Posts that are Didn’t fit anywhere else-ish
Random Catholic Musing: the Joyful Mysteries ought to be called the Terrifying Mysteries. Sure, they’re joyful — but we call them that thousands of years later when we know how everything plays out. Rephrased, these 5 rosary decades are:
- Unwed teenager notified of unplanned pregnancy she could be executed for. She gets to tell her fiancé he’s not the father.
- Aforementioned teenage girl’s first family reaction to said pregnancy.
- 15-year-old gives birth alone in a cave in a strange town without access to medical care. She is immediately visited by hoboes wielding weapons (shepherds were not cuddly, polite people) yammering excitedly about some trippy-sounding vision that involves the baby.
- While registering her infant’s birth, young mother hears very disturbing prophecy about swords piercing her heart. Fun for the whole family.
- 12-year-old boy disappears from family trip, still missing after 3 days; distraught parents hunt in city.
It’s easy to forget this when all the Christmas cards are filled with excessively twee poetry set in italic calligraphy and soaring orchestral music. I don’t like twee poetry; sentimental historical depictions make me gag. But terror? I can do terror. I can do aloneness and unplannedness, and societal pressure and being lost and getting approached by random people who might look a little sketchy, and having to tell people things they probably don’t want to hear.
I just can’t do it with quite as much grace — for me, that part is the mystery — but I reckon that’s why Mary is a saint.
Here’s what a self-portrait in acrylic looks like when you don’t know what you’re doing beyond following the order of paint colors in an Instructables tutorial. First you sketch the outline with yellow (super-rough) and purple (less rough). If you’re me, you get your face proportions wrong, but: onwards!
Then you add red for the blush on the face and your pink polarfleece. In the meantime, your cousins (who’ve initiated this Happy Fun Paint Time) are painting more logical things like geometric shapes or bowls of soup.
Shadows with green. Insert skepticism here about the tutorial, because you look like the Incredible Hulk with a sunburn. But you’re too far in to stop now.
More shadows with blue. I didn’t realize I should have drawn different shadows with blue than with green; overlapping them results in mud. It has also started to grow apparent that I’m going to have a halo between my head and the background because I don’t trust my accuracy working any closer to the hair. However, the underpainting is now done.
The overpainting of the face with orange leads to more “um… I’m not sure about this tutorial…” mutterings as I start looking like a human carrot. Then white to lighten it, and — magically, a human being appears! I whitened a bit too much, as it turns out; I now look like I have talcum powder on my face. Also: badly dyed hair. However, the portrait is done, and it’s… for a first time, it’s not bad. Subsequent iterations should improve considerably.
And the original picture, taken hastily on my phone for reference so you can see the mouth is way too big.
This commentary is rather self-deprecating, because humor’s a good defense; I do know that this is both a reasonable first try for an amateur and a far cry from anything that could be called skilled. The cautiousness, I think, comes from a parallel universe from 10 years back when I majored in engineering instead of art (parents). Wondering what I’d have become as an art major. Nervous to discover I wouldn’t have been a good one.
But we don’t live in those parallel universes; we live in this one. This is what I painted now, not what I would have painted 10 years back. And one painting now doesn’t mean I need to keep on painting ’till I’m as perfect at it as I’d like to be; it means that for an evening, I had fun, whether I paint later or not. So, er… process of becoming an artist, I suppose. Wanted to mark and share.
(Semi-relevant comic here.)
I grew up in other people’s basements, couches, guest rooms. The beanbag in Andy’s room. Gill’s dinner table, Heidi’s kitchen; anywhere Lynne May’s kids weren’t already sleeping. Sumana and Leonard’s apartments, under wildly colored blankets on the floor or on the pull-out sofabed. Matt’s futon, living room, and futon; Steve’s loft. In Andrew’s tent, on Maker House’s kitchen floor in a sleeping bag on a yoga mat, on pika’s porch. The places and people who took me in when I was running away from… I’m not sure how to articulate what I was scared of, but away from that. Spaces where I could try myself out, take a shot at being in my own skin.
Sometimes it was uncomfortable, some combination of hard, wet, or cold. For a while, I associated poverty with freedom; nobody could take this lifestyle away from me. I know was never really poor; I was a child of privilege who had a laptop, health insurance, and a couple thousand dollars that would take me from anywhere in the world to somewhere my family would have to take me in. I also knew the tradeoff for that would be independence, so I never touched that buffer, even when it meant skipping meals and wearing holes through shoes and walking hours to save $2 on bus fare, and I worried about money and not-troubling people, and I’m glad people saw that and opened their doors and pulled me in anyway.
All the homes who gave the gift of room and time to an angry, exhausted little nomad: how do I thank them? For the meals cooked, the leftovers packed, an unexpected fancy restaurant glass of port from Chris and Wendy in the middle of days of eating rice and beans in New York? For how glorious a large and sun-swept bathroom is, with long hot showers and a fluffy towel, after you’ve slept inside your car? The chance to see, without coercion, how other people live their lives — how other homes and families might function, so that you can see them as you’re learning to envision anything in future tense? (Andrew recently wrote that my personality is longer-term and more sustainable now; I think one prerequisite for that was seeing myself even just existing past the age of 30.)
How thankful I am, even now, for sanctuaries and retreats. And how I want to build my home to be a temporary nest for wayward strays in turn. “If you run a place,” says Sumana, “if you have the opportunity to provide hospitality, isn’t that amazing? That you can help jog a person out of their rut, that your consulate can offer amnesty?”
I’d like that opportunity. My home will always have a guest room. Right now it’s a sofa. Someday it will upgrade to a comfy bed with fluffy towels. It won’t always be full, but on occasion, it will give the gift of room and time within a household where one has no obligations. And extra chairs around the dinner table, with late-night talks if someone’s hungry for them. And food — to eat, to take home, to be nourished by in more ways than one. Books to read, and space and silence; space and silence above all.
I want to build a home where kids like younger-me can learn one version of what homes are like so they can figure out how they would like to build their own.
I’d like to get back into practice writing thick descriptions, a key ethnographic skill that’s really just an exercise in observation and the memory of presence. So here are a few of family; I am clearly rusty, and not all of these are thick, nor all of them descriptions.
Mia leans into her laptop, white headphone cords trailing across her white sweater. College applications are due. It’s 4 minutes to midnight and her mug of tea is growing cold. We intersperse our sprints of writing work with burying our hands in Chico’s fur and telling him he’s an adorable big dog who really needs to lose some weight.
HELLO HELLO winks the ceiling-light letters in the restaurant. Kei is worried about zombies; they don’t teach zombie-evasion drills in middle school. In teenage-boy oblivion, Neil takes Kei’s elbow and strums across her arm like a guitar, bobbing along to a song inside his head. We rip apart the chicken and pass butter-toasted zucchini bread and watch the cooks pile thin-shaved fennel on thick slices of yeasty bread. Later on, we sit and stab felting needles repeatedly into the forming shapes of polar bears and hedgehogs and ice cream cones until it’s time to eat the pots of curry on the stove.
The Portland food trucks have closed illogically early for a Saturday night. I walk with my dad through the wet streets, looking for dry shoes; in what may be the first recorded case in human history, a father insists his daughter shop longer for shoes in the department store. (I had long since located a satisfactory pair by the time he conceded they would be just fine.) We char our faces by the hotel fireplace while he describes the habit of compassion and connection he’s seen burst out in me, almost uncontrollably, since I was very small: when faced with someone with a need I could meet, I find myself unable to not give.
Sinking so deeply into the hotel bed that I don’t move or think for a good 10 hours; it’s one of the best sleeps I’ve had in ages. Quality beds make a huge difference. Someday, when I can afford it and have settled down a little more, I’m going to nest in a massive Heavenly Bed; along with wooden bookshelves and a baby grand piano, it’s another piece I plan to use to build the sanctuary of my home.
My grandmother’s futon: wrapping myself like a burrito in the quilt to stay warm through the night, turning the electronic picture frames face-down upon the tables and curling away from the crack of light spilling out of the bathroom door. A fridge with food — and food, and food; feeding and eating as a currency of love.
Can’t lipread in the car.
Mom and I finally have all the shopping trips that normal girls have with their mothers back in high school, back and forth between different stores, through the mall, in and out of the car, late at night. She shows me how a thick black shawl (now dubbed “THE BATCAPE” with great glee, and reminiscent of Lynn Stein) fits over multiple shirts and a dress. I ask dumb questions about how to care for makeup brushes. She tries to get me to wear dangly earrings (fail) and pads a set of comfortable low heels so I can walk in them (success) and we both rejoice when I find an appropriate jacket: I geek out on the well-engineered features of the dual-layer, snow-skirted, thumb-looped, zippered-to-high-heaven, slim down coat, and she breathes a sigh of relief that I won’t be borrowing hers any more.
You look good in orange stripes, says Jason. You look good in jewel tones, says Mom. I am still adjusting to the tall, well-dressed woman in the mirror, but I am growing more and more accustomed to seeing her, straight and tall and grinning, with the same sense of wonder and curiosity that I am no longer afraid of losing just because I put a necklace on occasionally.
How I can leave my things sprawled on the floors and tables of my parents’ house, go out for hours, come back, know that it’s all right — this leaving-out, this not-needing to clean up and tidy myself away, this implicit permission to leave a trace… I think this, too, is a sign of home-ness for me. My messes are accepted. So am I.
Because I’m feeling blocked on scholarly writing, I’m taking a break to do fun writing about Small Mel Self. Here’s how I learned what cold cream was used for.
Small Mel Self was perhaps 7 or at the time, and a voracious reader. I read the backs of cereal boxes, the fine print on credit card offer letters, the parenting psychology books in the church library. (“I want to know what grown-ups are supposed to think,” I told my dad’s best friend when he discovered my odd choice of literature. At least that’s how Mr. Zerwic tells the story; I only remember reading the books.) I see this now as an attempt to fill my world with information at all times, in compensation for a hunger for the data I couldn’t overhear. But back then, I was just a tiny word junkie.
Wandering down the grocery store aisles, I’d read everything on all the bottles, tubes, and boxes that we passed. All the hair care products, I noticed, seemed to have the word “moisturizing.” This was, my small brain reasoned, a good thing. “Moisturizing” was somehow correlated to “lustrous” and “sheen” and higher prices on the labels, which definitely meant the stuff was good.
Some time later, I was in my parents’ bathroom getting ready for a shower, because I was a Big Girl Now and showers were what Big Girls did, all by themselves. Besides, the bathtub in the other bathroom was being occupied by my splashy little brother. In the minute or two it took for the shower water to heat up, I grew bored and started pawing through the little vials and boxes on my parents’ counter. Lotion. Toothpaste. I knew what those were for. But what the heck was cold cream? Puzzled, I flipped the little jar around: Nourishing Moisturizing Cream.
Suddenly, it all made sense.
(15 minutes later)
I padded downstairs for the Big Girl Post-Shower Evaluation, dripping water on the tiled kitchen floor. My mother glanced at me. “You still have shampoo in your hair,” she commented. “Go back and wash it out.” Dutifully, I complied.
“Are you sure you washed it out?” my mother said on my second post-shower inspection. I nodded. She came closer and touched my hair, and I waited for praise. Instead, Mom just looked confused. ”What did you PUT on your HEAD?”
Used to explaining things to grown-ups, I stated the obvious. “It’s cold cream.”
Mom still looked confused.
“It’s moisturizing,” I added helpfully.
Several minutes later, Mom was giving me a Decidedly Not A Big Girl hair-washing with multiple rounds of shampoo that turned into multiple rounds of dishwashing detergent when the cold cream refused to loosen its greasy grip on my short locks. If you’ve never shampooed with dishwashing detergent before, my advice to you is: don’t. Or if you must, wear goggles and try not to breathe. The fumes of Minty Floral Glade Iceberg Freshness was overwhelming, and I emerged smelling like warm tupperware… but with acceptably un-moisturized hair. (“But that means it’s good for hair!” I had protested to no avail. “All the expensive shampoo bottles say so!”)
That was the evening I found out that cold cream was used to remove makeup. (But when was anybody ever going to use that?)
This story has been brought to you by Adventures of Small Mel Self.
It has been a good day.
Woke up early, no alarm. Lazed in bed reading for a while, then went down and did a comfortable research writing sprint while drinking tea. Finished an art project before Barbara came for pancakes, bacon, sweet potato hash, and smoothies; Megan joined us for the food and conversations about feminist theology and scholarly writing. The river drifted by the window, stately and just barely frozen. We admired it. I got helpful feedback on a paper and some new books (books!) to read.
Emily came to sketch our way through the first draft of a conference paper. When I say “sketched,” I mean it literally; we are submitting a comic book. I am somehow starting to build a career out of drawing penguins on academic documents. This amuses me to no end.
Then a bit more work on my own before the dance post-production meeting, where I curled up on the floor in a pile of people and saw our company leap about on the big screen. Fried some bratwurst and put sauerkraut on the stove, watched Cole’s car struggle up the first half of our icy driveway and then join the other cars parked on the grass. Julia and Cole and I had a long, candlelit research meeting. (If you’ve never had a research meeting by candlelight, you’re missing out; try it. It’s fantastic.)
Then they were off, and I went along to scrub and submit interview audio for transcription, knock off an IRB revision, and log out for the night. With a pause for candlelight mass in the middle. (It’s a candlelight night, apparently.)
This is how I’d like to be, I think. A cozy home, a life intertwined with the community and with scholarly colleagues. Big kitchen with a window with a view, good food to feed the brains and hearts and hands tumbling through tough ideas at the table, wrestling out research and life together. Sleep, food, and faith. Friends. Music, movement. Sunlight. Writing. Tea and satisfaction.
It’s a good life for a Mel.
As a follow-up note on the last post, I was struck by some studies on agency mentioned in the Habit book. It cites Mark Muraven’s experiments on autonomy and the model of willpower as a spendable resource. Basically, willpower can be “depleted” — if you spend a period of time trying not to eat some fresh-baked cookies on the table, you’ll have less patience for doing a puzzle immediately afterwards, whereas if you simply were allowed to eat the cookies you’ll likely spend a lot more time before giving up on the (cleverly-designed-to-be-unsolvable) puzzle. (Or at least that was the now-classic experiment they ran.)
So willpower is a spendable resource. But here’s the cool thing: when you believe you have a choice about your situation, you lose a lot less willpower in something like the Cookie Temptation Task. It’s almost as if agency/autonomy act as willpower bandages — you still bleed out a bit, but it staunches the flow; you’re stronger for the other things you have to do.
And my immediate mental connection was: Aha. Not only servants, but friends.
This was weird. I am still not used to Biblical passages cropping up in my brain. It’s usually some other lab study, or a book, or a chunk of code, or a Wikipedia article, or something. The Mel-tendency to make surprising associations is an old familiar one that’s led to great geekiness and writing in the past, so I wonder if I’m getting another database of sources loaded into the Random Connector O’ Matic.
But the connection popped up, and I pondered it a moment. Our free will is best employed in the service of Great Awesomeness when we don’t bludgeon it into a grudging sense of duty, but rather let it choose the same thing out of love. I had recently read Benedict’s encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is love”) where he talks about how works of charity — of outward service — flow from that great interior fire of love, how it becomes something you can’t not do when you are lit by love. (I love reading Benedict; he’s so logical and academic and writes so beautifully in German in a way the English translations don’t quite catch. He’s like an engineer, except in theology!) When you have been filled that way, a great abundance spills from you and into others.
That last thought, I knew, came from the book my housemate Megan left on the dining table for me to read (I’d gotten halfway through), which is The Soul of the Apostolate. It has some flowery Praise the Great Merciful Almighty language (which I’m not a fan of) but really hammers hard on the “seriously, develop a good interior life; all else flows from that” mentality (which action-oriented, impulsive, Do Something Now Small Mel Self has a very hard time with). It takes willpower, and I cannot muster up that willpower out of a sense of duty alone. It’s only when I have a sense of choice and freedom — and I make that choice from love, not duty — that I can sit and do the work I need to do.
This seems so stilted and incomplete now when I type it; so many gaps I am not typing, great gaps between all the ideas that seemed to weave into a seamless sheet at the moment of “oh wait, cool shiny mini-revelation!” that was my happy geeky moment then. It’s okay, though. I know I am not making these connections very well; there is a more eloquent threading that could be done between the studies (listed below) and the scripture text and encyclical mentioned above, but I don’t have the time to write that now. I’ll leave these as traces for later — maybe later-me, maybe later-someone-else.
Here are 6 scholarly papers with further reading (from the bibliography of the Habit book) that I’d like to track down. Someday. In my copious free time. If you have copies and want to talk about any of them, I would love to geek out with you.
- M. Muraven, M. Gagne, and H. Rosman, “Helpful Self-Control: Autonomy Support, Vitality, and Depletion,” Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology 44 no. 3 (2008): 573-85.
- Mark Muraven, “Autonomous Self-Control Is Less Depleting,” Journal of Research in Personality 42, no. 3 (2008): 763-70
- Mark Muraven, DIkla Shmueli, and Edward Burkley, “Conserving Self-Control Strength,” Journaly of Personality and Social Psychology 91, no. 3 (2006): 524-37;
- Ayelet Fishbach, “The Dynamics of Self-Regulation,” in 11th Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology (New York: Psychology Press, 2011);
- Tyler F. Stillman et al., “Personal Philosophy and Personnel Achievement: Belief in Free Will Predicts Better Job Performance,” Social Psychological and Personality Science 1 (2010): 43-50
- Mark Muraven, “Lack of Autonomy and Self-Control: Performance Contingent Rewards Lead To Greater Depletion,” Motivation and Emotion, 31 no. 4 (2007): 322-30.
Be forewarned: this is another “think by typing” post. The topic is the recently (and painfully) re-identified pattern of “I Can Do It All By Myself”-ism (or rather, “Run Awayyy!”) that leads me to run away from the world instead of reaching out to it when I’m having trouble. It’s a strange vicious cycle; I thrive on community and do my best work in interaction with others, so this specific disorder-of-the-Mel is really cutting me off from what I need most when I need it most.
Let me try framing this disorder as a bad habit that could be rewired. This framing comes from… well, I read fast enough that I will often “accidentally” read entire books while browsing the local library, and this happened with The Power of Habit a few weeks back. My jotted-down how-to notes read as follows:
- Identify the routine
- Experiment with rewards
- Isolate the cue
- Have a plan
Let’s try that. We’ve already identified the routine – when something is going wrong, a Badness Combination (probably shame, stubbornness, and other things — this mix may be examined later) springs up in me and I run away, drop all communications, and actively avoid people related to that Something. (I do not avoid all human contact, only that which is related to the problem; if it’s school, I avoid my teachers etc.) Things grow increasingly late, and I become increasingly paralyzed by the idea that I need to make up for the lateness by making the thing Really Ridiculously Good in exponential proportion to the tardiness, creating a debt snowball I can’t outrun. Repeat until collapse or interruption.
I won’t get into this too far, but I am pretty sure some (if not all) of this comes from a deeply ingrained belief that I am not fundamentally worthy of existence in any sub-universe. I need to earn and prove my own justification for existing and breathing and belonging to a community and being loved and all this other basic stuff that all humans get by default. It’s as if my default state is “worthless” and I’ve managed to pull myself up from that state through my own bootstraps and tremendous effort, but am still always on the edge of falling back into being a piece of useless shit if I relax my guard and soften and slip even an instant. Therefore: PANIC WORK ALL THE TIME! Yes, I know it’s not true — it isn’t true for me, it isn’t true for any human being ever. And I’ve been working on rewiring this for a while. It’s a work in progress, and I’m proud of it, but it’s not done yet.
Anyhow. Experimenting with rewards. It’s a twisted way of looking at the situation, but what “reward” do I get for running away? The idea is that you’d keep the same reward when you’re rewiring your habit. This makes sense to me — most disorders are bad ways of searching for a good thing. Some possibilities for the Run Awayyy! habit:
- I (temporarily) avoid disappointing people I respect and admire. Honoring others and not troubling them unnecessarily is a good thing, but I’ve twisted it.
- I get to persist — there is a part of me that likes to tackle difficult problems and is stubborn about never giving up. Persistence is a good thing, but again, I’ve twisted it.
- I have control. Nobody’s going to take away my agency, tell me I shouldn’t do something, or insinuate I’m incapable of it. Disabled kids, girls, minorities, and physically awkward children get this all the time, and I grew up fitting all those criteria simultaneously (plus: intersectionality with sections of not-so-great Chinese culture! plus: etc. etc. etc.) so it’s no surprise I’ve swerved to avoid learned helplessness; I’ve just twisted in a negative way in the process. Self-efficacy and confidence are great, and their healthy versions are fantastic things in most of my life, but I have really twisted these into ugliness in this particular small corner.
- I get to keep belonging. As long as nobody knows how terrible a person I am, they won’t kick me out of community.
Huh. That’s a pretty good list. I might be missing stuff, but I can’t think of anything right now. So the rewards are really:
- showing respect for others, especially those I admire / am collaborating with
- the satisfaction of persistence
Dang. For rewards like that, I’ll do just about anything. Now, I recognize the Run Awayyyy! problem actually works against these four in the long run… so we continue with the next step of rewiring.
Isolate the cue. What triggers this habit? I am not sure yet, and need to do more experimentation and data analysis to find out. It could be a number of possible things:
- A deadline passing?
- Me noticing a deadline, mentally calculating work remaining, and realizing there may be a problem?
- Someone else commenting “are you sure you’re ok with project X?” or some other threat to my self-confidence?
- A period of (unrelated, possibly accidental) time without sufficient interactions with people I like and care about / am cared-about by? (I want to write about this more later, but I think I really am an extrovert who simply happened to be deaf and able to sort of hobble along in stubborn isolation that got mistaken for introversion.)
- Physical or mental exhaustion?
- Realizing I’ve just blown a too-long stretch of unstructured time with frivolous ideas when I had intended to be productive, causing #1 or #2?
Once I have figured out my trigger(s), the next step is to have a plan to rewire the habit. When I know what sets me off, I can find a way to execute an alternative habit that results in the same reward. For instance, I could…
- Stop and contact (in-person, email, whatever) the people I am working with and that I respect, letting them know there is a situation. If necessary, let them know (perhaps ahead of time) that I am (awkwardly!) trying to break a Running Awayyy! habit — that way I need not be coherent when I let them know during the time of panic, I only need to say “I think this habit is starting to fire and I am inarticulate about why please help me interrupt it please PLEASE.”
- Stop and contact someone who is not connected to the situation, but who knows that I am trying to break this habit; have an actual conversation with them and get them to help me do #1.
- Spend a guilt-free period of time in a public place (library, coffee shop, etc.) full of people I like; realize that I need “people exposure” the same way I need water, sunlight, etc.
Obviously this needs more refinement and rewiring into one much-shorter, clear (flowchart-able) routine I can follow even in a panic. As a parallel thought, there are several stages of behavior-rewiring that I read once somewhere (from another book I have forgotten, so []) that have worked as a good model in the past.
- Be aware of the old behavior as you’re doing it. You’re not trying to stop it, you’re just trying to notice it so that the habit you are breaking is a conscious action rather than an unconscious one. Once you’ve got that down consistently, move to…
- Stop the old behavior. This may be in the middle of doing it at first; eventually you get to the point where you can cut yourself off and do nothing instead of the old behavior for a moment, then you…
- Add the new behavior. Now you’re noticing the trigger, stopping before you do the old behavior, and then very deliberately adding in the new behavior.
- Make the new (presumably desired) behavior automatic.
So… yes. I’m actively working on this — mostly identifying the trigger right now and using those experiments to test my plan. Now if I trigger Run Awayyy! and notice it, that’s a GOOD thing — it’s data! And it’ll get better. I’ll keep working. It makes me smile a little, this writing-straight with crooked lines. It is still hard, but it is work worth doing.
It’s a rough go, living life without an anesthetic. About 2 weeks ago I ran into a quote from John Paul II that’s been on my mind ever since: “I propose to you the option of love, which is the opposite of escape.” And so I’ve been working for that deliberate awareness, that consciousness of being fully where I am, with all I am — not just going through the motions of duty with only a skeleton crew left to mechanistically operate my body, but fighting constantly not to use my far too well-honed skills of running away.
I’m sleeping, eating, breathing, stretching, taking time for myself, relaxing — working like a dog, stumbling into anxiety, losing the presence and the centering peace I’d been grasping so fully just a few moments ago. My presence flickers in and out; it’s a worse feeling than just being completely out of it, because you have it, then you don’t, and then you have it, and it suddenly snaps off, and… It’s a way to use my stubbornness for good, this holding-on to letting-go. Like unwinding tight muscles, scraping and stretching through the fascial layers to pull freedom into your sinews.
So many stories in the past few weeks I’ve chosen not to write, because I’ve chosen to do other things with my time. I’ll just say that my cousins (and their significant others) are fantastic, and this is the all-too-brief time of us being young adults together, sipping fig-steeped bourbon late at night after a day wandering the city, talking about the sorts of random things that people in their twenties talk about. And that not having hearing aids is actually a visible effect to other people in terms of how it changes my behavior.
And I have slowed my reading and my writing, because they are so often escapes (as I have said before), and in my practice of presence I am painfully aware of how stilted and unsatisfying they are, how little they grasp at, how feeble their power is in my hands. I know it’s a sign of developing mastery to be able to see flaws, but it doesn’t make it easy to see the paltriness of your abilities, how much you’re wasting your energies and talents and… yourself.
But that’s the only way that you can start to make it better.
Maybe I should start writing through pulling up poems I’ve found of use. Today I’ll pull up a small part of Teilhard de Chardin’s famous Jesuit prayer, which I see as painful echoes through my research as well as in the rest of me — it’s strange, how the misaligned clingings within you that keep you from being really you, and really here, and really free, show up in tiny fractures, jiltings, guises all throughout all aspects of your life.
Anyway. The poem, which I think is actually prayer. It’s like someone wiser speaking to impatient me, and young impatient me listens with a bit of grumbling and swearing in the midst of a grudging admission that yes, Teilhard, you’re absolutely right.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
– that is to say, grace –
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.
Later on, de Chardin says to “accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.” I’m… I’m trying. I wish my muscles would strengthen faster. I wish my papers would write themselves. I wish I could deal with this all by sprinting really fast, with laser hyperfocus that doesn’t stop to breathe or rest until it’s All Done Done Done Done, because I can do that — I’m good at that. It wrecks me, but I’m good at that.
But that is not what I am doing now. Which means I am fumbling through whatever I am doing now, because I am not very good at other ways of being yet.
Okay. Stand up. This post is not a perfect post. But it is far along enough to have helped you think through a sliver of the work — not homework, but interior work on yourself — you need to be doing. Now stand up and go to your next place and do your next job. Go.
(I’m fully aware of the irony that this blog post is in written format. It took a long time.)
I’ve noticed I’m most present and open to the world when words aren’t involved. Reading, even reading excellent books with the full faculties of the sharpest mind I can have, makes it too easy for me to slip into a glazed-eye daze. Talking, lipreading, even thinking in words — ditto. They’re not bad; they’re just overly strong muscles that twitch towards habits of not-being-here, because I grew up not wanting to be part of the world around me. (Or not able to; it’s hard to tell the difference.)
When folks asked where I was from, I used to say “the internet,” as if that were my home. It was. It isn’t any more; I publish there occasionally, but live in my skin, here in this town, here with these people I can touch. I can learn to love the people I am physically present with. Differently, maybe. But you love everyone differently anyway.
The people I love most aren’t here with me; they’ll never be all in one place. And this hurts, and I mean hurts, sob-into-pillow-until-unconsciousness-comes hurts. This happens a fair percentage of my nights now; the current bout started about a month ago. It alternates with falling asleep to wild jolts of terror. These alternate with nights of peace. It’s funny, the shit that comes out when you finally learn how to feel safe; I figure this is some sort of detox reaction that will improve once the shit’s run its course.
So yeah. My feelings: I didn’t shut them down because I didn’t have them, I shut them down because they were too strong. I can’t truly be somewhere and not feel deeply in my response to it. This comes with a wild capacity for anger… and gratitude. I still get teary-eyed out on the highway when a song comes on with snare drums I can hear; it’s still surprising when I inhale deeply, and I’m randomly — in ordinary moments — utterly astonished just to find myself alive, 25 years after I so nearly wasn’t.
I can learn to be more comfortable with presence that’s in-person; I am possibly little bit too good at presence at a distance, so I’m experimenting with… not doing that. No books, no internet, no phone — or really, only little slips of those when necessary. This forces me to face, day after day, a world that scares me. And I find that yes, I cry a lot. (And holy crap do these instances have more to do with hearing than I want to admit.) But also — I’d forgotten this — I laugh as well.
I laugh when Kyler sticks his head under my shaking knee so I can lipread him as he coaches me through yoga poses, whose instructions I have never heard (turns out cues to expand this or bear weight on that make a huge difference). I laugh when other dancers add “Mel can’t hear instructions!” to the list of Fun Games We All Play With In The Studio — the same sort of rule as “Only Three People On Stage At Once!” or “There Must Always Be Somebody Lying Down During This Dance!” or “We Are Walking On A Grid!” — no pity or judgment, just acknowledgement, adjustment. I laugh when I meet Sam Brunhaver and remember that I, too, need to face the person that I’m speaking to; I laugh because I live in a world where all of my friends have this amazing superpower (zomg high frequencies!) and hey, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where all your friends have got a superpower and use it to help you?
And it’s from this sort of space that I was so struck by this video of Brene Brown (thanks, Emily — especially for linking me to the transcript) that I went through and pulled quotes from it. (So yeah, all the remainder of the text in this post? From that talk.)
“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”
“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”
“The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.”
“They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees… they’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”
“You cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”
“Our job [as parents] is to look and say, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s our job.”
“To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee — to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passionately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”"