Sunday, February 22, 2015

3 things you should remember this week (and always)

What is it about those  articles consisting only of lists that is so damn enticing?  There are only about 100 of them a day, and they all say the same thing: "10 things every introvert wants you to know."  "12 things you should know if you love your dog."  "15 things you've always wanted to know but never asked."

Part of it is, clearly, the clickbait-y nature of the titles: "10 things to know to perfect every yoga pose you'll ever do."  "15 ways to achieve inner peace (in only one weekend!)"  "12 ways to make sure you're living your happiest life."  I skip over the "25 best ways of wearing eyeshadow" and the "15 sex tips to please your man" and the "12 tips to dress for your body type and look sexier than ever on a smaller budget while eating what you want and still losing weight" lists.  I stick with the ones that know...deep and meaningful. 

I ignore a lot of crap that comes my way on the internet...but I'm ashamed to admit that some of these lists just pull me in.  It's not that I actually try to do what they say, or that I believe a list from Cracked or Buzzfeed or MindBodyGreen is going to change my life and put me on the path to inner peace, but I read them because sometimes they make me feel validated.  That list of 10 things every introvert wants you to know?  It sometimes helps me to clarify, "that thing you do that makes you feel crazy?  It's an introvert thing.  Other people do that, too.  And being an introvert is cool because, you know, Buzzfeed made a list about it."  Then, for about 5 seconds, I feel better about my introversion.  The 12 things you should know if you love your dog?  I do 8 of those 12 things...and I feel pretty good about my dog ownership abilities.  It's pretty reinforcing to just peruse these lists as they come across my screen, actually.  Given the popularity of these articles...which are, honestly, unscientific junk...I would guess that I'm not alone in this. 

This morning, this list came across my Facebook feed: "10 things all highly sensitive people should remember."  I clicked it -- of course -- and it was nothing surprising...but it was validating. 

I'm not even kidding.  This is a thing.
I have mixed reactions about this whole "highly sensitive person" thing.  I came across the term when I was in college, and my reaction at the time was "FINALLY SOMEONE UNDERSTANDS ME!"  But as I tried to look more at Elaine Aron's work, it read like a bunch of popular pseudo-science.  I'm smart enough to know not to trust something that comes only out of one person's work, and is published primarily in the self-help genre.  Yes, she and her husband are doing some research with fMRIs...but I have yet to see any of it in a peer-reviewed journal (or with any other researchers), you know?  I couldn't actually get through her book, because it sounded to me like she was making "HSPs" the "victims" of living in a world that doesn't understand them, and like they are destined to a world of pain and suffering (through which they choose joy, like brave little soldiers!).  She writes in such a way that she makes people who are particularly empathic sound almost psychic: we know what you are feeling, and we feel it more intensely than you do.  Creepy, right?  It, honestly, all feels a little attention-seeking to me, and like it's one more way of saying "but I AM a unique and special little snowflake."  We get it.  You're special, and you feel persecuted by the world.  Next.....

I think I feel so strongly about this because I get it.  I am a person who is highly sensitive.  To everything.  Iv'e written about this before, and it's just how I've always been.  I have only ever, obviously, been me, so I can't say with absolute certainty that I feel "more" than other people, but I can offer concrete (if anecdotal), evidence that some things about me just work differently.  Getting out of the emotional realm, which is where things get a little blurry, I can tell you that my body reacts in more extreme ways to caffeine, to almost all medications, and to sensory stimuli.  I can tell you that violent or scary movies/TV shows have always had a physical impact on me.  It's not that I just don't enjoy them.  I will feel physically ill, and I will have nightmares, and I will have a hard time shaking it off.  Even just going to the movies can be hard...more often than not, I will come out with a migraine, and I will just feel like my sensory system is overwhelmed.  Lots of things make me feel overwhelmed.  When I do a good job of taking care of myself, I can largely avoid this feeling...but when I'm not doing a good job, overwhelm sneaks up on me, and threatens to overtake me.  And taking care of myself?  That's work.  It feels like I'm trying to constantly manage a body with ever changing needs and contingencies and expectations in an ever changing, ever more intense world.

It's hard to explain this feeling of "overwhelmed."  It's not like feeling overwhelmed in the sense of "I have so much to do, I don't know how I'll get it done."  It's not like feeling overwhelmed in the "I need to go here and there and have only 30 minutes...ack!!!" sense.  It's not even like feeling overwhelmed in the sense of "wow, it's loud in here and smells like a combination of beer, grease, and dirty feet."  It's feeling like my entire body is, for lack of a better word, freaking out.  Overwhelmed is when it feels like my body is full of electricity I can't contain.  I wrote a poem once in which I likened my spinal cord to keys on a janitor's key ring, "one key for every nerve,/ every clink and clack sends nerves running down my back,/ their feet pound my bones with steel-toed boots ."  There are times when the only thing I can do to calm my nervous system is to sit in the dark -- and even then, being alone with my own breathing can feel like too much.

I'll be honest: I hate writing this out.  I keep getting up and doing other things instead of finishing this, because it feels like you're going to think I'm making it up.  It feels like nobody else feels this way.  It feels like I'm being dramatic, or like I'm looking for special snowflake points.  This isn't glamorous.  This isn't me saying "I'm sensitive and better."  It just is. 

The end of the poem I wrote goes like this:
"...even doctors
cannot see these freaks of nature inside my skin--
these are not metaphors
but ways of turning what simply is
into something beautiful
my heart can understand."

I'm thinking about my word of the year again, and I'm thinking about this idea of being powerful.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that this internal sense of power must come from, first, accepting yourself and the powers you carry with you.  These days, I'm having a hard time liking myself.  (That's a hard one to admit, isn't it?)  I'm having a hard time being willing to do the things I know I need to do to take care of myself.  It's partially the fact that this time of year is hard.  It's partially other things.  And it's partially that I reached a point of extremely overwhelmed that I'm having a hard time settling, because I am having a hard time identifying what I need to make it settle.  Or, perhaps more accurately, I'm having a hard time allowing myself to do the things I know I need to do.  I am tired of being sensitive, and I'm tired of navigating the world when things seem to be too much.  Fair warning: if one more person says "self-care" to me, I'm probably going to punch them.  It's just not that easy.

Being this sensitive person brings incredible gifts.  Empathy is my superpower.  I feel all of my emotions intensely, even and especially the wonderful ones, and this is a gift.  Without being this sensitive person, I would not be able to write my heart in this way...and I love that I can write my heart in a way that connects me with others.  I am a better therapist because of this person I am. 

But this overwhelm from being in the is not a metaphor.  I can't read the news right now.  I can't look at that amazing article you posted, and I can't read the headlines of the articles in the trending news stories, and I am deleting every email from every social justice organization that sends me emails.  When I see these things, I can literally feel the nerves in my body start to jingle, and my spine feels funny, and the vice on my head tightens. 

But then I feel guilt, and shame, and embarrassment that I have the audacity to find it all too much when I am a privileged white girl.  Fact of the matter is, I have the privilege of shutting it out.  What right do I have to take advantage of that privilege, just because my nervous system feels "overwhelmed?"  It feels like such a cop-out to say "I'm highly sensitive" and expect that to mean something.  I'm not special, you know.  It just is. 

Maybe powerful means that I feel strong enough to do what I need in order to be my best self.  Maybe powerful doesn't mean soldiering on.  Maybe it doesn't mean ignoring, and pushing, and fighting with yourself to get to where you feel you need to be, regardless of what's happening internally.  I guess I'm back to what I said last time: maybe being powerful consists of choosing to like yourself without hating yourself first.  Maybe it's making the radical choice of allowing yourself to take care of you, even in all of your too muchness.  Or maybe...maybe...I could accept the broader definition of: "being powerful is being willing to take care of yourself."

Here then, is Autodidactpoet's list of 3 things you should remember this week (and always):

1). You are brave.
2). You are powerful.
3). You are worthy of love and belonging.


Sunday, February 15, 2015

Autodidactpoet 2.0: A post about powerful self-love

You know, if I could type with my thoughts, I would be posting multiple times per day.

When I am in the shower, cooking, on a walk with the dog, driving, sitting in a meeting, or generally doing anything during which it is simply not possible for me to write, I have lots of ideas.  Clear thoughts and beautiful poetic phrases dance through my mind as I am unable to write, until they finally die and rot in the cemetery of Thoughts That Never Got Written.  When I finally sit down to write, those thoughts are gone, and I'm just left with a lot of anxiety instead.  My inner critic (aka "The Bitch") has been giving me a hard time lately, and has made it hard to get anything on paper.

My inner critic has been showing up in pretty much every area of my life -- particularly the past two

weeks.  "You're not good enough," she whines.  "Not smart enough, not pretty enough, not skinny enough, not kind enough or compassionate enough."  "You're not a good enough friend, or listener, or sister or daughter or supervisor or therapist," she chants.  She continues, sometimes louder and sometimes more quietly, "...and your house is dirty, and you didn't do laundry, and you have dishes in your sink.  You have paperwork that you didn't finish, and you wasted time watching Netflix and knitting when you should have been productive.  I don't care that you didn't get home until spent two hours watching Netflix and knitting.  Shame. On. You."  I had several mini-meltdowns this week about things like: feeling like a bad dog mom because I left my buddy alone so much.  And: feeling like a failure because I didn't do the thing that nobody told me was a thing that had to be done.  And: feeling like a failure because of things that happened years ago.  And: feeling like a failure because I was so exhausted from all the crises and stress this week and I didn't take the introvert time I needed, so my nervous system felt like I could feel every nerve ending in my head and my fingers and my spine.

There have to be better ways of working this shit out.

My body is ruthless in reminding me that I'm doing a crap job.  All those articles you see written by wheatgrass-drinking yoginis telling you that, if you listen to your body, it will tell you what you need?  They aren't lying.  Given, my body does not tell me whether to drink the spinach smoothie or the kombucha...but it does hit me over the head with migraines or complete nervous system overload, which almost requires the same level of listening............right?   

So in the midst of all of this, I've been thinking about my word of the year, and about what I'm going to do with this word.  Powerful.  What does this word even mean?

Honestly?  I don't know.  I know that this word feels right, and I know that this word has chosen me for the year...but I don't know what I want to do with it yet.  And that makes my manic Inner Critic unhappy.

In my good moments, I hear this quiet voice somewhere deep inside of me that gives me this calm, easy answer (probably the same voice that should be able to distinguish if I need the smoothie or the kombucha, come to think of it).  If I listen really hard, I hear her telling me that I have the power to choose my thoughts.  I have the power to choose to allow the voice of love that must exist somewhere in me, to be louder.  I have the power to say yes to taking care of me.

And that's hard.  That's harder than anything brave that I did last year.  That doesn't require just pushing myself through a little fear to do something.  That requires a complete system overhaul.  Like, if I were to really internalize and live that, I would be Autodidactpoet 2.0.  These patterns are very - very ­- engrained.  It's almost like I wouldn't know myself without my Inner Critic bitching loudly about something, you know?  She's awful, with a big nose and ugly teeth, and a voice that sounds like nails on a chalkboard...but we've spent a long time together.  She's one of my most reliable pals.

In talking with my friend Examorata today, in a slightly different context, I mentioned the idea that "you can't hate your way into loving yourself."  I said it casually, like I believed it, or lived it, even.  But it's hard, you know?  And it feels radical.  It feels like a powerful choice -- to reject the messages around us and the ones we have internalized.  To tell your inner critic to shut the hell up, and to allow yourself to feel what loving yourself...or even liking yourself might feel like.  To allow that to be what is real and in the forefront, because it's true, isn't it?  You can't hate your way into love.  Not for others, and not for yourself. 

Giving voice to my inner critic here makes me feel vulnerable.  We've all got that voice, to varying degrees, but we don't name it, do we?  Perfection -- or near perfection -- is just supposed to come easily.  But I know for a fact that there is power in naming the ugly voices inside our heads.  There is power in externalizing them.  They fester and breed in the dark, shame-filled places they reside, so there is power in shining the light on them and exposing them in an act of vulnerability.

So perhaps this is where I start with this word.  Perhaps here, in this place of overwhelm, and guilt, and shame, and feeling-too-much, perhaps this is where I start.  Perhaps this is where I make that powerful choice to move towards loving myself, without needing to hate myself first. 

And maybe, when I wake up tomorrow, I'll make that choice again.  And then when I see the dirty dishes in my sink, I'll make the choice again, and again when I struggle with what to wear to work, and again when I see all the paperwork that needs to be done, and again when I come home and watch Netflix and knit after a long day.  I will get the opportunity to make the powerful choice of love on a moment-by-moment basis.  My guess?  I'll choose love sometimes.  And sometimes I'll forget.  And sometimes I'll choose love, but feel shame, or guilt, or anger, or dislike, or even hatred instead...but the power of the choice is always there.  Always. 

What will you choose for your powerful self in this moment? 

And in this one?

And the next? 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

How was Haiti?

I'm still struggling to write about my trip to Haiti.

Two boys getting water near MPP
I say "still" when in reality, I've been home a little over a week...and I think that's the problem.  I came home and was catapulted into a work schedule so hectic, I'm not really sure how it all got done.  It did, though, or it is, but in the midst of that, it's been a hard readjustment process.  Going from talking to people who are carrying water on their heads to interviewing predoctoral interns, and from seeing children playing with a metal hoop and a stick to seeing children tantrum because I'm cutting their screen time back by 30 messes with your head, let me tell you.  I avoided the grocery store for a week because I couldn't stomach the idea of waltzing through 56 types of cereal and 3 aisles of junk food.  I'm completely serious when I say that my main meal last week was beans and rice.  Something about that just felt right. 

One of the hardest things, though, is answering the simple question of "how was Haiti?"

"Haiti was life-changing," I say.

"Awwww," they say.  "That's so nice.  So you liked it?"

Three boys and their donkey, near MPP
And I don't know what to say to that.  It's not that I didn't like the trip...but it's just the wrong word. 

I loved the trip.  While on this trip, I felt strong.  I felt brave, and confident, and at peace with myself.  I felt whole, and valued, and like I was an important piece of something transformative.  I did not feel the same self-consciousness and fear and anxiety that is always chirping on my shoulder.  I was doing something so far out of my comfort zone, and yet I did not feel afraid.  I don't understand why that happened...and as hard as I tried to hold onto it, it's gone now.  But it was there, for a week, and it made me feel badass.  I love that I was brave, and I love that I felt badass.

I love that this trip changed me wholly and completely.  I love that my worldview is forever changed.  I love that I had the privilege of breaking my heart open and allowing the beauty and the pain and the hope and despair of Haiti and her people enter into my heart.  I love that I saw landscapes so beautiful that they moved me to tears, and I love that I saw landscapes so devastated they did the same.  I love this experience in a way that you can only love something that is deep, and personal, and painful and profound.  I love the way Haiti has burrowed under my skin and now enters my dreams in beautiful and painful ways. 

At school
I love that I can sit on my couch in Maryland, cuddled under layers of sweatpants and blankets, close my eyes, and evoke in myself the feelings that I had while sitting on the Big Thoughts porch: feelings of peace, and community, and a way of life that matches the beating of my heart.  Feelings of discomfort, and growth, and feeling so very small in a world that is expanding out beyond what I knew was possible.  Feelings of love and hope for the world and her people, and feelings of disappointment, and despair, and a heaviness that weighs on my heart and body.  All of these things, all at once: I love them because they are here, and they are real, and they are changing me.  I love them because they are the world, and because I want to witness it whole-heartedly. 

So when I'm asked that question of "how was Haiti?  Did you like it?" I say, "Haiti was life-changing.  It was a very amazing, and beautiful, and difficult experience." I say this because at the water cooler, or in the bathroom at work I can't talk about how I hold in my body this sense of overwhelming vast holiness that consists of pain, and struggle, and beauty, and hope, and despair, and inexplicable resilience, and hopelessness, too.  It's an uncomfortable feeling I don't know how to name or contain without tears stinging my eyes.  I don't know how to say in an elevator speech that it's impossible for me to like the discomfort, and the despair and sadness and pain this trip opened me to.  It's hard to say that I liked seeing faces like the ones in these pictures.  It's hard to say that I liked hearing trauma, and hunger, and thirst, and struggle, because you can't like that.  I didn't like that.  But I held it in my heart, because it is real, and because I witnessed it, and because I am learning to hold those things.

Little guy at village 5
"So what was your favorite part?," they ask me.

And I struggle with that word, too.  Favorite.  Like my favorite color is purple, and my favorite ice cream is mint chocolate chip...favorite feels like an indulgence.  Favorite feels like choosing which of the struggles I witnessed particularly appealed to me.  Favorite feels like choosing that beautiful landscape over the struggling, beautiful people within it.  There isn't just one moment that stands out...there are slideshows of moments, and roller coasters of emotions of moments.  So many beautiful, hard, broken open moments.

The moment, though, that I am really struggling to tell is the story of our visit to Bassin Zim: a completely gorgeous waterfall we stood at the foot of, and climbed to the top of and looked down.  The water was this amazing color of aquamarine that I have never seen in real-life water before.  We saw the "Voodoo cave" and went in another cave with supposed ancient drawings on the walls, and the biggest bats I've ever seen flying in and out of holes in the ceiling of the cave.  It was absolutely beautiful, and mysterious, and refreshing to see that much water in one place after so many days of dust. 

Bassin Zim
This experience, though, is the only one in which I started to cry and could not blink back the tears. 

Our tour guides for this journey were children -- boys, primarily -- that looked to be between the ages of 8 and 12 or so.  These children clamored to take our hands and to help us over the rocks and streams to the waterfall so that we would pay them.  These children reached, and reached, and reached for whatever hand they could find to grab it, and hold onto it, to be able to earn a dollar from us -- the white strangers.

And those faces.  Those faces.  Those faces just stay with you. 

The boy who took my hand introduced himself in English with a lilting Creole accent: "My name is Eben," he said.  "Take my picture.  Is very beautiful."

I introduced myself, too, and he repeated my name, tripping over the tricky vowel in the middle.  "Is very beautiful," he said again.

"My parents died in earthquake," he told me.  "That is my brother," he said, pointing to another boy.  Throughout our time together, he pointed to one boy or another and named them as his brother or his cousin -- and who knows what of his story is true.  It hardly matters.  What I know for sure is that he wore dirty clothes.  That the houses we passed on the way there hurt my heart.  That he wore adult size sandals he just barely kept on his feet as he walked up the steep hillside and over the rocks. 

Before we began our ascent, he took my hand and smiled.  He pointed up to the sky with his other hand and stated, "we have one God."  I smiled. 

"One God," he said again.  "We have one God."

I made myself smile again.  "Yes, Eben," I said.  "We have one God."

At the end of our walk, I gave Eben the dollar from my pocket.  He walked away, rough-housing with the other children.  I wish I could say it was playful, but another child had come up and punched Eben in the back -- I'm guessing out of jealousy over the dollar, or perhaps a previous fight -- and Eben ran off to seek revenge. 

We have one God, he told me.  One God.  We have one God.

Another child at Bassin Zim
When we were walking back to the vans, I stopped and looked at the waterfall and then at the children around me.  I caught the eye of a young boy -- perhaps 9 years old -- and the look in his eye, and something about his face reminded me exactly of a young client I love.  A young client who lives in one of the wealthiest counties in the US.  A young client who has some challenges, but attends an excellent school, has parents with advanced degrees who are able to provide him with everything he needs.  This client is so dear to me because of his beautiful, naive, creative and inspired soul. 

And this little boy here, in Haiti, with that same round face and soulful eyes, this little boy is essentially begging for money.  He is working when he should be in school.  Who knows what is story is, or what it will be? 

I couldn't help it: the tears just came, and I had to walk away to hide them.

I keep looking at my pictures of the faces.  Those faces.  And I keep thinking of Eben's words.  We have one God.  One God.  We have one God.

I reside pretty firmly in the agnostic camp...and in one sense, I absolutely agree with my little friend.  Of course we have one god, Eben, I think.  We have one god that is a god of love, and you, Eben, are loved. 

"Take my picture?"
Boys in the cave at Bassin Zim
On the other hand, I just can't believe it.  How can we have one God when that God allows such disparities to exist in the world?  How can we have one God when I am able to get on a plane and leave this country, and Eben will stay here, at Bassin Zim, in his too big sandals and not enough food, fighting for money?  How can that little boy look at me, with the fire of "Seen Too Much" burning in his eyes, and tell me with such certainty that we are blessed by the same holy being?  I don't know, Eben, this part of me says.  I don't know what sort of god must be up there that would deal you and all these other little faces this hand in life. 

What comes to mind now is the line from Staceyann Chin's poem:

"I believe God is that place between belief and what you name it.

I believe holy is what you do when there is nothing between your actions and the truth."
- from the poem"Feminist or Womanist?"

I still don't know how to talk about my trip to Haiti.  I don't know how to answer the questions people ask, and I don't know how to tell these stories, but I know that it was holy.  Witnessing the lives of the Haitian people and allowing their stories to seep in through my pores allowed me to align my heart and my actions with the truth of the world. 

 I don't know that I believe in the God that Eben asserted to me so firmly, but perhaps I can believe that my god is that place of love, and presence, and whole-heartedness that lives between belief and the name you devise for it.  My god lives in my feelings of love and hope for the world and her people.  It lives in the feelings of disappointment, and despair, and in the heaviness that weighs on my heart and body.  It is all of these things, all at once, and I love it, because it is here, and it is real, and it is changing me.  I love it because it is the world, and because I am here to witness it, whole-heartedly. 

Eben and friend