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Ten Thousand Days

Ten Thousand Days

On The Other Side of Forgiveness

November 6, 2018

Photo: Tim Mossholder

Day 1530 – Day 1543

As we neared the end of the fourth year of gratitude practice, empathy became a key theme in working with gratitude, joy, oneness and service. With empathy, it is possible to overcome our differences and even to forgive those who have deeply wounded and wronged us.  I’m usually a forgiving person, and I faced a struggle with forgiveness for the first time in my life.  Someone I had loved had exploited my love and betrayed me.  I truly did not believe that I would ever be able to forgive him.  And in that,  I had lost a big part of what made me the person that I am.

People move on at different speeds.  I remember that the man ‘forgave me’ for all my wrongdoings very quickly.  Perhaps it was magnanimous of him.  I’m certainly not perfect and I said some thing I regret, but his accusations of feelings I didn’t have, and wrongdoings that I hadn’t committed, were, it seems to me, the projections of his own feelings and actions.  In that case, it made sense to forgive quickly, because if they originated within himself, then forgiving me was really excusing himself.   Forgiveness made sense, for him.

It’s also fairly easy to forgive someone who has had your best interests at heart but whose actions have unintentionally disappointed us or hurt us deeply.  It is even easy to forgive someone who has loved us and has tried to act in our best interest but who, when deeply hurt, has intentionally hurt us back.  In each case, having the other’s best interests at heart is key to finding the redemption in the transgression.

Some people don’t think much about forgiving or not forgiving.  For them, they simply move on, choosing not to work through their emotions.  The package up their memories and their emotions and they stuff them down where they think that they will never be found again.  Unfortunately, blocked emotions and memories don’t always stay where they are put, and even if they do, they may be harmful to long term wellbeing.  It seems to me that at the very least, pushing down our feelings robs the tapestry that is our life of its patterns and colour.

Whatever I may do, unconsciously, as an adult, my conscious choices have been to try to work through my emotions.  Sometimes this can’t be done with the participation of the person who has elicited the emotions and I’m grateful that where this has not been possible, I’ve had the support of friends, healthcare professionals and spiritual wayfarers to help me. While they may help us gather the tools, in the end, the work resides in our own hearts, where only we can do the work.

I recover from emotional blows very slowly, but I try to do it completely.  When I love, I love deeply, and the wounds are therefore equally deep.  Recovery takes time and even when I feel patched up, I may still be tender for a long time to come.  I suppose this is why I fall in love so infrequently.  Once I have loved someone, I have loved them forever, although the love takes a different form.  I’ve always managed to transform feelings of romantic love into something else, with all the men I had loved.

The person I needed to forgive was someone I had loved deeply but when our association ended, he burned the bridge between us, and his lack of remorse makes it unwise for me to attempt to rebuild it.  It saddens me that there would be no way for us to ever experience, together,  the epiphany of love transmuted.  My love for him had been so deep because we shared a spiritual life and at one time we both agreed that we had what could only be described as a soul connection.  I had promised to love him, no matter what.  And, while I could not be held to that promise, this story would have been incomplete if I had not found my way back to some sense of agape love.  Love and compassion are the two sides of the sacred heart.  If I could not, eventually, find my way to love, I’d consider it my saddest failure as a person.

All through our relationship, I knew he was a troubled soul, and this showed up in behaviour that hurt me.  I didn’t always like him, but I did always love him, I knew that he was worthy of love, as are all people,  and I wanted the best for him.  After he betrayed my trust and exploited my love for him, I spent nearly a year hating him, and in that time, I never once wished for his happiness.  If I could have, I would have, but I couldn’t and I didn’t.  I’m not proud of myself for that, and just as I’ve had to take full responsibility for the decisions I made to continue to see the best in him when he repeatedly showed me other qualities, I also have to take responsibility for the stone that settled in my heart where love had been, when I finally saw the other side of him.  I am responsible for my hurtful words and my hateful thoughts.

Women forgive the people who murder their children all the time.  If they were capable of this, then surely I was capable of forgiving him.  I had given up the idea that love would ever return to my heart when I thought of him, but, at least forgiveness was in my power.   In time, with new techniques of active imagination, I was able to connect to my empathy for him, and without condoning his behaviour, I forgave him.

I thought that was the end of it.  But he remained in my dreams.   And something happened that caught me by surprise.

On the other side of forgiveness, I started to feel not only empathy, but compassion for him.  Having imagined whatever suffering or deficiency had caused his behaviour, I wanted his suffering to be removed – not for my benefit – but because I wanted him to be free of anguish.  I was surprised, but pleased to feel my heart soften to him.  And, I thought, surely this is where this ends.

But I was taken by surprise, yet again, over the next few weeks.

Where there is compassion, love often arises.  With compassion, for him, I noticed fleeting and uncontrollable wishes for his happiness arising within me.  To be honest, I was annoyed to feel these stirrings.  He had pursued his own pleasure at my expense.  I had forgotten what I already knew: pleasure is not the same as happiness.  Happiness, and the peace of the soul that would go with it, was the only thing I could wish for him, once connected by empathy to his pain and having my compassion activated.

Compassion is the desire to see someone free from suffering; The wish for another person’s happiness is Love.

On the other side of forgiveness, I rediscovered love.

Even for the sake of experiencing – together – the epiphany of love transmuted, it would be unwise and indeed, unsafe for me to rekindle a relationship with or even to build a bridge to someone who shows no regard for my wellbeing.  But, I am grateful to see that I am not forever changed, nor forever damaged as a person, by the experience of loving him and suffering his remorseless selfishness.   I have reclaimed my compassion and I am profoundly grateful to unexpectedly find the pathway to fulfill my promise to love him – truly love him – no matter what.

Wisdom promises that on the other side of forgiveness, there is freedom.  There is, and it comes through love.  I am once again my best self and it is a joy to see:  a woman with great capacity for personal responsibility,  empathy, forgiveness, compassion and love.    I like who I see, when I look in the mirror,  and I believe that I, too, am worthy of love – my own love, firstly,  and also the love of a good man who has my best interests at heart and who cares for my wellbeing.

 

Photo: Neon Brand

For what are you most grateful today?

Ten Thousand Days

Stolen Moments

October 23, 2018

Photo: Ivana Cajina

Day 1516 – Day 1529

I notice that I always seem to have something that needs to be done.  I feel like I have more chores than I did when I lived in London but I know that I work less hours.  Of course, I have to spend time driving everywhere, which adds a lot of time to my day, whereas in London I could simply hop on a train or tube and multitask, because I wasn’t driving the thing.  But commuting aside, somehow there always seems to be a lot that I need to do, just to maintain myself.  In my last few years in London, I lived in a very small place and there was a cleaner who took care of much of the cleaning for me.  And, I used the washing machines in the basement, which meant that I could do all my laundry at one time (unless everyone else in the building had that same idea!)  And I do think there is something to be said for having less things, because the more we have, the more we have to tend.

As grateful as I am for my bounty,  I think that it is really my garden that has taken up so much of my time, lately.

This weekend, I canned the second to last batch of my tomatoes.  I still have many tomatoes ripening in my home.  It took 5 hours to process 5.5 pint-sized jars or roasted tomato sauce.  Now, given that time is money, those tomatoes better taste incredible at just under an hour per jar!  I wouldn’t pay my hourly wage for a half pint of home grown tomato sauce, but I didn’t mind spending the time because I know what is in each jar.  I grew it and I sterilized everything and I canned them.  There is pride in knowing that it was my labour that went into my sauce, and it’s a nice, “homey” thing to do.

Right now, we have amazing weather that we normally don’t get at this time of year in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), and so my garden has lasted for a month longer than one would reasonably expect.  I harvested a dozen peppers, bunches of broccoli, kale, swiss chard and leeks this weekend.  I even harvested some peas, which are normally an early summer crop. It has been a wonderful summer for growing.   But everything has its time and place.  And when you’re growing, you also have to be harvesting and preserving, as well.  I underestimated how much time this would take.

I realise that this summer, I had to clear the plot that I planted, build the structure and put up a fence.  It took more time than it will, I hope, next year.  But even still, one doesn’t get a great harvest if one isn’t willing to put in a couple of hours a day into watering, pruning and staking plants, building plant supports, improving the soil, and weeding one’s plot.  As the summer goes on,  harvesting and preserving begins as early as June and, at least this year, has lasted until the end of October.

It has been bountiful.  And it has been a lot of work.

I never once went hiking this summer.  I love hiking and being outdoors.  I just never got out to do it.  I did get to go kayaking but not as often as I would have liked.  Next year, I have decided that I will commit to kayak racing at least one night every week, because I love it.  Every time I thought of going kayaking, or hiking, I felt the pull of something needing to be done.  And so, I managed to go kayaking only every other week and not hike once, in the summer.

The winter months are dreary and depressing for me, so I grabbed some stolen moments and did some things that I had been missing.  I live in a valley, and unless I’m kayaking on the water, somewhere at a higher elevation,  or meeting friends at the seaside for a walk, I don’t get to see the sunset.  When I lived in London, I lived on the 14th floor, facing the Thames and – later – within 2 blocks of the river.  On the 14th floor I saw the sunset every night, and when I lived such a short distance to the river, I was able to walk the Thamespath or sit on a public bench along the path, and watch the sunset reflecting on the Thames River at least two or three times a week.  What a gift I had, in living there, and I am indeed grateful for that time.  But, I miss the sunset.

And so, two weekends ago, after my day-trip to Seattle for a singing and hambone workshop, I decided to steal 3 hours more and go to West Seattle to watch the sunset on Puget Sound.  It meant that I didn’t get home until nearly midnight and Monday was tiring.  But it was glorious, and I’m so grateful for the wonderful weather and the ease of finding parking so that I could walk along the beach and see the Seattle skyline and then return to Alki Point to watch the sunset glisten on the Sound as it dipped behind the Olympic mountains.  It was the perfect end to a perfect day. I hadn’t neglected all my chores for the weekend.  I had spent one whole day gardening, the prior day, and began the process of clearing my plot for winter, but I didn’t get other chores done when I decided to allocate some time for solitude in nature.

I think that solitude and awe are important parts of the contemplative path.  It is a part of the experience of sensing something greater than ourselves when we see beautiful artwork or a glorious sunset like the one I witnessed.  It’s a pathway to feeling Oneness with that which inspires that awe, within.  I was filled with awe at the glorious hues of yellow, orange, pink and red that lit the sky and at the way the light flickered and hid as it danced on the water.  It was well worth it to miss doing laundry and feel a little tired on Monday.

This past weekend, I had no travel plans and was set to do more harvesting, food preservation, cleaning and clearing of the garden.  I felt a bit sad that I had not planned a hike in the sunshine or booked myself a final kayak session for the summer.  So, on Saturday, as I headed to the garden, instead of turning left, to the road where my allotment is,  I powered onward and headed into the Canadian side of the North Cascade mountains and into the Canadian part of the Skagit Valley, where a little known hiking trail will soon be closed – to the Othello Tunnels.

I had heard about these tunnels that went through the mountains in Coquihalla Canyon, and really wanted to explore them but was a bit scared to go alone, in case the rock was unstable.  The tunnels were carved into the mountains in 1913 for trains to transport people and goods from the USA border up to the interior of British Columbia.  They stopped being used when the railway was re-routed from this perilous path in the 1960s.   The tunnels have been deemed to no longer be safe enough for hikers, without considerable maintenance.   I had wanted to see those tunnels before they were closed to hikers forever, and I really didn’t think I’d ever get the chance.  But I made it happen, and I am grateful that I did.

Seeing the fall foliage was a joy and taking a short and easy hike on a level trail was the perfect antidote to my feelings of deprivation from a summer that was lacking in opportunities for hiking.  I met the most beautiful dogs and their owners along a 5 km walk and it was just what the doctor ordered – if doctors wrote prescriptions for dry souls.

I did feel a little guilty that I passed the town where an elderly relative lives and I didn’t stop to visit.  It would have been a service to do so, but sometimes we need to make sure that we are listening to the needs of ourselves, before we give to others.  I needed to spend some time just taking in wonder and visiting new places.  I needed a rest, drinking in vitamin D-laden sunshine, not thinking about what needed to be done, or having any goals except to return, safely.

I will remember the summer of 2018 as the summer I fulfilled a dream I’ve held my entire adult life – to grow my own food.  And I will continue to feel pride as I roast squash and eat baba ganoush and salsa from the vegetables I grew.  I will remember this summer whether I grow another vegetable this year or not.  But I don’t want to remember the summer as the year I was deprived of enjoying the outdoors.

It is these stolen moments that open up the space to dream new dreams.

I don’t know if that space that I gave myself contributed to new insights, but I’ve had some interesting new ideas emerge this week.  They’re crazy.  And I’m not dismissing them.  I’m not acting on them, either.  I’m just giving them space to sit beside me for awhile, and we’ll see.

As much as it has pained me to pull out living plants, I’ve cleared my garden of all but the marigolds and a few plants that can winter in the garden until spring.  I’ve thanked each plant for the food it has produced.  I may have gotten a few more peas and a few more broccoli florets, but there comes a time when every gardener has to give the soil and themselves some time to rest.

Photo: Remi Yuan

For what are you most grateful today?

Ten Thousand Days

Private in Public

October 9, 2018

Photo: Toa Heftiba

Day 1504 – Day 1515

One of my favourite past times is to bring my work to a sunny cafe and work in public.  There is something social about working in a public place, when the work we are doing is solitary (like writing) or we simply lack colleagues.  The energy of the world around me, rather than distracting me, keeps me motivated to work.

Writing these posts is another kind of way to be private in public.  Writing publicly is not as enjoyable as simply soaking in the public ambience while I write, and I’ve written before about how this public practice challenges me and has been costly to me.

I decided, when we hit 1,500 days of gratitude, that I’d start to thin out the previous posts.  I think a selection of previous posts (and perhaps that selection will change over time) will offer readers enough of the journey to interest readers, while reserving some of my privacy.

Seasonally, I withdraw in the winter, but this is more than that.  Right now, in North America, everyone is processing some pretty heavy emotions based on the politics that we are seeing playing out.  Globally, we are being made aware that science is making a last call for us to save ourselves from the worst impacts of climate change.  It’s all pretty dire.  And, as the holiday season is now firmly nestled in Canada with our Thanksgiving celebration behind us, there is the end of year family gatherings and personal reckoning that begins now.

Like many, I’m processing a lot.  And while I want to remain authentic, I don’t want to share all of my thoughts and feelings with the world.  The most authentic thing I can do, then, is admit this.   I’m mindful of people’s privacy but I know that I suffer the same challenges as any non-fiction writer.  Because we write about our lives, we inevitably write about events that people in our lives can identify.  People look for themselves in what I write.  In the past, one sentence, that didn’t identify anyone in particular, was taken as cause for offence and a friendship was terminated.  I made it clear that I meant no harm in writing that one sentence, but my offering was rejected.  It’s possible the person personalized the entire essay as being about them, which it was not, and when people are looking to be offended in life, they will surely find opportunity at every turn.

Everyone is on edge right now, and I find myself getting writer’s block for fear of offending others in my expression of the way I see things.  I’m writing about myself, and my experience, and while I don’t identify people in my posts, I have a right to write about my experience, even if it does not match anyone else’s or if it does not reflect as grandly upon someone else as they think it ought.  Anyone concerned about how I might characterize my experiences should probably not be reading my writing – fiction, non fiction or otherwise.  Censoring oneself is the death knell for a writer.  I’m no longer tolerant of needless drama in my life.

When I was once asked why I write, I answered that writing was my pathway to truth.  Truth is different from fact, as we know.  Truth is a private matter, and is dependant on one’s perspective.  But it is to truth that we look to make meaning out of our lives.  And while I am committed to resist any pressure to self-censor, some things we experience are complex and require a lot of processing.  Last week I wrote a 1500 word post but chose not to publish it because it lacked clarity: unprocessed and complex feelings were sort of half blended in to an unclear narrative.  I had not yet found my own private truth in all the complexity.

Truth seems to be the battlefield of our post-factual, modern times.

Many of us carry battle wounds.  I’ve had several people come to me this weekend with rage or depression.    Although I am not a minister to anyone with whom I work or have personal relationships, I try to be of service, offering a compassionate ear and some comfort.  For me, I am fortunate that I have a spiritual practice that can take me beyond the noise of the moment, and it is in that Oneness that I find solace, as well as re-affirm my sense of purpose.   For others, who are not spiritual, I’ve advised extreme self-care,  to let go of the uncontrollable,  and of course, to re-focus on gratitude.

When life seems so complex, I return to gratitude for the simplest things.

Today I am grateful for the sunshine.  It is warm and soothing on my skin and it gives me joy to feel these last autumnal rays before the cold winter and rains set in for good.  I wish that the Thanksgiving holiday had been a sunny one as I have much clearing of my garden to do.  Instead, I took it in turns, between rain showers, to make soup from my garden vegetables and to pull the last of the plants out of their pots on my balcony (a not insignificant feat).  I’ve expressed my gratitude to my plants for their bounty as I compost them into fertilizer for next season’s crop.  I am thankful that most of my family was able to gather for a meal, and that I had an extra day of rest and solitude, which I feel I deeply need, right now.  And most simply, I am grateful for the soup I made in that time.  It  nourishes my body, so that I have the energy to continue to wake up and be publicly grateful,  even as I do the harder and deeply private work of soothing and nourishing my spirit, in these difficult and complex times.

Photo: Katie Moum

For what are you most grateful, today?

Ten Thousand Days

Harvest Moon

September 27, 2018

Photo: Zan Douglas

Day 1498 – Day 1503

This summer I started marking out my life in lunar cycles.  It wasn’t something I set out to do, but I’ve been more aware of the cycles of the moon than I’ve ever been before, and as each full moon passes, I reflect on what has transpired in the intervening cycle.

This week we had a harvest full moon.  I know that there are many myths and much folklore around the meanings of the harvest moon but they may not speak to my experience, this week.  Astrologically,  this moon was referred, by some, as a Monster Moon, because it was so intense.  Apparently the full moon in Aries was squared to some heavy duty planets.  The earth didn’t open a sinkhole and swallow me, though I will admit that it has felt like a quietly intense week.  In fact, my harvest has been good.  I have reaped what I have sown, for better or worse.

In this time of living a simple life, I’ve been making a concerted effort to be mindful, quiet, and to listen to what I say to myself and to others.  I watch where my thoughts go.   As a gardener, I’ve been reaping the last of my harvest, sharing this harvest with others, and gleaning from other gardeners and nature herself.  As a wayfarer, I’ve been reaping a lot of insight from my dreams and from the process of listening to my thoughts.

Someone once told me that I sowed the seeds of creative ideas for him, and he liked that.  Over time, I came to see that he also was able to sow seeds.  What he sowed, however, was self doubt, through the manipulations of triangulation.  Some of those seeds fell into my garden, and I was able to reap them this week like the weeds that they are, and to see that with any triangle, there are three points.  In listening to my thoughts and words and harvesting insights about this and the meanings of my dreams, I have been able to detach from the system, with compassion for others.  I am grateful for the support of my friends CMF and AH, to do this.

I’ve noticed that I often think the worst thing first, and only with effort (like this gratitude practice) am I able to think more positively.  Sometimes, this includes my assessment of people.  Oh yes, there have been many times in my life when I’ve thought the best of someone because I wanted to believe the best of them, with or without evidence to support this.  But sometimes, I make an assessment about a person’s character based on my reading of events, and sometimes, I end up being wrong.  In the past, I’ve noticed that this happens when I’m feeling insecure – the quickest route is to the negative.  This week, I think I misjudged someone, and I’m grateful that I can admit when I am wrong and adjust my course in response to new knowledge.  I’m also grateful that I did nothing to ruin the friendship, in the course of being wrong about them.

I feel a fragile shift in my perspective – a return to greater self confidence and a generosity of heart that has been hard to achieve in the past two years.   I’ve had a few suitors lately and while I’m seeing a return to open-heartedness, I’m grateful that I’m balancing that with the willingness to observe and act upon red flags or simply with those qualities that are deal breakers, for me.

I’m grateful for the bounty of this harvest.  We’ve hit 1,500 days of gratitude this week and I’m still catching my breath from that milestone and quietly letting it set in.  I feel like I’m in between the in between right now, being deeply present and One with that which is greater than myself.  Where I go with the insights I’m gaining will remain to be seen, but as I start canning and preserving the last of my harvest, and as I nestle in to a period of cozy nights at home, I feel more at peace than I have in a long time.  For a wayfarer, this is the greatest thing I could hope to harvest.

 

Photo: Sonja Guina

For what are you most grateful today?

Ten Thousand Days

This Little Life

September 21, 2018

Photo by: Chuttersnap

Day 1494-1497

I’ve never liked living in the suburbs.  I grew up in the suburbs, neither part of the city nor at home in nature.  My family is very happy in the suburbs, but I hated it and as soon as I was old enough to leave home, I made my escape to university and then to the big city.

My favourite pastimes happen in the city centre – art galleries, museums and cultural events.  My other favourite place is being on the ocean.  But in the midst of living in the city I have had the dream of a life where the grass is always greener: a simple life in a village or hamlet or somewhere far remote.  I imagined living somewhere in New England,  in a cottage by the sea or on a windswept ocean cliff, in the British Isles or on an inlet, surrounded by the woods of the West Coast of North America – near enough to a city to go there when I needed to be there, but far enough to use a sea kayak and to need a husky for company.  I never imagined I’d be living in a town mostly populated by insular religious and ethnic communities and that is neither a secluded quaint village, nor a big city.

I live in a town of about 150,000 people in the middle of an agricultural region.  It is neither quiet, nor bustling, and it feels very Christian with several bible colleges and a particular religion’s centre for world wide missionary work. It is an hour’s drive to the ocean, on a good day,  and it is not a place, were it not for family, that I would choose to live.  I don’t think that I share the same outlook on life as my neighbours.  But then again, I’m not sure that I don’t.  I don’t feel welcomed into social circles in this town and so I may never know.

And, that is a shame.  If you are part of the particular religious or ethnic groups that populate this agri-town, then you are well connected.  If you’re not, you’re not.  And I am not.   And, I never will be.

The faith-based group that lives here are people who, by tradition, practice simple living, and that interests me.  But, they are a closely knit group of people with ties based on a common faith that I don’t share.  I recognize that we may be friendly and cordial if we come across one another in the garden or a woodworking group, and I may learn from them in those settings, but we will probably never really mix, socially.

I have felt pretty isolated here.   I am neither living my solitary seaside cottage life, nor engaged in the bustling city that offers so many opportunities.   But there is a reason I chose to be here right now and that reason has not yet changed.  And, so, while I’m here, I have this little life.   A simple life doesn’t have to be solitary, but I have always envisioned it to be.  And now, I’m getting my chance to live that. It isn’t where and when I was hoping to live my simple life, but I think that if we are not ready to change our circumstances just yet, then resisting seems like a waste of life energy.   I’m grateful that there are options for me to go out and be with other people and also that I am content to be on my own and that I enjoy being creatively productive.

Solitude does not have to be lonely.  I believe that loneliness comes from wanting to be in the company of those with whom we are not, or in feeling out of step and emotionally closed off to those around us and wanting these things to be different.  I’ve been lonely since I moved back to Canada and a lot of that has been missing people I love, but I’ve also had to set and maintain boundaries with people I love, but who’ve hurt me or treated me disrespectfully.  That can leave us with solitude, but it doesn’t mean it is unhealthy.

I may not find Oneness in a close circle of friends that live nearby and whom I see often.  I may not find Oneness with colleagues at work.  And I may not find Oneness in an embracing spiritual community.  But Oneness is always present – I have just had to find other ways to tap into it.  When I’m gardening, I feel Oneness with the earth.  When I kayak, I am One with the ocean and when I’m out in the forest, I am One with the trees.  Even when I am sitting in my dining room-turned-artist studio, I am One with the collective unconscious.  Being in solitude is, perhaps counter-intuitively, a means of achieving a great deal of Oneness.  The trick, I have found,  is not to be looking for what I do not have, but to be completely mindful and present in the moment with what I do have.  This little life can help eradicate all the distracting noise, so that in solitude and oneness, I can see what this time has to teach me.

Slowing down has grounded me and while I may not live in this community forever, I do want to volunteer my time.  I struggle to find anything that is not affiliated with the local church and so I am still looking.  In the garden, I have contributed to the food bank, but I believe that there is good to be had for both the one who is served and the one who serves, when we give not only of our things but of our time.  It is a way to form connections with others, when we lack the company of good friends.  Watch this space.  I’ve not resolved this, just yet.

This isn’t the first time in my life that I have been a fish out of water and gone inward, deliberately.  Life goes in cycles and when one cycle ends, a new one often begins in this quiet way – integrating what has come before and listening for what is calling to be born.  I’m reminded of the lessons of Henry David Thoreau.  I’ve not retreated to a self-built cabin in the woods, and I still do go to work in an office every day.  But the conditions of my workplace are such that I am isolated and left to fend for myself and I live in a town where I have no close ties except to my folks, who largely keep to themselves.  Without bustle and a social life, I’m kind of in a metaphorical wilderness, tending to my garden, painting and writing, walking and kayaking and singing to the earth, living a life of solitude and contemplation.

In the words of Thoreau:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Like Thoreau, when I emerge from this part of my life, I hope to have passed my time deliberately and meaningfully, listening to the still small voice speak to me of purpose. I didn’t expect to have this little life choose me at this time and place in my life, but as the endless rains of autumn set upon us here in the valley, I’ve decided to embrace my time on Walden Pond.

 

Photo: Fredrick Suwandi

For what are you most grateful, today?

Ten Thousand Days

The Importance of Being Earnest

September 17, 2018

Photo: Markus Spiske

Day 1489 – Day 1493

This week I was reminded of an art project that appeared on social media some time ago.  It was produced by a relatively new circle of artist friends.  The project parodied a famous artist in the genre that my friends pursue and I wasn’t completely sure whether it was done in homage or mockery.  I also wasn’t certain whether the parody was of the famous artist or of themselves.  Other friends helped me decode the intent through the hashtags and comments, and we concluded that the project took aim at the earnestness of the famous artist, for being excessive by today’s standard.

I think there is a danger in viewing any art from a previous era, out of the context of its time, but, more importantly, I wonder: when did the quality of earnestness become a subject of contempt?

Sources define the word ‘earnest’ differently but there seems to be a consensus that it means to be serious, highly convicted and sincere.   I found some sources that equated earnestness with being religious and moralising, but this is faulty logic:  An evangelist is earnest, but an earnest person is not necessarily an evangelist.  And, while a highly convicted person who exhibits sincerity may, in times past, have been found in societies that lacked moral ambiguity, Bob Dylan was a good example of earnestness that belonged to a counter culture where morals were individually felt, held, and acted upon.  Finally, many think that the quality of earnestness sucks the levity out of the room.  One can lack the ability to take perspective with gratitude, humour or fun, whether one is earnest or not.  In my experience, levity is the essential lubricant that allows one to pursue one’s convictions without burning out.  So, why the derision?

I notice that many in a younger age bracket – and maybe more so in the arts –  have adopted the counter-culture-turned-mainstream idea of doing and liking things ‘ironically,’ that many pop culture writers have rightly identified as a requirement of being in the circle of cool.  Along with ironic and mocking lifestyles, we’ve also seen the rise, within this crowd, of the quest for a life of ‘authenticity.’

I suspect that one who draws attention to a quality in themselves is one who lacks it most.  I know that is true whenever I do it.   The truly humble person doesn’t tweet about their humility.   The person who lives their life with presence, in the moment, and being real about who they are and how they feel,  has no need to hashtag themselves as authentic.  They are grounded in who they are and they don’t look outside of themselves for approval of their #authenticity.  By extension, I admit that gratitude has not been my natural tendency in life, and therefore, I practice it, and write about it and hope to inspire others who struggle with it, to be grateful.  Spiritual and contemplative paths don’t attract those who’ve achieved nirvana; one doesn’t need the path when one has already reached the destination.

So, I am curious why, on the one hand, authenticity can be a sought after and cherished experience, but earnestness is not.

I am an earnest person.  It would not be possible to honour the commitment to 10,000 days of these practices – shared publicly – without being serious about the task and having a deep conviction that it is worth doing.  To do it well requires openness and sincerity – or what we have called Authenticity.  And to be authentic requires a deep conviction of the need for the serious pursuit of self awareness.

I may never understand the motivation for that project, but I’ll admit that it saddened me and it took me some time to unravel why it impacted me this way.

I’m saddened that sincerity, deep conviction and seriousness may no longer be a de-rigueur part of the making of art.  I wonder what will be the purpose of art, without it.  Whether in vogue or not,  I’m grateful that, as a writer, and as a painter,  conviction and sincerity still enlivens me to make serious effort.  My intention is serious, not necessarily the form it takes.  I have written comedy and many of my paintings are whimsical but I have a purpose and a conviction behind it all and I’m grateful that those who have been moved by my work.

At a more personal level,  it pains me to feel judged, even if by proxy.  I have good associations with that famous artist.  I don’t care if people have the same taste as I do.  In fact, I like to mix with people of different tastes and experiences because they broaden my world and introduce me to new ideas.  However, nobody likes to have their taste, style or way of navigating the world judged, mocked and dismissed.  When we cannot be ourselves, when we cannot bring the best of ourselves to the table, we are in the wrong company.  We don’t need to be into the same things, in order to support one another in pursuing our passions.  We simply need to forgo judgement.  I’m grateful that I have good friends who don’t judge me for being different from them and I’m sad that these friends are no longer in a part of that circle.

I’ve chosen to distance myself from any fellow artist who backstabs or tears down another artist – famous or otherwise.  I’ve known a few famous people who are artists.  And the one thing we all have in common is that we are just people,  subject to the same insecurities, trying to make our art.  It takes courage to put our art into the world, even if we are famous (perhaps more so?), knowing that some will love it and some will hate it and – worst, perhaps of all – some will be indifferent to it.   We are all vulnerable when we put our art out there.

Sure, if your art is the art of satire, then I understand there is mockery involved.  But satire has a point – it is to awaken people from their complacency or false self images by exaggerating reality.  If there is no wake up call embedded in satire, or your genre is not satire in the first place, then it is just mean-spirited.   I’ve been in several different artistic circles from writing, to acting, to painting, to making music, and I’ve witnessed this bitchy and backstabbing behaviour in all of them.  I’ve had my own privately-held bitchy moments fueled by jealousy and frustration but I’ve tried to keep them to myself, and to resolve my underlying pain, because I know these moments serve nobody.  They perpetuate negativity and comparison and that robs me of the joy of creating.

When I was in writing school, I heard someone famous say that there is room at the top for all of us.   It seems to me that successful people – those who achieve their goals and create a legacy (like the famous artist, being mocked) – are not those who are looking around at what others are doing and putting them down.  They have their eyes on their own work.  They maintain their drive with optimism and conviction, and they elevate those they meet along the way, thereby, creating a culture of loyalty and positive community.  I’m grateful that I heard this concept early in my career, and I’ve tried to live by it and create a circle of mutual support.

I don’t claim to understand the paradox that these thirty-something artists’ who produced the project live within, because  I try to be authentic in all my dealings and  I believe that there is importance in being earnest.  We all care deeply about something.  Authenticity, it seems to me, requires that we own up to our earnestness, and risk being vulnerable enough to reveal to others, and to ourselves, the places in our hearts where we care the most.  Ironically perhaps, it may mean exposing ourselves to the threat of mockery.

 

Photo: Joey Nicotra

For what are you most grateful today?

 

 

 

 

Ten Thousand Days

Lifelong Learner

September 12, 2018

Photo: Clay Banks

Day 1483 – Day 1488

I’m back to work this week, after last week’s anxiety producing surgery.  I’m not thrilled to have been under the weather for the end of the summer, but as autumn rolls around and children go  back to school, I am reminded that I used to feel a sense of melancholy at this time of year that I associate with childhood, and the knowledge that the carefree days of summer had come to an end, and the time to crack down and set to the task of earning good grades was upon me.

There is something wrong in that.  I love learning.  I hate the testing that has always been a part of my education.  As an adult, with a post graduate degree, and several professional qualifications, I think its safe to put to rest the days of testing, and return to the love of learning.

The school of hard knocks and of self awareness is, in many ways, the best teacher but the formal acquisition of knowledge and new skills is a favourite pastime, for me.  Learning new facts, systems and ideas brings me joy.  Drawing from the same old well of stale ideas and ways of doing things stifles creativity.  There is nothing more igniting than a new idea and the process of synthesizing that idea with older concepts.  At least, that is the case, for me.  One of the requirements of my professions is maintaining continuing education records to ensure that I am keeping up to date with developments in my fields.  That is a pretty broad requirement and I sometimes struggle to find verifiable courses that pertain to my particular career.

This September, as the weather changes and the oppressive heat settles into a cooler, comfortable temperature, I continue to harvest the last fruits of my garden, and I have set out to harvest some new ideas beyond that which is simply “pertinent”.  When I lived in London, I was incredibly grateful to have a lot of continuing education that was financed by my company, and a considerable amount that was free from my institute and the wellbeing departments attached to my professional institutes.  Although I cannot attend those in person anymore, I do have access to some of them online, as well as a host of University courses.

I enjoyed learning with others, and I made friends from some of the participants and teachers of those classes.  But, when life hands you lemons, you need to learn to make lemonade.  And so, this September, I went back to school with three University courses by distance education offered as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses).   I am grateful for the wealth of free or low cost resources available to me as I continue my education, self financed.  I’m doing courses that will be of benefit to my day to day working life and have some application to one’s personal life as well.

I’ve felt uninspired in my work, for a few months now, and I think this is largely attributable to a lack of colleagues and mentorship opportunities, and the incubator that colleagues and mentors provide.  Because I’ve spent my whole adult life away from here, I lack a professional network where I’m living.  Imperial College London, The University of Munich and The University of California, Berkeley, have now become my extended network, in addition to those friends and colleagues that live in different time zones.  I’m grateful that I am resourceful and able to be self-directed, because with a MOOC-style education, that is what is required.  With so many courses to choose from, I have carefully selected three that are aligned with my values and purpose, and also directed towards my professional requirements and goals.   I’m pretty happy about that.

While solitude and contemplative time is really important and must be preserved, my evenings are going to be busy this autumn.  But accommodating study into my life is nothing new.  For most of my working life, I have studied alongside working a day job or two.  I finished my Creative Writing degree and studied with a professional acting school, while I was working in the film business in New York, and I became a minister while I was working in the entertainment business and held down a seasonal job as well.  I worked towards a certificate in Sustainability and became a polarity practitioner in there, somewhere, as well.  (Ah, the energy of youth!) And, when I moved to London, well, I studied to become a professional while working full time, and then got a second qualification when that was finished.  I am a life-long learner.  I love to learn.  And each thing I learn bounces off the other things I have learned and this will be my own internal incubator.

I encourage anyone who is feeling a bit bored or uninspired, as winter sets in, to take a look at the vast array of MOOCs, continuing education or distance education courses that are available, near or far.  Maybe we will meet in some distant University chat room.

Photo: Sergey Zolkin

For what are you most grateful today?

 

Ten Thousand Days

On the Tip of the Tongue

September 6, 2018

Photo: Sarah-Louise Kinsella

Day 1482

Later this afternoon, I’ll be going under the knife for a biopsy on my tongue.  When the doctor saw the growth on my tongue he said:  “I think we should cut it out – not the tongue, the growth.”  He thought that was funny.  I didn’t, and the thought of it has lingered with me.

Last time I wrote about the symbolism of the tomato, and now I’m thinking about the tongue.  Maybe its the curse of a writer and someone whose contemplative and spiritual path involves the interpretation of symbols.  But, I can’t help but be grateful for my tongue.

Yes, my tongue is too big for my mouth and that has caused me some dental problems and left me with a lisp as a child that I had to work hard to overcome, with the aid of a speech therapist.  Yes, ‘my tongue is too big for my mouth’ is also another way of saying that I love to talk.  As much as I am a good listener,  I do love to talk.  A great visit with a friend involves a lot of talking and I’ve had a lot of talk therapy in my life (I was, after all, a New Yorker, where you have to have talk therapy in order to be permitted to live in the city).    To me, my tongue is essential to friendship and self awareness.  I suppose that were the surgeon to slip and oopsie! my tongue was gone, I’d still be able to write.  But there is a reason that we long to hear the sound of someone’s voice.  I long to hear my mother’s voice, and I never will again.  In the secret parts of my heart, where I don’t like to look, I also long to hear the sound of the voice of a lost love or two, just one more time.

I am grateful for the memory of their voices in my head and my heart, and  I’m certain that I’m not the only person who associates the mystery of memory with the tongue.  After all, when something is just beyond our cognition, don’t we say that it is on the tip of the tongue?

And as I go through my memory, the tongue was a great appendage of exploration when I was a child.  I learned that metal would stick to the tongue when it’s cold outside, and that pop rocks would fizz on the tip of it, that it was possible to catch raindrops and to taste snow.  And, I learned that my tongue could be used as a gesture of defiance, coquettishness, anger and humour.  The tongue, even before I had command of complex language, was a means of understanding the world and expressing myself to it.

As I grew older, I learned that the tongue expresses not only through our words but also through touch.  Passionate kisses and carnal pleasures pass by the tongue as we commingle with others.  Whether it is a source of pleasure and joy or sloppy disgust, the tongue gets involved in amour.   It is one of our most intimate appendages.

Oh yes, the tongue has been a great explorer.  It is the means by which I’ve tasted food (along with the olfactory senses) and the means by which I derive pleasure from eating.  While I’m not a great cook, my food is tasty and I’m grateful to have eaten in fine restaurants and local food stalls around the world.

And as I’ve gone around the world, I’ve heard and picked up bits of several languages.  As a child I was bilingual and then as an adult I added a third language.  In my travels I learned a bit of Hindi and Swahili but these days I’m lucky if I can remember words in a single language, let alone multiple.

I remember once being in a foul mood in London and sitting on the bus with people talking loudly on their cell phones in a cacophony of world languages.  I felt like I was sitting atop the Tower of Babel with a migraine headache.  And then, I suddenly realised how lucky I was to be living in a city with so many diverse cultures coexisting peacefully, and to be in a hub of airlines routes that made international travel from London so cheap.

I’m grateful for the languages I’ve learned, and the people and cultures I’ve experienced by way of the tongue.

The tongue even has a part to play in our own individual heritage and sense of belonging.  Our first language that we learn at home is called our mother tongue and it is probably named after the mother because it is the primary caregiver (traditionally the mother) who first teaches the child to speak through efforts to mimic mother and belong.  The tongue is a link to our home, to a sense of belonging, and to our heritage.  It is an anchor as well as an appendage of love and adventure.

In Eastern medicine, the tongue provides a roadmap of the body and is used to diagnose illness and imbalance.  Where the tongue is discoloured, or coated in milky film, or simply red and dotted reveals the condition of our organs and systems.  The tongue is the microcosm of the macrocosm.

It may get me into trouble sometimes, but I very much want to keep my tongue.

 

 

For what are you most grateful, today?

Ten Thousand Days

Bounty

September 5, 2018

Photo: Vince Lee

Day 1463 – Day 1481

I’ve had a pretty good life.  I’ve had impressive achievements and rubbed shoulders with impressive and really cool people.  I’ve had the chance to travel through Europe, Africa, Asia and North America.  I’ve had plays produced, writing published, and paintings shown in galleries.  By all accounts, I’ve had a really good life.

But this year, a dream that I have nurtured all my adult life finally came true:  I grew my own food.

This may seem like a kind of nerdy or simple dream-come-true, and one that is on trend with the millennial crowd.  But, it is a quiet and deeply soulful dream I have had since I was in my twenties.  There was more to the dream, but anyone who has known me for any length of time and with any depth will know that I have longed to return to my roots and be One with the earth in a very deep way.  This doesn’t mean I’m a country girl.  I’m happy to grow food in a city.  I simply wanted to grow my own food. Both of my sets of grandparents were farmers.  I am the first of my family to live in New York and London and to have a master’s degree from a world class Ivy League institution.  And yet, what stirs my soul is to work in the garden to satisfy my needs, with organic methods that harm nobody and that help our pollinators and planet.

Were I to really return to my roots, I would be making my own cheese, carpets, knits and clothes.  But there is something so incredibly grounding in eating all organic vegetables that I grew in my 200 square foot plot.  Over the summer, I’ve bought vegetables only twice: onions, potatoes, carrots and garlic because I had not grown them.

Each of us has a symbolic language unique to ourselves that help us make sense of the world.  A symbol will mean one thing to me and will mean very different things to you.  One of the most potent symbols in my lexicon is the tomato.

When I was growing up, my mother loved tomatoes.  I loved tomatoes.  And when I visited my Russian grandmother, one of the very few words I learned was the Russian word for tomato.  Tomatoes symbolised summer, the garden, being in the kitchen with my grandmother, and a simple delight for my mother.  Whenever we travelled, mom would put tomatoes in the cooler to snack on.  It was a bit of home we took with us, wherever we went.  And so, tomatoes are a comfort food that remind me of my mother, and my grandmother.  Tomatoes, rather than borscht, are really the quintessential symbol of my heritage and lineage.   Saving seeds is a way to carry on the tradition and preserve our living history.

Anyone who knows me well will recognize that the symbol of the tomato infuses my life with meaning.  When I returned to Canada, I asked my long-time friend, TCBC how successful she thought my repatriation would be.  I am aware, and have been aware for some time ,that the statistics on successfully repatriating after living one’s adult life elsewhere are grim.   Her response to my question was:  It depends on how deeply you plant your tomatoes.   And, after the third love of my life – with whom I shared the dream of growing our own food  – dumped me without explanation, we eventually embarked on the process  of reconciling.  Just as I was beginning to let him into my life again, I dreamed that he was serving my tomatoes to others.  While, consciously, I was not aware – or would not admit to myself – what that dream meant, at least my unconscious mind knew.  I take a petty and perverse pleasure in the knowledge that while he was spreading his seed elsewhere during our reconciliation, his own first-garden’s tomatoes died from lack of care.

Tomatoes are a potent symbol for me, of love, trust, security, home, family and contentment.

This year, I have more tomatoes than I can eat.  I eat tomatoes every day, and I may not even get through these tomatoes by next year, if I can or freeze them.  I have given away tomatoes to family and friends, and the food bank, and still, I have a veritable bounty.  There is no way you can compare organic tomatoes, fresh from the garden, to those that are sold in the supermarket or even at the farmer’s market. Maybe I’m sentimental, but I believe that you can taste the love that went into growing your own vegetables.  And, if you can’t, perhaps it is just the sense of pride that flavours them.  Given that I have a sensitive immune system, there is deep self care involved in eating my own organically and longingly grown vegetables.

I understand why Thanksgiving and the festival of appreciation and gratitude coincides with the harvest.  I find it difficult to put into words the feeling of abundance that comes from harvesting a grocery bag full of food every couple of days from my own garden.  And, there is security in freezing food for the winter.  It strikes a primal chord that harkens back long before my grandmother’s time, when survival really was about keeping warm, having shelter, water and enough food.  We are so busy with the latest trends and hippest restaurant and wanting the coolest holiday that we can easily overlook the simple gratitude of having our survival needs met, and the accomplishment of having met them with our own labour.

This has been a lifelong dream come true and for that reason, the success of my garden this year has been perhaps the achievement I feel most profoundly, gratefully,  and joyfully.

My tomatoes took root.  This does not guarantee that my repatriation will be a success, or that I will never have another broken heart.  But, it is an accomplishment that positions me within a strong tradition of survival against the odds and with self-sufficiency.   It shows me that I can achieve not only things that are pretty cool, but things that I dream of doing – cool or not.  It may be late in life to learn that lesson, but not all of us have been raised to believe that we actually can or should achieve our dreams.

Along with my tomatoes, I have planted that seed.

Photo: Sergei Pesterev

 

For what are you most grateful this week?

 

 

Ten Thousand Days

A Way to Empathy

August 17, 2018

Photo: Umit Bulut

Day 1462

I had breakfast last week with a man I’ve gotten to know over the last 2 years.  He’s been a good friend to me and I always come away from our meetings with something to ponder.  As, I think, does he.  We have a kind of spiritual friendship and this has filled a gap in my life.

I’ve been thinking for a long time about forgiveness.  In order to forgive, we must first find our way to the Oneness of empathy.

I’m a pretty forgiving person, but awhile ago, I said to my friend, CMF, that I didn’t think I would ever be able to forgive a particular person for the wrong they had done to me.  I just couldn’t see how I would ever forgive.  I could not envision myself ever doing the same wrong to another person as was done to me, and since forgiveness, to me, requires empathy, I could not put myself into their shoes.   If I had behaved badly, or even if my actions were misinterpreted, my empathy for how I must have hurt someone would cause me to apologize as soon as it was clear that I had caused them hurt.  In this case, I have apologized for my own wrongdoings, but I’ve not received an apology, in return, for a major betrayal.   And, hardest to bear, it was precisely my ability to feel empathy for them, during the time we engaged with one another,  that was exploited by the person I struggle to forgive.

I think anyone would understand my difficulty.  But, the simple truth I’ve come to realise is that until I can forgive, I will be the unwitting carrier of the resentment that keeps my heart defended and closed.  It will be the thief of joy. And, I will energetically carry a tie to that person.  As a service to us both, I must learn to forgive the seemingly unforgivable.

I came away from breakfast grateful for three insights:

Empathy does not require me to reconcile with the one who wronged me, or to excuse or even to be able to relate to the choices and ACTIONS of the other person.  I only need to be able to imagine what lead to the MOTIVATION for that action.  While I will never know the developmental process that created the person who hurt me, it is possible for me to imagine a young child who has been wounded by parents or teachers and who adapted behaviours to that situation, in order to survive.  I don’t have to relate to the behaviours, but I can related to being wounded and I can imagine the fear and helplessness that caused a young child to fight for survival.  When I feel how that child might have felt, I have compassion for the person who wronged me.

Secondly, my friend was adamant that where we cannot forgive someone, we must examine ourselves to see if we are unable to forgive ourselves.  Often, we cannot forgive in ourselves the very qualities we despise in the one we feel has wronged us.  This is called projection.  We sometimes project our shadow side onto someone when they do something that irritates or offends us beyond the magnitude of the action.  We say they are horrible people, because we don’t accept that we share that quality.  I’ve considered this, but after soul searching, I don’t believe that I projected my character flaws onto the person who harmed me.  What I did do, however, was to see only the good in them, even when there was evidence that I was overestimating them.  It is important not to victim blame, but I do have to accept that I was slow to admit that I was mistaken.  I’ve done some thinking about why I was so slow.  There were some good reasons.  And, there was also the reason that I simply didn’t want to believe the truth.  For the latter, I have forgiven myself.

The third insight that I’ve come away with is that it is not necessary to receive an apology, in order to forgive.  Yes,  it is harder to forgive someone who is not sorry for their wrongdoing, but it is not impossible.  This is where it is helpful to imagine ourselves in the others shoes.  I’ve imagined many ways in which a childhood trauma could explain their actions as an adult.  But I keep coming up against one thing that doesn’t fit my experience of adults I’ve known, and that is what appears to be a complete lack of awareness or regard for the feelings or needs of others.  And, while harmful behaviour warrants an apology, the simple fact is that if someone lacks empathy, it is beyond them to comprehend why their behaviour is harmful or even that they have wronged another.

Sometimes apologies come much later, and sometimes long after we have forgiven the one who harmed us. For many who lack empathy, this quality can be learned, and is often learned when one takes the steps to heal one’s childhood wounds.  But, there are some people who will never be able to acquire empathy.  When one encounters someone who lacks and will never have the capacity to develop empathy, we may decide to keep a safe distance from them.  As hard as it is to swallow, we have to accept that they cannot help or change their behaviour and they will never care about what they do to others.  As strange as it sounds, it feels easier, for me, to forgive a psychopath (and keep as clear of them as possible) than it is to forgive a fully grown adult who has more resources than 99.9% of the world to put towards healing their childhood wounds, but has chosen not to do so.

As I reflect on this and try to make meaning out of my reluctance to forgive, I realise that the kind of wounding that results in a lack of empathy, in an adult, is incredibly tragic.  Just as I have compassion for the wounded child, I realise that healing those wounds takes a great deal of courage.  I am a courageous person and I have overcome a great deal in my life, and so I have a blindspot for those who lack courage.

This is where I need to soften my heart.

Not everyone has that courage or has the support structures in place to dare to open Pandora’s box.  And as much as it does not excuse anything that was done to me, I can see that my blindspot to those who are fearful gets in the way of my empathy for them.

I know how it feels to be frightened and lacking support. I know how it feels to be governed by my fear. I know what it is to keep secrets on myself and stuff them down inside,  because I was not ready to face them. I know what they are going through. I was once there; I remember how it felt.  I can empathize with anyone in that situation, even one who has wronged me.

My empathy, with some effort, now extends both to the child in distress, and to the adult who cannot bear to revisit and heal the wounds of their childhood.

Having found a way to empathy, I have found the doorway to forgiveness.

Forgiveness may not happen all at once, but it begins with a decision and a willingness to forgive.  Understanding that their own wounding led to my wounding, and that their fear prevents them from healing and developing empathy, I see that they currently have no ability to understand their wrongdoing or feel remorse.  I hope that they will find a way to heal. And, I choose to forgive.

 

Photo: Serrah Galos

 

For what are you most grateful, today?

 

 

Ten Thousand Days

I Can Not Imagine…

August 16, 2018

Photo: Genessa Panainte

Day 1456 – Day 1461

When something horrible happens to someone we know, the polite response seems to be: “I can not imagine what you must be going through.”  It is polite because we don’t diminish the other person’s suffering by offering some platitude as if that will be a salve.  The only salve that can be offered in times of loss, grief and pain is empathy.

There are many ways that people use the term empathy.  One scholar outlined 8 different ways that the term is used.  So, what is empathy?  In my life,  empathy is providing space for a person to be heard so that their experience can be understood, and felt, from their own perspective and frame of reference.  Empathy is to feel another’s pain, just as it is, without trying to change it.  Until the pain is acknowledged and felt, it is unlikely that anyone can move beyond it.  So, despite our finest intentions, compassionate efforts to problem solve or to alleviate the suffering of others can only stand a chance of being effective once we’ve offered real empathy.

In my life, people have often shared their stories instead of just being present with me when I share mine.  I do not want to hear the listener’s own story of pain as a response to mine because it makes me feel unheard and dismissed.  Until I feel heard, I do not want any advice.  And, even then, I do not want to have someone play the devil’s advocate for the person who hurt me, because it makes me feel unsupported.   And I do not want to be told what to think, or what I’ve missed in the subtleties of life because it feels condescending to be treated as stupid, unsavvy, and inept.  Even if well intentioned,  these ways of relating are off-putting to most people, including me.  Imposing one’s own world view on a person who simply wants to be heard is not received as empathy.

When I was younger, I shared with a young man something very private that had caused me a great deal of pain.  When he’d heard my story, he said: “I’m so sorry that happened to you.  I can not imagine what that must have been like.”  Having not felt heard for most of my life, I expected he would treat me in the same way.  That he heard me, and didn’t share his own pain story made me feel both seen and heard and I fell in love with him.  I didn’t realise until much later that he completely lacked empathy for other people’s experiences.

I confused being heard with being felt.  ‘I cannot imagine” is a declarative statement of an inability to equate my experience to yours and it creates the space for my unique experience to be heard.  It is polite.  But, it does not take the leap to empathy, where my feelings are felt and understood.  If we care about someone, our humanity demands that we find a way to imagine what it is that they are feeling.

We can imagine  the same experience happening to us and how we would feel in those circumstances.  Or, we can remember times when we felt what we imagine we would feel in those circumstances.  Since we are only imagining what it would feel like from their perspective – a perspective that by definition we do not inhabit – the final aspect of empathy, as I see it,  is not to impose our imaginings on the situation.  We simply sit with them in their pain, feeling what we imagine they might be feeling, and accepting and finding a way to feel whatever feelings they bring to the table, whether we imagine we would feel them in the circumstances or not.  Together, we bear the pain until it is bearable, alone.  That is empathy, to me.

Some people cannot tolerate empathy.  They have hardened their suffering into anger and resentment.  By refusing to be vulnerable and share their pain instead of their bitterness, they push out love, as well.  I know how easy it is to close one’s heart to pain but without the courage to feel and share our pain, we will never be able to feel and share love and joy, either.  With people who cannot be vulnerable, we are rebuffed if we attempt to offer empathy.   I’ve come to realise that they are stuck in victimhood and what they want is pity, not empathy.  I struggle with people in these circumstances, and at present, the best I can do is have empathy for their predicament.

I am grateful to Swami Ramananda of Integral Yoga.  I took a class with him in New York many years ago.  He was lecturing on forgiveness and although it was not a class on empathy, it turned out that empathy was the key to softening our heart and opening the way to forgiveness.  Without both empathy and forgiveness, it is hard to make meaning of the suffering in our lives and that which we witness around us.  That said, it is not, of course, empathetic to rush to gloss meaning over another person’s pain.  Meaning is made (or not) from our own adversity and only in retrospect, when we have processed our feelings and have enough distance to take a wider perspective on our lives.  Meaning-making is the prerogative, in my opinion, of the one whose life it concerns, and nobody else’s.

Empathy is not easy.  We can go wrong with it, in so many ways.  And, when we get it right, it is painful because we really do feel another person’s pain.  But who are we, without empathy?  Narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths and other personality disordered individuals lack empathy.  I’d rather the bear the pain of another person’s loss to maintain my humanity.

It is empathy that brings us most in touch, I think, with our humanity.  It is a selfish byproduct of the capacity to feel another’s pain that we feel, most bittersweetly, the fragility of life and that there but for the Grace of whatever you wish to call it, we might have gone.  It is a form of Oneness and although the weakest form of gratitude is to be grateful that we aren’t worse off, real empathy for the suffering of another may well be a pathway to gratitude in our own lives.

This week, two of my dearest friends buried their younger sister.  I never met the sister that passed away though I feel that I knew her through them.  She was joyful, warm and had a great sense of humour from what I heard of her.  She was steadfast and loyal to those she loved, especially her family, and she had a deep inner strength.   Mostly, what I know of her is how very deeply she was loved.  The three sisters were closer than any set of sisters that I’ve known.  Together, they were like a solid, stable, three legged stool.  She was, in many ways, the rock that held the family together and she will be sorely missed.

Today she has been laid to rest.  The first words that come to mind are that I cannot imagine how it must feel to be in my friends’ shoes.

It is true that none of us who has not lost a cherished sister can  imagine what my friends are going through today, and what they will go through in the weeks and months to come.  In the order we expect our lives to go, their sister was taken far too soon.  It is unfair and life will never be the same for my friends.  Since I heard of her passing, I’ve done nothing but imagine how my friends are feeling. They are far away and even if we were closer to one another, there is nothing that I can do to make it better.   I wish I could be there, just to sit with them in their grief and to honour their sister, their pain of loss, and the incredibly tight bond the 3 sisters shared.  I can’t be there, but from far away, I care, I am moved, and I empathise with their unfathomable loss.

All around me, friends are fighting cancer or losing parents and siblings to illness.  Many of them are younger than I am, now.  In moments when I focus on how I would feel in their shoes, I take perspective on my life.  I am grateful for these friendships and for the opportunity to walk – even at a distance – through life passages together.  I am the youngest of my family, and although we have our challenges,  I am grateful that both of my sisters and my brother in law are still living, that my father and step mother are alive and well, for their age, that my nieces and nephew are well, and I am grateful, myself, to be alive, to savour another day.

I have tasted the pain of this loss, and though I never met my friends’ sister, I will remember her.  As they bury their sister, and move on to processing their grief, and living a life without her, my dear friends are in my thoughts, and in my heart.

Photo: Becca Tapert

For what are you most grateful?

Ten Thousand Days

Eclipsed

August 1, 2018

Photo: Fabian Oelkers

Day 1442 – Day 1446

This past weekend, the world witnessed the longest blood red full moon lunar eclipse that will likely occur in my lifetime.  Sadly, I was in a part of the world where I did not get to witness it live.  But, I am grateful for the NASA feed that allowed us all to watch it, globally.  The last time I saw a lunar eclipse in person was in London, at the great Old Street flat of some dear friends from University days.  It is a moment that is forever imprinted on me.

When I was younger, I played Delores Claiborne in professional acting school.  I remember that Delores killed her pedophile of a husband under a full moon lunar eclipse.  And, when I studied yoga, and spent time in India, I remember learning that eclipses are considered times of bad luck and that one ought to pray and avoid being out when an eclipse is underway.  This past week, I read up on the meaning of this particular eclipse – according to astrology – and was mortified.  It was meant to dredge up old wounds and pain and be an overall and completely really bad time.  In short, the earth was going to open and swallow us whole.  Or something to that effect.

I tried to understand the metaphor of the eclipse in Delores Claiborne and while I’m good at creating metaphor, I’m not always so great at deciphering it in other people’s work.  All I could come up with is that when the normal patterns of our lives are placed in shadow, we have a chance to truly see the contours of our lives – the landscape, in relief – and when we see something we cannot abide, this moment can be an impetus to make great changes.  When the light returns, it can be like the dawn of a new day in our lives.  It can be the start of a new chapter in our lives, so to speak.

As the eclipse reached totality, I decided to meditate as best I could, given that I was sitting at my desk and it was lunch time.  I set a few intentions and the biggest intention was simply to just let it all go.  All my limiting thinking, all the expectations that others have placed on me and any emotion that wasn’t helping me to move forward towards realization – for just  one moment – I let them all go.

And the weight that was lifted from me was palpable.

I find that in life, time takes time.  No, I’m not starting on a series of posts based on obscure song titles of stars of the 1960s.  What I mean by this is that life changes in sometimes startling and monumental ways but those big shifts are preceded by long and sometimes agonizingly painful periods of deep work and processing.  We mark time by the changes that happen, not by those long periods that precede it.  So, time takes time.  My life, and my process of self development is ordered in this way.  I’m happy to learn that another close family member also operates in a similar way.  I thought I was the only weirdo in the tribe that makes changes in geological time frames.  Change happens all of a sudden after lots of processing, like tectonic plates suddenly unleash an earthquake after rubbing against one another for hundreds of years.

Perhaps introverts operate in this way.  I don’t know.  I know that I do, and I’m an introvert.  I am an INFP and even amongst the introverts I know, I score the highest on the Introvert measure of that Myers Briggs classification.  When I am working on something – be it a move across the world, or a new phase of life, a new career, or a decision to marry or cohabit – whatever it may be -you will see very little happening above the surface.  But, inside and invisible to the world, major shifts are occurring.  The world sees only the earthquake, not the rubbing of the plates against one another.  That can leave people thinking I am impetuous, when there is nothing further from the truth.  I am measured and deliberate to a fault.

The eclipse of this past week reminds me that what appears to the eye is deceptive.

As the eclipse reached totality and I let so many things go from my psyche, I had a glimpse of a different way of being.  I’ve spent years stuck in the crush of two tectonic plates.  Some of that pressure is dissipating.  A space is being created that is creative and as I turn inward and focus on that space, the pressure mounts again between what is and what might be.  I’m kind of excited about what may come.  It might show up in a month, or a year or in a few years.  I have no way of knowing how long this process will take.  But, I’m now in a process – one of weighing and sifting and imagining and refining.  There might be some tremors as I test out new ideas.  There may not be. It may all come as a massive shakeup.  But what I do know is that the space I am creating now is sacred.

I will take my time.  Before I moved to North America, I took my time.  From the outside, it may have looked like I was stalled or not moving forward but that all depended on where you set your gaze.  While one thing stopped, great progress was made in other areas and I had inner work to do on several areas of my life and I needed to sort out how I felt about many things.  I learned a lot about myself in that stillness.

At this time, I notice that some “things”  are falling away.  When I come to these seminal moments in my life, I see that some things just no longer fit with where I’m going.  Recently I let go of a relationship and I thanked that person for the years that we were friends.  The fact that the friendship no longer fits does not take away the fact that at a particular time and place, it was valuable and important to me, and so I am grateful.  I wished him well, and I meant it.  I’m grateful for the crazy energy of that earth-swallowing eclipse that has helped me to see some possibilities of how things could be and that I am finally willing to let go of what no longer fits.  I’m grateful for the weight that it has lifted off of me.

I spent a joyful weekend with a friend and her family.  We painted and drank wine and talked and the weekend was both about where we had been and our limitations and where we were going and our challenging those limits.  Our lives are very different, but just because we have little in common outwardly does not mean that our human experience is not shared.  While she is a decade younger than I am, I’m grateful for her sage advice and for a really lovely sense of sharing and community that I sometimes lack in being an expat trying to make new friends in what little spare time I have.  And in turn, I’m glad that I could be a cheerleader and a witness to her as she broke through something that had been a limitation for her.

I’m not really sure what this moment in time will reveal – I think that is something that can only be seen in retrospect.  But, what has become clear is that living a life of purpose, meaning and joyful gratitude eclipses most obligations and other people’s expectations that are putting pressure on the tectonic plates of my inner landscape.  Where there is a mismatch of the old features of both my inner and outer landscapes with what I can envision for myself, I’m really okay with letting them go.

Someone once said to me that it takes great courage to be naked when we take off the cloak that no longer fits us so that we may don a finer set of clothes.  If we rush to put on that new set of clothes, we will likely reach into our closet and all that is there are more outworn duds.  We need to be willing to be naked for a time, so that we can tailor our next set of finery for where we want to go.   If we are to be vulnerable like this, we also need to establish strong boundaries and initiate self care as we dream, process and rub our tectonic plates together.

I see this as the first word of the first line of a new chapter in my life, and I’m ready for a new set of finery and I’m okay to let time take time.

Photo: Roberto Nickson

For what are you most grateful, right now?