingly disinterested in self-evaluation and self-growth. (Or maybe it has been this way for millennia? Certainly a topic worth considering another day.) I am thoroughly convinced that working on yourself is key to relationship satisfaction and longevity. In today’s instant gratification culture, so-called “intimacy” is just another thing you can order from a mobile app and have delivered to your door in thirty minutes or less. Genuine intimacy, in sharp contrast, requires honest communication and committing (and recommitting!) to demonstrate appreciation for your partner.  If we examine these “Prime delivery” expectations (i.e. a full blown relationship with zero effort)  – coupled with the pressure we feel to make our lives look a certain way by a certain age – it’s no wonder we are collectively so unhappy. We settle for less and simultaneously suffer from a plague-like societal unwillingness to work for more. We place gargantuan pressure on our partners to make us happy. This is one of the greatest travesties of all time. How dare we place the burden of our happiness on someone else? We are the sole proprietors of our own wellbeing. That’s not to say it isn’t impactful when someone treats us poorly. However, we can’t change other people. So if someone treats us like shit, it is our responsibility to make a decision regarding whether we will or will not tolerate it. When we accept intolerable circumstances, it is a direct reflection of how little we think of ourselves.

“Whoa, Ego Queen,” you might say, “Slow your roll. You’ve been married for three years. How does that make you an expert?” Well, I’m not an expert, but I have been guilty of using people as a substitute for my own self-cultivated peace and contentment. As a result, I have learned some gut wrenching lessons; namely, substituting other people for self-growth is not love –  it’s addiction and codependency. Believe me, my sense of self-worth was forming a slow trickle from the gutter to the sewer. When I started treating myself like I was worthy and deserving, I attracted a partner who shared similar values. Getting to that point was like climbing out of a dark well; the bottom of the well was comprised of abuse, and sickness, and settling. That’s what I thought I deserved. I didn’t realize I was holding the ladder the whole time.

If you’re reading this and you’re unhappy, maybe that’s not what the bottom of your well looks like. Maybe it’s mediocrity. Maybe it’s self-imposed isolation. Either way, climbing out isn’t going to feel good. It feels like loss. But you have to say ‘goodbye’ to that life if you want to say ‘hello’ to a new one. It’s also not enough to say ‘goodbye’ and wash your hands of it. I had to ask “Why do I feel deserving of less than I’m worth?” and “How can I create my own peace and contentment rather than relying on someone else?” Then I had to take action. If I had continued to harbor the same negative feelings about myself, I would have attracted someone who was operating on the same level. Furthermore, as I climbed the rungs of the ladder, I had to say several more goodbyes. One day, without quite realizing it, I was ready to feel the sun on my face. I was ready to climb out of the well and share the life I created with another person, versus silently demanding she pick up the broken pieces.

It didn’t stop there, either. No, sir, it certainly did not. I have to keep working on myself so I don’t stagnate and regress. I have to confront my (numerous) less than savory characteristics in order to be the best possible partner. I have to nurture my own growth and interests. If my marriage wasn’t in the picture, would I still like my life? I’m happy to report that the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. I love my job, my friends, my recovery, and my various hobbies and projects. When I have more than one source of joy and satisfaction, it takes the pressure off J.L. to be the be-all and end-all of my existence. She’s pretty great – so the temptation is hard to resist.  

One of my major weaknesses is that I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, even when I’m working hard and doing everything right. It’s that old feeling of unworthiness trying to regain a foothold; how is it possible for me to get wrinkly with an amazing spouse? To fill volumes and volumes of memory books? Chicago was a breathtaking reminder not to underestimate life’s potential – and to delight in unexpected joy. Twelve years ago, I couldn’t conceive of any of this, and yet, here I am.

The Universe speaks to me through license plates and bumper stickers. In fact, my last blog made reference to one such sticker. It never fails. On my way home from work this week, I received another reassuring message courtesy of a fellow commuter. It said: “If anything good can happen, it will”. I pulled dangerously close to the grimy bumper and leaned, squinting, over my steering wheel. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How can I not believe in miracles?

Selfishness

When I woke up this morning, there was a coating of snow and ice on both the ground and my vehicle. It took me nearly thirty minutes to scrape off enough ice to complete my admittedly wasteful and compulsive drive-thru coffee ritual. I couldn’t get the ice off the hood of the car while safely parked in the driveway and, thinking it would still be solidly frozen for a three minute jaunt down the street, watched in alarm as it peeled off and smashed on the roadway. In my Monday morning misery, I had acted out one of my own greatest pet peeves.

Sitting down – coffee in hand – to begin my home-office work day, I felt the hot release of tears stream down my face. My seasonal affective depression reared its ugly head, trampling on my motivation.

Living in New England was never my ultimate goal. When I was younger, I dreamed of moving to San Francisco – a temperate climate where I thought I would be “safe”. Now I dream of beach town life, where there is never a shortage of vitamin D for my winter weary brain. But I have to be wary of this “grass is greener” syndrome. Just yesterday I wrote about how I don’t want to spend my life chasing the next thing; true contentment exists only in the now.

The two things that help me shake the “grass is greener” syndrome are playing out the tape and making a gratitude list. Let’s get real, even if I did live in Florida, I wouldn’t spend every waking hour on the beach. I’d be working and dealing with the same stuff I am responsible for in my much colder northern life.

At the end of the day, I am selfish. I want complete and utter freedom over my own brain. But that’s not how it works. I need to utilize my capabilities to contribute to this planet. Furthermore, my own brain is not a place I need to be hanging out 24/7. After all, my addictive wiring is what got me in trouble in the first place. I need to spend time giving to others and earning my place in society.

On our last day in Florida, a young couple pulled up to the condo next to our rental and proceeded to move in. I seethed with resentment. As an older person, I should be in a position to move to a waterfront Florida condo. How dare they?

The real questions I needed to ask myself were “How dare you? What gives you the right to be so entitled? What gives you the right to presume to know anything about them? What gives you the right to think you deserve anything?”

This is a prime example of how dangerous it is for me to think I know best rather than trusting the timing of the Universe. If I think about it from an objective perspective, I know for a FACT that living in that condo would not be a good choice for me. I would go bananas living next to a weekly vacation rental property. I hate noise. I am also an ironically private person. A condo complex with shared walls and wide open patios is not an ideal set-up for a painfully introverted writer. It would be character-building… to put it nicely.

Walking the beach on our last afternoon, I recited a mantra as I sloshed through the water and perused the shallows for shells: “Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me. Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me. Thank you for my blessings. Please remove this selfishness from me.”

When I wrote about privilege, I talked about how I used to pray for a fraction of the things I have today. Moreover, I know there are many people who would love a week long vacation or a loving marriage, not to mention the luxury of working from home. Who am I to forget these things? It’s NOT okay… and a sign that I need to do some work on myself in the form of cultivating gratitude.

Luckily, I am plugged into my higher power – a power I choose to call “the Universe”. Even when I’m choosing to wallow in a swamp of selfishness, I’m still tapped in and willing to listen. That day on the beach, a woman walked by with a 12 Step triangle on her t-shirt. The shirt said: “Acceptance is the key”. I was flabbergasted.

Acceptance is the key! I need to spend less time obsessing over what I can’t change. The timing of my life has always worked out in my best interest.

It wasn’t just the woman with the t-shirt. That morning, Rhiannon came on the radio as soon as we started the car. Rhiannon comes on randomly whenever I need a sign. For example, it played when I pulled into the courthouse to face a dangerous man I had no desire to ever see again. It played when I was nervous about a photo shoot. It plays every time I need a little faith. The music that empowers me played for the rest of our trip. Stevie sang in the store. She sang on the highway. She sang in the airport. I haven’t heard her on the radio as much in the last six months as I did in the space of two days.

I am exactly where I need to be at this moment in my life. Most of the time, I can’t understand that until I see it in hindsight – and that’s unfortunate. It also doesn’t matter how many things I check off my bucket list. Those experiences will enrich my life but they will bring me neither serenity nor contentment. The only thing that can fill the gaping, insatiable void is connection. There is nothing else that can pull me out of the most dangerous neighborhood in my head. Believe me, I tried seeking out every other alternative. The only way I can quiet my mental malady is by connecting to the divine in others – and striving to channel that divinity for the benefit of those who are also in need of connection. The paradox of my freedom is that it doesn’t exist when I get my own way; it exists when I open myself to the flow of what is. 

I will strive not to forget the strange angel who passed me on the beach: Acceptance is the key.

 

 

Vulnerability

I’m not going to lie. One of my favorite things about vacation was not being completely saturated in recovery. Don’t get me wrong – my recovery is a priority. I wouldn’t have nice vacations or a nice life without it. But I eat, sleep, breathe recovery 24/7: I work in recovery, volunteer in recovery, and socialize in recovery. I even “think” in recovery – not in the cult-y sense – but in the sense that a helpful cliche is always right on the tip of my tongue.

The other week I ran a group about the masks we wear, i.e. the “tough guy”, the “class clown”, the “June Cleaver”, or the “people pleaser”. I think one of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is that recovery itself has become a type of mask. It’s like a stomach-turning competition to see who can be the “most spiritual”. People parade around with an air of manufactured genuinity and, yet, there isn’t a single shred of authenticity in sight. It leaves me feeling disillusioned and slightly disconnected.

When other people gross me out, I have to take a look at myself. First of all, as human beings, we wear masks because we are afraid people will really see us. So, by that logic, I should have compassion for people hiding behind masks. It’s not like I haven’t worn them before. I could probably take a moment to dismount my royally bitchy throne of self-righteousness. Second of all, as much as I try to “keep it real” (yes, even on social media), I’m sure people have perceptions about my life that may not be accurate. Therefore my perceptions may not be accurate. When I have one finger pointed at someone else, there are three pointing right back at me. (There’s one of those cliches!) Finally, it is my responsibility to connect with “my kind of people” – the people who share similar values and aren’t perfectly fucking zen 100% of the time. The truth is, I like to be alone. If I need to plug in to my (fantastic!) tribe, it’s my responsibility to cultivate the connection.

One of the things I’ve learned about life – an article of wisdom that is increasingly defining who I am – is that the external doesn’t make humans happy. I’m not rich, but I have a great marriage, my dream job, and (almost) everything I want (still wouldn’t mind the classic car/truck and the dog). And yes, I derive great joy and satisfaction from those things, but they are not responsible for my happiness. It always irritates people when you say “happiness is an inside job”. And so they chase the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing, until one day they wake up and realize they spent their whole lives chasing. I am determined to step out of the race to nothingness. My little family has goals we are working toward, but I am not going to anesthetize myself with bullshit until we reach them. And sometimes the present moment hurts. It hurts to come back from vacation to a cold, gray, troubled city. It hurts when the squirrel in my brain steps back onto the wheel and starts spinning. I have an idyllic life, but that doesn’t mean that it’s perfect. Sometimes I need a break. Sometimes the only decision I should be making is where to set up my beach towel.

I recently read a quote that said “the meaning of life is to be alive”. It’s so simple. It’s not to find the “one” and pop out 2.5 children. It’s not to drive a luxury vehicle emblazoned with a status symbol. It’s not to fill a storage unit with bullshit. It’s not to turn piousness into a competition. Yet that is what we spend our lives chasing – the gauge we use to measure our success. My heart aches for all those who are measuring themselves against that empty standard and coming up short. You are perfect just the way you are, whether you have those things or not.

I’ve said this before, but I am so grateful I am slowly learning not to place so much emphasis on how things look on the outside. There was a period in my life when “things” were hard to come by. I wanted those material commodities; I thought they would make me happy. I also wanted to project an image. I wanted to “look successful”… and also “tough”.

Someone at work approached me one day and said: “You have a very gentle spirit”.

“Thank you,” I responded wistfully, “but some people think I should be more aggressive”.

“No,” he said. “That’s not who you are”.

It was one of the most validating things anyone has ever said to me. Vulnerability isn’t a weakness. It’s the one thing I should be pursuing.

It helps me immensely to witness other people being vulnerable. There have been times when I think it has even saved my life. I’d like to think that I’m pretty candid, but if it would help to witness some of my imperfections, I am only too happy to share within reason (gotta have some healthy boundaries, right?): While traveling, I struggle with tummy troubles and binge eating. I have terrible skin and a myriad of other minor to moderate health issues. I am chronically anxious. When I complete a task, I spend twice as long as the average person – either because I can’t focus or I need it to be perfect. Math makes me cry. So does attempting exercise poses. I have no eye-hand coordination. Due to being traumatized by various instructors/peers, I don’t like doing things I’m not good at in front of others (see math, exercise). One of my biggest fears is getting lost. I go through periods of extreme germaphobia and hypochondria (my wife once had to disinfect every doorknob in the house and my steering wheel). I have trouble saying no to things I don’t want to do.

In short, I am perfectly imperfect. I am growing. Some of these things will always be a part of me, and others will diminish as I continue to change.

You are perfectly imperfect, too. Let’s take off our masks together. Let’s step off the consumer carousel – the maddening merry-go-round that spins us into a frenzy of buying our way out of “not good enough”. We are all good enough. Let’s talk about our joys and our sorrows. Let’s hold each other accountable when we rejoin the race (goodness knows I sometimes find myself running a few miles).

 

Worthiness

I write every day now. This is both a blessing and a curse. When my body violently rejected medication prescribed to keep me focused and functioning, I wasn’t sure how I was going to maintain or progress in the workforce. It’s not an understatement to say that getting a new job saved my life. Not in the “literally going to die” sense, but in the “if something doesn’t change, I don’t know what I’m going to do” sense.

The flip side of doing what I love is that it poses new hurdles in my ongoing quest to take care of myself. Most days, I hermit myself away in my home office, and spend hours staring at a screen. This, in and of itself, isn’t the problem; millions of people spend their days staring at screens. In re-reading that statement, I guess I could digress on how that is, in fact, the problem…but more on that shortly. My issue is that I struggle to separate from the screen. When I’m not working, it’s either attached to my body like an appendage or I’m using some variation for my entertainment. I also have difficulty setting limits and designating days for myself. It’s not about a lack of time, it’s about poorly managed time.

I am making a concerted effort to foster better habits. In the past ten days, I’ve gone to (part two) of a wellness visit, obtained a blood work-up, consulted with a podiatrist, and chopped off my unruly hair. Truth be told, that’s more than I typically accomplish in a year. The screen time, however, continues to evade modification. My favorite excuse is that the weather is bad – which isn’t entirely inaccurate. When it isn’t twenty-five below zero, it’s fifty degrees and pouring. Right now, it’s snowing. You’ve gotta love (hate) New England.

Version 2
Why would I want to leave this cozy corner?

The other afternoon, I determinedly shut my laptop and, disgusted with the heaviness behind my eyes, snuggled up with Patti Smith’s latest book, Devotion. I honestly can’t remember the last time I read something that was just for me. Even though I had to pause and research the poets and philosophers she referenced, I devoured it. I learned (or re-learned) about Simone Weil, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Camus.

When I was finished, I felt like a different person but, ever the creature of habit, I logged online to check work notifications. The first thing that appeared in my line of vision was someone’s selfie. I was dismayed.

In that moment, it dawned on me that I needed Wikipedia to inadequately grasp the nuances of a ninety three page book. I reflected on how Simone Weil knew Ancient Greek by the time she was twelve. She also fasted and denounced romantic relationships because she was passionate about the disadvantaged. Less than a century later, what are we doing? Taking selfies?

I scrolled by an article called “Social Media is Making Us Dumber” a dozen times before I finally caved and skimmed it. The premise was more political than anything (surprise, surprise), but the title holds validity. How many hours do we spend in pursuit of absolutely nothing? A century ago, people were enlightening themselves by learning extinct languages. One could (rightly) make the argument that this was a luxury reserved for the bourgeoisie but, today, most of us are well appointed enough to honor our precious time with more reverence. At the end of life, I doubt anyone is going to say “Gee, I wish I had played more Candy Crush!”

As I sit here typing on an exceptionally accessible platform for creatives, listening to free music, I am struck by how tragic it is that we are using these miracle devices to destroy ourselves. I know I perseverate on this topic frequently, but I’m confident that technology has sealed our common fate. I feel pity for people who look down on addicts; with few exceptions, we are all addicts. The only thing that separates us is variety of vice. Tech is unquestionably the last frontier in my own personal battle with addiction. If I’m honest, it’s probably where my journey began nearly twenty years ago.

As an empath, it takes daily effort not to focus on how broken everything is. In addition to the far-reaching ramifications of technology, our food, economic, legal, and healthcare systems are malfunctioning on an abysmal scale. And our overarching political system? That, too, is a sham.

Although I’m an empath, I’m also a problem solver.  I’m proficient at assessing how systems could be improved and brainstorming solutions. But the trouble isn’t that the world lacks problem solvers… the trouble is fear, greed, and ego.

For years, I’ve recognized that my task is to operate (and contribute) peacefully within the trouble and the brokenness… but I’ve resisted, not unlike a fish flopping and writhing until it runs out of air. The ending doesn’t change and the only person I’m really hurting is myself. After all, isn’t presuming to know best the grandest egotistical gesture of all?

In my post Love and Wonder, I talked about finding an unshakable sense of purpose in the brokenness. I’m continuing to work on executing said purpose through mindful and intentional living. There are times when I feel like the only way to live with pure intention is to throw my phone and laptop out the window. Unfortunately, that is not a reasonable solution.

The idea of creating a morning ritual keeps popping up in my life. Several people have espoused the benefits of starting the day with habitual meditation, positive visualization, and other healthful routines. I am an “emergency meditater”, i.e. I only meditate when I’m in extreme emotional distress. Meditation is very effective, but I need a fire under my ass to practice. Before I went to court last month to confront a sexual predator , I immersed myself in such a deep state of meditation that I was able to pull from the guided visualization hours later. Since I infrequently experience this level of agitation, I need to start small in order to cultivate new habits. My current goal is to start my morning with a short reading and, if I anticipate any stress in my schedule, to spend ten minutes working on a meditative coloring page. I’m embracing the fact that my ritual doesn’t need to look like a guru’s in order to have a positive impact on my day.

January is as much a month for reflection as it is for manifestation. At this time last year, I was eating peanut butter M&M’s for lunch. Today, there are no meat or dairy products in my household… and I don’t eat candy for lunch. It took a year to accomplish this small shift. Likewise, it has taken well over a decade for me to visit the dentist every six months. In order to follow through with my podiatry appointment, I had to pick a podiatrist two blocks from my house. If I had made any other choice, I would have failed to schedule a consult.

A friend of mine gently pointed out that I can’t expect to rewire my brain without accountability. I am slowly – and I mean very slowly – learning how to structure accountability for myself. I’ve managed to do so with drugs, alcohol, spending, relationships, food, and healthcare. Now, I just need to figure out a source of accountability for screen time. I would love suggestions!

Learning to love myself enough to safeguard my mind, body, and spirit has not been an easy process. It still isn’t. In fact, it has been one of the longest running themes of this blog. But I guess recovery, in a nutshell, is self-improvement.

I chose “worthiness” as my word for 2018. In my experience, people fail to take care of themselves because they don’t feel deserving. As I immerse myself deeper in this journey, there are times when I don’t feel deserving. For instance, when I saw an x-ray of my foot, I was possessed by the urge to both cry and vomit. I wanted to blame someone else but, at the end of the day, I allowed myself to get to a point of no return. Since my stride has been incorrect for years, I now have terrible hip discomfort. Sometimes it’s so bad I can’t sleep at night. At thirty-one, my body is irreversibly damaged. What would be different if I had intervened when I finally got health insurance in 2014? This line of questioning ultimately doesn’t serve me. I have to forgive myself. Pursuing treatment is self-forgiveness in action. Descending into an avoidant reality is not.

I have a vision for my life… and it’s a simple one. I want to share a small home in a southern seaside town with my wife – perhaps a little cottage or a two bedroom condo. I want a dog and, if I’m particularly lucky, a vintage muscle car from which he can happily slobber. And I want the three of us to explore every nook and cranny of this country. Along the way, I hope that my willingness to be unabashedly vulnerable will help someone. And that’s it. That’s all I want. But I can’t manifest this vision if I treat myself like I’m unworthy. I have to propel myself forward with self-compassion.