Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

One of the things I’m working on this year is learning to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. I think a lot of my bad habits grow out of the desire to paper over any feelings I don’t like: sadness, anger, shame, fear. It’s one thing to say, “Oh, eating unhealthy foods is a coping mechanism.” It’s another thing entirely to understand what it means in connection with my moods and behavior.

If I could just live in my most favorite place . . . all my issues would have an ocean view!

A key moment came when I was rereading The Inner Voice of Love by Henri J. M. Nouwen. Nouwen, who was a Catholic priest, struggled with a deep depression—the kind of dark night of the soul that tends to lead either to powerful insights or really destructive behaviors. Or maybe both, if you're like me. The Inner Voice of Love  consists of a series of brief essays that he originally wrote to himself as he worked through this chasm of despair. Later, friends advised him to seek a publisher, and I am glad he took their advice. His perspective as a Christian may not work for every reader, but the things he has to say about being kind to himself, befriending those broken and fearful parts that he’d been shunning, are some of the most moving words I’ve read on the subject. I think they’d be helpful to a wide range of people.

The thing that struck me on this reading addressed the empty place Nouwen recognized at the heart of himself. As he worked to find a better mental and spiritual state, he gained the insight that this hollow place—what he seemed to think of as the inevitable distance between any mortal and God—was something he’d been trying to fill for years with relationships and other means of avoiding the pain. The relationships, he noted, always fell apart because he needed something beyond what any fallible human, however loving, could provide. Nor could he avoid for long that gaping hole, however alluring the distractions he found or created.

If you're able to laugh at this, probably I've never decided you were the answer to all my problems.

What finally dawned in him was the need to make peace with that absence, accept that it was an integral part of himself and his experience. In his essays, he counsels himself to be present with the pain, the confusion, the disappointment. To not grasp at other people, to not avert his gaze.

As it turns out, this is both excellent advice, and really, really hard to work on. I am a clever monkey, and lots of things interest me, so it’s far too easy to let my own stories or other people’s stories or craft projects or shiny objects or whatever paper over the pain for a bit. Or chocolate. Chocolate is a good paper-overer. At the same time, I’ve found myself repeatedly trying to befriend people who are clearly not that interested. Apparently the Bad Brain thinks if I can just win over one of those too-cool people, it will somehow make me okay. All those years of social floundering and loneliness and feeling like I don’t belong will . . . I don’t know. Not have happened? Belong to some other social leper?

If you’re somewhat less crazy than I am, you can probably see that none of those things will work, long-term. It can put the brakes on the downward mood spiral for a while, but it doesn’t end. There aren’t enough spontaneous bookstore purchases in the world to shut off the Bad Brain permanently.

Sometimes your shadow self just wants to snuggle.

But here’s the thing I’m learning: if I just sit with the uncomfortable stuff, whatever it is, it turns out I am not actually going to die from it. And while it still sucks, sometimes monumentally so, it’s also temporary. The pain fades into the background. I can be with that void, that chasm, acknowledge it, and after a while I can get back to being present with the writing, or the family stuff, or friends . . .Real life. The chasm is real, too. It’s the shadow part of me, working through the past, and the present. It’s doing necessary things. The fact that I didn’t want to see that for a long time doesn’t negate the meaning of it.

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a terrific essay on the shadow self in her book The Language of the Night. It’s been too long since I’ve had a chance to read it, but one of her points has stayed with me, and surfaced again as I was thinking about all this. Basically, she said we all have that shadow self. And the only way to live with it is to acknowledge it. If we try to run, or pretend it doesn’t exist, it just becomes more and more powerful. It’s in accepting our shadow selves that we become whole.

And, yeah. This has not been a great week in some ways. I’ve been restless and out of sorts, having a hard time focusing on the super-important tasks I meant to be doing. In some ways, emotional and spiritual wounds are like physical ones. Just as scars will itch, sometimes years after the scab falls off, that restlessness is a sign of healing. It makes a difference, too, when I can take a deep breath and sit next to that hole in my heart, that wound which never seems to heal. There will be sun later. For now, I’ll sit with the shadow and find out what it needs me to know.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Finding Ritual

One of the more comforting aspects of organized religion, at least for me, is the sense of ritual that comes ready-made for the worshipper. Several friends who worship in different traditions have been talking about their late-winter rituals. One of them made candles for Imbolc. Another anticipates Ash Wednesday with a funny bit about the different kinds of crosses people might find on their foreheads. (True story: The Spousal Unit comes from a solidly Utah-Mormon background, and grew up in the secular wilds of California. So when we moved to the Buffalo area, which has a large Catholic population, he was a bit mystified by some of the traditions. One winter day he came home from work and said, "A bunch of people left work and came back with smudges on their foreheads. I didn't know if I was supposed to notice or not." I gently explained Ash Wednesday to him.)

Anyway, all this has me thinking about the importance of ritual, both for uniting a community and for giving the individual markers for growth and change. Given the things I've experienced, there are parts of my old life that no longer move my heart--it's like finding that the pair of comfortable shoes that took you many wonderful places has worn out, the sides splitting or the tread scraped away. You don't want to lose the good parts--sometimes you can replace the sole (See what I did there? HA!) or glue the loose bits. And sometimes, you have the chance to pick something new that fits right, that doesn't rub blisters on your heel or push your toes out of place and give you bunions. Still, the need for ritual continues. I think for many of us it's a deeply human need, whether in small acts or the overarching patterns of life.

Certainly for writers like myself, and many artists of different stripes, ritual can be a key element in developing the work. Whether it's having a favorite kind of pen or tool, or acts that get the creative brain going, it can be hard to work without them. (It's said Victor Hugo wrote naked. Another writer dressed in a business suit every day before going to his home office. I like to start with journal writing, which seems as though it has a lot less potential for embarrassment if anyone drops in.)

Spiritual rituals go deeper, a kind of sanctification or devotion. We use rituals to step out of the noisy space of daily life, to put ourselves in a mindset that enables us to think beyond the immediate. It's a necessity for anyone who needs that quiet, and I don't think it's limited solely to religious acts. But there is a religiosity about it, in the best sense.

So how do you go about renewing the ritual aspects of life, when you've stepped away from the tradition in which you've spent most of your life? That's the question I've been asking myself lately. It's one of those things that, as time eases the ache of what I've lost, kindles a new excitement. The possibilities are endless. All I have to do is find where my heart fits, the words and acts and patterns and rhythms that heal me.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


It's National--or maybe International--Letter-Writing Month, or LetterMo for short. The idea is to write one actual, honest-to-God, on paper, stick-a-stamp-on-it-and-toss-it-in-a-mailbox letter. If I recall correctly, it was Mary Robinette Kowal who came up with the idea originally. The writing of letters is an art that should not be lost, and a tangible gift to others in an age of soundbites and ephemeral snippets of wisdom and humor compressed to 140 characters or fewer. (Not that Twitter doesn't have its benefits, but like many writers, I like having the space to spread out and develop a thought. Obviously.)

Admittedly, nothing I write to you would be this awesome. But I'll give it my best shot.

For the past couple years, I watched LetterMo come and go without participating. It was guilt-inducing, because I like writing letters almost as much as I like receiving them, but I also have commitment issues (probably the spouse and children are to blame for that) and a letter every day? For a whole month? I'm likely to run out of friends before February 29th!

Even so, I've decided to give it a shot. Letters went out on day 1 and day 2, and I've gathered up all the missives that need a response so I can catch up. And after that? I guess it's time to make some new long-distance slow-post friends.

Let me know if you'd like to open your mailbox and find something more personal than bills, credit card offers, and catalogs.