30 July 2011

Summer Rant

         For over two weeks now the majority of my experience of the world has taken place looking out the living room window.  I’m not the only one, I know, hibernating indoors, avoiding fifteen days of over ninety degrees and heat indices in the hundreds.  Even from the window this neighborhood seems to be holing up, hiding out where it’s cool, shades drawn. 

Across the street the young couple - earlier this month they hung Buddhist prayer flags, planted daylilies, and carried home a high backed wooden bench which they struggled up to the porch – the ones who spent mornings on the porch with coffee and cigarettes, evenings on that bench too – they’re inside now too.  The squirrels seem lethargic, while the cars move down the street, faster, it seems in the heat – particularly those with windows down, with no working air inside. 

Although a nearly continual breeze tricks me into hoping for air that may refresh, sets the prayer flags waving merrily; when I succumb to that hope all it takes is opening my front door to dash it against the furnace of sticky concrete.  Outside the air smells like room temperature mayonnaise, left on the counter after the sandwich is made. 

After fifteen days of it my body still won’t adjust – probably because I only go out when I must, when I’ve promised to be somewhere.  Yet the body isn’t interested in becoming regulated to life in a sauna, because this body sweats.  Not one of the healthy, good workout sweats either, the kind that lets you know you’re doing yourself some good.  Even getting in a short walk in the relatively cooler morning hours results in coming home drenched, so slick the doorknob won’t turn in my hand, unable to see for the salt pouring down into my eyes.  It’s just too tiring, too trifling a reward for the effort.

Looking out the window will suffice.  As will focusing on what I can do indoors.  Some good has come of it after all:  the apartment cleaned, de-cobwebbed, a first-rate start on a short story made, working my way through the journals of the past few years to see what I’ve learned and what I’m still working on, making space on the bookshelves, and writing a series of articles on working with dreams. 

Mostly this time has been an exercise for my psyche and spirit – a practice in sitting, accepting that sitting has value to me, time to hold awareness of my tendencies to self-punishment, following my relish for reading and films into the creative places they take me.  The most surprising gift though has been locating in myself something I’ve never had - faith.  Not faith in a religious or even a practical, plan-filled sense – but finding faith that, just as, eventually cooler weather will arrive, so too does acceptance of who and how and what I am seem to be showing up. 

How interesting I find it to discover that I can rant about the weather, among other things, and not see myself as a whiny bitch.  I get to know and act on my body’s inability to deal with wet heat and not find it weak and lazy.  To understand that it isn’t just about escaping into fantasy when I read and watch movies, but a creative jumpstart for my own writing is part of that faith.  To know that I am a woman approaching sixty, still learning, becoming ever more her own creation, and even more comfortable with herself – that’s a faith I never thought to have.

Not bad for this summer I guess.

25 July 2011

A Nightmare Come To Life

   Someone is after me - a threatening and dangerous someone, with a weapon or just with the capability to hurt or kill me.  And I can't get away - can't run because my feet are stuck, my legs won't move.  Or I find a place to hide from the danger, but know, somehow, that the person will find me anyway.  
   This is one of my worst dreams, one that will reoccur, a dream I continue to seek to understand.  It varies, but is always about being "got" by someone who wants me dead and I can't do anything to stop it.  Brrrr - makes me shiver to recall it.  But that dream has been on my mind, poking at my consciousness - since hearing about the recent slaughter of nearly 80 people at a youth camp in Norway.  
   My usual Saturday morning ritual is an NPR marathon - propped up on my bed with coffee, a notepad for ideas or thoughts or interesting words heard, and, lately, a stash of kleenex to handle the allergic responses to our lovely Kentucky summer weather.  This past Saturday the first story I heard was about the massacre at the youth camp.  Suddenly Click & Clack, Bob Edwards' Weekend, and even This American Life lost their appeal.  It felt to me obscene somehow to be relaxing and enjoying myself after hearing a mother speak of how her daughter had hidden in a bathroom while the (apparently) lone gunman had shot another youth right outside of her hiding place.
   With each report - of how the murderer had chased those who tried to escape the island by water and shot them as they swam, of the young man who hid behind the very rock the gunman stood on - he could hear him breathing raggedly, of the woman who watched while the man (dressed as a police) called people to him and then gunned them down - I imagined the fearful music of Pan's pipes playing in my head.  I felt a connection to the mothers and fathers of those children at the camp.  Every parent's nightmare - being unable to protect a beloved child - urged me to a need to speak to my own daughter even though I knew she was safe, and sleeping, not far away.
   And my own dreams, of being unable to escape from sudden danger, certain death, were aroused - brought into the waking world for review and interpretation.  Just recently I wrote about my understanding that the world isn't safe, that safety (if such exists) lies in ourselves rather than in the environment http://companionforthejourney.blogspot.com/2011/07/what-in-world-is-safe.html.  Yet here I was reacting to an event in that world from and around an unconscious and deeply held fear - one I don't usually let myself know about as I go on my daily round.  
   Why is it we respond so emotionally, so strongly from the unconscious, to some stories, some events and not to others?  Across the planet, every day, people are killed, mass murders take place, terror as well as weaponry is used to do no more, often, than make a point.  I don't usually react to those stories so strongly.  And I suppose that's good - for if I were to take every story of death and defilement to heart I don't believe my heart or my psyche could stand it.
   Is it enough that my dreams and my waking life connected through hearing this story of horror and madness?  In doing the further work to open my unconscious, my shadow, to connection with the conscious - in furthering my own healing through writing (for I hear several "stories" knocking, requesting awareness, wanting to be told) am I contributing something to the collective consciousness?  
   Given that this is all I CAN do - I only hope it will be enough.

18 July 2011

what in the world is safe

I was telling a friend about a poetry reading I attended recently at a downtown hotel.  21C is such an interesting place, filled with modern art exhibits, and including one of the best restaurants in the city – the kind of place you take out-of-town visitors who like art or enjoy gourmet food, or who just like to sit with a well prepared and presented cocktail.  That it’s located downtown is a problem though for some people who, like my friend, wonder if “it’s safe” to park and walk to at night.
My friend expressed this concern – she’d like to attend the readings, held at the hotel once a month, but worries about the neighborhood.  In reply I said something I’ve heard myself say many times to others.  “Sure it’s safe, I suppose.  Well, I don’t worry too much about it.”
This time I must have actually heard what I said.  And I’ve been wondering about it since.
My wondering took the form of a question.  Why does everybody else worry about that so much?  But soon I began asking a different question – why don’t I worry about it.
What I first told myself was – well it’s safe enough at night really.  There are people in the restaurant, coming and going from others in the next block.  And the rest of that block between 8th St. and 9th on Main contains museums and one of the biggest tourist attractions (Hillerich and Bradsby) in town.  But the reality is that, at night the museums and H & B are closed.  The next block really is a long one, pretty far away to expect help if something happened.
Then I got into defensiveness.  Well – I live alone, and sometimes don’t have anyone to go places with.  Unless I want to miss out on things I just can’t worry about this.
Defensiveness became resentment.  Well, these other people have someone, a live-in spouse or partner, who will go somewhere with them if it’s not safe.  They can afford to worry.
Even without the defensiveness or resentment those things are true.  But they aren’t to the point.  Why don’t I worry about safety?  Should I worry about it?  More than I do?
This line of thought led me to a question that I’d never asked any of those who’d queried me about safety – what did they mean by safety.  I knew what they meant, in a particular sense – was there a danger of mugging or purse snatching – would they return to their car to find it stripped, the windows broken, or even gone?  In a larger sense though, they were, I was sure, asking about emotional wellbeing as much or more than physical safety.
Just to make sure I was on the right track I called a few people who’d asked me that question.  Sure enough, each of them said yes, they were asking if they would feel secure.  One person brought it all into focus when she said, “Downtown isn’t familiar to me, so it’s just scary.”
And that statement provided the final puzzle piece.  The familiar feels, to most people, safe.  The unfamiliar – scary – to most people.  Looking at the completed puzzle, I got it.  I’m not most people – not anywhere close.  Safety, security and wellbeing are NOT things I expect from the world because I didn’t grow up with them, did not know what they looked like.  Instead, I learned early on that my only safety was in not showing fear, in plastering a brave countenance over my panic, and in escaping what was familiar in search of . . . well, I wasn’t sure what, then.
It has taken decades, thousands of hours in therapy, education, and even heart attack to learn that fear isn’t shameful, to appreciate that safety isn’t Out There somewhere, to understand that my early learning was based on bad teaching.  Yet that learning did hold gifts.
One is this lack of worry about external safety.  Now, I’m NOT out in the world taking foolish and unnecessary risks every day, though I did some of that when I was younger.  I do have, and use, common sense, and have at times pointedly driven away from places, people or situations that were clearly dangerous.  With time and learning and experience, I’ve identified what’s worth taking a risk for, and learned how much risk I am willing to take.
I suppose my way of being and doing looks mighty brave to others.  Honestly, I’ve never felt brave in going places alone, or exploring events or new cities solo.  Courage is fear that has found its legs, and I’m not afraid when I go out in the world – if I’m interested in what’s out there, engaged in what’s going on, meeting new people and trying new things.
In some ways that early, ungratifying, environment from which I learned a lot of wrong lessons has better prepared me to live in and explore a world that really isn’t essentially safe, or set up to be so.  I’ll never be one of those devastated by its inherent indifference to our individual wants or needs, as so many are.  I’m learning instead that safety comes from occupying my own true ground, from authenticity and even from vulnerability.
In learning this I understand that I really don’t have to worry if the neighborhood or the situation is safe.  All I need to attend to is the answer to the question – do I feel safe in it.

Not-Zen Driving

Driving home from story telling group - this is a drive that feels much the same as when I’m returning home from seeing my therapist, driving done with mindfulness and attention to the moment, aware of having opened myself to another, of being vulnerable in the world and thus more part of it – sort of Zen driving, if you will.  The route differs, but my awareness of myself as driver, and of other drivers on the street, all of us in charge of our machines, of the need to attend to our own driving behaviors while watching out for others, scanning ahead, knowing what’s going on around us – all seems heightened on those drives.
What I notice on those drives is not the power I wield behind the wheel, not the possibility of speeding up to get there faster (though I am looking forward to home, where I can process my experience in quiet).  I’m aware instead, during those journeys, of my part in ensuring the safety of the experience, and of the need for each person behind their own wheel to know and follow the ‘rules of the road,’ so that we can each get where we’re going in one piece.
On this particular Friday though, a green Chevy, a rather banged up vehicle, pulled into the lane behind me and its driver came right up my tail pipe.  The driver was female.  She was so close behind me I could see her bangs, and the graduation tassel hanging from her rearview, blowing in the breeze of her open window.  What I couldn’t see was the front of her car.  She was that close.
Gone my mindfulness – the Zen moment fled – and what replaced it was a combination of fear and anger.  Now I am a good driver.  All of Manuel Stevens’ kids were taught well, to always be looking for “a place to put it,” to not overdrive our brakes or headlights, and so forth.  My dad was a critical and rather harsh teacher, but we couldn’t drive his car til he was sure we could do it well. Defensive driving, what my dad tried, in his own way, to teach us, isn’t about emotion, but about attention to what is happening.  Nevertheless, both emotions jumped right on top of my chest as that speeding chick in her banged up Chevy stayed on my tail.
Now, driving in fear or anger causes accidents.  I know that.  And this wasn’t the first time somebody had waxed my tail on the road.  Usually I can simply keep an eye on the rearview and do whatever I need to stay calm, to maintain focus until the other either passes me or I can get out of their way.  Not this time.
The fear was simple.  I could not move to the other lane, filled with cars, nor could I speed up to make some distance between us because of the cars in front of me.  It was also complex.  I wondered if she was crazy, wouldn’t care if she hit me, was “looking” for a wreck, or if she was even paying attention to how she was driving.  I wondered if she was drunk, or high.  Mostly the fear came from powerlessness.  There was nothing I could do but keep going, but, instead of being able to focus on what I was doing, I was focused on what she was doing, or might do.
And that powerlessness was where the anger came from as well.  I felt pushed, shoved, forced – as if I had to give this chick what she wanted.  And I wanted to push and shove back – to tap my brakes and either make her hit me or slow down.  Fat chance of that last, since she was so close I doubt if she could even see my brake lights.  Mostly I wanted to stop, force her to stop too (don’t ask me how I thought that would happen) and unload on her.  The anger was, I see as I write this, in some ways healthy.  I WAS being endangered by her driving, and that’s an appropriate time for anger.  The fantasies of what I wanted to do with my anger – understandable but not so healthy.
Anger also rose up because, well, this crazy driving woman had spoiled my peaceful mood.  Maybe that’s the most important learning from the journey.  Maybe all this writing poured out of me to remind me how quickly I give away my power, my hard-won serenity.  There are few enough experiences in daily life that provide us with opportunity to feel at peace in the world, that encourage us to feel grounded in our own authentic power.  And, it seems to me, the world offers us plenty of experiences of the opposite kind – more than enough to tip the scales toward living continually in fear and anger.
Now that I think about it, maybe the lesson here has little to do with the experience, with a dangerous driver or an few minutes of emotional reaction.  Maybe what I’m supposed to learn has more to do with searching out more times and places and people and activities that promote my own serenity, my own sense of inner grounding.  Maybe if I had more of those in my life it would be easier to weather the crazy drivers and other dodgy encounters that will, certainly, show up on every kind of road I travel.

04 July 2011

The Story of Who I Am

   "but these stories don't mean anything if you've got no one to tell them to"
Brandi Carlisle  "The Story"

   I don't really 'do' groups very easily.  Yeah, I've been a member of a church, and actually got into belonging to the community - I belong to a writer's group, but that's a necessity if you're gonna try to improve as a writer.  And once, for two years, I was invested in a group of fellow seekers, people who came together for educational purposes, purportedly each of us was there to earn a degree - but on some level, and once the masks were off, we were all there seeking more than that.  But, out of fifty-nine years, that's not a lot of experience or time being a 'member.'
   Yet for the past several months I've enthusiastically awaited, prepared for, and dived into a group we call the "storytelling group."  It sprang into existence from a workshop on finding the mythic in our own stories, a combination of the creative, the authentic, and the time-honored.  The workshop leaders wanted to continue the spirit of what started there, and invited some of us to join a group where we would read, or tell, personal 'stories' in whatever form we wished.
   This group doesn't feel like something I have to do - but more like an experience that 'does' me - affects me both in the process of decision about which story to share and in the sharing.  It's not therapy - the storytelling group - but often has healing effects.  It's purpose is not to critique each others' writing, but many times the responses of others to what we read, or tell, does shine a light on phrases or words, or even tones/ colors in our story.  In truth I don't know what the people who had the idea to start the group envisioned as its purpose.  Maybe they don't know either.
   What I do know is I need to maintain and continue participation in this group.  I need witnesses for my stories, people to hold up a mirror, to respond to my vulnerability and authenticity (for I find that these open up readily as I write, and read what I've written) from their own places of depth.
   See - I've always looked at my own life as too sad, at the incidents and happenings in it as too small - in short - as worthless.  In the group however I am learning the value of even my small stories, and learning too to say "so what if it's sad - it's the truth."  In this group stories that I've never been able to tell are showing up.  Soul level, and soul filled experiences spill out on the paper as I write - seem to shine with their original luster as I speak them.
   It's having someone to tell them to, like the line in the song, that gives our stories meaning.  The first line of that song, "All of these lines upon my face tell you the story of who I am," breaks my heart.  If we don't share our stories, if we've "got no one to tell them to" they batter at us, wear at us, sink into our skin and our souls, creating an ennui that makes us think we're not ok, not really.  In the recalling, the writing down (another form or sharing - with oneself) and the sharing with others the story of who I am enlarges, joins with other stories.  Cool.