How to Soften Without Weakening

 

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CJ always walked fast in her brown Frye boots that had a hard inch high heel, the better to strike the hard byways and roads, floors of public places, rooms of homes. They announced that she was strong of mind and body, she was not wasting time, and don’t even think of accosting her. People would turn their heads, face in a frown, so loudly did her heels hit a surface.

Those boots travelled with CJ for years, carried her into woods and mountains, cities and villages, from one side of the country to the other. They covered her snug, faded jeans to the knee. She wore sporty tops, a wornout jean jacket. Her hair morphed from year to year, blond for a bit, years of cropped burnished red, then reverted to the real auburn, then finally interspersed with strands of white. Large blue, dark-rimmed eyes bore right into you when they looked into yours at all; mostly they scanned the environment, took in the milieu. Located a spot within a group that she would claim. Not reticent, CJ spoke right up, interested, attentive but she kept a psychic distance, engaging in talk smartly but without full personal committment. She had strong opinions; everyone knew them soon.

Never would she be tricked by people again, nor by life or love. But, of course, she was, often. And at the end of each day she went home, pulled off the boots that had become scuffed and pliable with wear. Washed her face, settled down with journal or books, paper and typewriter or sought guitar or piano. And then tender, responsive, yielding feelings and thoughts flowed like water from an opened spring. A little softness breathed and expanded. What moved her came to the fore, and what hurt bled so that she was both sorry and relieved to still feel it all.

This went on for a couple of decades–variations of attire, sometimes fancier footwear–until someone asked her why she acted so hard. The question was like a slap in the face but she said, “I’m not hard. I’m kind of tough, I guess, but I’m strong and that matters to me. The world is harsh, don’t you think? I guess my way works for me because I’m still going onward and upward.”

“Does it?” came the response. “Because people are afraid of you at worst, intimidated at times by your energy and bearing, and even those of us drawn to you don’t know if we’ll be welcomed or challenged…”

CJ laughed. “Well, I guess the braver ones will come forward and we’ll work it out. Or not. I can’t be responsible for what others think, only for what I choose to do. And I’m okay with things.”

“You know what? You seem…arrogant. That’s part of the problem. But maybe you’re just afraid. ”

CJ turned away and stalked off. No one understood. Interacting freely and openly was so often an exercise in futility. She was better off alone except for a very few and even then…

It took awhile to find her way back to the gentle side of genuine strength. Being soft resulted in being vulnerable from what she could tell. She was in her early forties before she redesigned her behavior substantially enough to present herself more fully and honestly to others. Because there was some truth in the observer’s comment: she was pretty tough and perhaps a little arrogant, but she was also scared of various things, good-hearted and full of passion for life. Committing to absolute sobriety made an immense impact but that was only the beginning of a journey to wholeness. Well being would require more than awareness or a good plan; it required a willingness to change and redoubled efforts. Peace was the goal. The one experience she had failed to encounter since childhood.

How does someone radically change? Would that it was a natural metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, a transition that felt so reassuring, with a punch at the end: the beautiful pay-off. But adding wings to those who treat life as though it has to be wrestled, tamed and codified is an arduous task.

When people are tossed about by the vagaries of living, experience multiple losses, become used to fighting hard to stay alive, they learns that being readied for the worst can be useful. It’s like arming the alarm and sitting in wait for trouble. It creates a cynicism of the worst sort, as even vivid blue sky moments can be missed due to tracking skittish or heavy clouds. There can be so much put into survival emotionally or physically that exhaustion renders the person worn-out. Ragged. A hard shell can be the only remaining defense. This view lends itself to expectations of losing out–why go all in and embrace possibilities and happy times when you believe they will soon dissolve? Life is fickle, prone to sudden shifts. Some are convinced being stoic and putting shoulder to the wind is better than being swayed this way and that and then perhaps toppled. People who push hard through life have had enough of being down. They need to stand tall; beware anyone who takes them to their knees.

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The problem with such stolid refusal to bend or back down is what the old adage states: without flexibility, a person can break. Or just become so obdurate, so unwilling to relinquish control and to take a chance on vulnerability that there is a loss like none other: the inability to feel richness of emotion. Love and fulfillment. Deep intimacy, tranquility. Hope. That hallelujah that comes from joy.

Everyone needs to toughen up a bit. That begins as toddlers, then ever after when we fall. The kindest parent will let the child get right back up with encouragement and a gentle touch, bear the howling and sniffling then wipe tears away. If not, each fall and failure would be one too many, hard to accept as part of the process of gaining more skills. Resilience is instilled this way. Directed toward the next choices or steps, there is the belief that the coming experience will be worthy of effort, with the possibility of a better outcome.

But there are those who tumble without a kind word to shore them up. There are those, too, who have so much breakage during many kinds of falls that something inside gets crippled, stunted in the process of healing. What helps overcome pain is becoming inured to it, ignoring it, bearing it in private with no witness to offer a supportive hand. And when people who are born very tender-hearted come face to face with the frailties, ugliness or woundedness of living, it can scour their minds and souls, tear away critically protective insulation. The alternative for too many is to become harder or perish.

How can healthy living be restored? A search for balance needs to be initiated, so that endurance and stamina, courage and strength can become more potent with no loss of heart. Instead, the heart will open and become wiser as we navigate dangerous shoals effectively. It requires risk and surrender: letting feelings come and go as though through a sieve, feeling and acknowledging but not overdosing on them, not being overcome. It requires thinking imaginatively when all seems pointless or burdensome, dsicerning thenext right steps. And considering the promises and pleasure of what lies around the next corner. Not least is practicing to be a person of enduring substance, who has dignity but not arrogance. A core of strength devoid of unforgiving hardness.

A seemingly superfical alteration is trying a different costume and demeanor. When I was still counseling addicted and emotionally challenged persons full-time and saw people enter my office with shoulders rigid, lips taut, their public masks bold but full of warning, I suggested trying on a new one. Loosen the stride, smile at others first, open up personal space a little, walk with confidence, not as angry self-defense. Speak more quietly; others listen more to someone who doesn’t demand being heard. Buy new clothes or rearrange an outfit so it’s no longer armor, but only an accoutrement. An addendum to the real person who can better shine through. It’s powerful how even small adjustments can affect those who meet you. Then, forget yourself altogether. There’s a whole world out there that could use your attention. The truth is, every person needs to be seen so go ahead, look them in the eye if they don’t shy away.

Whatever lies ahead is generally as good as you make it. No one else can do it. Use your strength like a gift, not a weapon.

The last time I saw CJ was today. I looked in the mirror. I simply stopped walking as though I was on a terrible mission decades ago and discovered how it feels to not win or lose, but be at home in my own skin.  To be better powered by faith in God and acceptance of life’s whims and trials. To know that love for others never has an end; what is given away is replenished. Being fully and deeply human ended up becoming an even more extraodinary experience than expected. I feel strength of heart, of soul increasing each year.

Of course I still have boots. My favorites are soft black leather, tall and lower heeled. But barefoot or shoed, I am walking with ease, moving in peace.

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The Great Unknowns

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Ever get the feeling that something is about to happen but it isn’t going to be an event you desire? Something you cannot even imagine? Or you can, and that’s the problem, or will be sooner or later.

Your throat tightens as though a vise has gripped it, your breath is  squashed by the fancy architecture of your ribs. What was once your important and strong core, i.e., your diaphragm, is now a puddle of bad jelly. Your heart? It has its own agenda and it is not listening to reason. Your autonomic system is responding to a three alarm fire and you can’t even see the smoke. Then you realize what is happening but it leaves you quaking anyway: anxiety attack! If only there was somewhere to run for cover.

Or perhaps it is a malingering you feel, a daily burden, a sensation that nothing is ever quite right or something will go wrong no matter what is done. A deep sense of unease keeps you company, heightened by some circumstances, lessening a bit in others. But it is like your shadow, never vanishing once and for all.

Anxiety is the most common mental health issue noted in the U.S. At least eighteen percent of the population suffers enough to seek help according to one report. I can testify to how widespread it is after counseling clients for over twenty-five years. I estimate that seventy percent of my clients have anxiety. They have said it is the primary reason (grief and loss is second, tied with depression) for abusing drugs and alcohol. And they also complain that they’ve developed a host of symptoms related to anxiety (and the stress and tension it brings) from insomnia to nausea to migraines; avoidance of the company of others; and becoming blocked in achieving lifelong goals. It can kick-start depression. Anxiety can stop you from going out the door for milk or to a holiday party.

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Anxiety is the buzzing static in your head that is louder than a city at full-tilt. It makes things feel harder. Relief is the goal for those who know its redundant tune. Anxiety can hold you hostage. And all you want is freedom, if only the very thought of it wasn’t so anxiety producing.

But my disclaimer: this post does not offer a perfect panacea. There are already good ways and means to address anxiety disorders if that is what you experience and need professional help. At the local bookstore are a wide variety of books on how to manage anxiety. There are physical and spiritual practices (meditation and prayer, yoga, acupuncture, tai chi, and so on) that ease symptoms. Therapists have skills that enable them to treat anxiety in all its manifestations; they make a decent living due to so much need. Pharmaceutical companies profit from designing and selling medications that may or may not help.

What I want to talk about is that it is possible to de-fang and de-claw much of our anxiety. I don’t even think much of that word; it lacks even a utilitarian flair. I am certain that decades ago “nervousness” was just another emotion to experience and cope with; now it has become a major diagnosis. But it is here to stay, it seems. So this is an essay about how I have increasingly avoided an emotional stutter that forces a time out from life. Because that’s what anxiety feels like to me: going into a corner, facing a wall for more than a tolerable few minutes. As long as anxiety can breathe my breath for long, I’m not living the life I need to live: full-on, intrigued by what comes my way and how I get to respond. What I get to next create.

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I’m not easily thrown by challenges though I’ve had some doozies. But I learned a few useful things along the way. Painful events are equal opportunity: we all get to experience them, first off, because we’re born with human bodies. Bundles of nerves and powerful chemicals that create chain reactions set the stage. Each emotional nuance helps us to better know ourselves and others. Our potential and limits. Sometimes we get into something we didn’t foresee at all. Or too late. And it has sudden impact.

Like the one I stumbled into when almost fifteen.

I was walking by a city park, above it, actually, on railroad tracks. The sun beamed down on all. I loved trains, being in them or not. I’d once jumped one for a slow ride as it came into town, hanging on with one hand, the wheels’ rhythms travelling up bone and sinew. So I kept my eye on the far point and my ear attuned to a mellow whistle. It was Indian summer in Michigan. There were children down below playing, adults sharing a last barbecue, and their shouts and laugher drifted up the hill. No train made itself apparent. I wasn’t worried if one did start barreling toward me as I could easily scramble up the incline to the street. There, just out of reach, were gracious homes with broad lawns that overlooked the Tittabawasee River and the park.

I was thinking of little when I heard them. Footsteps. They  closely matched mine but fell heavier, then a bit faster. I threw a glance over my shoulder, thinking it was another like-minded person enjoying the day, waiting for a train. But no. He was not much older than was I, maybe younger, wiry with dark hair and no smile. No words. He felt…wrong. Discomfort did not creep up on me; it hammered me with a surge of adrenalin that was critical. I started to run; my legs chose how fast.

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Not fast enough. Hands grabbed and I was down, blows catching my chest, face. I kicked and hit back and when my jeans were tugged I bit the hand that tried to silence me. I screamed at him. He wasn’t giving up easily but I was raging. My only defense was words because below me in the park no one could or would pay attention.   I said exactly what I felt with a force that shook me.

“Who do you think you are? God is more powerful than you and He will get you for this! Stop!”

He pulled back, stunned, eyes wide. He went a little slack so I  shoved him off. He fell over and I dashed up the hill and into the street. I heard the train whistle, that low, full-bellied moan that builds into a forlorn and beckoning call. I could not stop running running running. I did not tell anyone what happened but said I had fallen hard and split my lip. Telling that sort of truth was not encouraged in my mid-sixties town.  I pondered if I made the error, wrong place and time. I decided it might not be the best place to walk alone but nothing was my fault. Yet,  self-doubt lingered. Anxiety found a way in, cutting me off from the known world, weakening my confidence.

I survived that attack; in the future even worse would waylay my life. But countless people can and do survive terrible things every day. Living is a complicated ride where treachery and wondrousness can share a seat. Large and small tragedies make us ask: what is safety, really, in the end? We come into this world with hearts and spirits ready to be dazzled and they are. But they’re also turned inside out.

How does one live beyond the bruisings and wounds? Was I to be dogged by paralyzing fear whenever I left a familiar sidewalk, town, country? Would I battle nightmares the rest of my life, only to enter each day expecting the same or worse? Did I fashion an armor so fail proof that I was distanced from others? How to find a way back to ease? It was imperative to learn how to thrive in altered territory, both interior and exterior. It took time. I patched things back together with help, same as anyone who desires to live better. Anxiety, which is a gnawing worry over loss of control in our lives, was not my real problem. I already knew I could have control taken away, with pain left in its stead. So my thinking had to change so I could “live life on life’s terms” (as AA informs recovering folks). Peace was the prize I coveted.

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So facing up to the fact that our lives are unpredictable but resilient  helps. Safety is, in actuality, often relative, fluid and shaped by our viewpoint. How do I determine not the future but the way I will greet it?

So we can adjust our perspective. As a youth I tried to ignore spurts of anxiety (why feed something I didn’t like?) with some success (denial can give us a break). I tried blotting it out with substances. I distracted myself with work, achievements, loved ones. I was busy first and last, being constructive in my life. But nothing yielded good results until I found another way. It was imple acceptance. Of the real sense of uncertainty. Of randomness and sudden changes in the scheme of things. Anxiety accompanies our living; nerves are conduits of information to apprise and use all our systems. Without some adrenalin I’d not move from a chair, after all. I had to make a friendly alliance with anxiety. And, sad human creatures that we sometimes are,  we also need great, unswerving compassion. I give you and myself full permission to heap this on ourselves whenever we feel small. Vulnerable. Then go out there; walk in  kindness.

Not everything needs to ring the alarm. It can ring a small bell. There can be silence. Times can feel harrowing but others are  tender, exquisite. Battling old or unseen adversaries–phantoms on the railroad tracks–keeps the bloody fight going. It took the spunk out of me, which I refuse to allow again. We cannot reasonably fight the unknown. I can learn how to be a dragon slayer, just in case, but why? Surprise is a valued element in my life story as well as acceptance. I do have trust that I’ll keep on walking to the end of this road. That it will stay lit up by ordinary and Divine Love and the next turn will proffer extraordinary things. I am, simply put, allied with my humanness and with my faith. I have surrendered so that I can dwell in my personal power; fear will not own me. And if it gets to me anyway, I remind myself: I am like a sieve as emotions flow through, morph and retreat, rise then fall. Things change once again.

I open the door wide. I look around as my animal senses pay attention. This is automatic and also prudent. I step out and breathe lungfuls of fresh air. Today it is chilled and rainy; I welcome it. Tomorrow? Who knows how the winds will blow? I’m as ready as I can expect to be. There is not time or inclination to give the vast unknowns so much attention. Life calls to me, even the world, and I am enthralled. I just get on with it. You can, too.

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Escape: Part 1

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The wind changed from ferocious to more familiar and the afternoon sun seeped into her skin but Darla gave up and sat down. She had been walking more than an hour, ever since the car broke down. It had shuddered and coasted to the edge of the road, right before the highway exit. She knew it was a bad idea to take Abe’s car but, then, she didn’t see that she had a choice. He was working on her beat up Volvo at his buddy’s–she had dropped him off, ostensibly to go to work. She had thought it over. It was either take her chances or try to placate him again. But she just couldn’t put the effort into peacemaking anymore. Not because she didn’t care because she did, sometimes. It just didn’t work.

She’d kept on until she got to this stretch of beach. It was easier to walk than the roadside. Abe would first look at her best friend Sarah’s, then Teddy’s studio above his café, and lastly the Knit and Purr (the owner’s sickly Persian cat had died during summer) where she worked three days a week. He wouldn’t try Granny Robb’s until tomorrow, likely–he did have to work later. And he didn’t like Granny, had told her a thousand times to stay away from her so he assumed she took his opinion and advice to heart. Darla hoped to be at Granny’s by nine o’clock and in the morning to be somewhere else. Had to keep moving, otherwise Abe would catch up and haul her back home.

Her new tennis shoes were chafing her left foot. A blister was ballooning on her heel so she took them off and stood up. The wet, smooth sand was soothing.

If Darla knew anything, she knew the ocean. She grew up not far from there; all this had been her playground. Kept alive in her memory were tidal secrets and all the places she could hide and explore. The weather’s shifts and turns here were an intimate part of her knowledge. She had lived to surf and kayak before Abe. Today the sea was restless as ever, gleaming waves muscling their way in, carrying humans, boats or debris with an indifferent elegance. She tilted her face to sea spray, then tied her tennis shoes together and tossed them over her shoulder. Darla’s feet pounded the wave-carved beach, hair loosening, legs lengthening. This is how it felt to be free. Like she had no origin or destination or ending, as if she was one hundred percent bona fide alive only in this moment. Every cell sparked and danced, primed for joy. Nothing–no one–could claim her as theirs.

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Salt kissed her lips and light burnished her skin. She was turning to gold and snared by the rhythm of running so imagined she was a wild horse as she did when a child, galloping and cavorting past waves, rocks, driftwood, crabs, mussels, the world. Only when her breathing was pinched by the pounding of her heart did she slow and drop to the sand, gasping.

There was no time for this foolish play. What an idiot to dredge up memories made of childhood innocence. A naiveté not yet shredded by disappointment and loneliness. Now Darla had to deal with facts that required she come up with a better plan. Soon. She was an escapee, after all. Broke right out of Abe’s Coastal Camp–that’s what he called it since it was his summer camp. Abe’s work camp, he should call it, for all she had done for him to keep him even halfway placated. He loomed in her mind: that furrowed forehead signaling dissatisfaction, the immediate or delayed anger instigating more ridiculous demands–“corrective actions”, he called them. And too often the force of his broad hands marring her face or grasping on her shoulder, hair, neck. Those were “reminders”. Of who was in charge.

She had to climb the hill and get back to the road, find a ride to Granny’s. She was gone this week but she’d told her to come on. Darla put her socks back on and then her shoes, her heel tender. She had four protein bars in her bag and ate one as she hiked up the twisty trail. Two women passed her laughing, a blanket and a tote full of food between them. She kept her head down, not to be unseen but to avoid their normalcy, their happiness. She wondered if they carried wine, then banished the thought before it stole her mind away like a thief. The last thing she wanted ever again was a drink.

When she reached the road she loosened her shoe and stuck out her thumb. There were trees standing close together here; the ocean roar was gentled. An October sky was dissolving into a powdery grey-blue and coral. The sun would soon begin its disappearing act on the vast celestial stage. She had to be off the road by then. Fear pricked her innards. What had she done? Did it really have to come to this?

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She waggled her thumb at several cars but they sped by, sometimes honking or swerving, as though her small presence might be a serious threat to them. She stepped back, close to underbrush and the darkening forest. After about twenty minutes she started walking fast even though her heel was hot and stinging. Darla took in the sea between treetops like a gulp of hope. She considered praying when headlights blinded her. She turned at the sound of the vehicle as it pulled up nice and easy.

The interior lights went on. They looked okay, both man and woman, each with greying hair. A brownish tabby cat curled up on the woman’s lap. The car was a new model SUV, deep blue. The woman rolled her window halfway down and stuck her face out.

“You need a ride, dear?” She peered over her glasses and smiled with pale peach lips closed. “You shouldn’t be out here all alone.”

“Well, about 60 miles is all. To Winton, up north. You know it?”

The older woman nodded, loose curls bouncing. “Oh, we go right by it on the way to our cottage. We’re eighteen miles past there.” She looked Darla up and down for a quick assessment then made a motion to the left with her head. “This is Kenneth, my husband. Just get rid of sand, please.”

Darla bent down and looked in the car. Kenneth had on an old straw hat but he pushed it back from his forehead, then peered at her. His hooded eyes made an attempt at smiling. He looked sixtyish or more, ruddier and younger than his wife.

“Well, I guess…”

“What happened, dear? No car? How on earth did you get here?”

Darla could feel the heat being leached from the air as the sun stayed its own course. She shivered; she had to get out of here. She stomped her feet to rid them of sand and brushed off her jeans.

“It broke down. I’m on my way to my grandmother’s, Lena Robb’s.”

The man gestured for her to get in back. “Pile in. I want to get to our place before it’s too late.”

Darla took off her backpack, tossed it in and settled in the leather seat. The cat jumped from between the front seats to the seat by Darla, walked over her twice with a sniff or two, then jumped back to the woman in front with a plaintive meow. Darla didn’t like cats that much but here she was, stuck with one again.

“I’m Roslyn Gentry, by the way.”

“Darla, ah, Darla Robb.” She took a painfully deep breath as they started off down the road, then looked out the window, through the pines. The ocean was receding; the sky was aflame. The SUV was warm and smelled faintly of cinnamon and, possibly, sausage. A tangy hint of sweat. No one spoke the first mile except the cat, who hissed at her once from her mistress’ shoulder.

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(TO BE CONTINUED. Please come back for Part 2, to be posted this week.)

Dragonfly Glass

IMG_2868It had called to me from the shop situated in a mountain valley: a sturdy clear glass, pleasing of shape, with good heft. But most of all, the dragonflies that were in relief near the top brought a smile. I am a fool for insects of all sorts (even scarier ones), and dragonflies intrigue me with their grace and short lives (one to six months) in temperate zones. They love the water but do fly elsewhere. They rarely bite and don’t break the skin if they try. They have been with us 300 million years. If that isn’t a wonderful bug I don’t know what is.

But enough about dragonflies. The glass grabbed my attention and I pondered the price, which was more than seemed reasonable. Still, it was small enough for juice, a good size for a quick drink of water. I turned it around in my hands and visualized how it would look with my sturdy Desert Rose table ware. But such extravagance. I walked away. And back again. I left the shop with two cheerful glasses.

Today it was more summer than spring with a cloudless aquamarine sky and sweet breeze. I sat on the balcony and sipped chilled tea. The glass–the new favorite. It had held water, ginger ale, apple juice and iced tea. I admired it’s combination of ordinariness and decorative good sense. And then I held it up to the sunlight and the thought that came forward was a surprise. It looked like a glass used for a stout mixed drink or rich-colored wine, not tame juice or water. It was the right size, and its heaviness ensured it stayed put when set down. But to contemplate all this took me back.

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Way, way back. You see, none of my glasses have had a lick of alcohol in them for twenty-two years. That was when I stopped drinking. something I write around but have never stated bluntly. Now it seems I want to speak of it.

The day I last drank has been, perhaps oddly, increasingly less a subject of daily personal interest than professional, as I have counseled and educated chemically addicted persons for twenty of those years. Yes, I have attended plenty of support groups. But after awhile something happened to my thinking. It was like the clean, unmistakable click of a lock’s mechanism disengaging to full unlocked position. The door that opened led to the life I had always wanted but could never fully discover or create.

I became free of not only any desire to drink but also of significant feelings about it. I didn’t and don’t hate alcohol and its undeniable power to alter even ordinary people’s responses to others and themselves. It is a power that the alcohol-imbibing public still doesn’t fully respect. I had a quite short drinking career revolving around too many goblets of wine and stiff mixed drinks, resulting in some harrowing tales. It would be dishonest to not note that a family member asked me to make a will when I was still pretty young. There is a common misconception that it is how much you drink that identifies whether or not one has an alcohol problem. In fact, it is more simply how it chemically impacts a person physiologically, emotionally, mentally. It didn’t take so much as you’d think to provide experiences I don’t care to live again.

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So, I didn’t long for alcohol when I was finally done.  I detached from it while keeping clear the reality of what worked for me in life and what did not. Alcohol was definitely on the negative side. Recovery has remained number one every day despite not thinking of it all the time. The reasons are simple: I want to stay alive, live well and long, and be true to who I am–none of which alcohol could support. A drink–or a drug, for that matter– will eventually rob an addicted person of everything good and fine in human life. I reclaimed my own power to live more freely and richly again. Over time, I integrated what I knew about my unhappy relationship with alcohol into a broader understanding of my worldview and beliefs, as well as my authentic needs (not those society dictated) as a person.

All this sounds relatively easy, perhaps. It has been, in a real sense. Of course, there have been moments when holding tight to one moment of sobriety was the goal for the day. The painful events of life, physically and emotionally, didn’t back away or even lessen much when I put down the drink. But the good news is that as humans we are provided with an amazing array of solutions and aids to help us live intentionally, in peace. Our brains manufacture chemicals called endorphins (among others) to help us with bodily pain and even heartache. Our free will enables us to make many kinds of choices that either nurture or undermine who we are and want to become. Out of the caldera of the past, we can construct a Spirit-shaped life that is a wellspring of clarity as we imagine, act, speak, love.

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It all completely works, I told my clients; you just have to try it and then keep at it. I perhaps did not tell them I am a good case study with a complicated history (which we all seem to have) coupled with an early onset of sedativism precipitated by prescription drugs. This made me a sitting duck for alcohol problems later on. The whole journey was a strange one that no longer haunts me. It was one of those dead-end roads. I got off (with much timely help), surveyed the options and took a different direction. Such liberation had a revolutionary feel; it stays with me to this day.

I return to my humble dragonfly glass. It holds peppermint-tinged iced tea; it cools and soothes on this magnanimous May day. And I hope to enjoy it for many years–at least all the days that are given to me. I consider the myriad wonders of life and know I am fortunate. The important parts of the puzzle of living fit together, and I fit there, too. I ask you this: what is not to love in this very moment? I thank God for this ordinary and bountiful life, come what may.

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“What is to give light must endure burning.”
-Viktor Frankl

Centering the Mind at the Edge of Time

IMG_2222It was the first several days following the holidays, that perpetual festival of people, feasting and gift-giving. I had looked forward to the gentler pace. In fact, I would have more time than I had in years, as I was staring January without a job and my spouse was back east on business. Peace and quiet, what we all desire in the midst of pressured lives, were enticing. I had plans: write, complete a few chores, walk daily, write, read, write. A long list of other goals was drawn up, some of which involved research and others which required dusting, sorting  and tossing. I managed the rudimentary plans.

But not quite as I expected.

Oceanside week-end 10-12 122I stepped into a kind of portal wherein I discovered anew that time disappears and daily living is malleable, even undefined. Where my  body took a journey and I learned patience. There was no structure that was requisite, one upon which important matters were dependent. And furthermore, the open-ended days and nights were inhabited by only myself. Nothing I did or did not do significantly impacted my immediate environment. Nothing I said or did not say made any impression on others in my abode. This struck me as both humbling and provocative. As an addictions and mental health counselor, I am used to addressing rooms full of people, as well as being attentive to individuals with trenchant pain. I am accustomed to being routinely, acutely aware of my behavior and others’.

All this ceased to matter.

First off, not having to arise at 6:30 a.m. to go to a job, I found myself glancing at the clock: 5:30, back to sleep; 6:55, (mild panic) okay, back to sleep. And so on, until at around eight in the morning I might start to embrace consciousness more willingly. But even then, it turns out one can continue to delve deep into the rabbit hole of sleep and have eccentric, vivid dreams that stream rapidly. Without the need to jump up and prepare for a day out in the world, I’d partly awaken, then grab the tail end of the last dream and join the theatre of the absurd again. I can’t say they’re all worth noting or pleasant, but I found myself choosing to readily observe and participate in them. They provided ideas for stories and rumination.

Thus, it might be after nine before I arose. Guilt briefly crept in; my sense of duty is strong. But duty to what? After a shower I read meditation books, caught up on a few pages of each magazine piled on the dining room table, looked at my list. I glanced at the clock, then looked away. I could do whatever I wanted, and despite this feeling like a mandate rather than freedom the first few days, I did not wear my watch nor pay attention to how low or high the sun was, how little or much time I had left.

I wrote. I wrote until my eyes no longer could focus on the new twenty inch computer monitor. I wrote until I had nothing interesting to say–sometimes that took an afternoon, sometimes until a small mug of tea was consumed. But I was letting words guide me and helping them rearrange themselves. Characters advised me readily on their roles in my current short story as I moved around the apartment, checking the one healthy plant I have, folding laundry. I revised paragraphs while I walked outdoors in the frigid afternoons, in misting or pelting rain, in the pallid light of mornings. I recorded poems on my phone, took photos as I skirted the neighborhoods. Late at night: reading, jotting ideas, watching a candle burn low.

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In other words, I adapted and worked for four days. Then vertigo visited me.

I have had this mysterious inner ear disorder since 1999. Labyrinthitis. Whereas then I had been very ill with resultant dizziness debilitating for months, I now manage it successfully, most of the time. The problem with balance has remained a chronic state. I maneuver well enough that no one is aware I have this problem–unless they see me teeter and fall into a wall, yet quickly recover. Or move my head a certain way, like looking high up on a shelf, at which time I will begin to fall backwards before I catch myself. It depends on the angle at which I hold my head and an unpredictable vulnerability. Learning to correct my inner and outer responses to being off-balance has taken effort, with trial and error. I always have thought it a fitting analogy for what I teach others when confronted with hindrances or stressors: life is about readjustment of our own perspective much of the time, and how we adapt.

I can tell it has decided to aggravate me more than usual even before I get out of bed. I will turn over and inside my skull everything rushes and turns, as though I am on a boat and can’t get my sea legs. Sometimes there is nausea, sometimes not. The only way to combat it is to take medicine for motion sickness, and it makes me drowsy. I keep it at bedside, as sometimes I cannot stand up and walk.

So I awakened and knew that taking medication was the first order of the day. Everything else was up for grabs. After a couple of hours, I managed to do an errand, and then I was done. I lay on the couch, tuned into HGTV to gape at lovely houses while I rested. And fell into a deep sleep. I awakened; the room was a cloudy grey and the television mumbled into the quiet. I closed my eyes. After awakening three or four times I felt able to get up. But lethargy weighted me. My mind would not clear. I longed to write something, but writing did not have the faintest interest in me. I couldn’t read yet. Walking across the floor still intimated at walking on a floating dock. I lay down, drifted but did not slumber. Nothing good came to me–just a bleak feeling of loss: of this day, of this night, of my capricious health. A loss of direction.

Apple Festival 2012 005

When I awakened, I recalled a CD of meditation music my son had made me. I hadn’t had time to listen. He had told me, “Meditate. Don’t dance to it. Don’t do anything else. Listen to it. It’s seventeen minutes long.” Since my son has a powerful belief in self-healing that has aided him countless times and he prays for me when I am ill, to my benefit, I put on the CD. I wondered if he somehow knew I would need this healing music.

I sat in the rocking chair, closed my eyes, and let my ears open. Open deep inside. I followed the sounds into the maze of dreaming, the labyrinth of being. The wooden flutes and clarinet, cello, the piano and voices and nature sounds all moved within and settled in my interior. I breathed slowly. Soon I saw a distant emerald shore and floated there. Billowing violet and blue mists rose and fell, somersaulted and spun, translucent swaths of energy. The air shimmered and the music was a stream which carried me. I was strong, free. I was only one small part of the endless mystery.

Tryon on April 30, 2011 011

Relief swept over me. Tears came. Such beauty was perfectly real, infinite. The exhaustion and dizziness diminished, then was no more. I was at ease again.

Today I feel well. Earlier I took a long walk and found it revitalizing, as ever. I began writing when the sun was brilliantly arrayed upon  many shades of green. Now night descends; the rich velvet of darkness rests on the city. I haven’t looked at the time. I don’t need to. Writing is being done. I have love in my life. I have this gift of freedom to do what I choose. It is up to me to follow whatever calls me from the unseen edge of time.

Moon Over Columbia River