Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Empathic Love



Some say life's greatest teacher is pain. Others say you can learn from either pain or joy, just that pain is the most common path to human wisdom. The hardest won lessons seem to be in matters of love. Love of every kind.

Empathic folks, otherwise known as Highly Sensitive People, (HSPs...and a term I'm not a fan of), have a lot of self protection to develop. And even more to put into play with the people in their lives. I can guarantee that most of us have not developed sufficient protections, at least not for the many instances of relationships and interactions that lead to said wisdom... oftentimes the hard way.

Dating, for me, continues to be a constant teacher. It has taught me confidence in speaking my needs and my mind with passion, It's taught me the accuracy of my intuition and the price of ignoring it in favor of powerful emotion, but most of all, it's taught me how my greatest strengths can be my greatest weaknesses. This will sound ridiculous, but I figured something out about myself in the last few years that's probably obvious to everyone else-- something I sincerely didn't comprehend before (though God knows why, as all the signs were blazing). I realize that when I love, I love hard.

No, I don't mean a lot. Not even a whole lot. I mean hard, people. Deep. Completely. I don't love like that OFTEN...not even close, because my self protections are strong enough to limit my circle of trust that much. In truth,I think intuitively, my spirit has known to make me slow to trust--even if my heart can't always obey. Because love is no small matter for me. Love comes with vulnerability that can empty an empathic person. It leads to sacrifice, to outpourings of compassion that are often drained dry. Vulnerability takes a leap of faith, but it should be one that is examined first, tested and earned. Unfortunately, as meticulous as I've been, sometimes, even my careful heart gets overwhelmed. Because it is, at root, a heart that seeks to give itself to those it loves. And by the time that's occurred, I'm invested--soul deep. By then I have resolved to give everything my heart can offer, and it's so rare that it's frightening to contemplate its loss. The piece of myself that goes with it can never be retrieved. Empathic people know that they were not born to love in a flat line, or a shallow pool. When we love and choose to trust, you get our loyalty, our forgiveness, our passion, our protection, our time, our anger, our whole selves. When we love that much, it is no small thing to navigate. It's life altering. And if it betrays us, if it falls to pieces... so do we. It takes a chunk of us that can never be returned. Romantically, familialy....if you reach the point where you're a part of me, you have the potential to rip me to shreds. And it'll take a long time to recover., And even then, I'll do everything in my power to somehow make it better for everyone. Because once I love, I cannot unlove. And that's where it gets painful.

I guess I assumed everyone was like this. I was wrong, though. Sometimes I worry I feel too deeply....that for all the zen I put out to people, they don't realize that inside I'm something else completely. A stormy mountain or a deep sea full of roiling water. Like the universe made me very wrong....or very right...just in the wrong paradigm. Probably why I write and sing. Maybe the heft of what I feel is meant to be bursting at the seams, because the overflow means creation. It means I can feel what others feel, I can understand what others can't admit to themselves, let alone each other, and I can relate those things in ways that touch the human heart. At least, that's what I hope this HSP thing is for, otherwise it's like nature just punched a hole too deep in my heart at the human factory and sent me out to market without fixing its error. All those feelings....mine, others', all of it, leaks out. It leaks out in lyrics, it leaks out in dotted half notes and crescendos and sleepless nights, it leaks out in rhyme....and in tears. And in compassion. A lot of that.

My hope is that I love people who aren't afraid to be loved like that. And where falling in love is concerned, someone who proves himself worthy, because I'll be watching, and waiting, ten times more cautiously than before, to understand their intent. To believe what my soul wants to tell me about their heart. And their comprehension of who I am.

Empathic people have a world to give....and a world to lose. I suspect, though, that the right people will always and forever refill what they take.

Friday, January 22, 2016

My Voice is Mine



Recently, a good (I think she's kind of a guru) friend observed me talking to a stranger for a while. After the interaction was over, we headed to her car and she turned to me and said, “I see it now! I see why you attract certain types of people.” I replied with a stunned but no less eloquent, “Huh?” and she explained, “You listen to hear. Most people wait for the other person to stop talking so they can push their own thoughts in ASAP.” (Let’s be real - some people don’t even wait for that.) She noted the dynamic of an unequal energy exchange, where one party pours their own stuff out, the other takes it in. She said one indication that tips off an “energy vampire” is that a person listens to hear. And asks questions. “You don't just hear what they’re saying, you process it and respond with their feelings as the priority. You don't ask a thing of them.” I replied that I didn’t think this was a bad thing at all, and she said that overall it’s a nice trait to have, but that it’s risky because, “Self-obsessed energy is way aware of souls like you. I could see that lady sucking your empathy in like the Sea Witch.” I said, “Are you telling me I’m singing away my soul?” She said, “Your lifeblood. If it’s someone selfish, you shouldn’t give them so much. God, no wonder you’re so tired.” Then she asked me what my communication style was like growing up.

I flashed back whether I liked it or not… knowing that it boiled down to nurture. Sure, I'm empathetic and that complicates everything, but what my friend said bolstered images I swore I was numb to. Memories of being a child and pleading with my grandmother to see reason, to understand that things were not okay in our house. Pleading to be heard and acknowledged, pleading for changes and help and reason amidst insanity and everyone else's silence to no avail until it all dissolved into tears. Then I would really be silenced. “Just keep your mouth shut.” "Silence!" “I don’t want to hear it.” “Children should be seen and not heard.” “Another word and you’re out that door.” “Be silent.” “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” A swift slap across the face. A subtle, eternal withholding of all affection. Two or three agonizing weeks of the cold shoulder. Let me tell you, that was the worst. You can slap a kid in the face a hundred times, but nothing makes a child feel more invisible than being ignored. Then, when I’d learned my lesson enough, I guess, when she felt I’d finally grasped just how disdainful my thoughts were, she’d speak to me again. In this way, I was trained to carry the weight of her explosions without expressing a drop of my own feelings to her or anyone else. Keep things quiet. Keep her happy. Or at least keep her from exploding. You never knew, from one day to the next, when the bomb would go off. And the silence of others only confirmed that it was right. It was my job. It was right to tend, first and foremost, to the emotional needs of others. It didn’t matter what they were like—I should always listen to hear, but never speak to be heard. It was a virtue to be silent. If people were tedious, if they were difficult, if they were toxic, give them your ear. Give them your compassion. Your patience. Your repeated forgiveness. Your damned sanity, even.

Flash forward and pardon my language, folks, but FUCK THAT NOISE. I realized I was still doing it, to some degree, though not nearly as much as I used to. I was still letting some people stomp all over my boundaries, drain me dry and manipulate my emotions, train me to put their needs first. I was still defaultedly listening to hear, even though some people never really shut the hell up. “Mhm. Sure Jen, now BACK TO ME.”

And then I was angry. And for some reason anger makes me cry. It always has. And that’s okay. But you know what isn’t? Being that little girl. Compassion is one thing—conditioning is another. I thought I had a handle on the part of me that fell silent and let things slide when they shouldn’t. But I was lying to myself. I still needed the reminder that my voice matters. What I say matters. What I feel matters. What I think matters in balance with anyone else. And where there is imbalance, I will not give my energy away anymore. I am not a stupid little mermaid. No more Sea Witches for me. My voice is mine. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Building Sandcastles



As far back as I can remember, I've been a passionate kinda girl. 

It may not have seemed like it to some people. I understand that little me came off quite shy. In fact, I remember one of my aunts nicknaming me The Mouse. But, regardless of the exterior calm I seemed to exude, I had a complex, creative, elaborate and emotional inner world raging on at all times. Still do. I guess I figured everyone did. 

Didn't everybody pile on every skirt they could find in their grandmother's closet and go outside to sing after watching a Disney princess musical for the umpteenth time? Didn't everybody take a refrigerator box, cut a jagged hole in the side and suddenly believe wholeheartedly that they were in an actual pirate ship? Didn't everybody write ten minute musical treatise to all manner of undying love at five years old and then force their poor family to sit through aaaaall of them? Didn't everybody daydream incessantly, play out elaborate imaginary scenarios in live action when no one else was around?

Or was that just me....

My desire to escape was only fueled by a naturally restless, passionate spirit (inherited from my wandering mom, I think) and a mind filled to overwhelming with stories, dreams, ideas, a desperation to express what had been repressed. I was like a caged bird as a child. But that didn't change my innate being, which was bursting, the whole of which cultivated like a ticking time bomb of "FUCK THIS I NEED TO BE FREEEEE". The world was an adventure story with magic and epic love and great triumph waiting to be had, and I was missing out on all the feels! I had a lot to discover about myself. And even more to discover about love.

Ironically, though it began as a massive adventure, my first real relationship was a pretty passionless situation. It may have begun full of controversy, but, as it turned out, controversy was the fuel to our feelings. The relationship, itself, became something far less exciting, but far more important - a lesson in being nurtured, the experience of family and constancy of care I'd never known. And it was healing. But it was sedate. Too sedate. I wasn't in love. And ten years changes you. By the time I hit thirty and everything was fizzling to an end, I had to acknowledge that, comforting though it was, the whole thing had thoroughly lacked any real...you guessed it...passion. And I couldn't sustain that any longer. I'd held back long enough. 

Perspective. I needed more of it. More feels!

So off I went into the world of dating for the first time in ages and I was mightily convinced that only a passionate connection would do this time. I'd absolutely never go back and base a relationship on safe things again. I wanted to feel like I was on fire, fully me, my force a thing to be reckoned with. I wanted to feel a chemistry I'd never ventured before, because I had it in me and I was tired of wasting away. I wouldn't accept anything less. Quiet, solid, safe people just wouldn't do! Passion was the answer. Once I had it, I'd have everything. What more could I need? The other way didn't make me happy...clearly I was missing out. 

Funny. But there isn't a single seemingly ecstatic thing in this Universe that doesn't come with a real bitch of a down side. Turns out,  when unaccompanied by trust and stability, even the passioniest passion means little. Even the sparkiest spark can leave you in the dark. My attraction to the uncertainty, the chase, the emotional roller coaster of a one-hued focus was short lived once I realized that, without a healthy, soulful dose of groundedness, passion destroys. It sucks you dry of perspective and energy. It's only a temporary food for the ego but it does not last. Passion is fun. Hot even. But it's not the glue. I need more than that. We all do. And waiting for some kind of "The heavens just opened and angels spoke to me and you're undoubtedly The One because HORMONES!" barometer to gauge the merit in a partner is, quite possibly, a really great excuse to avoid truly letting someone in for good.  

I think what lasts is a wiser (some might even say jaded) version of both entities. Physical attraction is great, but only if accompanied by a solid heart, something steady and (God forbid reliable) and trustworthy to stand on. The alternative of uncertain passion leaves you miserable in your excitement. It's unsustainable. And if given the choice of one or the other, I would choose a calmer love now. 

This is a miraculous turn around, you know. Grasping the value of balance and knowing that passion isn't the most important thing, the be all end all, the foundation - that's something I would never have said just five short-long years ago. But I'm saying it today. My vision has changed again. It grows as I grow, per usual. And typically through pain. 

So what of it?

I guess I open my heart to a new kind of desire, give myself something more evolved to be passionate about. Something that encompasses the parts of me I'd rarely examined when I was younger - the "boring" ones. The adult ones. I recognize that the imbalanced repression of my childhood is not real stability any more than a burning desire equals happiness. All that glitters (and sparks and explodes) is not gold. All that is calm and true and dependable is not a cage.  

What's the old parable about building your house upon the sand? Apparently you shouldn't do it, even if the view is fantastic. It doesn't seem to matter how gloriously the waves crash upon your castle...if it has a wobbly foundation, you can bet your dreams will topple and fall. So maybe aim for a stone cliff, instead? Same view. Better night's sleep.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Alumination (See What I Did There?) God, I'm Clever.



This graphic keeps proving true. God/He/She/It...however you want to define life or the Universe, really does push us painfully forward sometimes. Before I moved to Washington, my life was a period of intense discomfort. I can say now with some confidence that those emotions were fundamental in propelling me forward. Had I been too comfortable where I was, had the feelings been satisfactory and my sense of self solid, I’d probably still be there. But none of that was the case.

It’s been easier and harder and easier and harder in the almost five years since I left the Midwest, but it's never just been easy. I can remember feeling completely lost at first. I didn’t know who I was for a while there. My sense of identity was bizarrely absent. The girl who had always been sure of what she wanted, what she loved and what her dreams were had completely drifted into no-man’s-land, and it didn’t matter how much I hated it or wanted out of the situation, I was stuck there until I wasn't. No family around, no friends yet, an island. Which is exactly what the Universe wanted me to be, I think. My backbone required honing, my Self (as always) required reflection. Even now, when I think I’m strong again, things keep happening to completely up my game in the area of sanity-testing situations. It makes me wonder what exactly the Universe wants from me anyway. It’s kind of mystifying and hair-pulling. I don’t get to see the big picture, so, faith in the portrait is all I’ve got.

This whole hard-stuff-is-necessary thing isn’t bunk. I am unequivocally a different human being than I was in my twenties. Present me knows things, man…and stuff. Emotions and losses that younger me -- who had already seen a lot – had yet to learn. A decade ago I was still incubating in my oven a much safer person. At 25, I was idealistic, relentlessly optimistic, less vulnerable, more certain, less broken open. I’d escaped the dysfunction of my youth and was comfortably cocooned (healing? hiding? both) from the next leg. But I guess that wasn’t satisfying for my adventurously masochistic inner consciousness. Twenty-five-year-old-Jen wasn’t as tough. She hadn’t been jaded. She believed in fairy tale endings and everyone’s good character. She hadn’t been introduced to the gut-wrenching, heart-stabbing face of death, the unnerving terror of utter self-reliance, or life's varied, soul-shrinking forms of rejection. And a hundred other things. I wasn’t at all prepared for the next decade. But the Universe continued (continues) to push me through my thirties with merciless abandon because it’s always time for an overhaul. Currently, I’m pending the release of Jen Version 10.0. I feel like I’m riiiight in the middle of another (massive) system rebuild. It’s a lot like Windows – my software won’t stop updating, and it’s gotten disorienting. Just when I think I’ve familiarized myself with the new interface, everything reboots and throws me into catastrophe. I realize how much self-work I have to do. More layers of learning, more unraveling of an old self. More unbecoming before becoming. It never really ends, but sometimes you reach an oasis when all the previous bits fall into order and you can rest on the beach and sip a drink for a while. I can promise you I’ll appreciate those rest stops a lot more in future.

Either I’m going to become a super star Dali Lama mastermind amazeballs Wonder Woman or a muttering, rocking homeless lady with a grocery cart full of soda cans. I’m gunning for the first one, but if anybody wants to start hoarding aluminum cans for me just in case….points for being proactive.

Ain’t life a sadistic little miracle of a bitch? Wonder what kinda shit she’ll throw at me the next decade. Maybe some of it’ll be awesome. Maybe I'll shock myself. Maybe I’ll find Candy Mountain and sell a million books and travel the world. Yeah. With my aluminum can collection. I think this could happen. I really do.

Love,
Jen

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Power of Vulnerability



I've learned a lot about vulnerability, especially in the last few years. Vulnerability - that beautiful, authentic and often terrifying expression of our innermost hearts, with no guarantees of a happy outcome, surprisingly, will not kill us, even if it seems that way in the moment.

Instances of vulnerability may not end comfortably, but they cannot fail. They are not futile. They teach us to speak with a voice we may never have used before. They allow us to love more intimately, to feel more deeply, to identify and define our needs in spite of fear and to attain a more lasting happiness. Vulnerability begs that we speak what is sacred to the mind and heart. Whether courage grants our wishes or things end as desired, that isn't the point. Exposed vulnerability changes us, it reshapes and strengthens us. The risk of pain and rejection will always exist, but the potential for true happiness lives along side it. When we know this, when we realize that life is for living, for loving, for risking, for falling, for feeling, we will never be as weak or docile or silent ever again. Choosing vulnerability, revealing the truths of our hearts when it is most important and most frightening....that is a gift given to the Self. Because when we are old, when we are facing our end, we will know that our best truths have not gone hidden. Our potential for joy has not been stifled. We will have spoken from the soul what truly mattered. We acted in ways that allowed our hearts to triumph over fear. The act, itself, is the triumph.
___________________________________________________________
“What happens when people open their hearts?"
"They get better.”

― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

Friday, August 21, 2015

When Little Bird Dies

I spent two days in a convent recently while my little sister took her first vows. It was beautiful, and a good place to get my head together. And it was a good place to let everything fall apart, too.
I’m mostly good with accepting things as they are, or, I always thought I was, anyway. But there are always situations that try my patience and sanity. Especially in the last year, I’ve discovered that I have a masochistically stubborn side, a part of my heart and mind that hates to give up with insufficient regard for self-preservation.  I’d been nursing a metaphorical bird, you see. Let's call her Hope. It was clinging to life when I found it, and I tended and fretted and watched over it ardently, refusing to accept the possibility of its demise. It was, after all, the most beautiful bird I’d ever seen—and I wasn’t about to give up on it.

But the bird kept changing. Its wings would change color, its character, its emotions. It would be healing one moment, barely hanging on the next.  The bird left me grinning with joy sometimes, and then weeping in agony just as quickly.

I brought my bird with me to The Motherhouse of the Little Sisters of Christian Charity in New Jersey, and while I was there, the wonderful nuns of SCC were gracious and kind enough to allow me to stay at The Villa—a donated mansion turned retreat house for visitors. 
My bird and I stayed peacefully in The Villa—at first—while I was caught up in the goings on of my family, reconnecting with my past, which, surprisingly, managed to remind me pleasantly of who I had become. I walked on the grounds with Sister Squared (my nickname for little sis), I prayed in a chapel, I dipped fingers to holy water for the first time in fifteen years. I was reconnecting solemnly with Self, questioning everything. Remembering everything.

Then, as I sat alone in the muggy coastal heat under a ceiling fan, contemplating dinner with the sisters, I got news that my poor little bird had flatlined. She was coding. Again.

My gut dropped. Last I had checked, her wing was broken, but she was hobbling along—perhaps on the way to recovery. I had hope for the outcome. But now, there she was, clinging to life once more. My precious little bird was suffering for breath. And so was I.

After a brief few moments of consideration, I felt something shift in my heart. I didn’t move to try and save her this time. I just sat and watched—heart aching—as she labored.  And I realized that I was exhausted from keeping her alive. That keeping her alive was killing me. I’d been feeding her my air for so long and now I was running out, and I found myself doing the unthinkable: I turned away and left her on her own.

Maybe she was meant to die, you know? Maybe she wasn’t. But the fact is, I couldn’t keep this vigil up anymore. It was depleting me, reviving her so often on my own. She had to want to live. And that wasn’t up to me. I had to release control.  The ultimate lesson—little bird was teaching me acceptance. No matter what.

Acceptance was harder for me than I thought. But being so separated from my life in Seattle, from the noise of it, the emotions of it, and surrounded by reminders of all that had helped make me who I am today gave me the inner quiet to begin accepting things with grace.


I guess we all have a bird we’re struggling and praying over, crying to keep alive. But there comes a point when we have to honor that maybe the bigger lesson is in its death. Maybe the miracles come after and they don’t look the way we expected. Maybe we have to learn to ask the hard questions with grace and prepare to let go of the outcomes. Maybe it’s all about unconditional faith.  You know….like unconditional love…the two go hand-in-hand. Not just for the sake of others, but every bit as importantly, for ourselves.  Sometimes, we have to let our little birds, the ones that are foolish enough to believe we can control one damned thing beyond the present moment, die so we can fully live. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Love of Self: A Lesson in Letting Go


It’s a pretty popular notion these days--loving yourself first. It gets tossed around so often that it loses its meaning. Or maybe we don’t understand it to begin with. Which sucks. Because being a human is hard enough without having to navigate the complex neuropathways of sufficient self-love.

What does it mean, anyway? How can we be certain we’re “loving ourselves first” at all? What if we THINK we are, but when it comes down to it, some of us have ALWAYS put someone first because it’s our default mode? It’s our core setting, when love is involved. But it gets especially tricky in matters of letting go.

Most of my life I’ve had to let go of the people I loved, for one reason or another, all out of my control. I never met my dad, my mom hitchhiked through my childhood,  my grandpa—the one source of normalcy and care I had—died when I was ten.  I had to let go of my family when I chose to love someone that didn’t meet their approval.  I had to let go of a partner after 8 years, my brother to an untimely death, my sister to the convent….there’s been a theme here.

I think I’ve managed to let go pretty well.  But I’m also pretty sure that life aims these experiences directly at me for some very important reason—much to do with loving myself, almost like it’s helping me rid my DNA line of any remaining tendencies to hold onto people when it’s no longer a good idea.  That whole “let it go, if was yours to begin with it’ll come back…blah blah.” Or maybe it won’t. Or maybe it was never yours to begin with and that’s the part you have to accept. Problem is, I also have one very strong generational trait I’m deeply proud to have inherited—a powerful capacity to love.  And with that comes fierce loyalty, protectiveness, dedication to others’ happiness and the harmony of interrelationships.  If only it didn’t come with the deep ache of loss, as well.  But it does. 

And where does that all add up to loving yourself? I guess it’s simple enough: If choosing someone else’s happiness means negating yours, you’re not putting yourself first. If holding onto certain people inevitably detracts from your well-being, you’re not loving yourself enough. 

I was running down the stairs of my apartment complex this morning, mulling over some things, when something like a fast-forward movie reel started playing in my head. It was every loss I'd known, and then my Grandmother, and the women that came before me, the impact of their inability to love themselves first. And I saw the last of that trait wanting to die in me—the universe offering me the chance to put an end to the practice. And some words popped into my head as loud and clear as they could get: “Your whole life has been a lesson in letting go.”

I got to the bottom of the stairs, slowed down to a stop and then rushed to my car just before the tears began.    


Those times I am NOT meant to let go, I’ll know. It’ll probably be abundantly obvious…no guesswork involved. But there are still a few lessons to grasp in loving myself first—and enough—that needed my attention.  I’m sure I’m not alone.