Matryoshkas, or, “There Be Dragons”

We think we know people. We spend our lives being surprised in ways little and large, when we discover newly observed things about them, or when our projections are revealed as coverings which prevented us from seeing who was actually on the other side. We cannot know anyone fully, but practicing openness and observation, learning not to personalize other people’s being, their actions and their words, can help us know them and us better.

Then there are the coverings we make for ourselves, the layers of person-like substance used to shield or project, to interface or to confuse. Sometimes they’re consciously designed; often they are the accretions of childhood experience, created in parts of our subconscious mind for defense or role-fulfillment, enjoyment, necessity.

I think of Matryoshkas, Russian nesting dolls. I think of dolls made not to blend, but a different personality in each layer, showing the complexities of which we all are composed.

The unexpected revealing of such layers can be a cause of celebration, of trauma, of delight, of pain, of confusion, etc. In any long-term relationship such reveals are inevitable, and can result in anything from rupture to consolidation.

A huge part of my current grief and pain is the shock I feel at discovering that my ex-fiancé was capable of doing things I would have sworn he would not. I feel betrayed, but I have to keep compassionately reminding my inner child that though some of his actions did betray our relationship, the reveal of more of his personhood is not about me at all. And really, as a grown-up I know that people are capable of all kinds of destructive action, as it is part of our human nature. When I look at the first sentence of this paragraph I realize that rather than grieving the fact that he *could* do X, Y, and Z, I grieve that he *would*, and did.

My loss is real, and not real. I did not have what I thought I did. But none of us ever do, quite. Because what we know of ourselves and of others is incomplete.

I am in the middle of a sea-change. I can’t see the shore behind me, and I don’t know where I’m going.

But I believe that we spend our lives creating ourselves, through thought and action, through the choices we make. And so as I open this self-doll to see the next one, I know I have some choice about who/what she is/will be.

As does the man who has been my beloved.

Self-care, modern and ancient

Some things of note in this time, during which I have been grieving the loss of an important relationship, my engagement to my ex-fiancé R.

The other day I was feeling quite uncomfortable in my body, walking home, feeling swollen and blistered and heavy in that self-hating way. So, I started enumerating out loud my body parts and sending them love: “I love my nose, I love my toes,” etc. When I said, “I love,” I meant, “I am sending love to”, and thus making the distinction between “I love = I feel good about”, which is not always possible for me, versus, “I love = I am treating myself with love”, which I can do even when I’m feeling self-disgust or self-hatred.

After several minutes of this, I started feeling better, more comfortable in my body, more at ease. I have to note this for the record so I remember to do it again later.

My friend Z showed me an app last night called, “Habitica”. It is meant to help you stick to your tasks by turning the whole thing into a game where you can go on a quest and get points for carrying out your list. It seems super fun, and has already helped me get this morning’s stuff done more completely than usual. You can also go on joint quests with other people, and we are going to do that. Therefore, you get community and mutual support, communication about your day, etc.

One of the things that I need and want to do, but with which I have been having a hard time getting into the rhythm of consistent practice, is my meditation/breath class homework. This class is based in Sufi traditions, and the homework includes saying repetitions of mantras. It is amazing to me what doing so brings up. This morning I actually did my homework, and it brought up for me the alienation and othering, and the sense of permanent inferiority due to my gender I feel in any context that has a religious element. “God” is portrayed as being masculine in fundamental nature. Therefore, being female, I am other, and I am lesser. This ties in with family of origin stuff. It affects me deeply. As I repeated the mantras, however, I was able to sink beneath the level of gender and access the meaning of what I was saying differently. By the end I was feeling more connected. Like any significant practice, it’s all about the long-game, and not my current mood-reaction, but I appreciate when it helps me in the moment, too.

I have been to a degree not aligned with improving my health and well-being, because getting better means (to that part of me) that it’s really over with the man who has been the love of my life. So I’m trying to treat all parts of me and my heart with compassion. And I know that no matter whether I ever get to have a powerful and mutual romantic relationship again, I am responsible for my own life and well-being, including how I approach things like food and sleep, as well as remembering to reach out and stay connected to my friends & family and wider community.

Now I am going to go buy a printer cartridge so I can print out the music for my next concert (after first tackling my intimidation and figuring out how to install said cartridge in said printer).

One step at a time.

The trap of the Asshole/Wimp dichotomy

I was recently going through Facebook posts from a few years ago looking for speech-related milestones for Joanna. Back then, I posted something every night, just about, on my blog. That is astounding to me. Such a rate of posting is now impossible in my current life. But it was neat to see. I have to remember to print those all out at some point, as a record of my kids’ early years.

Having been reminded of the existence of my blog, however, I decided that I wanted to note some of my thoughts on a topic which has been occupying my brain (and heart) lately. And that is, our cultural definition of masculinity and how it emasculates men.

Obviously, these are my own thoughts, not based on research directly, but on my personal experience and on things I’ve read over the years.

One of the cultural vices society places on women is the Madonna/Whore complex, in which there are only two options for women: be sexually chaste (and ignorant) and thus maintain your virtue long enough to arrive safely at your wedding day; or claim and express your sexuality, and in doing so embody Eve’s sin, damage your value to any husband you might trick into marrying you, and reduce your chances of ever being truly happy to zero.

This post is not about that, but I mention it to demonstrate how it prevents women from experiencing or expressing their whole authentic selves, as well as setting them up for all kinds of pain in relationships. And the answer to the problems presented by the perpetuation of that belief system (given specific life by Freud, of course) is not to attempt to find a magic spot somewhere in the middle, but to walk away from the paradigm altogether.

Similarly, I think, men are presented with two options in our society, from the very beginning of their lives as male-sex-organ-possessing babies. I’ll call this the Asshole/Wimp complex for the purposes of this post. To be more accurate in the way guys who are perceived to fall into the second category are derided, I should really use the slang term for female genitalia, but will desist for the sake of politeness.

Many other people have written about this, of course. But it has recently struck me with force how the definition of strength for men is exactly the opposite of what strength actually is, in my opinion.

I think that two of the most important lessons human beings can/should learn are: a) how to take care of themselves, and b) how to ask for help from others. In our culture, however, asking for help is viewed as such a sign of weakness, that the messaging boys and men receive is that they should resist with all their might even being aware of what they need, let alone asking for those needs to be met. And in lieu of doing so, they become focused instead on what they want, and then those wants get redefined as needs, which leads to a destructive sense of entitlement that has sometimes terrible consequences for themselves and everyone around them.

Men don’t need to rape women. But they’re told that their desire for sex is so natural and so powerful that of course they can’t be expected to contain it in the face of the provocation of all the whores out there. (And yes, of course rape is about all sorts of things, but I think it originates with a sense of entitlement to take what the rapist wants, in an exercise of power.)

Human beings do need connection. We are social animals. But we elide our need for connection with the want of having that connection be made and maintained with a particular person in the way we want it. And we respond to that elision in different ways. Men who are socialized never to admit or communicate what they actually need then sometimes just take what they want because that is the tool they’ve been taught and the tool they’ve exercised. And that is the Asshole side of the equation.

And other men who have been socialized never to admit or communicate what they actually need then sometimes pretend everything is fine while burning with building resentment; or they entirely suppress their awareness of their own needs; or they attempt to redirect those needs into a channel that feels safe to them. And that is the Wimp side of the equation.

As I said above, I believe that the answer to the gender dichotomies presented by society in the polarized characterizations and expectations of men and women is not to try to find a place of balance in between the two extremes (which is truly impossible to do, and equally limiting). Instead, we have to walk away from that construction altogether. But doing so is incredibly difficult, and cannot ever be totally managed. Patriarchy is the air we breathe, after all.

I think it takes incredible emotional courage, strength of will, psychological fortitude, and consistently practiced self-awareness to reject these paradigms.

For me, self-reliance in men looks so different than it has been characterized: it can be seen in a man who can and will put in the effort to be self-aware using both mind and heart to gain that self-awareness; it can be seen in a man who can and does communicate what he needs and wants, accepting that no one person can meet all those needs and/or wants, or is obliged to do so; it can be seen in a man who will allow and encourage other men and boys to explore the full range of their humanity; it can be seen in a man who listens to hear and not to rebut the voices of women and girls; it is a man who will stand up for himself without knocking others down.

We need to be having conversations about what we need, what we want, and what will work in any given situation and relationship. And we have to honestly state those wants and needs before we can move to practical, fair, and balanced solutions to the inevitable conflicts we humans experience.

Men, please say what you need and want. And be prepared for the fact you may not get it. But it is SO MUCH EASIER to figure out what to do with all the relevant data on the table.

Thank you. This has been my personal PSA for the week.

Listening to anger

I get angry a lot. Sometimes the anger is apparent externally, and sometimes it is just simmering within me. Its arrival, regardless of its appearance, demands an instant response. And for me, most of the time that response shows up as criticism. Especially with my kids and my partners, people close to me.

Very, very often, shame follows on anger’s heels, and even mixes itself into my response, twisting it and shutting off the exits, making it hard for me to back down or change course. Because of the shame, part of me feels compelled to emotionally justify my feeling and my response to that feeling.

I get to where I feel pretty disgusted with myself. And then I wish for the impossible: if only I were a nicer person, a better person; if only I didn’t get angry, or I only got angry in a measured way in entirely morally justifiable circumstances.

But what if anger doesn’t truly demand instant action? What if anger is a messenger from within, a demand to pay attention not to the people in my external environment, but to myself? What if it is a clarion call for self-care? What if it takes anger to get my attention, because I’m so used to devaluing what I actually need in the moment?

Suppressed anger toxifies. Instead of flashing like lightning, it rises like gasses in a swamp, coalesces in the gut and drips down as a rain of bile.

I think of myself as an angry person, but I am coming to suspect that isn’t true: the anger speaks, over and over, attempting to get me to hear the message, but instead I react and then choke it (and myself) with shame.

So often the advice given about anger is to stop, count to ten, and then continue talking in a more calm way. This misses the effing point by about a mile. The stopping should be a chance to communicate with oneself, NOT to suppress one’s feelings.

Here is my goal for the month: a) notice when anger shows up; b) stop and ask anger what its message is, telling my kids that’s what I’m doing: “Hang on a minute, I have to listen to myself”; c) determine my self-care steps; d) ask for (or say) what I want (if that’s part of the self-care steps) and/or let my kids know what I need to do.

And in that communication with my kids, remember to give them the reason first and the request second. They respond (as do I) so much better when things are presented in that order.

I don’t want that acid to burn me, or my kids. Anger is necessary. But weaponized anger really hurts people. So I’m going to try to do a better job of listening.

Body image lessons by way of my children

I learned in 3rd grade that I was ugly. I may have suspected it before then, but it was confirmed in the sing-song tones of childish torment that told me I was fat. And I needed no one to tell me that fat=ugly.

Humans come in so many different shapes and sizes. Some people are angular; some people are curved; some people are a mixture.

I am round. I have round arms and legs, round belly, round butt cheeks. No matter what I weigh overall, my body is curved. From very, very early on I learned that I didn’t fit, that I spilled over in ways that should rightfully embarrass me, that my body was shameful and something I should not inflict on other people any more than I had to.

And not too long after that, I learned that it was my fault. I was greedy. I ate too much. I was morally inferior, and it was showed plainly in the shape of the body I inhabited. By the time I was in 7th grade I had come to hate my body. Anyone who told me different was obviously lying, either from spite or in a misguided attempt to make me feel better about myself.

A high school relationship not grounded in consent or good communication did further damage, and by the time I got to college I literally could not feel touch or receive love or appreciation. Stomach churning with my terror of intimacy, I vomited during or after more than one date.

Now, at the ripe old age of 48, I have, by dint of ongoing work, come light-years from that place. I can look in the mirror at myself, and not only not recoil in disgust at the sight of all that fat (as I did for long, long decades), I can see beauty, vitality, evidence of the way I love and move and act in the world. I can see thick wavy hair, dark eyes, strong legs, capable hands, a bountiful chest, and even, sometimes, a belly that stretched and increased in capacity to nurture three human beings in two pregnancies, and whose skin is a map of those gifts.

My two youngest are twins. They are very different from each other, though when we brought them home from the hospital we put fingernail polish on J’s nail so we could be sure that we didn’t get them mixed up. At that time they were alike in their tiny-old-man wrinkled hairlessness, very similar in weight. Now, they are growing into very different bodies and temperaments.

J is taller, slender, lighter-haired, elfin. E is shorter, rounder, darker, powerful.

Looking at E this morning, I realized that her arms are a smaller replica of mine. Her limbs are sturdy, like mine. J’s arms and legs are longer and not just thinner, but a different shape altogether. She has lines where her sisters have curves.

There is a part of me which has really struggled, seeing H, my older daughter, develop a body like mine, too. That self-hating, fat-phobic piece of me which is desperate to see thin rather than thick legs, a flat belly rather than one which is round. I must have compassion for that piece of me, wounded so early and so deeply.

They all eat the same thing, a pretty healthy diet which prioritizes vegetables and protein over carbs.

They look different. They have different bodies. This has nothing to do with failure or weakness. They are different. I was the plump person in a family of thin people. I was not worse. I was just different.

This morning I had an orchestra rehearsal. Walking back to my car carrying my cello in the sunshine, I could access gratitude for my body, with which I make music, hug my friends and family, cuddle my children, make love with my partner, see blue sky, hear birdsong, feel the textures of my clothing, make and taste food. My body, which tells me when I need food or rest, which carries me and nurtures me. My body, which I can decorate. My body, which houses my heart and mind and spirit. My body, which is beautiful with life and vitality, tenderness and expression. I need to keep listening to my body, caring for my body, appreciating my body rather than taking it for granted.

I owe myself just as much love as I wish to offer my children. And while my children do not owe me love, they offer me loving lessons every day. I am grateful for their presence and their authenticity.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

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This phrase feels so powerful for a number of reasons, including that it is an accurate tagline for me. I persist. It has been an attribute, a behavior pattern, a tendency of mine since I was little. Along with it comes courage, bull-headedness, clarity of vision, fear, blindness, determination, an ability to see the big picture, an aptitude for analysis, strong intuition, desperation, hope, confidence, belief.

We are all such complicated, conflicting, sometimes beautiful mixtures of attributes and actions.

Persistence is what we need to teach and encourage in our children, especially our girls. Research shows that girls respond to a (learned) belief in innate characteristics by giving up when they don’t succeed “fast enough”.

One thing factor that contributes to girls’ learning and ability to develop patterns of persistence is having role models in the form of women in positions of power, women who persist, women who are able to tackle problems and move forward because of or despite those challenges.

I thank the universe for the rough grace of Elizabeth Warren. And I am proud of myself. And I will keep persisting, keep resisting, and stay committed to my values and my heart.

Life lessons from comforters on the floor

Most mornings the twins wake up to their sunshine/birdie alarm clock, spend a bit of time upstairs playing, and then come downstairs. When they arrive in the kitchen I’m often there making a pot of tea, or maybe still in my room checking my schedule, or just possibly still asleep in bed, depending on how late I was working the previous night, or how late I was up due to having gotten stuck in my insomniac mode.

This morning I woke up feeling reasonably rested and with dreams still rolling by inside my head. That happens when I’ve slept well, not having woken up 3 or more times in the night. I sat up, still half in my dream (which of course I can’t remember at the moment), pleased to discover that I felt like I’d slept.

*thump*

I wondered what that had been. I got up, went out into the kitchen. Then I heard crying over the monitor, and went upstairs to investigate. Emily and Joanna met me at the top of the stairs, tears spilling onto Emily’s cheeks. She had fallen out of Joanna’s bed. I hugged her, and then moved toward the bathroom, beyond which is their room.

In their room, the comforters were on the floor, along with the usual pile of pj’s and clothes and stuffies. Ted and I both regularly get super frustrated at the state of our house. Any parent will be able to relate to the sheer volume of hours it takes to clean up and put away the sheer volume of stuff which kids can at light-speed scatter across all available surfaces in the house, but which apparently gains 10,000 pounds when they are asked to put it all away.

The state of the house causes my inner child distress, and when I get distressed I tend to default to getting critical and angry in response to my distress. And then, if I don’t catch myself, I bark at the kids, which upsets them; and then if we get the cleaning done it’s in conflict and sadness. It doesn’t leave any of us feeling good.

Sometimes, though, I manage to do my inner work fast enough to intervene in that cycle, and get to a place where I can be productive and playful, instead of pissed off and punitive.

This morning I caught myself. It helped that I had gotten enough sleep last night. It helped that Ted and I are moving toward a kinder and smarter schedule, and I am feeling more hope these days. It helped that I’ve had a couple of therapy sessions lately in which the necessity for self-care (for me and others to do) is up in my conscious mind. I was able to offer that scared and upset part of myself comfort, to direct my attention inwardly instead of projecting it out.

I asked the kids if they could put their comforters on their beds. Emily lifted a corner of hers and desultorily waved it at her bed. That was the moment when I could have slipped into drill-sergeant mode.

“Bunch it up,” I said, lightly. “Bunch it! Make a big pile!”

She grinned and started bunching. Joanna giggled.

“Then you’ll be able to pick it all up,” I explained. “Joanna, can you help Emily?”

Joanna and Emily pushed and shoved and bunched, laughing as they did so. They got the comforter pushed up next to the bed, in a more compact shape.

“Heave!” I cried. “Shove it up there! Heave!”

“Hoove!” they replied.

“Heave!”

“Hoove!”

We were all laughing. They got the comforter up on the bed. Then they went to do Joanna’s. There was more heaving and hooving and giggling.

Emily landed on her butt.

“My laughing fell me over!”

While were on a roll, I asked them to put all the pjs that were on the floor on a bed. They started picking them up.

“Fling!” said Emily, tossing a top onto the bed. I laughed.

Then I asked Joanna to put the stuffies away, and Emily to put clothes in their dresser drawers. I coached them to stuff the clothes in so they could close the drawers. They hung dresses up. Emily proudly showed me a button she’d buttoned on one dress. They got so much done! I let go all the need for the comforter to be neatly spread across the bed, for the clothes to be folded before they were put away, for the clothes to go in the right drawers. And now their room is much neater. And they were proud of themselves. And we were all happy.

As the months go by we’ll refine techniques. But the process is more important than the result. I want to remember this positive experience. That’s why I’m writing it down.

Life can be so hard. So full, so complicated. So many things to deal with, from the tiny to the life-alteringly huge. But in the midst of all that, if I can cultivate kindness and love for myself, for my overwhelmed inner child, it’s much more possible to express it to others, most especially my children.

Life lessons. Profundities can be found in all sorts of places from the domestic to the world stage.

Edited to add:  one of my college friends is visiting, staying in our guest room. Just now Joanna and Emily earnestly asked her, “Do you want to see my room? It’s all clean!”