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.

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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.

Shock, awe, and blindness in reaction to the loss of Madam President

There are so many things to be said about election night. I haven’t thought about more than a fraction of them, let alone come to any conclusions. But one thing came to me tonight I wanted to write down.

One of the biggest privileges there is in a society is to have the space and room and right to just be. To just be oneself without coercion, constriction. To be assured attention and respect, to be granted significance and relevance for just existing.

These are things that accompany life as a white man (I know, I know, not all men all the time; please, just wait and hear me out.) The reverse is true for minorities and for women, and for children, especially non-white-male kids. From my perspective as a woman, living life in a society which willfully and with malicious intent refuses to acknowledge the existence of more than a narrow slice of who I am, of who women are, takes an immense amount of energy. It takes energy to absorb or deflect daily patronizing communication, aggression, dismissiveness, arrogance, violence, and just the sheer insistence of many men that you make room for their opinions regardless of your comfort level, interest, or need in the moment. It takes energy to hear, for the millionth time, that the real reason there is any sort of issue happening is that you, a woman, are having an emotion. And by default that emotion is messy and inappropriate, because ewwww feelings. There are about a billion other examples, but I am too tired to come up with them.

The fact that women generally speaking apologize way, way, way too much? It’s not frivolous! It’s not random! It’s training and feedback. The pushback that women get for just having an opinion and daring to express it is sometimes incredibly fierce. And if a women so much as mentions that pushback, it intensifies with sometimes scary rapidity.

So.

No or very few role models. A tiny fraction of speaking roles for women in movies, the majority of roles being decoration/girlfriend/way to show man’s relatable flawed nobility. So few women in power. Woman drama = men/baby/rape. Intense and punishing beauty standard. etc. etc.

I see movies and I howl with the anguish of the fact that in popular culture it is impossible that someone like me could be viewed as possessing full humanity, let alone be allowed to express it.

I am human. But the barrage of messaging I receive daily is in contradiction of that fact.

I want to have the space to be me. I want to be able to be me without pushback ranging from merely weird to annoying to scary to violent. I want to live in a world where simply saying, “No thank you” to a date doesn’t mean weeks and weeks of cold sabotage from a colleague. I want to live in a world where expressing my opinion in anything other than a carefully modulated tone is received as being emotional and therefore instantly dismissed. I want to live in a world where I don’t have to watch my friends and I be berated, told that we’re oppressing men, disrespected, simply for setting a conversational boundary along the lines of, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t talk about that right now.”

The idea that we were on the verge of having our first woman President, and a woman who had the audacity to state that women’s rights are human rights, was extraordinary and exhilarating. I didn’t realize it until the catastrophe of Tuesday night, but I was already stretching and spreading, already expanding my lungs, already starting to send tendrils of myself out into areas of thought and expression I’d (with damn good reason) blocked myself from for decades. I was already anticipating a greater societal space being opened for me to be me with greater safety, acceptance, and even appreciation. I was beginning to communicate more directly with less fear and caution or defensiveness, with more clarity and ease.

I realized all that as my teeth were kicked in right before I got shoved violently all the way back into the cage. It is a cage built of fear and microaggressions. It is a cage constructed, like a placenta, dually by society and by me. Its bars are made of things like holding keys in your hand so that you have a weapon if someone attacks you as you walk to your car at night; the internal debate about whether to smile back when some guy demands your attention on the street and risk being called a bitch (or way, way worse) if you don’t comply. Again, there are a million examples, but I am just too fatigued to list them all, and definitely too tired to be carefully eloquent.

I thought I was going to be able to breathe, but here I am, air moving in and out, but not enough, looking through the bars, yearning, feeling defeated and betrayed.

And. This is only one cage. There are so many. And they interlock. And as a middle class white person I am to varying degrees complicit and responsible and involved in the creation of others.

52% of white women. 52% voted for Trump. More than half. Racism trumped the sisterhood. It is such a betrayal. And I definitely feel scales falling from my eyes.

I am human; they will re-collect and I’ll have to take them off again. And again. But this is evidence so clear.

And it’s not only racism. It’s internalized misogyny, self-hatred. Women sucking down those messages about inadequacy. By 6th grade girls and boys no longer have equal presidential ambitions. And if a little girl things, “Not me,” she also must think, “Not her”. And, “Not them.”

I had a conversation with my AP English teacher in high school once. She said a few things that have stuck with me, having to do with reasons that I had a hard time socially. She summed it up this way: I talked in class and was unrelentingly honest; the boys didn’t like that, and the girls liked the boys and therefore didn’t like it either. I am sure there are oversimplifications in that statement. But damn, it rang true. My manner, my style, my self, did not fit. I was always, always too much. At home, at school, in life.

Of course there’s more to it than sexism. But it plays a role. How many times have girls, taught from the cradle to value boys’ time and attention above all else, overlooked or dismissed or underestimated the value of the girls in their lives? How many fathers have been praised as heroes for simply wiping a baby’s butt or taking their kids to the grocery store, or even, gasp, cooking dinner, when moms’ contributions are invisible except when they’re being criticized?

Men and boys are valued more in our society. And it’s not even something a lot of them notice. It is in the air they breathe. It is an invisible entitlement. Until you say no, or not now, or god forbid, I don’t like you, or you’re incompetent.

Women are trained to value primarily what is happening romantically in other women’s lives. It is often the first or only thing that is asked about. Yes, I know. Not all women, not all the time. But it’s a pattern. I hear so many comments about my girls’ appearance, their dresses, their cuteness. Who ever asks them what books they like to read? Who asks them what sports they like to play? Who asks them what they want to be when they grow up? Almost no one.

Of course women don’t think a woman should be president.

And then there’s the racism. Van Jones referred to a “whitelash” to President Obama’s 8 years in office. It is stunningly, obviously true. And I think the idea, to some people, that a black president would be followed by a woman president, that we might have 16 years of feminazi PC bullshit in the White House, was abhorrent.

Holy shit. Talk about cages. If President Obama were to evince a tiny, tiny fraction of the rage Trump trades in, he’d have been politically eviscerated. Black men are automatically perceived as dangerous. Women are automatically perceived as less capable. In order to just open your damn mouth you have to fight to get out of the cage. And it’s often not even really possible to do so.

So you massage your language, attempt to come up with acceptable content and presentation that won’t scare or offend or anger anyone, hoping that with this sort of stealthy craft the content will get in, make it through the eardrums and into the grey matter, and be considered for itself, on its own merits.

It’s laughable. And it leads to dishonesty, inauthenticity, stress, strain, dissociation.

I want to be free. I want my black and brown fellow citizens to be free. I want every person to be able to stand in the air under the sky, themselves, to face difficulty and trauma and joy and tedium and all that makes up life, without having to massage their personhood into a bland enough container that it won’t offend white male sensibilities.

I thought we were on the road. (I realize that we are on the road. But that’s a later stage/post.) As a woman, I am shocked and wounded. As a white person with some knowledge, I have to admit that I was not seeing clearly. I have work to do. I am not innocent. No one is.

“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

A final note: my loving and caring partner sent me this piece. Being cared for, being seen, being understood, being supported; it doesn’t get much better than that. I am grateful for my loved ones, and for the communities and relationships in which these topics can be discussed and compassion and love flow with mutual goodwill.

Grief and Stress

Tonight, as Ted and I sat watching a TV show (something that is a pretty rare event for us), I worried. We hadn’t seen one of our cats since the day before, and this cat never spends more than a couple of hours away from the house. He is a home body. Earlier, I had called the Animal Control line and listened to the descriptions of the cats that were being held. I felt guilty for sitting and watching TV, thought about Pepper out somewhere, hurt or dead, thought about telling my kids, felt agonized.

After the second episode, we started getting ready to close up for the night, talking about our difficult feelings about our cat. I went out the back door and called for him, and was entirely astounded to hear his meow. I looked over the stairs to the path between our house and our neighbor’s house, and there he was. I called again, and he slunk under their gate and came, slowly, around to our stairs. Normally if he’s been out a bit longer than he wants, he bounds up the stairs, shoots up them like a four-footed bullet.

I let him into the house, came into the kitchen, and started to cry.

My dad died in December. It was a shock. Though he had major health challenges for decades, he’d been relatively stable for a long time, and was not in an obvious health crisis at the time of his death. I headed back home immediately. The day after I got back I had rehearsals, since there were multiple concerts coming up. The second rehearsal included a Corelli piece I know he would have loved, and I felt a passionate wish he could be there to hear it. In the break I stood up to thank the orchestra for its caliber, its feeling. And, talking, I cried. I felt stabs of grief for the loss of my dad.

Mostly, since then, I have not been able to access that grief. This year has been so incredibly stressful in various ways, and though it has also been a lot of other things, I am learning another lesson in how stress can inhibit the experience of other emotions: it can undercut joy, certainly, but it can also block grief. It commands one’s system, demands attention, demands appeasement. And when it goes on for long enough, it frays nerves, depletes resources. And yet, as it does so it refuses to give way to anything else.

But sometimes things can slip in anyway. One grief can be a conduit for another. We were just in my hometown last week, and seeing my kids play in the house where I grew up does bring into focus my dad’s absence. He loved to read to his grandchildren. He loved to see them, to talk with them. I can see the smile on his face now. The house has been changed quite a bit since his death, due to my siblings and I rearranging it for my mom, who was hospitalized in January (and who is doing much better now). The changes in the house bring my dad to mind, thinking about how he would feel about them. I felt his absence acutely that first morning we were there. And then, one thing I did while I was in town was to go pick up my dad’s things from his university, a place he taught for decades. I had a wonderful conversation with a couple members of the administration, and with a former colleague of my dad’s. Talking about his professional life, about his love for his subject and his colleagues brought him back to me freshly.

So it was up and present when, tonight, I feared that this week we’d be grieving the loss of our cat and attempting to help our kids process it. And when Pepper came into the kitchen, I felt undone, that I can’t take any more.

Lately I’ve felt the impulse to beg the universe for a break, because I’d love to have a few months free of major challenging events. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. I feel like all it’s possible to really ask for is support, help, love. And there is a lot of love.

For me, stress is often about worrying about things which feel out of my control. I fear negative results or events, and so I worry about them. Stress can sometimes be an attempt to handle that which we cannot control, which is to say, life. It is often about the future, and an indeterminate future at that. It can be about worrying about what other people think or feel, about what may happen or may not happen. It can involve projections, incomplete information. It can be a habituated response to the circumstance of not knowing what is going to happen. It’s very noisy, internally. And, as noted above, it takes up a lot of my resources.

So, today I have received another lesson in the necessity of practicing staying in the moment, accepting my feelings whatever they are, and trusting myself and the universe that whatever happens I will respond to it. Not that I will handle it, not that I will be able to control it. But I will respond, and I will do the best I can.

If I can remember that, I can dial back the stress. And then it’s easier to feel. And it’s easier to act.

So, I miss my dad. I miss his intelligence and thoughtfulness. I miss his love and delight in his subject, and in the art of teaching. I miss his love and joy in his grandchildren. I wish I could see him again. And, somehow, I do not believe that he doesn’t exist any more. But I cannot frame that in a rational/logical/mind sort of way. It is a feeling.

And tomorrow, instead of making signs with which to plaster the neighborhood, Ted will dig out the tracking collars we’ve previously used for the cats. And I will teach, and then I will take Hazel to her piano lesson, and then I will practice, and then I will go see a movie. And I will, when it feels right, have a dialogue with my dad about what I’m doing in my life. And I’ll look forward to playing music on the sound system he and I picked out together many years ago, and I will remember him.

And I will try to make time in my days for remembrance, for reflection, and to give my heart a time and place to feel what it does, in the present moment, without the incredible racket of stress. I don’t know whether it’s time to say goodbye or hello or what, but I don’t need to know or understand that, either.

better sleep, basement progress, selling stuff, Hazel biking, loss of cello teachers

Last night was the best we’ve had since we got back three weeks ago. Ted got a two-hour and a three-hour chunk, and I got two three-hour chunks of sleep. We both probably got another hour or two in bits, as well. We felt almost human when we woke up. We’re trying not to hope too hard that we’ll have another good night tonight.

Today Ted stayed home so we could work on the basement. We got a lot done. We had a huge pile of boxes to sort through, and finished that, as well as 99% of the books we needed to sort into keep and sell piles. Tomorrow we’ll finish the books and tackle the workshop, which is the last bastion of chaos. We also posted a bunch of stuff on Craigslist and sold two items today. Definite progress. It’s quite exciting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course, there will be other tunnels after this one, but this is a biggie. Also tomorrow my friend will come to pick up baby stuff we’re giving her in advance of the birth of her twins, and then we’ll get our living room couch back.

Also today various of the people who will be working on the studio project came to do a trade-walk – to figure out how and what and where they’ll get the work done. I enjoyed seeing yet another sign that this is real, going to happen!

This evening we went for a family walk after dinner. We enjoyed seeing Hazel zoom around on her bike. The next thing to teach her will be to dismount by standing up on one pedal and putting her other foot on the ground. Once she can do that we’ll raise her seat so she can properly extend her legs.

—–

Two people in the music world I knew have died recently. It has brought back to me the losses of teachers I’ve experienced in the past decade, my first ever cello teacher and my college cello prof. My first teacher was so wonderful, warm, supportive, encouraging. She moved away when I was 12 years old or so, to New York. Because I was talented and also a sufficiently a hard worker, she recommended that I study with a particular person in the Symphony. He, unfortunately, was not a good fit for me. I was terrified at every lesson, and unable to think or process. After we returned from the UK when I was 14 he told me I was never going to make it, and dropped me as a student. This was a blessing in disguise, as I wound up with a teacher who was a much better fit. My college prof was quirky, funny, challenging, and an amazing musician from whom I learned a lot. I always wanted to go back and see him again, have another lesson. But I never made it back, and he died of cancer when he was only in his fifties. A few years later when I was home visiting my parents I discovered by happenstance that my first cello teacher was back in that city. We got in touch, and Ted and I went to hear her play in a concert a couple nights later. It was profoundly wonderful to see her again, to hear her play. I was deeply shocked to learn, just a few months later, that she’d died, also in her fifties, of a heart attack.

Private music instructors can have such a powerful influence. All of mine have, and the loss of those two leaves me feeling bereft, musically orphaned to a certain extent.

I am always grateful when my students stay in touch. I feel very lucky to be able to continue to have wonderful teacher/student relationships, even if I don’t get to be the student any more (though of course, I always learn from my students, too). It’s a bit like having kids in that way. I get to experience the child/parent relationship again, but from the other side.

Well, it’s time to bathe the babies, do their new bedtime routine, and venture forth on this night’s episode of the going-to-sleep journey.

Sunshine and shadows

A few weeks back I came outside and saw my neighbor on her porch. It was a beautiful day, and I grinned and said, “Isn’t it gorgeous today?” She and I both love the sun, something that is often in short supply in the Pacific Northwest. She agreed, and said, “When the sun’s out you just glow. It’s transforming for you, isn’t it?” And yes, it is. It has been lovely here lately, and the impact on my mood is difficult to underestimate. I feel fundamentally different when the sky is blue and the sun is shining. I do love it here, am rooted here by children, communities, jobs, and family. But I absolutely yearn for the sun, for a place where I can relax into a beautiful day, knowing the weather will not capriciously change any minute. Having a string of sunny days is heaven. I smile more. I feel pleasure every time I look out the window. Hearing the birdsong, smelling the flowers, being able to walk around in a shirt and jeans, feeling a gentle soft breeze (rather than a damp and chilly one); all of these things ease the rest of life’s challenging events, and enhance its positive ones.

This afternoon as I walked back home from my Pilates appointment, I thought about the “I’m not good enough” refrain that’s been rattling, booming, sneaking, jeering, whispering, and oozing its way around the inside of my head and heart of late. And I thought, life does involve pain. Some struggles are harder than others, and we all have our most difficult issues, the ones that seem intractable and permanent. And many people do carry some of those burdens to the grave. We do not, after all, live in Hallmark cards.

But that pain is what allows us to have compassion and empathy, the understanding that lets us form intimate relationships with other people. Our experience of grief and/or loss is one of the things that helps us as children to differentiate between ourselves and others, and at the same time, gives us a window into how they might feel. So, I had a moment in which I felt, if not precisely grateful for my shadows, at least more at peace with having them, and able to see how their existence informs me in important ways in my journeys as a mother, sister, daughter, aunt, friend.

Granddad, music, processing grief

This morning Hazel was very glad to be able to go downstairs and find her granddad while I was feeding the babies and Ted and I were talking. It’s great having family to stay, because it facilitates having moments of connection all through the day. Hazel has been asking her grandfather to read her a particular book (over and over and over). They sit on the couch and he obliges. We went out for breakfast minus the babies, who stayed at home with the nanny. Hazel got a parfait. That’s a favorite of hers. She liked mixing the berries into the yogurt and granola, watching the color streak into circles and gradually turn everything else purple.

After breakfast they dropped me off at home so I could practice. There’s a concert tomorrow evening, and we had a rehearsal tonight. Ironically, the page of the last movement in the Haydn on which I’ve spent the most time, gradually working it up to tempo, wasn’t included in tonight’s rehearsal. Another lick that I’ve practiced over and over again fell apart in rehearsal (I got nervous). grrr. Back to it again tomorrow. The modern piece we’re doing went well. One of the really fast sections isn’t as fast as I’ve been doing it, which is a piece of news I gratefully accept. So, more work tomorrow, rehearsal in the afternoon, concert in the evening, and then I can relax a bit for a bit. I’ll give myself a day off before I start working on the repertoire for the concert coming up next, in July.

—–

Hazel has been saying that her orange stuffed kitty is dying. Clearly, she is working through losing Satchmo, and will be doing so for some time to come. She has less margin, gets upset more easily. I am trying to give her love and attention even in the middle of busy times, trying to soften my response when she is pushing and upset. Her expression of emotion goes all over the place. When she was mad at me at tea time for not giving her (another) clean bowl for (another) food item she said she was mad because she hadn’t had any alone time, and wanted to be by herself. I think that one is imported from hearing us talk about alone time. Anyway, I asked if she wanted to nap by herself, and of course she didn’t. But even though I knew that to be the case, I’m trying to take her seriously, respond as though she means every word she’s saying. Because, of course, she means the emotional content, even if she doesn’t know how to verbalize it yet.