One Thing

I am writing this to avoid writing something else. I am at my most articulate when procrastinating. I would say it’s part of my process but that’s a lie. I don’t want to write the other thing, so I’m not doing it. I’m doing this.

But the truth is I’m doing this, and I’m doing seven other things. Don’t believe me? I’ll count them for you: 1) Checking and responding to email; 2) Making a to-do list for work; 3) Planning my weekend activities; 4) Listening to a voicemail; 5) Checking Instagram and Facebook notifications; 6) Worrying about The Thing I’m Not Writing But Really- Really-Need to Write; 7) Eating lunch.

I would venture a guess that many of you reading this do the same thing. We are multi-tasking machines, at work, at home, at play. We’re never just doing one thing at a time; having a conversation while you’re still scrolling through social media, talking on the phone while flipping through cable, or my absolutely worst, getting ready for the day or cooking dinner while being on conference calls. I’m always doing while listening, looking, reading, absorbing. My life is full of noise and information. I imagine most of ours are.

And I wonder if that’s part of why I am (we are) exhausted and itchy all of the time. Why I feel like I’ve inherited my mothers pathological inability to sit still. It drives the cat bonkers-I’m never standing in one place and he HAS TO KNOW WHERE I AM AND WHAT I AM DOING AT ALL TIMES ALWAYS MEOW. It starts to become a chicken or the egg issue: am I anxious because I’m always moving and doing, or am I always moving and doing because I’m anxious? I’m an ouroboros of frenzy.

On an animal, critter, rat-brain level I know this is unhealthy. That while multitasking is a great and helpful skill, this amount of diffuse focus means I’m never luxuriating into any one activity, just skimming the surface of engagement on each thing. Some days you’re in the flow and multitasking feels effortless and productive, but lately, for weeks, months, it’s felt like the amount of plates I need to keep spinning is untenable. I’ve lost track of which plates can fall and which can’t-a bad sign. When everything is equally important, it’s impossible to prioritize, and prioritizing is how we keep it all from going off the rails.

I was thinking about this last night after I left a work happy hour, where I was forced to put on high heels and a smile even though I’d worked an exhausting day, I was starving, and just wanted to crawl in bed. I showed up already angry and sick to my stomach from a lurching trip through crosstown traffic, and too-low blood sugar due to being too busy to eat a decent lunch. I was unpleasant towards people who didn’t deserve it, who were only trying to give me a nice evening. I didn’t like anyone or anything; I resented having to be there. When I finally did leave, it was oppressively hot and humid outside; a storm had been building all day-actually for the last few days.

And I could feel it building in me, too, like the need to scream or cry or rage. Full of electricity and menace. The energy has to go somewhere. It has to dissipate somehow. Something had to give, and it looked like the only thing that was possible to give was me. Just as the clouds cracked open with lightening I opened my door, and crashed on my couch. For 20 minutes I laid there, motionless in the dark, just watching the storm roll in, the rain pour down, no phone, no tv, no computer, no voices. Just me, the cat, and the storm. I felt every ounce of tired, every moment of frustration, every tense muscle. I breathed, deeply, for the first time all day. One breath in, and out. One thing. Until my storm passed.

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13 Going On…

I had dinner with a group of middle school students tonight, invited by a friend who is now their teacher. The idea was to share about our lives in DC, our jobs, and general advice we would give ourselves, if we could go back and talk to ourselves at that age.

Which of course, got me thinking: what would I tell 13 year old me? First of all, I probably couldn’t have told her much. I have always insisted on learning my lessons personally, the hard way. No one’s advice ever made much of a dent compared to personal experience. I had to touch the hot stove, no matter how much I was warned away from it. I still do.

But even so, if I could sit her down and tell her anything, I would tell her this:

I would tell her that having your heart broken will always hurt, just as much, just as deeply, but you’ll get better about picking up the pieces and moving on with your life. You will cry in the bathroom and at night in your bed, but otherwise you’ll be able to hold it together pretty well. I would tell her this is important-having a heart capable of being broken is how you know you’re still in there, somewhere.

I would tell her that you’ll get better at managing the fear of putting yourself out on a limb, not knowing what will come next. That much of being an adult is managing the fear of uncertainty, of sitting in that discomfort and making friends with it. I would tell her that most people are not this brave, and this is a feature that will propel her to many, many amazing experiences, and a few really difficult ones. I would tell her that vulnerability will hurt like a son of a bitch, but that so does the loneliness of not opening up to others. I would tell her she doesn’t get to avoid pain, but she can usually choose which kind she gets.

I would tell her that many men will find her alluring, despite what everyone is currently telling her about her body. I would also tell her that attraction isn’t the same as respect, and lust isn’t the same as love. I would tell her not to worry about whether they like her, and focus on whether she likes them. I would tell her not to get addicted to that dopamine hit- it will fade and you will be left chasing it forever. I would encourage her to embrace the slow burn and not jump to the ending out of a deep discomfort with uncertainty.

I would tell her that there is very little she can control in this life, and that worry is not an action, it’s an illusion. That the world will try to convince her otherwise, that if only she was a little prettier, better, smarter, whatever-er, she can will the world and the people in it to respond the way she wants. I would gently, lovingly, tell her this is deeply wrong. It will have nothing to do with her, in most cases (I would also tell her that I had to be reminded of this fact again-by a friend, gently, lovingly-this very week).  I would tell her that five year plans are bullshit and she should deeply distrust anyone or anything that asked her to develop one.

I would tell her that her parents were right about a lot of things- whether to take trigonometry, whether to join a sorority, whether you need to go out or stay home, whether you should be friends with those people, or date that boy. But-and this is perhaps more important- that she will realize one day that her parents were really, really wrong about other things, things that you believed like breathing, things that were based in love but also fear, and also their own stuff. And I would tell her that she could choose to put those things down, and not carry them with her, even if it feels impossible.

I would tell her to trust her gut, because it will rarely be wrong. I would tell her that her gut will keep her safe, even if it doesn’t make her happy. If she cultivates it, listens to it, trusts it even in the face of all evidence to the contrary, she will know what to do next. Her gut is her connection to the Divine. Even when it doesn’t make any sense on paper, her own inner knowing will walk her home.

And, I would tell her that one evening you’d look around a table of friends that had come to you in various ways, and you’d be joking about something unremarkable but erudite and you’d realize with a start that this was what you’d longed for most in your young life, to be seen, to be heard, to be loved, by people that you respected and adored.

And you’d remember that if that dream could come true, even 20 some odd years later, than so can others.

 

The Lawyer, the Magician, and Me

I’m currently on a plane, flying to San Francisco. I fly to San Francisco a lot, and besides the 6 hour journey in coach, it is not the world’s worst place to have to visit with regularity. Even the 6 hour journey can be welcome. If I don’t log into the in-flight wifi, I can ignore the real world and give myself some time to read, to think, to write, or to catch up on TV.

Which is what I opted to do this trip, to catch up on my latest obsession, The Magicians. It’s on ScyFy (the dumbest possible spelling) and is full of wry humor, pop culture references, and unsentimental heart. It’s ostensibly about magic, but it’s really about people. I’m not going to ruin it for you, but I encourage you to watch it, as a flight of fancy and also as a meditation on love and humanity.

I knew the show was more than a trifle when one of the characters tells another something to the effect of, “you treat magic like a drug because the people that taught you to use it behaved like drug dealers. Magic is everywhere, you don’t have to barter and bargain and sacrifice for it.” That resonated in a deep place for me, except replace “magic” with “love,” which is basically what the show does. I’ve written about hustling for worthiness-for love-before, and I suspect I’ll write about it for years to come, but this statement was shattering. Because that is how I treat love. Not the love I give, but the love I want to receive. I give my love to others freely, but for some reason expect that theirs comes at a price, it comes with conditions. Only if I’m good enough, or give them something worthwhile of mine, will I get that love. And perhaps love feels like a drug to me because it always seems like the first hit is free. After that it will cost you. And dearly. It costs me a piece of myself, which is exactly what magic costs this character. But it didn’t have to- it was just the only type of magic she knew about.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately too, if there are other types of magic, figuratively speaking. Magic, and love, that is less painful. Less costly. Before I went to law school, I was an actress. I was also a mortgage officer and a concierge and a lot of other things to pay the bills, but what I went to school for, what I felt called to do, was be an actress-a creative artist. But good God was it hard on an emotional, sensitive person like me. When I was performing, it was like I had magic running through my veins, electricity emanating from my heart. The constant rejection, the fear of failure, the feelings of not being good enough. It felt like I had purposely chosen the hardest possible path for myself, because of the rare moments of fun and passion…. Sound familiar? Sound like anything else in my life? Love feels this way for me-like letting a wild animal made of light run around inside your chest.

So after a few years of deeply unhappy struggle, in love and in life, I made a new choice, I decided on law school, which I’d always sworn I would never do, and I moved half way across the country and I started a new life, a completely different timeline. I put away performing and I didn’t even go to see a play for about 5 years. It was too hard. It felt too raw, like seeing an ex who had hurt you deeply. Like with anything I love that betrays me, I walked away and avoided it entirely. I embraced this new person, the student and the lawyer and the civil servant. I made new, wonderful friends and built a new beautiful, challenging, rewarding life in Washington D.C.

And yet.

It would bubble up. It started with singing in the choir at the National Cathedral. The amount of emotion that I felt from those practices, from that experience, told me the door I’d tried so hard to shut, hadn’t been totally barred. I started writing again, not just memos and briefs, but blogging, and writing some fiction. The words flowed easily, pouring out of my like a dam being released.

Other things started to come back to me, other loves, from even earlier in my life. Mythology, history, fantasy-magic. Things I’d been fascinated with as a child, that I’d put away when I thought I had to grow up. Things that I decided weren’t acceptable for adult, professional women. Soft, lovely, joyful things that have no particular utility other than making me happy, the things that make you feel like there’s pop rocks in your heart.

For a while I didn’t know what to do with these things. I kept picking up the old books of my heart, uncertain in what order to shelve them. I liked being a lawyer, I liked the skills and the logic and the order it brought to my chaotic, reckless, overwhelmed and overwhelming heart. Learning to reason in this way gave me rules, and rules have always brought me comfort. Rules make sense when nothing else seems to. Rule provide boundaries that have always been porous for me; rules are safe. At a time in my life when I felt like the magic I’d once had inside of me had dried up, or wasn’t enough, the rules offered me a place to lay my head, and feel normal- even strong. But it was, I see now, an overcorrection, a pendulum swing out of frustration and deep longing. The rules weren’t enough. The safety wasn’t enough for my big, chaotic, reckless heart, the heart that just couldn’t convince itself to settle for comfortable security instead of an epic love story-romantic and otherwise.

Because as I’ve let the magic come back in, I can understand that I am both of these things: sense and sensibility. Lawyer and Magician. The Lawyer is the “adult,” she guides and counsels the Magician. She tells her when to go to bed, and when to eat at a reasonable hour. She dries her tears and reminds her that things will always look better in the morning, and you can do anything for one day at a time (perhaps unsurprisingly, the Lawyer often sounds a lot like my Mom). But because the Lawyer is there, the Magician can be all heart, and no fear. I had to experience the one to appreciate the other. I had to discover them both, to be whole.

But what do I do now, now that I’ve let the Magician come back out to play, to stretch her wings, to be her chaotic, reckless, gentle self again? How do I fit her into the life I’ve created, the one with clear rules and boundaries? Do I let her blow it all up? What comes next for us all?

 

 

Seasons of Blergh

Where the fuck is Spring?

Seriously. It’s April 9th and it snowed today. Not a lot. But it still snowed. In April. In what is essentially Virginia. Not cool (or rather, too cool. Words are weird).

I’m not the only one kvetching about our missing spring, and discussing the weather, is not, as a rule, what one might consider interesting. But this never-ending winter has been trying my patience, and I am not known for that particular virtue. It has been working on it in a way that seems significant.

First, some context: I have never been a patient person, from childhood on. I wasn’t raised by patient people. On both sides of my family you can find individuals that range from driven to relentless to rat-terrier-trying-to-dig-a-hole. We are powerful and dynamic and smart and committed, but patient we are not. We want what we want when we want it, and not just a bean feast or a cute yet vicious anthropomorphic squirrel (raise your hand if you got that *very* attenuated Veruca Salt reference). Once an idea has entered this steel trap of a mind, it very rarely shakes loose until satisfied. Even to my detriment. It’s a lesson I have been taught time and time again, but rarely retained.

But this winter, something seems to have shaken loose. It feels like giving up, a bit, to a person so hellbent on maintaining control and moving ever forward. But somewhere along week 17 of January, I felt something shift, something give. The idea of surrender popped up everywhere. In church, at work, in books I was reading. A trainer asked me what would happen if instead of trying to change my circumstances, I simply worked with what I had? Not embraced it, not keep a gratitude journal (an idea that makes me instantly bratty), just accept it. Surrender.

It was a terrifying thought. If I’m not keeping those plates spinning, if I’m not shouldering the world on my back, what happens? Does it all come crashing down? Or, do I find that things tend to resolve themselves without my interference, for the most part. Turns out, it’s the latter. It wasn’t my will that was keeping things afloat, but rather my anxiety I was keeping at bay. Or so I thought. Mostly I was just giving that little rat terrier inside my head other things to chase, when really what it needed to do was lay down on it’s dog bed and fall asleep.

It also turns out once you take the pressure off yourself, it’s a lot easier to take the pressure off others. When you decide that it’s not up to you to decide, you remove a lot of judgment and neediness. If I don’t have to have things perfect, then others don’t have to be perfect to participate. And it is truly amazing how people show up when you don’t expect anything of them, if you just let them be. It’s amazing how much they can give to you when you aren’t sucking it out of them, or smacking them like a ketchup bottle.

Resistance, persistence, struggle, surrender.

Case in point, I recently started dating someone I stopped dating a year or so ago, because things weren’t moving as quickly as I liked. But when we came back together, I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t have any expectations. I let him lead (which is the hardest), I let him reveal himself to me, and I’ve learned so much I never let myself see when I was trying to force an outcome. It may go somewhere, it may go nowhere, but I’m enjoying this a hell of a lot more than treating our interactions like chess moves.

I don’t think it was just the winter, though, I think it was also an important piece of growing up that I’d simply never quite mastered. Realizing that planning for every possible eventuality might be good business, but it means I miss everything in the moment it’s happening. And there’s some good stuff happening in those moments. Some great stuff. And if there are no more moments, then shouldn’t I enjoy the ones I’m in, instead of worrying about how to preserve those that may come in the future? None of that is promised, but this moment is. It just is. It’s an excruciating paradox of life, we must live it, second by second, plans or not.

I’m not saying I’m good at it. It’s an experiment, leaning back and just seeing what happens. It’s not easy for me. It drives me crazy sometimes, but it’s a different sort of crazy than compulsively trying to control things.  Being open to possibilities other than what I think should happen feels unnatural, but it’s far more natural than what I was doing. It is natural like this endless winter; I can’t do a thing about it. It just is. It’s working on me, and it’s leaving in it’s own sweet time. I can accept it, or I cannot, but neither choice matters a damn bit. So why not keep my powder dry for things that matter?

As Florence and the Machine sing, “I’m not giving up, I’m just giving in.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Deeper

There’s a pretty common saying that “what you resist, persists.” I have found that to be true.  For instance: I don’t do well alone. Not in a occasional Friday night in, or a living by myself, or a going to dinner or the movies for one sort of way, all things that I do, and often enjoy. I mean fundamentally alone. Without someone who knows you, or knows what you’re going through, or can bear witness to your life.

It should be mentioned here, that I am an extrovert. That is an understatement. Saying I’m an extrovert is like saying that Grand Canyon is a pretty decent hole in the ground. I can’t function without people. My motto is the more the merrier, even when it’s probably not. I process everything externally, needing a sounding board for the smallest decisions (what do I wear today) to the largest (do I take this job out of town). Now, often this external dialogue is just a quick photo text to a friend, or a one-sided dialogue with my cat (although Gary has a lot of opinions). I don’t wish to convey that I can’t make my own decisions-it’s that coming to my own decision requires me to talk it out, like contestants on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I usually emotionally know what answer I want to get to, but because I’m also a lawyer, I need to back it up with logical steps.

Part of this is inborn, part of it is being an only child who’s only hope at siblings was friends, and part of it is moving so much as an adult I got good at building community whereever I landed. But regardless of the reason, this is a fundamental truth for me: I do not want to be alone.

And yet, I find myself alone again (and again, and again), in the sense of romantic partnership. Surrounded by friends, embraced by family, some very fun flings, but coming home to an empty house. For a person like me, who is a Cancer (like Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote “I am the planet’s most affectionate life-form, something like the cross between a golden retriever and a barnacle…,”) it feels cosmically cruel. I tried to explain this to friends recently, when I said I wanted a partner to build a life with. One of them asked me what the hell I had been doing-was this not a life? And yes, of course this is a life. It’s a great life. But lately I’ve been craving a deeper one.

I’ll admit, for years I would say I was ready, but I wasn’t, not really. In going back through blog posts on this very site, you’ll see me saying similar things. But a disastrous relationship where I lost myself seemed to confirm my deepest fears: I could be alone and deeply unhappy, or with someone and totally lost. Pick your poison. After that experience, where we had talked about marriage, deep down I thought of marriage and kids as anvil and anchor, and I didn’t want to stand still for long enough to get tethered. It made me itchy. Pushing things away that didn’t look or feel perfect, hiding behind “rules,” saying I was making room for better things.  Running away, traveling, focusing on work, pushing the fear and loneliness away with all manner of bad habits.  What I figured out was that I craved the validation of a relationship, but couldn’t come up with better reasons than “achieving appropriate adult milestones and feeling pretty,” which I think we can all agree are shitty reasons to get hitched. If you’re only seeking validation, you’ll keep trying long past you know you should stop. You’ll keep chasing that dopamine dragon, looking for love in all the wrong places.

But the slow realization has been dawning on me that while that definitely was very true for me, it isn’t any longer. I’ve come up with better reasons than validation.

I’m not sure when I fully understood it. Maybe when my Dad was in the hospital, and with it the realization that he could be gone and never walk me down an aisle, never hold a grandchild. That was terrifying in a way I didn’t expect. Maybe it was watching my friend and her family at church, the little unit that fits all together like a lovely puzzle. Maybe it’s seeing the joy in another friend’s face even in the midst of exhaustion. Maybe it’s seeing how they didn’t lose themselves, but became deeper versions of themselves. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, love looks different from the inside. And there are scarier things, it turns out, then loving someone and letting them love you.

I think it is all of these things, and this: I’m ready for the life I’m building to grow much deeper, and I’ve reached the end of what I can reasonably accomplish alone. I need teammates. And while I have amazing friends (and I think our friendships are sorely undervalued in a society that places so much privilege on romantic relationships), they can’t grow with me in this way-they are growing their own families. Turns out marriage and kids aren’t anvils and anchors; they’re roots, and roots can come with you and be repotted. You don’t have to stay in one place.

I feel exposed and vulnerable acknowledging this now. Wanting something, and worse admitting you want something, opens you up to the possibility of failure. But on this score I am already living the worst case scenario, and it’s honestly not bad at all. It is a great life. I just want to root deeper into it.

Personal Brand (Or, a Recap and the New Way Forward) (Or, the Longest Saturday)

Easter Sunday feels as good as any day for a relaunch. The story of Easter has three parts over a weekend- the tragedy and loss of the crucifixion (Friday), the uncertainty and despair afterwards (Saturday), and then the promised redemption, the pronouncement that all is not lost and in fact, all has been gained (Easter Sunday). I don’t know about you, but I have living in the Saturday, for months. For at least all of winter, if not longer. Maybe since the election. This Saturday has been for-fucking-ever, just a long expanse of unmet hope and expectation. Of disappointment, loss, and confusion.

Since last we met I’ve had two sad breakups in rapid succession, both with nice people where we were both trying our best, but for personal reasons or physical distance, we just couldn’t work it out (which, let’s be honest, is way harder to deal with emotionally than shitty behavior or a no-holds barred breakup. Anger is so much easier than sadness). Then there was a parental health scare, drawing my family into itself and making us all confront some hard truths. And then work continues to be… I don’t want to talk about it. So in conjunction with all of that, this blog has ebbed and flowed and lately it’s been in a hard ebb. But so have I. I’ve struggled to put into words all of the heavy feelings we’re swimming in these days, and the joy feels more blanched and hard to keep ahold of. I’ve been fixated on my phone, on posting things, on likes and loves and comments. I don’t know why. I guess we all have a gaping hole of some sort inside of us and mine needs near constant validation. That’s my monster, what’s yours?

When I’ve mentioned my blog recently, the feeling that I need a revamp, or I need to be more relevant, people-well meaning lovely people who only want me to be successful- keep telling me I need to own a domain, I need to post pictures, I need to expand, I need to be strategic. They’re probably right, but all I want to do is tell stories. My stories. They’re personal and they may not always be on message, on brand. But neither am I. Because I’m not a brand- I’m a person. I contain multitudes, I don’t want to be a commodity (but we’ve even tried to commodify Whitman).

But that’s what we’re trained to be. It’s been recently revealed that Facebook users aren’t customers, we’re the product. I have lots of friends that work for or adjacent to Facebook so this isn’t a conversation about what was or wasn’t done or why. Merely that in a social media landscape, and I’m including blogs here, we’re trained to market ourselves. In online dating profiles, we’re selling ourselves as “perfect wife or husband (or “non-label-having partner of limited to long-term duration”).  We’re doing it the same way I pick out a toaster on Amazon. I used to think of it as auditioning, but that’s done in person. This is catalog browsing.

This isn’t a novel revelation, but it certainly was one to me. It recently occurred to me in a conversation about online dating with someone new to it why I was so resistant to dive back in-not into dating, but into the online arena: I’m tired of marketing myself. I just want to be myself. And myself- my real, authentic self-comes across as deeply weird in an online snapshot. Truth be told, I am deeply weird, but it’s charming in context, when you get to know me (I think. I hope). When you can watch me flail about with my hands when I talk, when I get darkly funny about inappropriate topics, when I touch people-strangers, friends, small children-like I’m patting a horse, because I find touch reassuring. None of this is stuff you can-or should!-say in an online profile. The me you get online is two dimensional, basic. Flat. Geared towards the common denominator with the pictures that make me look uniformly pretty and appealing. Not the real best pictures, the ones with my face cracked into a chortling laugh, or lost in blank-faced thought, or scrunched up in incredulity, as is most often the case. I don’t particularly like the person I am on an online dating site. I don’t know how to showcase the things about me that I do love. And that’s what I get back, from the men I meet. Our least offensive selves, trying to find intimacy.

I’ve been thrown by someone I found myself liking in real life, because I’m so used to meeting men in contexts where I already know they at least find me somewhat attractive; it has made me realize how intolerant of vulnerability I have become. Online dating is the least vulnerable why to meet a person because it tries to control all the variables. All it really does is suppress our most interesting characteristics in a risk-averse pas a deux. How can you connect with your soulmate from the most beige part of your being?

I have to find a better way. For my own sanity. The need or comments, or likes, or trying to game the system brings out a really unflattering side of me (and I’m not talking about Instagram selfies). I’ve been running to the same well I always run to-pleasing and performing-whenever I feel vulnerable and uncertain. Even now, as I write this, there are people I hope read it, because I’m hoping it will bring them closer to me. I don’t like that I want that. But I can’t help that I do. Part of it is how I was raised, but I think a lot more of it is about the society we live in-where we’re all encouraged, now explicitly, to think of ourselves as products, as a value proposition in a person.

A friend of mine recently shared her theory that we’re all suffering from a low-grade simmering rage, because of this life we live in a capitalist society, where we’re always in a constant state of anxiety about having enough, making enough, being enough-and we’re starting to suspect that the game is rigged. We can’t actually get ahead in a meaningful way, not most of us. Not enough people are buying our personal product. And so our rage comes out against our bosses, our work, each other. It’s why you don’t want to go to work on a Monday, it’s why you get the Sunday Scaries, it’s why you wake up in the middle of the night asking yourself if you’re living the life you imagined? Did you, in fact, go confidently in the direction of your dreams? Do you even remember what those were?

Or is that just me?

(It’s not. I know it’s not. You don’t have to raise your hand, but it’s not.)

I have a lot of friends who are entrepreneurs, who have that hustle or die spirit. Who sell themselves and their work and do so joyfully. I do not. I can hustle, certainly. I do, often. But sitting in that energy for too long makes me edgy and full of anxiety. I’ve felt a lot of pressure lately to fit that mold, but every time I do, I feel exhausted and incompetent. But I’m not incompetent, it’s just not my highest vibration. My inner voice doesn’t tell me to conquer-it tells me to care. To tell the stories and hold the space and be a witness and a scribe.  It’s that voice I hear when I start to write. It’s the voice that tells me just keep writing. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense in the moment, if it’s on message, if it’s funny, if it’s poignant, if it’s total dross. Just keep writing, in the way a ditch digger keeps shoveling. You keep writing to get to the bottom of things. Or at least I do. And that’s enough. Writing because it’s how my brain turns over an idea and polishes it until it’s shiny or grinds it into dust is reason enough, even without hashtags and links. Not everything I turn over is going to be pretty. Not everything will even be worth reading or looking at, not everything will be a product you want to buy or an idea you want to endorse. But for once, I’m ready to say, it’s not really for you. I hope you will read because I very much hope you’ll find something that resonates, that helps you find your own voice. But it’s not for you. It’s for me.

 

Grace Period

Last year New Years Eve felt primal. We lit things on fire. We screamed and laughed and got drunk. 2016 had been a surprising bastard of a year, killing beloved pop culture icons and arguably American exceptionalism and basic democracy, and we all wanted to joyously kick it soundly out the door, thinking that 2017 would have to better.

[Narrator: 2017 would not, in fact, be better.]

As we now know, if 2016 was a horror movie with terrifying twists at every turn, 2017 was a slow, inexorable march of numbed grief and sadness. Like having a low-grade emotional flu for the entire year. In fact, 2017 felt emotionally the exact way I felt physically throughout 2015, when I was battling an auto-immune disorder. Constantly foggy, tired, frustrated, and scared.

So this year for New Years Eve, if felt like whatever happened was going to be a let down. Plans were murky until the last minute and so when 2017 became 2018 I was on a friend’s couch, watching the countdown on CNN, wrapped in a blanket and joking about how bad the chemistry was between Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper (who looked like the Night King, for some reason). No one was feeling NYE 2017.

Night turned into morning and now it is a new year. My house is a wreck from guests and my own complacency. My usual fit of New Years KonMari hasn’t quite kicked in, and I go back to work tomorrow after a week away. I feel like I could easily nap for a decade. This is not New Year-New You, it’s New Year-Same Dumb Crap As Always.

So fine. I’m giving myself a grace period. Maybe that’s what we all need in 2018. A little bit of grace. The Wise Men didn’t show up for another week, and if our Lord and Savior could cool his heels for a week, so can I. I declare this the Week of Grace. On the other side is Epiphany. And maybe by then I will have a clear and quiet enough mind to really know what I want out of 2018. Instead of setting resolutions this year, I’m looking for epiphanies. I’ll let you know what I find.

So this is Christmas

It’s Christmas morning, 2017, and I wish you good tidings of great joy. I can’t quite make it to merry, myself.

I’ve shared before that I often find my strongest connection to God (/Spirit/Universe/whatever-you-like-to-call-it) through music, and the Advent and Christmas season is no different. Since I was little I’ve always been drawn to the darker, more somber carols. The ones in a minor key. The ones that seem best sung at night, in the mysterious twilight when the Angel came upon the Shepherds and said “hey, dudes, there’s this baby you might want to go see.” And they did it, because it was an angel and you don’t really say “ok, maybe in a minute” to an Angel.

I might be paraphrasing here.

But the point is- I’ve always been drawn to the melancholy just under the surface of Christmas. Even in the modern ones, you can keep your “Jingle Bells” and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”- give me  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” which is just the most haunting and hopeless song, written at a time when many men and women were very far away from home, fighting what was arguably the last clear war we’ve fought.

There’s a bitter in the sweet of Christmas, the open secret we all know. From the moment of his birth Jesus was doomed to die. I  mean, so are we all, I guess, but he was fated to do so as a sacrifice. Imagine looking at your infant son and knowing upon him rested the fate of the world. Imagine knowing that every second of his life would be shrouded in the awareness of the painful ending. And imagine doing it all anyway, in the hope and faith that something greater would come from it. Even his gifts were a reminder- Mary, don’t get too attached, and here’s some Myrrh that can be used in funeral rites (a lesson I learned from the OG of creepy Christmas carols, “We Three Kings”).

I don’t share this as an armchair theologian, as there are far smarter people who can do much more significant analysis. But as a reminder that in the bright there is the dark, and in the dark there is the bright. Yin and Yang are Eastern concepts, but we ignore the ebb and flow in our western traditions at our peril. We cannot experience joy without loss and sadness, and vice versa. Trying to focus on one without the other leads to a spiritual stomach ache, too much sugar without enough substance.

And Jesus H. Christ(‘s birthday) was this a substantial, heavy year. We thought 2016 was bad-2017 said “hold my beer.” It was gut punch after gut punch with (still) no end in sight. It was understandable that some people would embrace Christmas even harder this year, diving head first into lights and tinsel and food and frivolity. And I think equally understandable that others like me, would struggle to care. To feel much of anything at all. If all year has been one long continuous loop of grief and panic, you get numb to much of anything after a while.

But then I think about Mary. And I think about Jesus. And all the people in his short life that allowed themselves to love- and love deeply-knowing the ending all along. Believing that after the night comes the dawn. To follow the current of melancholy, to better locate those moments of joy along the way.

Maybe that’s the best we can do this year.  Have yourselves a merry little Christmas, in whatever way you can.

Advent, 2017

A few years ago, I became aware of the time in the Christian calendar known as Advent. What most of us think of as Christmastime/tide actually happens after the birth of Christ. The time before, despite shop windows and Christmas carols on the radio from the instant you fall into your post-Thanksgiving turkey snooze, is actually Advent. Technically Advent started last Sunday, but I’m not one to get too semantic… about this anyway.

I was introduced to what Advent was all about during a beautiful message during a Christmas Carols and Lessons service at the National Cathedral, where I was singing at the time. The message was full of meaning, but one thing that stuck out for me was the description of Advent as the “almost, but not yet” of God. That which is promised and hoped for, but not yet here. What do we do in the waiting? How do we make the waiting an exquisite practice of faith?

Since that message I have learned more, that Advent is intended as the clearing away, the getting quiet, the preparing, for (re)birth and renewal. Like the blowing out of all the air in your lungs so you can take a deep, nourishing breath. KonMari for the soul. In the U.S. it unfortunately coincides with the hustle and bustle rush up to the holiday, leaving many if not most of us reeling from meal to meal, gift to gift, not really feeling any of it until we arrive exhausted and spent at the new year, vowing austerity and abstention.

What if it didn’t have to be like that? What if instead we got quiet and still, even in the midst of the madness, and breathed out, instead of sucking more in, in, in? What if we resisted the urge to do more, make more, find more time, and fit more into a day already too packed? What if we lived in the discomfort of the almost, but not yet?

This year has been a slog, I grant you. I don’t blame any of us for wishing it over and done with as fast as humanly possible. But I worry in the wishing we are missing it. The opportunity to get clear on what we want to carry into the next year, and leave behind in this one. So how do we resist, when everything is rushing us inexorably forward?

That’s what I plan to explore here, hopefully with you, over the next two short weeks of Advent. It’s a shorter season than usual this year, which just seems like a cruelty that’s part for the course of 2017, but no matter. We will do our best.

I’m starting with a practice of prayer. It’s been said that prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening to God. But I think prayer can be both-an active conversation with the Divine. Now before you worry too much, I’m not hearing voices or anything. Just when I do-finally-let myself get quiet, I often find the answer to my question bubbles up like I always knew it.

And yet-I resist it. I spend so many minutes of my day in noise. I resist the quiet. I fight it. I run from it. And in doing so, I avoid prayer. I avoid that conversation with the Divine. Why? I’ve shared with you all openly about my faith and its place in my life. But prayer-woof. In the past few years it has gone so far to the back burner, it’s basically in the fridge. I know people who are reflexive in their prayer-it is the first tool for which they reach. For me, it’s the absolute last, I’ve-tried-everything-else, final, desperate thing I call upon-and sometimes not even then.

I think it’s because I don’t want to hear the answers. It’s the same reason I haven’t been writing much, in this year where I could have said so much. Give me time to actually get quiet and process this year of shit and I’m not sure I can handle the amount of rage and sadness that simmers just behind my smile.

But that’s what Advent calls us to do. Clear it out. Deal with it. Get it out in the open and out of the way so that you can make beautiful, clear space for what’s coming. Because Christ makes space, he will fit into any space available. He fit into a manger. You’ve just got to make a little, tiny, bit of room.

A More Perfect Union

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, [sic] promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

These words have given me solace over the last few months. I have often found solace in the Constitution, like other people turn to the Bible or the Quran. Not that I don’t also take some solace in religious texts, but the turmoil I’ve been feeling, while spiritual in a sense, is definitely about men, and their laws. So I look to our foundational documents, and this is what I meditate on.

The Preamble to the US Constitution, which is what I’ve quoted above, essentially functions as our national mission statement. It declares our aspirations for this enterprise-it is what we are striving for. We never said we were perfect. Right there, front and center, we admit that we are trying to form a “more perfect union.” More perfect implying, there is room for improvement. And there will always be room for improvement. So right there at the top, we admit that this is a process; the nation did not spring from Washington’s temple fully formed and raring to go like Athena-no matter what the Apotheosis of Washington would have you believe. We are a work in progress. We will always be a work in progress. We said so right at the jump.

But what else did we say? What other aspirations would we eventually hitch our wagon to, when we made a Declaration of Independence in that hot Philadelphia summer? Justice. Domestic Tranquility. Common Defense. General Welfare. The Blessings of Liberty.

How are we doing on these?

We are certainly not tranquil here domestically. It’s another hot summer (itself a political fact in a world where science is up for debate), and Justice isn’t being served in cases like that of the murder of Philando Castile. Our Common Defense has become our Common Offense, as we move to ramp up troops in what is now the longest war in American History. (Where, again? Oh, Afghanistan. Yeah, that’s still going on), as ISIS has become the predominant threat in an entirely different part of the world. General Welfare? Well if the congressional leadership has their way, 23 million Americans will be unenrolled from health insurance, which might have  a *slight* effect on their general welfare (and yes, a recognize some of that number is from healthy people choosing to leave the markets, but that is part of the problem at the heart of “general” welfare). And the biggie: the Blessings of Liberty? Well, with a revamped travel ban in place, I guess we were really focusing on the “for ourselves” part of that clause; “our posterity” will not be reviewed kindly for it.

So overall, I’d give us a D+. The only thing keeping us from failing entirely is the curve (of history).

Which all means that this Fourth of July I’m finding it a bit hard to be star-spangled. I don’t consider myself a fair-weather patriot, although I suppose I might agree with Sarah Vowell and her Partly Cloudy one. It’s not “my country, right or wrong,” but “my country, my duty to make right when wrong.”  I’ve written before about the difference between Patriotism and Nationalism. Patriotism is saying that America is great, right now, because we are constantly admitting our short comings and striving to perfect them. We are great, because by and large our people believe in justice, fairness, liberty, and equality, but we are not without fault. Nationalism is when we say we want to Make America Great Again, without acknowledging the internal conflicts, injustices, disparities, and inequalities and that prevent our greatness. Blind allegiance is anathema to a more perfect union.

It is not weakness to admit that we could be more perfect. To admit that you need to constantly tend the fires of liberty and justice, because people are imperfect and we create imperfect systems. It is not weakness to say that we have a long way to go, while celebrating how far we have come. It is not weakness to want to be better- for us to ALL be better, not just some.

It is not weakness and we declared it, right at the start, 241 years ago today.  Happy Independence Day, everyone. May it be a step towards a more perfect union.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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