Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Getting Out of Our Own Way

I’m at our home in the country, surrounded by the silence of the snow laden woods. And I’m feelng like I want to do some painting. 

In What We Ache For, a book about doing creative work, I suggest that it’s a good idea to have a secondary form of creative expression- something you enjoy but aren’t particularly good at so you don’t have to worry about deadlines or the quality of the end product. Sometimes I remember to take my own advice and prime the creative pump for writing by messing around with paint and paper. No one, with the possible exception of my husband Jeff, is ever going to see these slashes of colour and misshappen figures. Which is why it comes as a surprise to find that I'm struggling to get out of my own way and let the process simply unfold when I have a paint brush in my hand. (And if it’s hard to do with paint play, how much harder is it to do when I’m writing a story I hope will be shared?)

The thing about creative expression- like the rest of life- is that it’s hard not to have an agenda. I’m painting in part because I’ve been having particularly wild, wooly and vivid dreams and I want to open another route into the unconscious so I can deepen my understanding of what my psyche is trying to tell me. But I find myself slipping into literalism- painting images from the dreams. This is unsatisfying (I don’t draw well) and offers me very little new information. I already know what the image looks like. I want to open to the feeling of the dreams and see what comes out on the page.

Luckily I have two friends who offer me good advice on loosening up the painting process. Linda Mulhall, an artist in Victoria B.C., suggests that I paint in a water colour style- wetting the page and thinning the paint so control is not possible. A challenge for my meticulous side but it yields some interesting and unexpected results. Nancy Hill, a therapist and workshop leader in Chicago who has done process painting with Michele Cassou, suggests that I start with some representation of myself- ignoring realism of colour, proportions or details- since whatever the unconscious (collective or personal) offers, it will come to me through me. Nancy also sends me an email with a useful insight that applies to both creativite work and life in general: 

“The process requires that we let go of our agenda. As long as you want something to be revealed, it is hard to allow the intuition to lead.” 

Hmmmm. But I do want something to be revealed! And I probably have more than a couple of ideas about what that something should be or where I hope it will take me. 

And therein lies the problem- not just with creative work of course, but with much of our lives. We have a hard time getting out of our own way and letting all the forces working on our behalf- our unconscious, our dreams, the divine, our hearts, the implicate order of the universe, kismet- to offer us what we need. We seem to arrive at many if not most of life’s moments full of agenda, wanting something, wanting to be better- more compassionate, more insightful, calmer, happier, more generous, more efficient, more productive, kinder, more conscious, wiser. . . . the list is endless and admirable. But maybe the real work is to acknowledge our agenda and remember that, given the complexity of the universe, we are limited in our knowledge of how to make what we think we need happen. If we cultivate a willingness to be surprised, to be aware of but not focused on our agenda maybe, just maybe, we will learn something we didn’t already know. And that’s when things really get interesting.

I am taking these words back to my painting now to see what emerges that is mysterious, to receive what comes and sit with it as a gift, a signpost, a symbol whose meaning may never be completely revealed. I won’t pretend I don’t have an agenda- the universe is not that easy to fool. But I will allow space for surprises, wlll step out of the way so I can follow the impulse that comes. Who knows? I just may see something I have never seen before.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Graduating Into Your Own Life

I grew up in northern Ontario, about three hundred miles north of Toronto, in a town with a population of five thousand, one traffic light, two bars, and ten churches. A few years ago, I received an email telling me I was being awarded a place in the local high school’s Hall of Fame- something I didn’t even know existed. Accepting the award involved speaking to the graduating class at spring convocation. I’d only been back to the town once in the last thirty years, and it had not gone well. Travelling through the area, I’d stopped at a restaurant parking lot on the edge of town, suddenly feeling nauseous. Getting out of the car and bending over to hold my heaving stomach, I suddenly realized how painfully out of place I’d always felt in this small conservative town. It was a bit of a shock really- but the body does not lie, and mine was protesting so loudly I got in back in my car and drove on.

Despite this, I accepted the award and headed north. The organizers wanted a short address- a recitation of the poem “The Invitation,” and a three to five minute inspirational talk for the graduates. I was guessing that, “Congratulations, I got out of this town- now you can too!” wasn’t what they had in mind. I pondered what might have been helpful for me to hear when I was seventeen. I mulled, I wrote, I meditated, I prayed.

Before I left, my oldest son Brendan offered some advice. “You know, you don’t need to worry so much about this. It doesn’t really matter what you say. They aren’t really going to listen anyway. You’re too old.”

He was right of course, but I knew my inner seventeen year old would be listening.

The graduation ceremony was in the town’s arena. Teachers and administrators got up and gave the live-your-best-life cheerleading speeches. Graduates received diplomas while someone at the mic told us their future plans. Many were going “directly into the work force” at low paying jobs in the area. One young woman had sung an absolutely breath-taking acappella song at the start of the evening. As she accepted her diploma it was announced that she was going to be trained as a beautician. Now cutting hair and doing nails is a perfectly fine way to make a living, but this girl could really sing. When I quietly asked the teacher next to me why she wasn’t going to Julliard (she was that good) I was told her parents wanted her to get a skill that would ensure employment.

I was sitting on stage, facing the graduates who were in the first few rows of the audience. Although they were sitting in alphabetical order, it just happened that the front row held a collection of beautiful, well-dressed, clear-skinned young women and cocky, athletic looking young men who were whispering and flirting, clearly impatient to get on with the real event of the evening- the party afterwards. Then I noticed several graduates in the second row watching those in front of them with avid interest and naked envy. A few were overweight and had skin ravaged by the hormones of adolescence. One had thick glasses with dark frames held together on one side with masking tape. One young woman looked truly miserable as she watched the social interaction between those directly in front of her. If there was an A-list party, those in the second row had not been invited.

When the time came I walked up to the podium and surveyed the crowd. The arena was hot, humid and packed to capacity. Everyone in town seemed to be there. I recited “The Invitation,” looked at those in the second row, and spoke.

“If you have not felt like you fit in at high school, if- because of who you are, or how you look, or who you love, or what interests you- you have felt alone or isolated, congratulations! You just made it through the worse four years of your life. You will never again have so little power to decide where you are or what you do. Your parents and teachers and others who care about you, in an effort to prepare you for life, have told you a story about who you are and what you can and should do. Now, it’s your job to sift through all of what you have been given and decide what is useful to you and what is not. Because. . . .” and here I made myself slow down, “. . . . a lot of what you have been taught has nothing to do with you. If it is not useful to you, if it does not help you create the life you want and need to flourish- throw it out! From now on, you must decide and discover who you are and what kind of life you want to make for yourself. Decide for yourself. Find out who you really are. It’s your life. Live it.”

There was a short stunned silence followed by a smattering of polite applause.

The next day, driving south, I felt as if some kind of weight had been lifted from me. Alone in the car, I spoke aloud. “So that’s it? Stop worrying about what others think of you? Stop listening to someone else’s story about who you are or what you can do? Did I get it?” And then, I did something I rarely do- I asked the universe for a sign, something immediate and dramatic to confirm that I had offered my inner seventeen year old (and maybe even some of the graduates) something useful. And less than three seconds later, as I rounded a bend in the highway, a large black bear (my birth totem) reared up at the side of the road and stood on its hind legs as I drove past. I was stunned. In all the years I’d lived there, I’d never seen a bear from the highway.

I laughed out loud, whooped with amazement, called out to the mysterious choreographer of sychronicities, “I’ll take that as a Yes!”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Jeff Experience

Well, Valentine's Day is coming up. My husband, Jeff, and I have been together for ten years.

Years ago, the Grandmothers who appear in my night dreams said, “Intimacy heals.” Intimacy is about being open-heartedly present with another- husband, wife, partner, lover, or friend. Being in intimate relationship is not always easy. But then, healing is not always easy. When I’ve been alone I start thinking I’m actually making “progress” at being the person I want to be. But this kind of gratifying delusion is short-lived when I’m in relationship with another who does not see the necessity of making plans or cleaning out the area under the kitchen sink so it does not smell like garbage. Alone has its own challenges, but when I’m alone I don’t stretch or learn or heal the way I can in relationship with another, partly because- I don’t have to.

It takes great care to be with another. Jeff and I have attended a couple of IMAGO workshops- weekends that teach a method for creating safety to communicate deeply on things that matter to us. After the basic technique is shared (a mirroring dialogue) the facilitator invites couples to practise in front of the group. People generally pick minor issues for the dialogue but even these often touch past wounds and miscommunication. Every time I have been witness to one of these dialogues the same thing happens: I start out internally taking a side based on my own past experience or grievances and then, as the dialogue goes deeper, I see the vulnerable and courageous heart of the one who is daring to speak. And, every time I am deeply touched and surprised to rediscover what tender, vulnerable creatures we all are. Being in an intimate relationship puts the other’s tender bits in our hands, means we must be willing to allow our own vulnerability to be held by another imperfect human being.

I was recently asked in a radio interview what I thought were the important elements in a long-term intimate relationship. One of the things I mentioned was a shared sense of humour- the ability to make each other laugh. Because if you cannot laugh together at your own or the other’s human foibles, well it’s going to be a truly excruciating journey.

Jeff and I laugh together. Years ago I wrote a brief response to an email from a reader. The reader wrote back saying something like, “Wow, it’s like getting a note from Buddha or Ghandi!” So, when I’m complaining in a particularly unenlightened and loud manner about something like getting cut off by someone in traffic, Jeff will sometimes quietly say with feigned wonder, “It’s like driving with Buddha or Ghandi.” And we both laugh (after I give him a half-hearted narrow-eyed scowl.)

Similarly, I once heard from a reader looking for a mate, who complained that she was not going to settle for less than “The Jeff Experience” (having read in The Dance of how Jeff and I got together.) When I recently introduced him to people at an event where I was speaking, one woman said, “Oh, you’re THE Jeff.” So, of course, when Jeff has left a mess I feel I must clean up, or demonstrated once again his inability to find anything in the refrigerator, or is using the sniff test to determine if a piece of clothing is clean enough to wear, I mutter, “I think women out there should know that this is part of The Jeff Experience.” And we laugh together.

Laughing together is about accepting our own and the other’s humanness. Of course, intimacy is not just about acceptance. It’s also about active appreciation. Jeff often tells me is how much he loves my smile (and my cooking.) He says it spontaneously, when I am smiling, in a way that makes me believe him. He tells me that he loved my smile (along with my yellow shorts and long legs) when we first met forty years ago on a canoe trip. And I am always surprised that my smile means so much to him, that he still thinks I’m beautiful forty years later, particularly when I’m smiling. And this- this intimacy, this appreciation, this love- heals something in me I was only half aware was broken. And I am grateful for The Jeff Experience.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Good Enough

My name is Oriah, and I am a recovering perfectionist. This is not a joke. Perfectionism can be as much of an addiction as anything else, and like any other addiction it robs life of joy and wholeness. One of the concepts that the recovering perfectionist needs and resists is the idea of “good enough.”

I have a history with the phrase “good enough.” As a child my mother responded negatively when my brother or I would claim that some job around the house or a project for school was “good enough.” She called it a “slap-happy attitude,” clearly a euphemism for laziness, moral turpitude and not living up to standards held by decent people. Her position on this reinforced and dove-tailed nicely with my own perfectionism. Even now, my dear husband knows that he can push my buttons and get at least a scowl out of me by claiming (with a shrug) that something is “good enough.” I am my mother’s daughter.

I first encountered the phrase “good enough” in the context of my studies in child psychology. British physician and psychotherapist D.W. Winnicott was the first to write about the “good enough parent.” As society began to understand the negative effects of child abuse and neglect, Winnicott recognized that it was neither helpful nor realistic to set up perfectionist ideals that no parent could achieve. He wanted to reassure loving parents that they did not have to be enlightened masters or superhuman beings to offer a child the “good enough” environment and relationship needed to foster healthy mental and emotional development.

In the The Fountain of Age by Betty Friedan, an eighty-five year old woman is asked about her health. She replies that her health is “good enough.” Her health- although not without its challenges- still allows her to appreciate life, enjoy learning and participate in the world. Reading her response, I wondered about the aspects of my life where I still allow a perfectionist ideal (sometimes unconsciously and almost always secretively) to rob me of life’s joy. Having been limited at times by a chronic illness it’s hard not to posit some kind of ideal state of health as desirable. This gets more difficult with aging, and it dawns on me that no matter how well I care for myself, how well I eat, how deeply I rest, how religiously I exercise, meditate, and do yoga, my physical abilities will eventually decline. But the truth is, even with aging and bouts of Chronic Fatigue (or ME- Myalgic Encephalomyelitis as it is called in the rest of the English speaking world) my health is good enough for enjoying and participating in life. Likewise, my mental faculties are good enough for learning about the things that interest me, and my emotional self-knowledge, while never complete, is always deepening and expanding my capacity to give and receive love. So too my spiritual practice, which is never going to be consistently full of conscious awareness of every level of reality in every moment, is good enough to cultivate the faith and courage I need to live and love well.

I feel the impulse to end this blog with a caveat that reminds us that the concept of “good enough” does not mean it's okay to be careless or sloppy or lazy or undiscerning. . . . Hear how my perfectionist is mounting a rearguard action, terrified that everything will fall apart if certain standards are not adhered to? That’s okay. It’s good enough just to be aware of the perfectionist’s fear, just to take a breath and remember the wholeness. It’s good enough not to perfectly dismantle my inner perfectionist.

As Canadian poet Leonard Cohen wrote:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.