Comparison: words in brief

Comparisons are odious, I tell myself in the mirror, keeping the lights dim, keeping my face angled in such a way that I can pretend to remain in denial about the disappearing act my chin and jawline have been doing in recent years, so that I can ignore my drooping eyelids, so I can convince myself that my features are as symmetrical as they once were. “Can I compare with myself?” I wonder, as I peruse photographs from twenty years ago. “Greater than, less than, equal to?” I ask as I compare sets of fractions with my younger son. I am more present in myself than I was then, both stronger and softer; more grateful for life and health; more aware of everything that is beautiful and worth tending. In headstand, I can trust myself to push my feet off the wall. My balancing point is wider and more stable than I knew.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: “comparison.”

Birth Story (a poem)

It started at midnight. Or the night before. It started with the movies, the long walk home, my aching back, the dripping mist, the glare of streetlights, cab drivers turning aside from my tautly rounded belly.

It started with a gush of water, with a catch of breath, with darkness, with pain.

In the middle my body turned inside out. I became elastic, bones came through me, my heart slipped outside my body. It was torment. And magic. And an everyday wonder. And the oldest story told for the first time.

And then there were your long limbs, your blinking eyes, your open mouth; your fragile, red, wriggly being slipping out into the afternoon light. You were more familiar and more alien than anything I had ever known.

I was exhilarated, enchanted, exhausted. All my borders became permeable. The truth is, for some time I only existed for your survival. My body flowed with food for you. I breathed with you, cried with you, laughed with you, slept your sleep, woke your waking, kept you alive.

On this day I was a doorway. I was a boat carrying you into this human life. The wild impossibility of birth brought the rumour of death with it too. One slipped out with the other to dance together through a complicated world.

I was born then too. There was no bridge back. I can’t remember who I was before this day.

Twelve years later.  It feels like a long time ago.  But I want to remember these details.

Six intentions for 2016

This is a time for setting and sharing intentions for the year, and I’ve got some that have been brewing that I want to put down in writing. Not for the sake of strictly adhering to them, but so I can look back a year from now with curiosity about where my path has led: my inner path as much, if not more, than my outer path.

Intentions are in no way resolutions; they are not even goals that are measurable, or timely, or particularly specific. I think of them as shifts in perspective, in attention, that allow us a frame of reference to steer ourselves towards. Or simply to keep with us in the back of our minds as we follow the current of life.

I think it is something like I learned when I was taking driving lessons more than two decades ago: “Eyes before wheels.” Whether you plan it or not, the direction that your attention is set is the direction that your body will steer towards, the direction that your vehicle will move into.

Intentions are so much the opposite of the kinds of goals we are normally told to make, but I love them. They fit me much better. They help me ask the intimate and big-picture questions: what do I want my life to look like? How do I want to feel within this life? What do I want to spend my time doing each day to feel this way as much as I can? I’m not interested in this context in imposing end results on my intentions, or in stating concrete goals out loud – instead, I want to focus on the processes I need to put in place in my daily life to feel grounded, engaged, and connected.

This year, I want to make more internal commitments, fewer external ones. And set up loose agreements with core anchoring people, who can help keep me accountable to those commitments. Not only because I need a bit of outside help to keep me accountable, but also because of my ongoing tension between introversion and extroversion. Between needing a lot of time within my own inner world, and also regular opportunities for processing and dialogue and collaboration and voicing.

I commit to continuing to work on creating good daily and weekly habits for myself and my family, better internal structures and rhythms that eliminate time wasted and small daily decisions, so that there is more room for creativity and freedom within the time that is open.

I commit to refocusing more of my attention this year to tending my home: de-cluttering, reconfiguring, repainting, tending the garden. I like homes to be very personal – fully of books, pictures, projects. And as a family that homeschools and does many daily hands-on things in a small space, minimalism is not even a goal. But my attention has been on so many external things the past few years, and I have spend so many weekends away from home, that I have much less of a handle on the objects and spaces within my home than I would like to. My children are older; we have been homeschooling for a few years now; we have different goals for the spaces in our house than we once did; and our house is feeling small. This is a big project that will take many hours of sorting and many months to reach any sort of completion.

I commit to making more space in my life for creativity. For writing and art and making beautiful things, for producing instead of consuming. For all of those things that so much defined who I was as a child that didn’t always make the cut as I navigated becoming an adult and then becoming a parent. This year, I want to choose creative practice over external commitments, both alone and with my family, and integrate these into other areas of my life. I want to inspire my family to do the same. As my kids get older, it is easier and easier to integrate my own projects into our weekly homeschooling rhythms.

I commit myself to regular movement, the kind of movement I need to nourish my body and bring my soul into presence. In recent months, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to grounding myself, and have been recognizing how much that entails living fully in my body and bringing every physical and emotional sensation back to my body. Really deeply listening to what it tells me. Scanning where things are stuck and where they are hurting, and bringing love and compassion to those places, so that I can move out into the world with more ease.

And so, I want more room for movement that is intentional, disciplined and strong; but also movement that is celebratory, playful and sensuous. Not movement that feels like pushing (although cycling and walking will never drop off the radar!), but movement that feels like listening. In practical terms this means more yoga and more dancing. And specifically, right now it means Iyengar yoga, which with all of its props and meticulousness drove me crazy when I was engaged in a more vigorous yoga practice in my twenties, but now is exactly what my body needs. And it means any dancing that is ecstatic and unstructured enough to allow full self-expression. Two completely different manifestations of the need for deep listening to my body, and for the embodied practice that comes out of it.

I commit to honouring and celebrating more fully the relationships with the women in my life. Those reciprocal relationships that sustain me, that allow me both to cry and to comfort, that allow me to be fully honest about my shadows and processes, that are both gentle and powerful, that inspire and nurture me and hold me accountable. I want to integrate my love of feminine archetypes with feminist action. And again that means listening to inner knowledge and inner authority and being truthful about my needs and boundaries. It means speaking when it is time to speak and acting when it is time to act, but also waiting when it is time to wait.

I commit to more nature time alone and with my family and friends. This means fewer structured programs, and more personal application of skills and knowledge learned over the past few years. I want more family adventures, more family exploration, more family trips; more spontaneous camping and evenings around fires with my dearest friends; more long walks with my husband whenever and wherever we can manage it. I want more solo time in the wild, both days and overnights. This all means being creative on a limited budget; and celebrating the resources of flexibility and freedom that we have instead.

Yesterday, I convinced my husband to hang out all afternoon cutting up magazines and making vision board-type collages. I was curious about what would come out of it. I approached mine in an intuitive way, choosing images and words that spoke to what I want to focus my energy on right now. It will remind me of things I want to keep my eyes and heart on this year. I also love the one my husband made, and I am curious to see how he recalibrates his life to keep this vision in mind.

It’s time to fully integrate the things I’ve learned over the past half-decade of my life. Time to bring them home. Time to celebrate where I am right now.

I want the calligraphied quote – another by Thich Nhat Hanh – which I stuck prominently in my collage, to remind me of this every day: “I have arrived. I am home.”


The map of jealousy

I have become fascinated, recently, with jealousy. My own jealously. Jealousy as set apart from envy, which, in the way I translate the two words, is the difference between wanting what someone else has – envy – and wanting what someone else is – jealousy.

Jealousy is dark and shadowy and for many years I knew that it was not something I was allowed to feel. If it sent its tendrils out of the darkness, it needed to be stuffed down, reburied, denied the light. But in digging recently, tentatively, into the dark and shadowy parts of myself, I’ve uncovered jealousy over and over again. And slowly it has become a friend. Not only a friend, but even a mentor and a guide. A bright shining arrow saying “This. I need this.”

Who am I jealous of? As I started to pay attention, a slow trail emerged of writers, artists and creative people who use their voices, who take risks; of people who put their ideas forward again and again; of people who step forward and lead others through transformative processes; of people who find a balance between their inner and outer worlds.

If I put together a collage of my jealousies, I would create a picture of who in each moment I secretly long to be; of what parts of myself I wish to uncover, of what the next steps need to be, if I’m willing to take them. It’s breathtakingly clear.

Other jealousies, however, are darker and more complicated. I spoke my shining arrow theory of jealousy out loud to a dear friend recently, but then concluded, dismissively: “It only works for some things. Not for others, of course. Not when I find myself jealous of women who are young and beautiful. That’s not something I can move towards becoming more of.”

She thought for a moment and said: “Maybe it is an arrow too, though. Maybe it is an arrow telling you that you need to work on self-love.”

I have been rereading a couple of books by Brené Brown recently. She writes about vulnerability and about shame. Shame – the feeling that we are not okay, that we are all wrong – is something which we repress and keep buried in order to present ourselves the way we think we should be. Women and men have different triggers of shame in our culture, she writes.

Jealousy has sometimes been sitting unpleasantly in my insides in recent years, and perhaps all of my adult life. Like any shame when it is most poisonous, it was something I usually tried to stuff down. Reading Brown on shame is a breath of relief. The biggest trigger of shame in women – still, and maybe even more than ever – is not being “thin, young, or beautiful enough,” she writes. Not meeting the cultural standard of physical perfection is at the top of the list of all the ways in which women fault themselves for not being the perfect beings they have learned to believe they should be.

On the surface, I have known this for oh so many years. I still have my worn copy of The Beauty Myth in my basement, underlined and marked by my teen self, triumphantly declaring my rebellion against all of that. But the thing about those shadow emotions, when we don’t own them, when we don’t admit to them, is that they have their corrosive effect on us even when every rational part of our being fights what they stand for.

Yet, there are cultural standards of beauty, which we can perhaps all agree are cruel and repressive, and then there is my own eye that is attuned to colour, form, symmetry, the perfection of line. When I can’t find those in myself – and sometimes I do – it hurts those sensibilities; it makes me cringe. My judgment is both external and internal. It’s complicated.

What is emerging for me now when I contemplate all of this is gentleness. Since that conversation with my friend a month ago, I have been thinking a lot about self-love. One day last week I sat late at night and watched a wisp of smoke on a small piece of sage that I was burning, and the word that came from its graceful rising curve was gentleness.

There is a verse in a poem by John O’Donohue, A Blessing for One Who is Exhausted, that I have been returning to recently, turning it over and over in my mind for comfort:

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

I will be gentle with myself. Self-love, like gratitude, is subversive in our culture.

Jealousy in some way always points to what is buried – our buried dreams, our buried shame – and so it is a fascinating emotion, a telling one, one that we can follow the threads of to find out the secret pathways of our inner maps, to discover where we have been lost or led astray and where we need to find our way out again.

I am allowing myself to dig up those inner maps right now. It’s about time, at forty, to uncover what is still buried underground or, as I wrote last week, to dig up the roots and look at them under the light. Dig, but gently, with respect and gentleness for those parts of myself that I found necessary for so many years to keep buried. With compassion for the ways in which I sometimes try to protect myself from external hurts, and only succeed in hurting myself. There is freedom and grace in allowing light and air into those buried places.

On giving birth

A few weeks ago my younger son celebrated his seventh birthday. As when my older son celebrated his tenth birthday a couple of months before that, my thoughts went back to vivid memories of his birth: the sensations of it, the pain, the moments of fear, the resources I found within me to get through that pain and fear, and everything else that I experienced through this physical passage into a transformed life.

I don’t think I sentimentalize being a mother. Until my late twenties I was fairly sure I didn’t want to have children. But at some point I changed my mind. And since pregnancy and birth and mothering are a significant part of my life experiences of the past decade, I find Truth (with a capital T) in those experiences. As you will, if you are paying attention, in whatever transformative experiences your life has given you.

Well before my first child was born I thought of birth every time I worked on a big piece of writing. At that time, that writing was often an academic paper or something that had been assigned to me for work. I told myself each time that writing was like giving birth, that it is hard to see the eventual outcome when you are in the midst of the pain and struggle, but when you are euphorically admiring the finished creation, there is no other way it could have turned out. It is real and it is perfect.

Unlike many other preconceptions I held about parenting, this birth analogy still rings true for me. It is true to my own experience. Birth is chaotic and messy and terrifying and painful, but when it is done, the euphoria of creation surpasses the memory of pain. I had both of my births at home, unmedicated. I include this detail as a fact, because it is an important part of my own experience, not as a judgement on anyone else’s story. Despite preparing through yoga, meditation and hypnobirthing classes; despite the excellent midwifery care that I received; despite the constant physical and emotional support of my husband, both births were chaotic, messy, terrifying and painful. Not because there was anything wrong; because that is simply what birth is.

What was different about giving birth from any other form of creation I’ve participated in were the uncontrollable physical waves that propelled the process. My willpower, my active participation weren’t required for birth to happen: it was happening.

My willpower was required, however, to prevent fear and pain from sabotaging the wild physical energy of creation that was moving through me and had taken control of my body. Sabotaging it through tension, resistance, holding on. Sabotaging the final stages, where I needed to become a more active participant.

Recently, I was thinking about fear; the kind of fear that is not about immediate physical threat, not fear of death, but our constant fears of the “little deaths”: loss of identity, loss of pride, loss of security, loss of self. The kind of fear that sabotages us from taking the risks we need to fully birth ourselves. I thought about moments that I’ve experienced recently – and probably in the past, but at that time I was unable to separate myself enough from them to see this – where my fear of vulnerability, of humiliation, of failure threatened to hold me back from taking necessary risks, from telling the truth to people, from staying fully open to the intense moments that every life, no matter how ordinary, holds.

And I thought suddenly back to a moment – the deciding moment, in a way – in my older son’s birth. Birth comes through several stages: the first where you need to let yourself lose control to the waves that are moving the baby into position, where you need to above all make sure you keep breathing and don’t panic; the second, the moment of transition, where you are exhausted and sure you can’t do it any more, but in fact have moved through the worst of it; the last, where you need to actively push, often just a little, but sometimes a lot, to get that baby through that narrow passageway to the outside of your body. With this birth, I pushed for an unusually long time. I thought I was pushing as hard as I could. I was exhausted, close to depletion.

Finally, one of my lovely but tough-when-they-needed-to-be midwives told me that, despite all the progress that was happening in other ways, if the baby’s head wasn’t fully out within the next half hour, we would need to go to the hospital.

In that moment, the part of me that sometimes surprises me, the warrior part that loves nothing more than being given an ultimatum, said to myself “There is no way I am leaving this room, going down the stairs, getting into a car, and going to the hospital right now.” And then I knew, that what I had thought of as pushing was a poor excuse for what I actually needed to do: push right straight deep into the pain and right through it.

My son was born very quickly after that.

I think a lot recently of one of my favourite lines from David Whyte: “All paths to authenticity lead through the doors of humiliation.” Birth is a humiliating experience. At the end, no matter, how pulled-together and in control you are in the rest of your life, when you give birth – in truth or in metaphor – you are naked, sweating, covered in blood and bodily fluids. You are fully exposed.

Early in my labour in the birth of my second son I thought I was further along that I actually was. I was in a moment of hubris, because I had been practicing hypnosis techniques for birth, and I was sure that this birth would be easy.  I remember thinking in that moment: “But I don’t want to be naked in front of everyone.”  Later, when the real, huge, terrifyingly fast contractions came – in the brief seconds where I was able to breathe in between – I could laugh at myself. When I had to give in to the humility of truly giving birth, being naked and exposed were the last things on my mind. My body was everything, but it was nothing. The experience was huge and wild and overwhelming and messy and so much bigger than my own ego and my own self.

After my first birth, after we were cleaned up, the sheets were changed, the midwives had left, and my exhausted husband and tiny newborn son slept nestled together on our bed, I stayed awake alone, euphoric.

I had passed through a doorway of fear and pain and had come out the other side. “Pain with a purpose,” as my midwives called it. The pain of creation. It was the closest thing to a true rite of passage that I had every experienced. I decided then that I would never be afraid of anything again.

I laugh remembering that promise. I am still afraid of things all of the time, much smaller things than giving birth. But once we set an intention like that, it is impossible to avoid returning to it, to avoid the responsibility of what that kind of promise means.

In truth, I realize that my promise was not about never being afraid. It was about forever holding on to that memory of breathing into the chaos and mess and hugeness of of creation: of life, or art, or of an authentic, integrated self. Pushing through the pain. Moving through the fear. Engaging with humiliation. To get through the doorway to the other side.

Dancing from the inside

I spent last weekend at a wonderful plant conference/gathering. The conference and all I learned will be a story for another day. One of the highlights of the weekend for me was a dance party Saturday evening. A great band, a group of people I felt very comfortable with, and my own current commitment to get more dancing back into my life – and, in the bigger sense, to throw myself into physical experiences fully, without self-consciousness – meant I was on the dance floor for every song, my energy only growing as the night went on.

A friend who didn’t dance that evening commented later that it was beautiful to watch so many people dancing who were comfortable in their bodies and in their skin. The way she phrased it grabbed me and it stayed on my mind all week. I was grateful to have it pointed out. It brought my awareness to something I had in that moment taken for granted: dancing, I was comfortable with my body and my skin. I was fully inside my body, experiencing music and movement and love for the people all around me.

It seems so simple. But how many years did I spend mostly looking at myself from the outside? How many years have you spent that way? Critiquing photographs and my image in the mirror. Self-conscious; not doing things; not taking the risk. I learned early on that I wasn’t athletic, and for a while I stopped trying new things with my body. I danced – except when I sat out even that – but I often restricted my movements. I danced as if I was being watched.

In my twenties, influenced by Rebecca Solnit’s history of walking, and my own restlessness, I started walking for hours; I stumbled into yoga and pushed myself into an increasingly regular yoga practice. I did things that I had never though I could do. That, followed by giving birth and nursing my children brought me into a new alignment with my body. I sometimes became a little giddy with how powerful it felt to be able to do these things, how resilient my body was, how strong. I realized that, completely contradicting what I had believed about myself as a child, I needed a LOT of movement; in truth, my body was always hungry for it.

And then, for a while, restricted by the demands of child care, I didn’t get the amount of movement I needed. I was tired. I got stuck in my head again. I stepped back again, shocked to see from the outside how much I had aged.

I wondered then what it would have been like to age in a time and place where there were no mirrors and no photographs. I thought about what that would mean. I didn’t think I could do away with them altogether. But could I minimize their influence on my self-perception?

Now, in my body at forty, I feel more energy, more vitality than I did in my twenties. I feel a strong core of physical confidence that I didn’t have before. And yet, when I look at myself from the outside – with critical eyes – I am sometimes surprised at the disconnect I feel between inner and outer.

Living from inside my body, instead of perceiving it from the outside, is the only way I can integrate aging. As I get older, must I learn the truth of every cliche? Yes, dance like nobody’s watching. That’s the only way to do it.

And the cultural truth that women become invisible after a certain age? That in-between age, the age of mothers and women busily going about their daily work, between the beauty of youth and the presence of the elder. I wonder now if there is some power in that invisibility. The power of skirting around the edge of things, aware but not always seen. The power to fully embody yourself, for your own pleasure. The power of living life from the inside out.

I am alive; I am healthy and strong; my senses are fully engaged; I am grateful for what my body can do.