Gratitude

I was discussing with a new acquaintance my journey over the last few years and where it might be leading. In the course of the discussion, they expressed surprise and admiration that I turned such bleak circumstances into what is shaping up to be a success story.

I realized that the key components to my success wouldn’t have been possible without the help of friends. I mean “friends” in the wide sense, here. Both close friends and people I’m simply on friendly terms with, but many of them played significant roles in getting me to where I am right now.

There were, of course, the beloved friends who kept me from drowning in my own grief at the end of my marriage. There was the friend who pulled strings to get my family – composed of 2 people and 3 furry companions – into an affordable new home when no one else would take us. There was the friend who suggested the college degree I’m currently excelling in – one that I had never even heard of before he brought it to my attention but one that is going to allow me to financially secure for the first time in my life. The friends that made me feel welcome and valued at my part time job. The friends who show up to be practice patients at my school lab.

So many people who contributed both large and small acts of support, but have without a doubt contributed to my overall success. I hesitate to say “success” too soon – as I mentioned in my previous post, there are some goal posts coming up that are solely my responsibility and I suppose it’s possible that I could still fuck it up. But so much of my momentum is due to the assistance of people who were nice to me. Who just checked in with a coffee date or an evening of conversation, gifting their precious time. I’ve always known how to say thank you, but feeling it is a different story. Gratitude is a complicated emotion for me.

No. That’s not true. Gratitude is a scary emotion for me. It makes my heart seize up. It makes me think that I’m on the hook for some impossible sort of repayment plan – like I’ve bargained away something that will tear me apart later. I wish I’d had a chance to unpack that in therapy. For the longest time, every favor felt like a pact with the devil – life or death against a future life or death. In the past, I’ve literally run from help. But this time I stayed, and being forced to sit with gratitude has made it less scary, less burdensome. It can still be heavy, but more like an anchor – keeping me safe in a storm-tossed season.

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The Sound of Silence

With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel for appropriating their song title, I thought I’d show up here with a brief blurb on why I don’t show up here more often.

As many of you already know, I’m a full time student retraining for a mid-life career change. I’m in my last semester, which is awesome (literally I’m full of awe that I got here without any stops at the loony bin), but also tremendously busy. There are finals, plus professional licensing procedures, plus networking, plus job searching, plus certification… Plus, I still have a part time job and three dogs. Soon there will be moving, too. Yes. So.

There is also depression, which has decided to set up camp this month. As practiced as I am at recognizing and intellectualizing its presence and effects, I’m still struggling with apathy and pessimism. That struggle alone often consumes more of my energy than I can rightfully spare.

Financially, I’m not sure how I’m going to accomplish everything. Physically and mentally, I’m tired and worn out all the time (but still – knock on wood – in great health). And emotionally, I’m typically in a constant state of panicked anxiety – except for depression which is a nice, apathetic relief from the constant anxiety. Always nice when the rain cloud has a radioactive lining.

I’m sure I’ll come out the other side victorious, I’m jsut not sure what that will look like. I have a good support system, but most everything is going to fall on my solitary shoulders as all my burdens converge and that’s just the way it is. Basically, life is beating me up, rifling through my pockets, and giving me a really spectacular wedgie at the moment. I’ll survive, but I’ll probably end up walking funny for a little while.

I have so many things I want to discuss here. Sometimes my life feels so surreal, and I wish I could parse it out with more patience and care than I have right now. Politics, relationships, the absolute weirdness that is being a single woman in my 40s – all stuff that takes up brain space but to which I can’t really devote any thinking time. So frustrating. Anyway.

My paypal is aealex75@gmail.com if you’re looking to be supportive. Proceeds will go to my move, probably. There’s a possibility it will be spent on emergency wine, however, so keep that in mind.

Thank you for your readership, your comments, your shares. I’m sorry I’m not here more often, however I’ve kept to a standard of honesty and authenticity that I’m proud of, and I won’t sacrifice that for content. I renewed my domain, though, so you know I’m not disappearing. See you sometime.

Love is Architecture

Three years ago my life started to come apart like a rock slide down a mountain. A few pebbles turned into a massive avalanche of falling boulders and ruin. Sometimes I rode the wave, but more often I found myself digging out from under the rubble, then standing around going “The fuck is this shit??” When the structure of your life disintegrates, it makes you examine the support beams. Involuntarily perhaps, but necessarily all the same.

I can’t describe myself as a romantic (and neither can anyone else), but the conclusion that I came to is that the fulcrum of life is love. As Mr. Rogers once said, “Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.” Our earliest notions of love are formed in childhood. Then they change, evolve, grow, or die as we move through time and relationships. I’m not an expert on this; I just know that standing in the wreckage of my life made it easy to see what was left. Mr. Rogers saw love as roots, but I saw it as the skeleton of my inner house. The support beams that stood were not the ones I thought they’d be. Some others stood still, but they weren’t tied to the joist of my survival.

I left some old beams out when I started to rebuild – some old notions of what it means to love. I abandoned the idea that feeling love is the same as doing love. Love is a verb. It isn’t enough to say, “I love you” and expect the recipient to feel loved. That’s like saying “I can fly” and expecting people to call you Superman. It isn’t enough to feel a thing and assume someone else is going to feel it the same way. Love is abundant and cheap when measured that way. But I can tell you when I felt loved in the hellscape of my emotional badlands and it wasn’t in the conspicuous silences of people who claimed to love me. It wasn’t in their admonishments to guard my words, or in their cartwheels of conversations that somehow became about how my suffering was causing their suffering. The places where love wasn’t were just as surprising to me as the places it was.

So where was love? It was in the literal embrace of people who offered what they had: space, time, and a willingness to hear me. It was in the friend who held me as I sobbed out that I felt like a disposable person and who assured me, “You are not disposable.” It was in the arms of a woman who only knew me by profile picture but pulled me into a hug when I arrived on her doorstep, lost and in pain. It was in the offers to kick ass from a thousand miles away – sincere, I’m sure, but thankfully unfulfillable. Most surprisingly, love was in my therapist’s office – that tiny, darkened space in hour-long increments. I discovered there, to my astonishment, that I love myself but I needed assistance in figuring it out.

Love was in all the places where people showed up for me without judgement and with a willingness to share their strength – including myself. That’s it. It’s so marvelously uncomplicated, yet so improbable in daily life.

Where does that leave all those expressions of love that are felt so intently by the giver and never quite reach the intended? There is a saying that “impact is greater than intent” and while that’s true it doesn’t invalidate intent. Intent has value, but it doesn’t move. If you progress to action, to impact, then intent may be a foundation. If the growth is significant and the reach far, it may be said that the foundation is strong and the value might even in retrospect increase. But inertia is the death of progress. Like a dock from which no boats launch, a foundation that supports no progress, no action, cuts a lonely figure. Intent to love which doesn’t become active love instead becomes an echo of emotion that drifts away, inconsequential as a ghost and just as sad.

I think that’s sometimes natural. I had a conversation recently where I discussed the natural death of relationships – casualties of distance or maturity and there is space in my philosophy for the memory of love. It might be a genuine affection for the past, or a lingering tenderness for the person who now inhabits the person you used to show up for. Those beams still stand, though they bear no weight. Some are beautiful and there’s value in that, too. Others, not so much. I quarreled with an older family member over morals and our ethical stances and even as she told me she’d never talk to me again, she also said that she’ll “always love me” and that’s just strange as hell. We never see each other, we offer no material support in each other’s lives, and we are diametrically opposed in our world view. Where is the “love” in that? All she did when I was at my lowest was to caution me not to express my feelings in public. That’s not love. If there was intent there, it was indeed a ghost before it could reach me. That’s a beam I’m content to let crumble.

Love is hard work, and like most hard work, it doesn’t flow smoothly. Some days we’re just not up to it, other days it pours out of us in a righteous flood. Part of my struggle is realizing that not everyone who says, “I love you” can follow it up with the effort. Kind of like that one friend who says, “Sure I’ll help you move” and then is mysteriously unreachable on moving day. I have this horrible habit of taking people 100% at their word, not because I’m naïve or have never dissembled myself but because ferreting out hidden meaning is also hard work and I’m essentially lazy. But through many (oh so many) life lessons, I’ve learned that the intent isn’t enough; you have to do the heavy lifting. You have to show up, without judgment, and with a willingness to share your strength. I hope there are people in my life who feel I do that for them. I hope I get better at it.

These are the bones of love for me. Most of my life had to die before I could see it. I guess part of being a grown up is realizing that there was only one way for me to learn that lesson – a customized syllabus taught directly to my nature, both the strengths and the weaknesses. But Thomas Paine said that “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.” The dearness of discovering what holds your personal house up is valuable beyond measure. I hope you find it and I hope it’s love.

A Christmas Story

Did you give yourself anything this Christmas? I gave myself a reverse telling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

 I’m happy to say that I mostly gave time and money to others which is satisfying, but I also gave support to local project. I’m not much of a “joiner” but it turns out that I’m not a half bad organizer, especially when supported by engaged, passionate people who want the same goal. This year, it was a small “secret Santa” type fundraiser for some under-served families in my community. Part of the skill I demonstrated was forming a committee of smart, active people and letting them contribute their own strengths to the endeavor. Honestly I may be most proud of that, because everything that followed was largely a result of the cooperative effort.

So, we began with benevolence and hope; the ghost of future Christmas a cheery, red-cheeked optimist who happily typed away on social media.

Then began the process of organizing the goods for delivery. This was a somewhat less cheery prospect, because it involved moving couches up and down staircases and storing boxes and driving all over town. Nevertheless, the ghost of Christmas present smiled through backaches and happily played its part.

The ghost of Christmas past hit me like a ton of bricks after I made the first round of deliveries. Its icy hand clasped mine and took me back to times where I, too, felt the unimaginable bounty of an unexpected $50 at Christmastime, and at the same time the utter despair that it won’t mean a damn in the long run. Times when December’s rent check bounced and there was no tree, let alone presents to put under it. Further back even than that, when I accidentally became the “real meaning of Christmas” lesson to a childhood friend who realized that the prize of my Christmas morning was going to be a $20 vanity item while she was complaining about not getting the exact leather jacket she wanted. Poverty is the breeding ground of shame, especially for children and especially in this country. The ghost of Christmas past was making me sick with it.

I’m sure I’ve become an interminable bore to most of my casual friends on Facebook with my incessant social and economic reform posts. I mean, I post about my dogs and my lunch, too, but I’m also consistently pushing a narrative of justice for those who’ve been most victimized by capitalism. Christmas is a spotlight on those issues, and my well-intentioned involvement was a thousand watt boost.

Some people might take from this experience the idea that coming together as a community is the best part of the holiday, or doing for others is really a gift to oneself. And you’re welcome to internalize that message if it makes you feel good. But if it stops there, you might be missing the point. Because you may take your “feel good” message to bed at night and sleep soundly, but all of the families that I had a hand in helping are going to go right back to square one after the holiday. The generosity and good will that is in such abundance during Christmas will have disappeared into credit card bills, buyer’s remorse and tax season. I may be on a low economic rung, but others are being crushed under the foot of the ladder.

Scrooge, it was said, “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge” at the end of his tale. I don’t know what will be said at the end of mine, but this year the addendum will be a lot more posts about systemic equality and our responsibilities to each other.  

It’s Not the Same

I’m coming to a point where it’s time to accept that the cactus is not an oak tree.

I love oak trees. I grew up around California black oaks – their twisty limbs bending low to the ground, inviting you up or under the shade. They even smell nice – woodsy, just like you’d expect. Cacti are not oak trees. I’d like to sit in their shade and admire their beauty, but they’ll literally stab me to death if I try. And cacti grow in the desert. There is life there but it’s not the kind of life I want to live. I spent some time growing up in the desert, too, but it was painful, and lonely. 

Look, I’m talking about people here. I think that’s obvious. But it helps to depersonalize them. People are the way they are, and some may change or grow but almost never because we want them to. Most people will never change to be what we need them to be. The cactus is never going to magically morph into an oak tree. I’ve known that for a long time. But I think I’m finally ready to be at peace with the idea that it’s okay not to keep returning to the cactus. The cactus fucking hurts, folks. I’m sure it does great things for its own ecosystem, but it makes a lousy shade tree. It makes a terrible shelter. It doesn’t love you back. 

It’s useless to be angry that the cactus isn’t an oak tree. It’s just different DNA. I mean, I could go into long backstory in which the cactus kept trying to convince everyone it was an oak tree and even fooled some people for a while, but let’s just jump to the part of the story where everyone can see it’s a cactus. At this point, it’s useless to be angry that the cactus isn’t an oak tree.

It just isn’t. There are other trees. Leave the desert. Go find the shade and shelter you deserve. 

Camp Fire Victims

The link below is to a GoFundMe page set up for my aunt and my grandmother, who lost literally everything but their lives in the fire that decimated Paradise, CA. I wouldn’t normally drag my family’s identity into my blog, but a few of you asked me after “Lava” what you could do for me, personally.

This. You can do this. If you can’t donate (and I understand that so few can), boost the signal in your own shere of influence. Nobody in my family has money, and none of us can step in and rescue them. I’m over 1500 miles away, and literally gave the last $35 in my bank account until payday.

Be safe, oh ye vast and unknowable internet. Be kind, dark void into which I pour all my most personal thoughts. Be human.

https://www.gofundme.com/camp-fire-relief-fund-for-paula-tarrant

Reading List

Most of my reading these days is required and so dry it could make the Sahara weep. Unless, that is, you’re really revved up by “Infection Control in the Hearing Aid Clinic” or “Compression for Clinicians”, and if you are, you have my sympathies. But infrequently over the last 18 months I’ve had occasion to read something interesting, and I thought I’d share those gems here.

Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom
This is one of those bandwagons I never hopped on the first time around, and probably wouldn’t have now either except that it was required for my Psychology of Aging class. It’s just exactly the sort of sentimental, pseudo-spiritual clap-trap that I steer clear of on pain of death (by eye-rolling, probably). But it’s surprisingly well written – concise, unflinching, and yes sentimental but not in a manipulative way. It was sweet, and though I understand that Morrie himself garnered quite a following shortly before his death thanks to Ted Koppel’s Nightline interviews, I think ultimately the book is about the practical application of his lessons about life through dying on the author, his former student and longtime friend.

Uprooted, Naomi Novik
This is a fantasy novel, written in an old school style that McCaffrey, Bradley, Salvatore and Paxton would appreciate. Something that felt like I could have picked it off the shelf at Walden Books in the mall back in 1987 and devoured in a night. Really rich in world building, with main characters that feel as real as your best friend. Some of the action sequences are intense and gory, but that only lends to the excitement for me. If it bothers you, be forewarned. A very fun read.

The Adventures of Joy Sun Bear: The Blue Amber of Sumatra, Blanca Carranza, John Lee
This is a shameless plug because I personally know one of the co-authors. But here’s my Amazon review, which I stand by: The Blue Amber of Sumatra begins on a desperately sad – and horrifyingly relevant – scene. Then it drops you into a lush world that captures both the exoticism of far off lands and the familiarity of cherished friendships and bonds. This is what the best stories always do – make you care, and make you excited to learn more. Joy’s adventure begins as running away, but turns into a discovery of innovation, bravery, anger and friendship. He wants to learn, and the reader can’t help but be drawn into those discoveries with him.
Little Joy Sun Bear is impish and recognizable to anyone who’s ever experienced childhood, but he’s also an empathetic proxy to the trauma that some children are forced to undergo in an adult world that cares little for their homes. It’s a warning for our environment and for the humanity that will be required to help others through the destruction of it. Its messages of loyalty, justice, friendship and courage are deeply important in today’s world, but told with the hopefulness and safety of small furry creatures and a happily ever after. The Blue Amber of Sumatra is a wonderful introduction to the characters that will open up the world to anyone lucky enough to join this adventure! Recommended for every child’s library of keepsake stories.

Surviving a Borderline Parent, Kimberlee Roth
This is a difficult book (and subject) and I’ll be honest in that I haven’t finished it yet. Nor was it my first choice. I wanted to read “Understanding the Borderline Mother” by Christine Ann Lawson, which is widely considered to be the definitive text for the layperson on the subject, but it wasn’t available at a price point I could justify and it’s on a lengthy wait-list at my local library. However, Roth references Lawson heavily, and I feel like it’s a valuable tool for my situation. Most of this opinion comes from the fact that I can’t read sections for very long without having strong emotional reactions and if you think I mean something dignified by this, then it’s clear we’ve never met. It’s incredibly startling to pick up a book and have it read like your autobiography. But the text has been a comforting and valuable continuation of my therapy, and I’m happy to recommend it. If you think it might apply to you, there are several online resources that give a broad overview that are still scarily accurate. If you survived it, you’ll recognize it right away, it’s that eerie.

As usual, my to-be-read stack is toppling over, but in it are a steampunk Jim Butcher novel, a Star Trek philosophy book, Dr. Parker’s treatise on the moral argument for choice, and the collected works of George Sand. I foresee completion sometime around the back end of never.