Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Gift of Alone

"Woman must come of age by herself. This is the essence of 'coming of age'--to learn how to stand alone ... She must find her true center alone." 
--Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Everyone needs to come of age at some point in their life.

For me, this "coming of age" has come fast and furious over the past year.  It is a process that has involved a small tribe with kindred hearts who massage my tired muscles, bring me baskets full of nourishment and repeatedly utter words of reassurance so that I can take the long trek into myself without breaking down. 

And though I have been strengthened by this tribe and the gifts they offer me, this is a journey that must be taken alone.
"How one hates to think of oneself as alone. How one avoids it... And yet, once it is done, I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious."
(Gift from the Sea, pages 35 and 36)

* * * * * 
I am an ocean. And in the rocky inlet where I have been living, it's high tide.

The waters have risen up, up, up to the edge of the rocky shoreline. In this corner of the ocean, my inner life is filled to the brim. It can't hold anymore rising. I hold my breath and wait for the waters to recede.

When the tide is low, I feel enticed into exploration and movement. The exposed rocks invite me to climb down into the cool, shallow waters they surround. They hint at secret treasures hidden beneath them. Small crabs scurry out into the open and quickly back under their cover in a game of hide-and-seek. 

When the tide is low in this rocky inlet, my heart is light and playful. I want to linger outside, surrounded by light and motion. 

Then the sun sets and the tide rises.

When the tide is high and the rocky shoreline is hidden under the weight of the water, it seems as if it was never there. Those boulders, rocks and pebbles that my feet clung to in play no longer invite adventure. Submerged under water they seem dangerous, slippery, foolish.  

And even though I know the tide rises and falls--that this is the natural rhythm of the waters--still I wonder, will it be high tide forever? Will the time of lightness and play ever return?

When the tide is high, the deep waters of my soul are drawn in to the shoreline where they mix and mingle with the shallow, familiar waters. My heart hears the deep bass tones of the sea and I listen to its song.
When the tide is high in this rocky inlet, my heart is somber and reflective. I want to pull away to a quiet place where I can contemplate.

The high tide reminds me of my childhood and all the hours I spent at a friend's house in her pool. After a storm, when the water level was nearly even with the pool's edge, we'd play a game. With bellies pressed against boogie boards, we'd rock back and forth, back and forth, and make waves. Before long, the pool could not contain the water. It would pour out in sheets all over the cement. 

Perhaps we did this because we didn't like the feeling of "almost too full"--as if the pool was a water balloon, filled to capacity and ready to p.o.p. and lose its magic. 

Perhaps we couldn't bear the mystery of how and when the "popping"--the overflowing, the spilling--would happen, so we took matters into our own hands. We made waves. We pushed the water out with our activity. The water level went back to normal and we were content and giddy again. 

Maybe coming of age is about being okay with the ready-to-spill-over waters. Maybe it's about letting things happen on their own. Maybe it's about appreciating the magic of the almost too full balloon and trusting the natural course of filling up and emptying out. 

Today, coming of age meant sitting at the water's edge and letting the tide rise and rise and rise without interrupting its rising with a flurry of activity and movement. Eventually, it did rise past the highest of the rocks and spilled over into a refreshing stream of tears onto my cheeks, tears that have been choked and buried in the low-tide excitement of exploration and play.

And as I rested on the shoreline, with the water spilling out over me, I was content. My muscles felt massaged, my basket was full of nourishment, my ears were full of reassuring words, yet I was alone. Alone with the sea, alone with the tide, alone with the rocky shoreline.

I am an ocean. And in the rocky inlet where I have been living, it's high tide.

The waters have risen up, up, up to the edge of the rocky shoreline. In this corner of the ocean, my inner life is filled to the brim. But I'm breathing easy now as I wait for the waters to recede.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Say It to the Wall

"If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." 

We all heard that phrase some time in childhood.

It's great advice for school-yard brawls--where emotions run high and cruel words cut deep--but it's band-aid wisdom. It covers the sore, but doesn't address the underlying infection.

Being the compliant child I was, I did not question this advice. I internalized it and took it to heart. To the very letter. And it got engrained deep into my subconscious and took on a life of its own.

I also added five little words to the end of that phrase that had a crippling effect: "to anyone at any time."

In an effort to be nice, I was forbidden from saying anything unless it was kind, pleasant, heart-warming, inspiring, thankful, beautiful, or gracious. In fact, those adjectives were the very definition of nice in my mind. Therefore anything not synonymous with them were, by default, not nice.

Obviously, that means a very long list of topics was off limits.

I was doomed for failure in my efforts to be nice, because all of that holding in, censoring, and forbidding worked like an at-home science experiment where you combine vinegar and water and baking soda. The pressure built up to the point where all I could do was explode.

But even after I exploded--and not nice things escaped my lips--I still valued that classic phrase and redoubled my efforts to live back within the parameters of nice.

This was the perfect prelude to a vicious cycle. All that bottling up, exploding, bottling up, exploding led to even more not nice feelings (subsequently about myself), and I got to the point where I simply could not suppress them anymore.

This is precisely why I have worked so hard in my adult life to speak up. It's the only way to break the cycle.

Cycle-breaking also required that I throw that superficial advice away. I've replaced it with something that rings more true.

"If you don't have anything nice to say, say it to the wall."

In other words, we ALL need permission to unload.

We simply have to use wisdom about the right time and place for the unloading to occur. Our teachers were right: venting anger with high tempers and mean words over an unfair play in the middle of a kick-ball game isn't the right context. But what they forget to tell us is this: the frustration DOES need to come out.

And if we aren't deliberate about the when and the where, the frustration--or another not nice thing--will eventually come out on its own.  

"Say it to the wall" reminds me to take care of myself by creating specific moments to unload. "The wall" is the safe place where I can do this.  So if not nice words come bubbling to the surface, I hold them in until I am in a safe environment. But once I'm in that safe place--whether it's with a friend, a therapist, a support group, God or by myself--I'm learning how to let them OUT.

I don't let them all out with anyone at any time, but I'm getting better at letting them out with someone (even if that person is me) at some time.  

As I have been practicing this, I've discovered why I was so terrified to do this in the first place.

I was afraid that having feelings or thoughts that were not nice said something about who I was. Namely, I thought it meant I wasn't good.

Now I know that having not nice feelings (anything that isn't kind, pleasant, heart-warming, inspiring, thankful, beautiful, or gracious), doesn't mean that I'm bad, it just means that I'm human.

But even more than my fear of being bad was my fear that I would reinforce this badness by giving air time to my not nice parts. I thought that if I was really angry or really sad or really confused or really hurt, admitting it would cement those feelings and I would stay perpetually stuck in them, with no hope of getting out.

Of course, the opposite is true.

"The more you hide your feelings, the more they show," someone once said. "The more you deny your feelings, the more they grow."

Feelings are meant to be fluid. They are meant to pass through us. But in order for them to pass through, they have to be acknowledged, and in order to be acknowledged, they have to be felt.

Whenever I refuse to feel my feelings, I create a log jam in my emotional world.

So the answer to my problems is not "don't say anything at all." The answer is "say it to the wall." 

I have to remind myself that there's nothing wrong with my not nice feelings. I have to give myself time and space to feel the feelings, give them words, and let them pass through.

'Cause really, that's the nicest thing I can do. 

"If you don't have anything nice to say, say it to the wall."