life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Tomorrow, I will be perfect

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Almost perfect.

The digits of my age, when added together, become a perfect number 6.

The other night, I was talking with my dad over dinner.

“You realize that soon you will be a number that is close to perfect ,” he told me.

“I nodded,” as if this was exactly what I, too, had been thinking.

He went on to explain that in the traditional human lifespan we each have two opportunities in our lives to be a perfect number—6 and 28. The next perfect number year is not until 496. While I would like to believe that I am of the fairy kin, I think I should be present as much as possible.

Thus, tomorrow marks the beginning of my third and possibly final somewhat perfect number year, as previously described. So, I guess I better make the most of it.

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The final days of 32 have not been easy. When is life easy?

Soul searching; heart pain; much deep sighing.

I remember when I was in high school, and my AP Psychology teacher talked to us about mid-life crises. In hindsight, I think he was likely experiencing one.

He told us that when you are young, you imagine your whole life ahead of you. The world is full of possibility. As you get older, doors close. Suddenly, you are 30 and you have not done all those things you thought you would by this point in your life.

Dark stuff to tell a 16 year old, not that I think many of us paid especially close attention to him. We adored him, but we were invincible at the time.

Here it is. I have past 30. I have been through crises. I am still standing. My heart is still open.

I am only perfect in that I accept my imperfections.

I hope for this to be a year that is perfect in its own imperfections.

I will be thankful if there were no crises.

Whatever may come, I will do my best to keep breathing, to keep my heart and mind open, and my feet and body connected with the earth.

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Life in limbo

For days now, I have been struggling with a restless, unsettled feeling. I go to sleep worried that a future I have been imagining may no longer exist.

I feel emptiness from my lungs down into my stomach, a hollow space that I cannot fill. It is just empty. A void. Somewhere in the middle, my heart, right on the edge of communicating the emptiness through tears.

photo 1Since leaving the upper Skagit Valley of Washington state several years ago, I have been living in a perpetual state of limbo. Each time I think I am putting down roots, I tear them out of the ground just as they are attempting to cling onto the soil.

Within a state of limbo, I still manage to create some semblance of stability through actions that provide me with the feeling that I have control over some things.

I can clean my apartment, which I do with frequency.

I can shed burdensome layers of material possessions.

I can sing. I can write. I can create.

I can experience periods of days, weeks, even months where I fool myself into thinking I have control over the unknown when really all that I control is how I respond to people, place, and that which I cannot predict.

This morning, I woke up feeling like my roots were shallow, their will to cling all dried up. I wanted to hide in a dark corner, away from the world.

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I know from experience that hiding does not bring balance or happiness. I am an introvert who needs constant reminders from the social realm that I am loved and not alone.

I also know that hiding from what I am feeling will not help me find peace. I need to sit with it. What does it feel like? Where do I feel it? What does it look like? Does it have a name, shape, or texture?

I am presented with the challenge of determining if what feels real for me is a construct of my own inner demons and deepest fears.

Am I needlessly creating a reality that causes me pain? From where does this fear and distrust stem?

If I can trace the feeling back to its source, perhaps I can come to accept it for what it is and not allow it to rule my heart and mind.

I am learning about meditation, Buddhism, chakras, energy, and how to understand my higher self.

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I am lucky to have many dear friends who have become family. They live near and far but are always close to my heart.

They remind me that I am loved, that I can learn from these experiences, that I am not alone in what I feel and worry about, and that many people who have walked this earth before me struggled with similar demons.

I often find myself living in limbo, waiting for a future event that I have pinned all of my energy and hope on. This future time will be my salvation, a time when I will be free and my life will become easier.

A dear friend of mine told me the other day that the challenge is living one’s own life and ceasing to live in waiting mode. The only certainty there is in life is that you have you and you have today. And you have a chance to do things that contribute to civilization and beauty.

He reminds me that the pain I experience will also help me to sing blues songs with greater authority and authenticity. I laugh in response and try to take comfort in this seemingly small benefit.

Another person tells me that they say a mantra of something know to be true during times of unknown. I imagine mantra but am not sure I believe it in my heart. Thinking about breathing and repeating the words makes me fear that I will lose the tenuous grasp of balance I maintain by taking shallow breaths. If I breathe deeply, I risk falling into the abyss. I will not let myself go.

I am learning about acceptance of what is and how to dance with the universe. If one path I have been envisioning is not materializing, it may be time to open my awareness to what is possible and pursue a different path.

I am continuing to breath, to sit with the darkness and the light I feel in my heart.

I honor my spirit by honoring what I am feeling. It is real as I am.

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Oh, brave new world

Last Wednesday, I went for a walk after a long drive. The air around me seemed restless. It fit with my own feeling of restlessness and uncertainty. The sky was full of billowing clouds, dark and light and billowy. Gusts of wind came from different directions.

When I walk around my neighborhood in Lowell, I can see and feel change and uncertainty. I cross Dutton Street and the Merrimack Canal and pass a single Willow tree, standing tall but with a tired look.

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I walk past a no trespassing sign, guardrails, and cement walls with messages from graffiti and street artists; by a vacant lot with grass and cement blocks, one of the few fields where people can take their dogs to play. I listen for killdeer overhead. They fly between lots. I wonder where they will go when building begins anew in these spaces.

It is just a matter of time.

Growing attached to flora and fauna in a city means imminent heartache. Gravel and cement blocks have taken the place of trees which once lined the Hamilton Canal. When I walk by their former home, I wonder if I am the sole person in this city to witness the Orioles hidden in their foliage, their “che che che che” the only evidence of a fleeting presence.

Northern rough-winged swallows flit in and out of small cracks in the pour cement canal wall by the Appleton Mill. I watch them preen from the wires run from one the Appleton to the Jackson across the way.

I walk to a small gym with a tiny pool in the basement. In the water, I let loose my restless soul. Eyes closed, I move through the water and try not to think but only feel my body touching the coolness of a world where I am only a visitor.

It is my weekly meditation, moving through this water, a time when I can move my arms and legs, feel my body, and glide. For a few minutes, I close my eyes and my mind as best I can, and I do not always succeed.

Outside again, I walk along a gravel path beside a canal. The wind is ripping, and my wet hair is flying around my head. I look down to see a tiny creature, impossibly fragile, hanging onto a pebble for dear life.

I cannot imagine how this creature can survive in a world that would seem to tear it apart without the slightest sense of remorse. I feel fragile in my small, human body but am humbled by the sight of another being moving through its own path in the only way it knows how.

Other souls are less lucky…or maybe more so, to fall victim to the the course of the universe and life in an urban setting.

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I seem to move along my path by making mistakes, pushing the limits of people I love, and reflecting on how I can respond in healthy ways to the rush of energy I feel coming at me every day from all directions.

The more I look within, the more self-aware I become with regard to my own sensitivities. The more aware of my own self I become, the more sensitive I am to the pain I sense in other creatures, to hurtful behavior aimed by those with power to those with fewer defenses, and the more difficult I find it to protect myself from all of this energy.

As the saying goes, my skin is not very thick. I do not wish to become less sensitive, but I am finding that I need to learn ways to be witness to all of this activity without being completely overwhelmed by it.

For now, I will remember the winged one and hope it is safe, wherever it may be.

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Let it be

For the past 24 hours or so, I have been sitting with an uncomfortable feeling. This feeling was brought on by a typical interchange that happens in our society. A back and forth communication. Nothing special.

 

Yet the pure mundanity of it in and of itself is partially what I find so disturbing. The fact that it is not considered special, that it happens so often without deeper reflection is disconcerting; it is evidence of a trend in a society toward spending much of our time in our own, protective bubbles, a virtual world.

 

I have been on both sides of the exchange. I might be even go so far as to say that there are no sides.

 

In my reflections, I have realized that I experience something relatively similar to this most recent event nearly every day.

 

I believe that these events pass with relatively little incidence as a result in part to the choices—how to respond or to simply not respond at all.

 

With practice, I am now able to stay relatively calm in highly tense, verbally violent situations. I may weep later, but in the moment I keep my feet firmly grounded. I tend to apologize for my part in situations that have grown heated for one reason or another. I despise the feeling that is inspired by such exchanges so greatly that I would prefer to talk it through, apologize, and clear the air than to hold onto the anger energy any longer than I have to.

 

Let me say right now, I am not the most easy-going person. I am incredibly sensitive. I take things very personally. I agonize over instances or things I have done that may have caused pain to another being.

 

Let me also tell you that I am not perfect, unless you consider imperfection as perfection. I am impatient. When put on the defensive, I can easily response in kind. I learn quickly how to push people’s buttons, and I do it. Sometimes, I take a devilish kind of joy in doing it, though later I often feel guilty.

 

I have learned over several decades of the importance of choosing one’s battles. Life is short, and I have wasted a lot of time, energy, and anxiety over situations and individuals with whom a battle can never be won.

 

In recent years, I have started to rethink what it means to “win” or “lose” these battles and if this is even the right kind of language to be using.

 

I recall a friend in Alaska offering advice to me. He was familiar with my predicament, having experienced his own version. He said to me, “Marieke, you always need to have an exit strategy.”

 

I took his advice literally only a few months later, after combining it with advice from another friend, who told me, “play their game; make them think they have reassimilated you; then, get the hell out of there on your own terms while you are in good standing. They can’t touch you then.”

 

I wanted to communicate the hurt I had felt from being mistreated, alienated, and wrongfully identified as a “problem.” I did not feel like I had been the problem at all, especially after learning from others who had experienced something similar that I was simply one of a long line of individuals who were treated in such a way that they eventually gave up the fight and went elsewhere in search of a more supportive environment.

 

Instead, I said nothing and simply disappeared.

 

Perhaps, this choice could be considered a “forfeit.”

 

The emotional battle continued long after my physical forfeit. I could not let go of the anger I felt from this injustice. I wrote about it at length and talked to family and friends.

 

When I said I was still frustrated and angry, a friend said to me, “Oh yeah? How is that working for ya?”

 

It wasn’t.

 

Slowly, I began to realize that I was wasting my energy on people who did not deserve my time, at least not in this unproductive way. As long as I insisted on holding onto my anger, I was keeping both my self and those I felt wrong by in prison together.

 

Truly, the world does not need any anger perpetuated. There is enough bouncing around already.

 

In my most recent discomfort, I spoke to a wise friend, who told me this:

 

At times, life can feel like a ping pong game ball with balls filled with fear. In this game called life, we throw these balls back and forth at each other. It would seem that the object of the game is to keep the balls in play. The easiest thing to do when a ball of fear is thrown at you is to react and throw the fear ball back. The real object of the game is to not perpetuate fear by responding to an attack. The spiritual response is to recognize that you do not have to respond to an attack at all. You can simply take the ball out of play.

 

While there is a part of me that wishes to push every possible button out of a desire for sweet vengeance, I know that this will not bring me peace or happiness.

 

So, my desire is to drop the ball and put an emotionally safe distance between this person and me. I really want no part in whatever dysfunction or unhappiness caused someone to forget that I am a person with feelings and to find temporary respite from whatever they may be struggling with in their own life by lashing out with aggression.

 

An apology would be nice; I have to say that I nearly always feel better making peace with someone for whatever misunderstanding or miscommunication led to heightened tension between us.

 

Somehow I think that the propensity to apologize is derived from self-work. Those who have lashed out at me regularly with some form of aggression, entitlement, violence, etc. may require a great jolt to their system before turning inward toward the kind of deep self-reflection it will take to make a great behavior change. They may experience some deep sadness in this exercise, along with some stormy weather, before there is peace once more.

 

What I really want from all of this is to return to equilibrium once more, to breathe deeply and sleep peacefully at night.

 

What I really want is simply to live.

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Don’t worry

As a child, I spent a lot of time avoiding answering questions my teacher asked in class. I often knew the answer, but I was terrified of what would happen if I were wrong. I was afraid to take the risk of being right.

Time and again, another student would raise their hand and give the exact answer I was holding inside. And then, I would feel sad. No one would know that I was smart and had known the answer all along.

Years went by in a similar manner. My reticence extended beyond the classroom to how I expressed myself in life in general.

In hindsight, it is clear that I was always an independent spirit. I wore variations on a red shoe theme for most of my childhood (thank you, mom, for supporting my uniquely marieke taste in attire).

Yet, behind the bright, ruby slippers was a searching soul with low self-esteem.

I wanted to have the right answers, to say the right things, and to fit in.

It only took me nearly three decades to begin to realize I already knew the right answers (at least, the right answers for me), that I could say whatever I wanted to say because there was no one right thing to say, and that I did not give a flying *$#& about fitting in the kind of crowd that was deemed desirable in my youth.

Going through a divorce helped me realize how much energy it really takes to play a part in our culture. When I was in survival mode, I just did not have the extra oomph to make other people feel falsely warm and cozy about how I was doing. It did not make me feel better to pretend. It was also dishonest.

So, I started writing about what I was going through in this blog. What had started as simple writing exercise turned into a treatise and reflection on life, sustainability, culture, and transition.

I did not sugar coat what I was going through.

I did not avoid sharing experiences that were painful or even embarrassing. Those moments were a part of my choice to take hold of my life and create the reality I wanted and needed to be happy based on my own self and no one else.

And lo and behold, my words seem to speak to other people, those who had gone through a divorce or difficult time. Not everyone. There were plenty of people who responded defensively, passive aggressively, and downright aggressively. I tried my best to avoid them, even if it meant moving seven thousand miles away.

In writing about my experiences and hearing from readers, I felt less alone and less weird.

I started to entertain the notion that asking questions was more important than having the right answers. I also began to notice that I was not the only one searching for answers to difficult questions.

In my life today, I ask a lot of questions. I have found more often than not that when I am sitting in a room full of people scratching my head at something, I tend to be in good company. The moment I raise my hand and ask the question, I can literally feel the tension ease in the room.

So this has become my approach. I ask questions. I speak my truth and attempt to do so with kindness and respect. I try not to filter who I am. And I try not to worry about what people think about me. I know from experience that the people who really love and accept me for who I am will continue to do so whether I wear shoes that red or purple or covered with glitter.

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Change is not always a constant

Change is not always a constant.

Change can also be a choice.

In the midst of writing my dissertation, I wrote a piece called “self-sustainability is not selfish.” The piece was inspired by the pressure I felt to defend my choice to make my own life more sustainable and to focus the research and writing of my dissertation on my self as subject.

Both of these choices were against the grain of the society and culture in which I was raised. By culture, I meant social, professional, and academic. Even my own inner personal culture railed against my choice to change the course of my life to one that was healthier.

When first beginning to take the steps toward creating a shift in my life, I struggled against a range of negative emotions. It was like my inner self was on trial and there was a panel of voices on high looking down on me and listing off a litany of accusations to which I felt obliged to respond.

What these accusations boiled down to was an overwhelming feeling of guilt for choosing my self.

How could I choose my self when there was so much suffering in the word?

How could I be so selfish?

Most of what I had learned thus far in my personal, professional, and academic life was that one should bend over backward and do whatever it took to be successful.

So, if I wanted to be successful at my job (which meant moving up in the ranks from being a seasonal to a permanent employee at the agency where I worked), I had to work extra hours, talk to my supervisor on the phone when she called, and allow my job to completely take over my personal life.

In the realm of the environment, which seemed to blend all three realms of my life, I learned that I must be in service to something greater than my self, a movement to save the earth.

No pressure there.

I must sacrifice everything to fix repair the damages inflicted on this poor, forsaken planet. This meant feeling guilty every time I did something that ran counter to the path of martyrdom—buying something that wasn’t organic, buying something I didn’t need, feeling rested when I should be working myself into the ground because every second counted if I was going to change the world.

And no matter what I did in service to the earth, other people were doing more and they were doing it better than I was.

No matter how much extra time I put in at work, other people were chosen for permanent jobs instead of me.

I ignored my own self, silently and effectively saying that I didn’t matter. My own health and happiness did not matter.

I enrolled in a doctoral program to study sustainability education at the highest, academic level. In so doing, I continued on the path of self-sacrifice in service to.

As I studied sustainability through an academic lens, I began to notice little red flags appearing in connection with the elements of my life that were just not working, parts of my life where I was not walking the sustainability talk.

And slowly, ever so slowly, I began to take notice, to listen, and to respond.

Noticing and listening were difficult practices to cultivate because I was so accustomed to ignoring warning signs and to simply plowing forward. The work I was doing was important. If I didn’t plow forward, that work might not get done.

I received support in my academic community for this shift in awareness and practice, but I was alone in this work in the other realms of my life. It seemed that other people did not understand what I was trying to do. Some people even seemed threatened by my choice to stand up for my own sustainability, health, and well-being.

I am not typically the kind of person to run away from an unhealthy situation or to give up when the going gets tough.

However, this newfound awareness was tenuous at best. I was afraid that I might lose my momentum and not be able to further cultivate the practices I required to live more sustainably. As much as possible, I found myself choosing to leave unhealthy situations and avoid people whose behavior had a negative impact on me.

Making a drastic life change in the midst of a culture that does not understand or support this choice is no easy feat. Imagine deciding to become a vegan in the middle of cow country? Or becoming a pagan in Vatican City?

I started to think that maybe I was a bit crazy for so desperately wanting and needing to cultivate a healthier life because everyone around me seemed so hell-bent on swimming with the tide of mass consumption, the culture of working oneself into the ground, and immersing oneself in escape behaviors rather than coming to terms with the darker side so as to adjust to the darkness and find light there as well.

I know that change is possible without making drastic changes, moving thousands of miles, or even separating from a loved one.

For me, however, the unhealthy behaviors were so intensely engrained that I found the only way that I could begin to embody new ones was to completely separate my self from anything and anyone who might weaken my ability to succeed.

Is my life at this moment the embodiment of health and sustainability?

No. I still struggle to maintain a more sustainable life in the midst of a culture that tries to convince me otherwise each and every day.

I work too much. I worry too much. I buy things online when I get stressed out.

The difference between now and four years ago is my own awareness. I know the negative affect of unhealthy behaviors on my psychological and physical health. I know that there are some times in life when can expect to be overwhelmed. When this happens, in order to maintain a healthy balance, I will need to let something go because I just cannot do all the things I want or feel that I need to do and stay healthy.

I also know that I should not continue on this path if I want to maintain a sustainable existence. At some point (and I hope it is soon), I know I will have to make changes if I want to choose to follow a sustainable path.

I envision that people will probably think I am crazy when I make this change because it will run counter to what is accepted and expected in this culture. But there will be some who will understand and hopefully others who will be inspired to take similar action in their own lives.

And then maybe, just maybe, a rippling effect will begin. Small at first and then ever expanding outward until people begin to realize that it is ok to live a balanced, healthy life. It is ok to want to be happy and healthy. It is reasonable to create boundaries and to say no to the status quo.

It is ok to say yes to a sustainable life.

Will you join me?


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I see you. Can you see me?

DSCF9521 I am not a city mouse. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, I can walk the streets and go about my business with the rest, but it is not in my nature to be an urban dweller. Pavement and plastic do not lift my spirits and fill my soul with hope for the future our own and other species on this planet.

Transitioning from nearly a decade of life in rural communities in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska to urban Lowell was a challenge for me.

I grew up in suburban, eastern Massachusetts, so I have jay walked. Yet, years of living in small towns have made me softer around the edges of my already sensitive being.

When I first moved back to Lowell, I was afraid to cross the street (it’s ok to laugh. It is kind of funny to think back on that now). I did not venture out at night at all. I still remember walking down to my car to go run errands and finding a gaping hole where the window for the back, left passenger seat used to be.

I just stood there. In shock. A man walked by and paused. “My window is gone,” I said to him. I cannot recall his response, but I want to think there was some empathy in it. I got into my front seat. Broken glass crunched beneath my feet. I called my sweetie on the phone, told him someone had broken into my car, and started to cry.

Those first few, lonely months in Lowell, the feeling of trust between me and my community was absent.

Those first few months, I did not yet have a community in Lowell.

I was surrounded by strangers. I avoided people around me, crossing the street if there was a strange man walking toward me on the sidewalk. I did not make eye contact with people.

I was emotionally uncomfortable most of the time.

In small town, Southeast Alaska, it is common practice to wave at passersby and uncommon practice to avoid them. People know you are a stranger if you do not return their wave, but they are still friendly. I found myself reaching out to people I did not know. No matter where I was, in the seemingly strangest of places, I would get to know a person I had never seen and likely would never see again.

Not in Lowell. In Lowell, I was alone.

In Lowell, I went out of my way not to wave at people.

I know from experience that trying to be a human island, especially during times of transition, is not sustainable practice. At least, for me it isn’t.

Who was this unfriendly, untrusting version of myself? I was studying sustainability and how to practice and create sustainability in all aspects of my life, yet I was actively creating a distance between my self and the community.

At some point in the past nearly two years, something shifted inside of me. I cannot pinpoint the moment the shift began, perhaps because it was ever so gradual.

I can say with certainty that finding the music and arts community and feeling welcomed and supported has made a big difference in my Lowell life.

I would not say that I feel like I belong in Lowell or am a true member of the greater Lowell community, but I do sense that I was meant to be here at this time in my life.

All roads lead somewhere, and my own road has led me to Lowell.

As I continue to work on the sustainability of my own self, I am also trying to stretch this work to include the affect I have on the world around me.

So, some time ago I made a vow to smile at people I passed on the street. I did not always succeed. Sometimes, shyness or distrust would overcome me at the last instant.

Over dinner a couple of weeks ago, a friend told me that she had been doing the same thing. She called it “hi therapy.”

Since then, I have been trying to lengthen that personal stretch. Without pulling too many muscles, I have been easing deeper into the “hi therapy” mentality. At the last moment, as I feel myself turning away from people who intimidate me for whatever contrived or culturally learned reason, I turn right toward them, smile, and try to make verbal contact as well.

And it has been working! People nearly always return the smile and the verbal gesture. I can feel my self begin to float as I continue on my way.

To Lowell, I want to say, I still am not sure I belong here, but I am trying to see you and be seen.

Thank you, for being you and for allowing me to be me.

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