See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

“Don’t see me!”

My 6-year-old nephew holds his hands over his face. He’s angry because I teased him, and his punishment is to withhold himself from me. “Don’t see me.”

I admire my nephew for being able to be angry. For being able to look at someone who’s an authority figure over him and say that he’s angry and that they deserve punishment. I admire him because he can do something I can’t. When I’m confronted with authority, I can’t express anger. In fact, I can’t even feel it.

I used to work for a large company. My boss was very social and the two of us split the work of our department up between us – she schmoozed her superiors and made PowerPoint presentations, I did the actual tasks. She regularly told me that if I didn’t like working there, I could quit.  That I, a glorified marcomm dork in a job that paid over $100k a year and came with great benefits, could just waltz out of that office and find another job. In tech writing. During a recession.

I had frequent discussions with my boss about the source of our disconnect, but she never saw it as a disconnect. She saw our inability to work together as something I did on purpose, as though I was a different person outside of work – one who loved social gatherings, cats, and knitting – and just chose to be introverted, sarcastic and OCD at work to piss her off.

In these confrontations, she would tell me that my task execution was fine, but she hated everything else about me. I didn’t come to work early enough – she got up at 5 so she could be at work by 7. I didn’t stay at work long enough – she never left before 5:30. I didn’t interact enough with people from other departments – she scheduled meetings and lunches and get-togethers with other departments. I didn’t act happy enough – she acted like every day was a birthday party. Every word she spoke had the same meaning: Why can’t you be more like me?

She’s not the only person in my life who has excoriated me for being the person I am. My parents, my teachers, every authority figure in my life took me to task at some point for not being more social, for not being more cheerful, for not being more extroverted.

There was never a way to express my frustration with adults. As a child, I didn’t know words like “introvert” or “circumspect,” so I didn’t have any way to defend myself. I couldn’t explain that I hated big crowds. That being dragged to parties with people I didn’t know made me anxious and exhausted. That my bad moods weren’t just me being willful, but because I was overstimulated and unable to escape. And without a defense for my bad behavior, I was guilty as charged.

When you’re little, it’s easy to feel hopeless and sad because the adults around you don’t understand you. It’s commonly thought that the reason children in the “terrible twos” are so cranky all the time is that their reasoning ability outstrips their ability to communicate, leading to frustration. What happens when that inability follows you throughout your whole life? What happens when it’s not your ability to communicate that’s lacking, but the willingness of those around you to listen?

It takes a sense of power to feel angry. To express anger, a person has to start with the belief that they’ll be understood by the person they’re talking to. But when you’ve been misunderstood your whole life, you don’t have that. Anger gives you courage; to take away anger is to dis-courage.

I moved away from my family and quit that job, but I still struggle when it comes to feeling that I have the right to be the person that I am without explanation or justification. I struggle with the feeling that I could pour out a sea of words, and they would never be enough, because what I need isn’t for people to listen to me.

What I need is for them to see me.

Jesus Christ, It’s 1973

Every year at Easter, I force my little family to sit through yet another screening of Jesus Christ Superstar. I don’t cook a ham, I don’t color eggs, I don’t force anyone to attend church. This is my whole observance of the holiday – contemplation of an early 1970s take on the days leading up to the crucifixion.

Every year, the movie sparks a lot of discussion – what’s up with the people dressed in rags? They’re lepers. Why doesn’t Jesus like swap meets? They’re having their swap meet at the temple, and Christ thinks its inappropriate to have people turning His church into a marketplace. In Phoenix, we had our heads on straight. Our swap meet was the the parking lot of the place that had greyhound racing during the week. Why did people live in the middle of a crappy desert? Most of Israel isn’t a crappy desert. I hear it’s really nice. Is Pontius Pilate the same guy that invented the yoga? Yes.

The thing that came up this year was the fact that Jesus Christ Superstar came out in 1973, a year marked in my mind by the kind of soul-crushing shame that makes me want to dig a pit, fall into it and collapse in on myself as my body digests itself with the acid of horror.

I was 8 years old in 1973. Aware enough to know that I was surrounded by a culture that people would look on for decades as the nadir of human civilization.

New Seekers’ song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was not only still on the radio, it had been made into a commercial for Coke so we could hear it that much more often. The song “One Tin Soldier,” which had been used in the film Billy Jack (which I have never seen and about which I have no opinion) was still battering the airwaves with its antiwar bludgeon. The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” while not a peacenik antiwar protest was nonetheless another giant bummer you couldn’t dance to. They get lost with other agonizing, horrible songs like “Wildfire” and “Run, Joey, Run” that came out while I was still cringing.

The clothes of 1973 were a combination of chunky, greasy, scratchy lumpy miracle fabrics and loud colors that looked good on the idealized anorexic frame of models, but looked horrible on actual parents. Kids were all stuck dressing like Holly Hobbie, a fad so popular that it spawned the “Little House on the Prairie” television series the following year.

In 1973, my mother had a lot of friends who did a lot of drugs and often had nowhere else to go but our house. I can’t count how many times someone at our house broke something, and then went limp with hysterical laughter at the mess they had caused. Or how they would, in their inebriated haze, try to have serious conversations with my siblings and me. They failed to make the slightest bit of sense, although it was apparent that in their minds, they were relating to us at some very deep and spiritual level because they grokked us as human beings. These people are why I never got involved with drugs in any significant way.

But the blind self-absorption wasn’t just my mother’s friends. All over America there was a fascination with the 1920s, especially The Great Gatsby and its cast of characters who spent all their time contemplating themselves and each other. Everyone played backgammon, spending tons of money on little suitcases full of tiny poker chips over which they could pose with drinks and pretend to be intellectual for the benefit of equally drunken pseudointellectual onlookers. And the 1970s was when the adults all decided that sex should be moved out of the dark bedroom and into the living room, dining room or front yard, where we could all see it.

How can you be 8 years old and not be scarred by the skin-peeling embarrassment of it all?

But Jesus Christ Superstar somehow escaped all of it.

As an opera, it’s a story told entirely in song, but no one song tries to contain the whole narrative, so we avoid the whole weepy story ballad agony. The clothes are mainly the kind of clothes that dancers still wear today – close-fitting pants and tops that allow freedom of movement. And the story itself isn’t one that will go out of fashion anytime soon.

So that’s my real celebration of Easter. That Jesus Christ was crucified and died for the sins of 1973, redeeming what would have otherwise been the worst year of all time.

Was, Is, Shall Ever Be

There’s a part of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell that rings very true for anyone who’s ever struggled with mental illness. Jonathan Strange has just drunk a tincture intended to make him insane, and wonders if he’ll know when it has taken effect.

After a few minutes he looked out of the window and into the Campo Santa Maria Zobenigo. People were walking up and down. The backs of their heads were hollowed out; their faces were nothing but thin masks at the front. Within each hollow a candle was burning. This was so plain to him now, that he wondered he had never noticed it before. 

Mental illness mocks time, making it impossible to remember what things were like before, or understand how to make things different in the future. Mental illness can feel like epiphany – like you’re only just figuring out the truth. It’s worse when it feels like a truth that everyone else has known all along. “Why didn’t I notice this before? How could I have missed this?”

I’m at the beginning of another depressive episode, and I can tell, not because I’m sad, but because I just don’t care about anything. But the worst part is that I can’t remember why certain things should be important, or what it felt like when they were important. And yet, I know that’s a bad sign. One of those things I’m supposed to look out for. The kind of thinking that, unaddressed, could lead to much, much worse down the road.

My newest doctor asked me why, with my history of illness, I didn’t get help long before. The question surprised me, because it seems so obvious. When you’re depressed, you can barely summon the energy to get out of bed, shower and get dressed – how would you possibly gather the strength to research a doctor, make an appointment and then go? And when you’re not depressed…well, there’s nothing to cure, is there?

Time will tell how this new doctor chooses to tackle the challenges that my last doctor wasn’t exactly up to. Funny, it’s hard to remember how things were when I was seeing that other doctor.

Travel Day

I’m en route today from my mountain lair to another mountain lair – Salt Lake City, thence to Park City, Utah. The Pirate and I are heading to Sundance.

The thing I hate most about travel is that it never goes the way I think it will. I always think that I’ll be able to sit down on the plane and concentrate on getting some work done, but that never happens. I can’t concentrate with other people around me, and I always end up feeling self conscious, as though people are looking at me and thinking “Look at that woman, pretending to work.”

This is where introversion most bites me in the ass. Being an introvert means that I live inside my own head, and in my own head, I’m freaked out all the time about everything I ever do, say or think. Will I be able to make this left turn? Will my credit card be accepted? Will I be able to find a parking spot? Will I get into a grizzly accident? These are fair concerns, but I am always able to make the left turn, my credit card is always accepted, I always find parking, and I’ve never been in a grizzly accident. I have no basis for the worry, but worry I do.

So, I will get on the plane and worry that there will not be enough space to stow my stuff. Then I will worry that the person in front of me will put their seat back. It’s stupid worrying about that, because one should only worry if something is a possibility, not if that thing is a certainty. Then I’ll worry that, while I’m engaged in reading something that requires my close attention, my husband will hear or read something amusing that he’ll want to share with me. Then I’ll worry that the flight attendant will want to know what I want to drink, whether I want a mylar bag containing the battered remains of three tiny pretzels or whether I wish to give up my trash to her. Tomato juice, no, and please take it. Maybe I’ll make a sign and stick it in my ear where she’ll be able to read it.

It’s occurring to me that perhaps what I need to be a better traveler is gin. And that 9am in California is 5pm in London – a lovely time for gin.

Do I Know You?

One of the lovely things about the Internet is its ability to bring actual friends closer. Who among us has not gotten back in touch with a long-lost friend or relative through Facebook?

I kind of love Facebook, for all its faults. I know all of my Facebook friends in real life, so it allows me, a person who lives in the middle of the woods and doesn’t attend a lot of social functions, to keep up a conversation with people and think that I’m just as social as they are.

I also like LinkedIn, the Facebook for people with jobs. The problem is that I don’t think people quite get the difference between the two. When originally conceived, LinkedIn was a way for people to endorse friends and co-workers they knew and trusted. The idea was that you would link up with all the people you’ve worked with that you would recommend. Friends of yours who don’t know one another could find each other, with you as intermediary, and know that you endorse them both.

Except that everyone is so brainwashed by the numbers game of Facebook, where the goal is apparently to get as many friends as the application will allow, and then force them to play Farmville with you. LinkedIn doesn’t have Farmville, but because they recognize that nobody understands how to be discriminating anymore and will “connect” with absolutely anybody, they’ve now started asking people to “endorse” their friends. Basically, you click on a person’s picture and a list of random nouns and adjectives come up. If you think they apply to your friend, you click the button and your friend gets an email saying that you’ve endorsed them. It must be new, because people I haven’t worked with in half a decade are suddenly endorsing me, as though I’ve just come to their attention again, like they were all at a party and my name came up.

But back to the numbers game, I keep getting invitations to connect from people I’ve never heard of. People who live in the same county as me. People who worked for the same company as me at some time, but not at a time when I worked there. People who know people who’ve worked with me in a similar field. I always feel a little mean about not accepting their invitations to connect, but I’m more about quality than quantity. My feeling was validated the day I got an invitation to connect with someone I’ve never heard of whose skill is tech writing but whose current job is listed as “Unempolyed at home.” sigh 

I’m never going to connect with you, endorse you, etc. if I’ve never even met you. That’s true on the Internet, but I’m realizing that real-world instances of this haven’t gone away. Today’s mail brought a hand-addressed letter from a neighbor who must live just a few houses over, but in this neighborhood that can be half a mile away. This woman writes me twice a year or so to solicit money for the March of Dimes, sending me a pre-printed card with her actual signature and a handwritten note that usually says something like “please help us out!” I kind of resent that fact that this woman lives within easy walking distance of my house, but in nearly nine years, she has never once knocked on my door to introduce herself, or invited me to her house for a cup of tea.

I’m all for connections. I love being able to remind people I know that they’re important to me and that I care about them. But I’ll be damned if I’ll let someone exploit proximity, electronic or physical, to get me to like them, connect with them, or donate to them.

Right Thought

As a Buddhist, I am used to thinking very hard about my actions in the world. One of the central Buddhist teachings is the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes in clear detail what it means to live a Buddhist life. Right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. All eight start with the word “right,” but the same word can also be translated as “skillful.” For me, right thought is by far the most slippery of the eight, and therefore the most important. How does someone else get to decide if I’m thinking the “right” things?

You might think that your thoughts are private and that they affect no one but yourself, but there is a tremendous body of work that explores the relationship between your attitude (your thoughts) and your behavior. A Google search on the phrase “attitude behavior relation” yielded 1,420,000 results. What you think very clearly manifests itself in what you do.

The place that unskillful thinking hurts the most is when we’re in our peer groups. We think of our friends as those people among whom we can really be ourselves. How many of us have been in a situation where someone in our group made an unkind remark, and everyone else piled on, thinking that it was okay to talk disrespectfully, even hatefully, because “it’s just us”? Think all the way back to junior high school – you know you’ve done it. And the truth is, even at the time you probably thought to yourself “This feels wrong.” The “unskillfulness” of groupthink lets our desire to fit in with the group outweigh our own sense of what’s right.

If you were talking smack about a fellow student or a teacher, you might have worried that the person would hear about your remarks and feel bad. If you were generalizing about an entire class of people, like “boys” or “kids from our rival school,” you might even have thought “but I like this particular boy,” or “one of my friends goes to that school,” but you went along with it in order to go along with the group. You knew what was being said was wrong, but those people weren’t around and therefore couldn’t possibly be hurt by your words, right?

This is the kind of thinking that leads to mob behavior, where the loudest, most extreme voice in the crowd is the most persuasive and can cause a group of otherwise-sane people to do crazy things like the Watts Riots, the Los Angeles riots, and most inexplicably, the Chicago Bulls Victory Riot. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to lynching. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to the sort of attacks that both ends of the American political spectrum are unleashing on each other.

Policing my own thoughts, forcing myself to think, if not positively, then at least honestly about things is absolutely the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken. But the payoff has been the feeling that I can trust my own judgement and my ability to make good, unbiased decisions. It has meant that my dealings with other people have been more respectful and honest, and people respond to the feeling that they are respected by acting more respectable. Given the chance, people step up to your expectations. Forcing yourself to confront your own negativity about yourself and others gives you the chance to rid yourself of prejudices that do nothing but hurt you. Letting other people know your high opinion of them gives them the chance to reinforce that opinion. Doesn’t that sound like a better deal all the way around?

The Stuff Library

I took my kid to the Ren Faire yesterday. She brought a friend, and once inside they peeled away from the adults and went off to do their own thing. I had given her money for snacks and rides, and I was surprised when I caught up with her later that she had spent $20 on a fox tail.

My surprise was not at the fox tail itself. It was because she had bought a fox tail last year. It sat on the floor of her bedroom until one of the cats decided that it had been discarded and played with it until it was shredded. There are a lot of “treasures” on the floor of my daughter’s bedroom. Bits of costume jewelry, doll clothes, picture frames, drawings, colored pencils, small rocks, individual fake nails, single shoes.

My daughter has a passion for owls, and she has collected pins and earrings and drawings and pillows and paperweights and note pads…and they’re all sitting on her bedroom floor somewhere. Most of this stuff she gets from friends in that way stuff has of making its way from kid to kid, but she gets some of it from relatives and a small amount of it from me. I sometimes feel guilty, like I’m spoiling my daughter and failing to teach her the value of money, but as I recall, my own childhood bedroom was a disaster of books and rocks and jewelry and doll clothes and stray socks and hair bands and bits of paper that I was forever scribbling on. Money is not part of the equation. We didn’t have any, but it didn’t keep me from accreting stuff. I’ve begun to feel like an ogre because whenever my kid asks me “Mommy, can I have this?” I remind her that she’s got so much crap at home that it’s all over her bedroom floor and she does nothing but step on it. She does not see this as any kind of reason for refusal. In fact, it’s a reason to buy more fancy bins and containers to put everything in.

As an adult, I recognize the rewarding feeling of new stuff. We go out to the store and we find the thing that will make us perfectly happy and we bring it home and we’re thrilled for a week, and then we’re looking for the next thing. On the other hand, that urge is at the heart of America’s unsustainable consumer culture. I try to limit the amount of stuff I buy, and to think about what I’m going to use it for and whether I really need it. My kid has no such context.

It makes me wish for a “stuff library.” A giant warehouse full of stuffed animals, bits of jewelry, attractive rocks, comfortable pillows, large kits for making picture frames or friendship bracelets or potholders that no one will ever use, novelty socks, and all the crap that my kid begs me for regularly, but that she drops to the floor the minute we get in the house. People can go into this warehouse and choose the stuff they want. Exercise equipment, impractical shoes, novelty hats, lawn ornaments, stuffed animals, complicated board games, electronic toys. You can take the stuff home and have that great feeling of “new stuff”  – the feeling of discovery and anticipation and surprised delight.

After two weeks, when the “new” has worn off and it’s just another pile of crap cluttering up your space, you can put it back in your car and trade it in for different, newer stuff and get to experience that new stuff feeling over and over again without going broke or contributing to the glut of consumerism that plagues us.

Frankly, I  think this is a way better solution than lecturing people to stop wanting stuff. You can’t make people want less.

What I Can’t Count in Words

I’ve been trying to work out every day. For me, working out looks like jogging on a treadmill for 45 minutes. I also target shoot with my bow and arrow once or twice a day, 100 shots at a time. I normally listen to music while I’m working out. I’ve experimented with a lot of different listening options: silence, audiobooks, Gregorian chant, dance music, electronica. So far, synth metal is my best bet both for jogging and for target practice. Nothing with lyrics, which distract me.

I can’t afford to be distracted, because when I’m doing something physical, I’m counting.

I tend to count out loud so that anyone around me can hear my progress. When I’m target shooting, I count upward. I’m counting the number of bullseyes I’ve hit out of the number of shots I’ve taken, so I will say out loud “Zero zero” before my first shot. This morning was forty-one one hundred.

When I’m jogging, I’m counting down. I jog for 45 minutes, and I will say right now, I hate it. Jogging doesn’t feel good or natural or like an accomplishment. It feels like a torture and the only way I can get through it is by distracting myself. I break each minute up into both 10-second and 15-second increments. There are 270 10-second increments in 45 minutes, and 180 15-second increments. Every minute, I will subtract 6 from the 10-second increments, but I only subtract from the 15-second increments every two and a half minutes (meaning it’s always a multiple of ten). This happens smoothly in my head without missing a beat of the music. When I get down to 30/20 (5 minutes), I start counting each increment down singly, so the pairings of numbers change more often and I have to be more mentally present. By the time I get to 0/0, I’m normally just as happy not to have messed up my counting as to have finished my workout.

When I’m counting, there is no room for anything else. I can’t think about that cramp in my left calf, or what I’m going to write later or whom I’ve got to call when I’m off the treadmill. There is a conversation in my mind every second of every day. Even when I’m sleeping I have dreams of such vividness that many of them get made into fiction that I inflict on other people. The conversations in my head are most insistent when I’m talking to someone else. And those conversations in my head are so distracting that if I don’t find a way to deflect them, they’ll deflect what I’m trying to do. I’ve walked off in the middle of target shooting or of jogging because I decided something else was more important. The only way I can stay present with a physically demanding task is to crowd out all those words with numbers.

I guess that’s why I love numbers. Because there is a limit to the number of words in the English language, but there is no limit to how high I can count. If I hit the aleph, there’s always another aleph beyond it. Both of those thoughts are comforting to me. That there are only so many words that I will ever have to learn to describe my experiences, real or imagined. That there is no limit at all to the number of experiences I could possibly have.

Some For You, Some For Me, All For Us

My husband and I have been together for about 12 years. When we first got together, we told each other all of our deepest, darkest secrets – all of the likes and dislikes and fears and desires that another person might hear and say “Ew. That’s weird.” Telling him these things made me feel I was testing him. If he could hear the worst about me and still want to be with me, then he really loved me. Hearing those things about him made me feel he was blessing me with things he couldn’t share with other people.

Somewhere along the line, it got harder to share things. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we keep secrets from each other, but we certainly went from “I love you and I want to share every single new experience with you” to “I don’t want to bother you with this, I know it’s not your thing.”

On the one hand, that’s a good thing. I think that every relationship goes through that initial phase where you’re pretending to like things the other person likes just to have an excuse to have more experiences together. Once you live with someone and get to experience them in uninterrupted stretches, there are things you can skip.

On the other hand, when you’ve been with someone for a long time, it’s easy to make assumptions that cut off what could be shared experiences. Assuming that your partner doesn’t like a pizza because one time you asked if they wanted some and they said “no,” or thinking that your partner’s dislike of a particular band equals hating an entire genre of music means that there are whole areas of potential shared experience that you won’t have.

My worry is that once you start cutting out shared experience, you start diminishing your relationship. You find other people to go out for pizza with, you start going to see your favorite band alone, and then you start building new communities that don’t involve your partner. The bigger worry is that the reason one person isn’t sharing is because they’re afraid. Afraid that you won’t like their new thing. Afraid that not liking that thing may make you not like them.

It’s an effort sometimes to remember that risks are still part of bonding, even after we’ve been together for so long. I’m always encountering new music and theater and movies, etc. that I think are interesting. It’s good to think back to those early days, and remember how amazing it felt to spill all my secrets and remember that it was sharing that made us into an us in the first place.

 

Love and Courage

Today is Michaelmas. My daughter’s school holds a celebration of Michaelmas every year with a play to celebrate the victory of the heavenly host over Lucifer (God’s apparently a delegator) and a picnic to celebrate the harvest. The play is always adorable with the 7th grade playing the part of Lucifer in the person of a giant dragon who ravages the village, much to the consternation of the 4th grade villagers. The play emphasizes that love and courage overcome evil better than might.

While on the 45-minute drive to the school, I thought about love and courage and faith. I was raised a Catholic. The thing I love the most about Catholicism is the amount of ritual. If you go to Mass, there’s going to be standing, sitting, kneeling, talking, singing, eating, drinking. And there’s the best part – the kiss of peace. You turn to the people around you and say “Peace be with you.”

While I was saying those words and shaking hands and kissing people on the cheek, I meant them. I loved those people. I completely forgot that this one had cut me off in the parking lot, or that one had spoken sharply to me or another one owed me five dollars I wasn’t going to see anytime soon. In that moment, I truly loved them and wished them peace.

Later, I became Buddhist. Let me clear something up for you: there’s nothing in Buddhist doctrine or in Catholic doctrine that says you can’t be both. Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddha is not a god, nor do Buddhists worship him in the same way that Christians worship God. The big difference is that, while Catholics filter their experience of God through priests and other church hierarchy who put a lot of rules in place, Buddha encouraged his followers to believe only what they could prove to themselves. Catholics have ten commandments and a million other rules, but Buddhists only have one rule: every action has consequences.

If you open your hand and drop something, whether you’re the president or a prostitute, whether you’re a stockbroker or a stock clerk, it’s going to fall. There’s no judgement involved.

Being Buddhist has meant that I now spend a lot of time thinking about the consequences of my actions, but nobody is good at that 100% of the time, and every time I make a poor choice and experience negative consequences, I feel like a failure. And, like everyone else, I’m hungry for success. Humans are all hungry. We’re hungry for love, hungry for money, hungry for approval. Starving for it.

Here’s where love and courage come into it: you can’t feed yourself. No amount of staring into the mirror and saying “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you” is ever going to fill that hole of doubt inside you. But you can feed other people. Everyone around you is as starving as you are, and the easiest thing in the world is to feed them. You feed them by actually listening when people talk. By paying strangers compliments. By smiling at people. By asking someone who looks upset if they’re okay.

The flip side of only being able to feed others is that when others feed you, you have to open yourself up to the nourishment they’re offering. When someone smiles at you, feel the goodwill they’re giving you. When they compliment you, don’t just say “thank you,” but really feel grateful. When someone offers you that kiss of peace, kiss them back.

Happy Michaelmas, everyone.