life of m

Sustaining the Self and Beyond


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Free in every moment

In the absence of a living breathing wolf dog in my life, I have been seeking to find wildness from other sources. One source is the wildness that lives within me, a wildness I grew up thinking was “unladylike” and therefore undesirable.

 

As a child, I was surrounded by other girls who dressed and played the part of the delicate flower, prim, dainty. So many of the young women I went to high school with were unwilling to go outside without plastering their face with makeup to create the face they wished to show the world. Their identities required constant care and attention to remain in a state of perceived perfection, and I sought to imitate them in an effort to become an ideal female myself.

 

Time and again, I failed miserably in my attempts at imitation. Pretty quickly, I realized that makeup was not my cup of tea. For one, it took far too much effort, and it also made my skin breakout. However, not wearing makeup somehow seemed like failure to become the epitome of what it meant to be a woman. I thought that I needed to erase and/or cover up any possible blemish on my person. However, just like those perfectly red, round apples in the grocery store are the ones with the least flavor, these young women who were my role models seemed completely devoid of character. Ones who I knew to be incredibly intelligent feigned ignorance and idiocy around members of the opposite sex.

 

In my young mind, I did not completely understand what was going on, but I sensed that it was false.

 

Even still, I wanted to be like these young women, so each of my failures to embody their feminity informed me that I was not feminine or female. I was far more wild, purple heather pelted by wind and rain on the moor, my hair unkempt, legs muscular from playing outdoors, riding my bicycle and then roller blades all day long, and exploring trails through the woods in the suburban town in Massachusetts where I grew up.

 

It took several decades of suffering before I began to realize and appreciate that being wild and accepting this authenticity was not only exactly what made me a woman, but also what made me an authentic version of my Self with a capital S.

 

In the seven years since beginning this conscious journey toward what I have referred to as self-sustainability, I find that more and more often I am drawn toward those relationships that support my own wild, authentic self. In contrast, I have learned to recognize fairly readily those beings that seek to hinder and inhibit my authentic self, and so I do my best to put distance between us, as much as possible.

 

I have also discovered that I am far less willing to “tame my wild beast” to please someone else and make them feel more comfortable than I was once.

 

The Wild Woman Archetype described by Clarissa Pincola Éstes in her book, Women Who Run With The Wolves – Myths And Storie by the Wild Woman Archetype, reminds me of the tentative, tenuous voice nearly extinguished that I began to hear while studying sustainability and beginning to reach for it in my own life.

 

“Once women have lost her and then found her again, they will contend to keep her for good. Once they have regained her, they will fight and fight hard to keep her, for with her their creative lives blossom; their relationships gain meaning and depth and health; their cycles of sexuality, creativity, work, and play are reestablished; they are no longer marks for the predations of others; they are entitled equally under the laws of nature to grow and to thrive.”

 

According to Éstes, it is an “unconscious culture,” which inhibits the wild woman. The idea of being unconscious is reminiscent of Tolle, who wrote about the need for people to evolve beyond creating their identity through the thinking mind. Tolle advised, “You do not need to wait for the world to become sane, or for somebody else to become conscious, before you can be enlightened. You may wait forever.” Nor should you “accuse each other of being unconscious.”

 

According to the STAGES Adult Development Model put forward by Terri O’Fallon, each person moves through stages of development at their own pace and can move through the stages along a developmental spectrum over and over again in the course of their life. I recognize that it is not for me to criticize other people for being “unconscious” or at a different stage of development than my own. Criticizing is completely useless and unproductive and serves to cause only further suffering. Rather, I believe I must focus on my own path and my own responses to the movements of the universe around me.

 

I do believe that the solution to so many of the world’s troubles lies in an awakening for all people, and I agree with Éstes that “A woman’s issues of soul cannot be treated by carving her into a more acceptable form as defined by an unconscious culture, nor can she be bent into a more intellectually acceptable shape by those who claim to be the sole bearers of consciousness.” However, I am finding that my own part is to effect change in a very bottom-up approach.

 

I can and do attempt to effect change with those close to me (and those more distant through writing and virtual media) through the power of story and the creative process.

 

According to Éstes, “The instruction found in story reassures us that the path has not run out, but still leads women deeper, and more deeply still, into their own knowing. The tracks we all are following are those of the wild and innate instinctual Self.” Story, accompanied by the creation of music, played an integral role in my own bumpy path toward self-sustainability. Over several years, I worked my research partner to compose many songs from my own spoken stories. Each story revealed another contentious layer of my being. Each movement through the creative process of birthing a song from that story helped me confront my inner conflict, to make piece with the warring voices within, each telling me to embody a different version of self, and to experience catharsis and clarity. More often than not, this songwriting project was difficult and emotional. I was putting my self under the bright lights of an operating table with multiple versions of my self arguing over what they found when they pried me open.

 

I have written songs about my struggles with body image, my attempts to find a strong inner voice, my propensity to try to make people in my life happy at the expense of my own wellbeing.

 

The opening lines in the first of verse the song Free in the Moment are quite poignant, clear evidence of the war that being waged within to free my wild Self.

 

I have layers and layers of people from over the years

I keep losing my self in their words, it’s all that I hear

I have been inclined to let them cover my own voice

I, I gotta shed those layers and be free…

 

My path to self-sustainability is an ongoing process. My desire is to move from an ability to experience moments of sustainability (i.e., being “free in the moment”), a term I wrote about in my dissertation, Becoming Sustainable: An Autoethnography in Story and Song in-depth, to being able to live and breathe balance and a sense of freedom at all moments in my life, even in the midst of great challenge and suffering.

 

This path involves a great deal of reflection, writing, reading, meditation, yoga, long walks in the woods, and dialogue with my husband, who I refer to as my own live-in guru. It also requires a lot of self-control to avoid the behaviors that I know will serve only to increase my suffering, the practice of patience, non-attachment to outcomes and life plans, and a willingness to do my best to let go of the definitions of success, health, normalcy, etc. that western culture bombards me with on a regular basis.

 

Becoming conscious and awake is not easy. It is also often quite lonely. Nearly every day, I am confronted with the negative energy and suffering that is created by the actions of unconscious people. Their actions affect my own sensitive energy, as well as my bank account. Nevertheless, I breathe, fume, clean with a fury, and spend hours cooking to create something positive instead of allowing myself to get sucked into the unconscious void. I am not yet enlightened, nor am I very adept at not feeling each affront as a personal attack. There are days when I drink far too much wine or whiskey to ease the pain of consciousness. It’s all a process and a practice.

 

And as I am coming to realize, practice takes practice.

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I dreamed a dream

Given the gravity of what Seth Meyers refers to as a television series called “As the World Burns” on his skit, A Closer Look, I thought I would share the details I can recall from my dream last night in order to provide an ounce of levity in a heavy time.

I remember snippets of details from one REM cycle to the next, but I have absolutely no idea from where some of these images derive in my daily life.

Just to give you an idea:

Last night, I dreamed that I visited a doctor on several occasions because I was experiencing contractions (apparently, in this dream I was also pregnant). On each visit to the doctor’s office, I had to walk through the perfume section of a department store. I was led by a male doctor in white scrubs to a wall lined with perfumes from floor to ceiling. He gently pressed the wall, and it turned out to be a hidden a doorway to lead to the doctor’s office.

As if this were not strange enough, the doctor’s exam table was set on a large football field with people running track around the outer edge. I had to sit on the exam table (and yes, there were foot stirrups…because it wasn’t humiliating enough to be sitting in a gown with an open back while people jog around you) in the middle of the field. At one point, I beamed over to a group of runners who were waiting their turn. No idea how I got there.

After staying at this “office” for several nights to be monitored by the doctor, it was determined that I was experiencing a “hysterical pregnancy” (yes, hilarious) and that I could go home. I recall worrying about the cost of the visit but trying to relax since at least I was in Belgium and not the United States.

End Scene.

I can recall at some point visiting a café or bar in a city, but otherwise the rest of my REM is fairly vague. Even just this strange vignette has me completely nonplussed. I know that my biological clock can go a bit haywire at certain times of the month. Sometimes, my hormones practically scream at me that I must conceive a child NOW NOW NOWWWWWWW!

When my moon begins each month, I feel a simultaneous disappointment and extreme sense of relief. While I do have a deep, raw longing to hug a being in need to my chest, I prefer one with fur and four legs, to be honest. I imagine this baby snuggling its head beneath my chin and becoming my shadow as my wolf dog Okami once was. I miss my shadow.

At least in my dream I did not give birth to a baby wolf, though I wouldn’t put it past my subconscious. When I remind my husband that I have no baby and would like a wolf baby, he reminds me that life is long.

I wonder how many odd dreams I will sleep through before a wolf comes into my life once more?


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Right or happy?

I know that I am not alone when I admit to obsessing over one person who has mistreated me instead of focusing on the many who have supported me. why is it that the negative stay with me so strongly? I have an inkling that perhaps it is because I sense that to mistreat a person takes extra intention and planning, but perhaps this is not the case. Just as I feel betrayed, maybe the other person has created a story of justification and entitlement in their mind?

 

It is difficult to say when the person in question refuses to engage in any form of communication.

 

Since leaving my stable government job with its regular paycheck, I have created a kind of hodge podge career, combining editing with songwriting, music performance, and teaching yoga. Far and away, I have experienced wonderful connections with the people I worked with. It is these experiences that I should be able to focus on.

 

In the several years of working as a freelance editor, I have been lucky that all but one client has observed the honor code of paying for my services. It was not until this past spring that a client dropped off the planet after receiving my edits for her Master’s Thesis. She first had informed me that she had mailed a check to my parents’ house in the United States (I currently live in Belgium). When the check did not arrive after more than a week, I contacted her and she said she would send another check that day and to simply tear up the other one should it arrive. Seemed reasonable enough, and I am a trusting person. Why wouldn’t a social justice Master’s student be honest and reliable? The second check never arrived, and I suggested that perhaps she could just pay me via PayPal, which is fast and easy. No response.

Puzzled, I continued to try to contact her. For weeks, I thought that maybe she was not receiving my emails or having trouble with her email account. Months passed by, and I continued to contact her through as many avenues as I could figure out. I had edited the $*%& out of her thesis, but it has still not been approved for reasons beyond those even the best of editors can repair (not enough cited evidence, for one).

While this information at least helped me to try to put a story together for what was going on, I still felt completely betrayed. Already this year, I had been bested by people of perhaps a similar nature, who also claimed to have sent money to my parents by snail mail. What my parents received was a very empty, untampered with envelope.

I know that I should just let it go. It was one day of work (yes, a precious commodity for the part-time freelancer, but not the end of the world), after all.

I continue to send emails and PayPal invoices, thinking, This time, she will surely come to her senses and pay me for the hard work I engaged in on her behalf. What is all the more shocking to me is that this student is both an adult and a promoter of social justice. It boggles the mind, truly. After much denial, I am beginning to think that she has simply started blocking my communications, though I am not sure how this helps her to sleep soundly each night.

What I am left with is anger and a desire for retribution, energies I do not enjoy in the least. What to do with the desire for retribution? I don’t think there is much I can do. Somehow, this person has justified in their mind that they do not need to embrace honor or ethics in their daily life. In this modern, virtual world, there is little I can do to attain my measly $175 beyond sending her emails, which she can just block.

Her disregard does help me appreciate every other client who sends positive feedback and prompt payment. I make a point now of expressing my gratitude to each of them.

In addition, I don’t like feeling awful, and every time I think about her and/or attempt to claim payment, I am revisited by feelings that I would just as soon not embrace.To counter my frustration and to shift the negative, rotten feeling I have cultivated in my brooding, I try to do kind things and to take deep breaths. Essentially, I retaliate with kindness. There is much to be grateful for in my life, and for this I am endlessly thankful.

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How do you transcend injustice and frustrations in your life? I would love to learn from you.

In the words of my live-in, guru husband, Right or happy, love. You can’t control her. You, however, are beautiful and wonderful, so lift the corners of your mouth and rejoice!


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Follow your own unique path

I write from my own experience. I write this way in part because it is cathartic and helps me to unravel my often tangled, knotty existence. I also write this way because I believe in the concept of Autoethnography, a form of qualitative inquiry that requires the researcher to put their own experience under the microscope in connection with whatever topic they are studying. In other words, since I am interested in the idea of creating self-sustainability (a sustainable existence at the individual level), I believe that it is imperative that I explore and determine how to understand this concept through the lens of my own, individual life. Whatever patterns I discover from my study, I try elucidate those patterns in a way that makes them clear and accessible. I then share these patterns in my writing in the hopes that they may speak to other people who are also at a place in their life where they wish to create more balance, authenticity, and well being.

 

I believe with all my heart that it is possible to create a sustainable world—one that can handle the interactions of so many complicated beings and systems—with a bottom up approach. In other words, if we begin by requiring each individual person to think about and embrace a life path that will bring them balance, health and well being, and joy in a way that does not compromise the right for other people, beings, and systems to exist in their own balanced way, we just might save the world.

 

It is always with this idea in mind that I approach my writing and my life. This perspective shapes my interactions with other people and inspires my reading list. Of late, I have been most inspired by the writings of Claire Dederer and Elizabeth Gilbert, two writers and authors who write from their own experience and incorporate research and teachings from people who have been their own source of inspiration.

 

Am I drawn to female authors in their 30s and 40s because I happen to also be female and in my 30s? Perhaps. I find that I can learn a great deal from the insights they have shared about their life experiences in a way that I have not been inspired by read authors of other genders.

 

I imagine that I am not alone in feeling this way and that it works both ways. I vividly recall the information that was communication a conversation that transpired on New Year’s Eve 2010, to which I was part witness and part participant.

 

I was living in Gustavus, Alaska at the time. Gustavus was and is a very small community of mostly transplants from the lower 48, who seemed to have moved to this tiny town in part to escape the culture and speed of life in other areas of the United States, to be close to wild nature, and to be a part of the kind of close-knit community that is rarely found in the rest of the world in the wake of technological innovations.

 

I was talking with a Gustavus resident who was well-known in Gustavus and all over Alaska for books he had published, most of which had been written in a first person narrative. I had read a book he wrote about the Gustavus, Southeast Alaska, and a famous photographer who had been killed by a bear several years before, and I had found the piece particularly moving. It is a book that most people read when they move to Gustavus. Those people who stay and create a more permanent life in this wilderness community tend to have a well-loved copy on display on a shelf in their home.

 

I started writing creatively and in a first person narrative shortly after moving to Gustavus in the previous summer. Because I looked up to this author so much, I was curious what he thought of my own writing and if he might offer any helpful advice as I moved forward. I had therefore recently shared some of my own writing with him.

 

On this particular evening, I happened to be near this author and a friend as they were discussing a book that had recently been published by a young woman living in another part of Alaska (Homer, maybe?). It was quite clear that these two authors (both men) were not impressed by this woman’s book. I cannot recall if they had actually read the book or were averse to reading it simply because it was written by a woman who was several years their junior.

 

What can I possibly learn from a woman in her 30s? What can she teach me about life? My once hero writer said to his friend.

 

I stood there, stunned, questions already flying through my mind.

 

Did he really just say that?

 

Was he so certain that he had nothing to learn from anyone who was not a white male in his 50s (60s?)?

 

What must he think of my own novice writing from my perspective as a 30-year-old woman?

 

I was horrified, but I still walked up to them to say hello and ask if he had read the pieces I sent to him.

 

He had, and his advice to me, which I remember quite well, was the following: I think you would make a great travel writer.

 

Travel writer? I blanched on the inside but did my best to remain calm and friendly on the outside (at least, I think/hope I did; I am not always very good at maintaining a poker face).

 

Yes, being a travel writer could be great and is a respectable career choice, and his delivery was friendly and spirited enough. However, I knew this suggestion for the actual insult that it was. His words were like an apple that had been genetically engineered to look perfect but have zero taste. It looked red and perfect and delicious on the outside, but one bite revealed the mealy and flavorless fruit within.

 

Travel writer my ass, I thought to myself.

 

I never asked for his advice on my writing again.

 

Don’t misunderstand me. When it comes to critique, I welcome it even though it isn’t always easy to stomach. I don’t seek feedback from only those individuals who will tell me exactly what I want to hear about my writing.

 

I have just been learning over the years that sometimes feedback people provide comes from a place of fear or resistance that has arisen in their own minds from their own personal experiences. The feedback they offer, therefore, might very well have less to do with my own skills and capacity to succeed than it does with their own limitations and biases.

 

What I find very interesting is that the feedback that tries to confine and limit me tends to come from men. Over the years, many men have informed me that I have to choose one passion and path in life because I will ultimately fail if I choose more than one (i.e., if I want to be a successful songwriter and musician, I have to give up writing and studying to become a yoga teacher).

 

Also interesting is that it is the people in my life who have called bullshit on this advice and have encouraged me to continue to pursue any and all passions I feel called to embrace have tended to be women.

 

My favorite response came from my husband’s daughter when she was 18. It involved an expletive (or two or three), along with deeply heartfelt words of inspiration that I could be and do anything I set my heart to. I dearly love this woman and am thankful for her continued support and encouragement, which seems to come at the moments I need it most.

 

Despite warnings of unavoidable failure, I have continued writing, composing music, and studying and teaching yoga. I have not made a lot of money in my pursuits nor have I achieved celebrity status, but I do feel a sense of pride for my dedication and perseverance. I also know that I have made a difference in the lives of people who have read my writing, people with whom I have compose songs from stories, and people I have met both in my capacity as a student and teacher of yoga.

 

I have also learned and been inspired by the women authors who have followed their passions and written about their experiences. I am indebted to them and to those women (and men because there are many) who have encouraged me and reminded me that I have much to offer the world.

 

As my husband reminds me on a regular basis, Life is long. There is no rush.

 

When I compare myself to other people and the work they are doing, which seems much for successful in the way that is embraced by western culture, he responds, They are doing something completely different than you are. You aren’t the same. You have unique gifts, and you are sharing them with the world. Plus, you are pursuing different skills, like meditation and spiritual well being that they are not working to develop. Have patience. Everything happens in its own timeline.

 

He is right.

 

I have begun to recognize that my own definition for success runs counter to what most of the world requires. I also have come to believe that this is ok. I can be successful in my own way, at my own pace, and in my own time.


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Mr. Pauper and his singing ostrich

I remember when I was a child, and I could just open the fridge or a drawer and find any number of items to eat. If what I wanted to eat wasn’t there, I could simply add it to the grocery list, and at some later time it would magically appear.

 

Ah, for the good, old days!

 

Wait. Something must be amiss if I am pining for my childhood. Childhood was no cup of tea. I always longed to be an adult, to be taken seriously, and to make my own choices for my own life. From my child version of my self, it seemed that adults could do whatever they wanted whenever they wanted. They could eat ice cream for dinner!

 

Well, it turns out that being an adult can be overrated in many ways. For one, I am lactose intolerant, and if I eat junk food instead of a well-rounded meal I just get a bellyache. Two, the jokes I used to make in high school and college about how I wouldn’t ever wind up making much money because I wanted to make the world a better place have caught up with me and kicked my ass.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I have lived with many privileges. I have never been hungry a day in my life unless I forgot to bring snacks with me. I have not endured poverty, and I have gone through a series of academic pursuits, earning a PhD in Sustainability Education in May 2013. By many standards of living in places around the world, including the United States, I am a wealthy individual.

 

In the area of love from friends and family, I am wealthy indeed. However, I after visiting a tax company for what my husband had thought would be a simple process this afternoon, I texted my husband that he was going to have to change his name.

 

Apparently, I have not only set out to make hardly any money in my life, but I have also made a habit of making awful puns on the side (thus far, those have been purely pro bono).

 

When my husband took a leave of absence from his job to become a doctoral student in Belgium, giving me the title of breadwinner for our family for the next four years, I had to refrain from telling my favorite joke, I married Rich!

 

You chose the worst country for taxes, I texted my husband as I walked past a row of expensive cars parked in the tax consultant parking lot. You need to change your name to something more a propo.

 

Mr. Pauper, he wrote back.

 

Yes, and I will shape shift to an ostrich.

 

Mr. Pauper and his singing ostrich.

 

When I first walked into the tax place, the woman at the front desk looked me up and down and asked, Yes? (in French) in a nonplussed tone, which required no translation. I was clearly not dressed in an appropriate manner for asking for assistance with taxes, and in her book I did not belong there.

 

My hair was frizzed out from the humidity (I had barely managed to contain it by tying it back into a ponytail). I had put on earrings, which is commensurate to getting dressed up in my book, and every article of clothing except my pants had not been worn since being washed. What I was missing in my capacity as a “woman” was high heels, panty hose, a dress or skirt, pearls, and a hairstyle that required some kind of blow dryer or straightener and a lot of product. Were I a man, I might have possibly slipped by had I slung a sweater across my shoulders and tied the sleeves in front. Perhaps, in my next life…

 

Clearly, heels are out of the question. I can barely handle a new pair of shoes. I had purchased a pair of red Birkenstock sandals at the airport in Frankfurt on our way home from Germany the week before, but I hadn’t been able to walk after wearing them for a few hours. Today is the first day that I have been able to walk in a way that does involve hobbling and extreme pain.

 

Now, back to Belgium. I thought the visa process for being granted the ability to stay in Belgium for more than 90 days was confusing. It turns out the tax process wins by a long shot (Stretch? A mile? A kilometer?). Metric references just don’t seem to have the same impact.

 

From what the tax fellow told me, it sounds like we now have to submit and claim income for both the United States and Belgium (regardless of where in the world that income derives), and then the two countries duke it out for which one actually gets to keep the money we pay. It doesn’t matter that my income comes solely from clients in the United States, whose payments go directly into my bank account in the United States. The whole thing was incredibly confusing, and then the tax guy had to give me a new envelope for mailing my Belgium tax documents because I had taken notes all over the one that was sent to me.

 

Even with the stress from the meeting—the accountant did apologize for scaring me—I cannot help but feel special having two countries vying for my income, however meager. It’s like having two suitors duel for my favor!

 

I’m going to go home and drink for both of us, I texted my husband.

 

Ok. Shall I pick something up for dinner? Shall we celebrate our poverty with takeout?

 

Thankfully, we are not poverty-stricken. The fact that I could leave the tax place and buy groceries is an incredible boon. I still can’t help but sigh, however. I really do want to make the world a better place, and I know I can do this at a very little expense, but I would also like to be able to afford to be able to attend trainings for yoga and meditation to promote my own health and wellbeing. I would like to be able to buy things that are handmade from venues where I know that the profits go back to the artisan.

 

They say that money can’t buy happiness, but a bit more money than I make would go a long way toward easing my constant preoccupation and stress over spending it. I am suspicious of them anyway. They clearly make a fine living because that line just seems like something that only a person with money would ever claim.

 

2017 has been quite the banner year for me, so much so that it has shocked into silver more than a few of my thick, brown curls. The tax fiasco didn’t even really register on my stress barometer because it has already been broken by previous events from the current year. At this point, I just chalk up anything stressful that happens to 2017.

 

I keep hoping that the future foretold to me in a fortune I received this past fall—Much needed relaxation is in your future—will come true sooner rather than later, but I suppose I should not hold my breath. Yes, it could be worse, but that doesn’t mean that I cannot hope for it to be better.

 

There is certainly never a dull moment in your life, my dad told me on a recent visit.

 

I wouldn’t mind a few more, I responded.

 

Right now, life feels like a confusing blur, and I am caught between countries. I know that they say to be careful what you wish for, but the intention I send out to the universe is hope for greater ease, be it with my own response to challenging times, as well as my desire for fewer surprises and more tranquil or “dull” moments in my life.

 

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As Bobby McFerrin has said countless times (in my house, at least, since I have been playing his song on repeat), Don’t worry. Be happy!

 

He also says that he is going to give his listeners his number to call him when they re worried—Here, let me give you my phone number. When you’re worried, call me. I’ll make you happy—but I don’t blame him for not actually providing one.

 

Ain’t got no cash, ain’t got no style, ain’t got no gal to make you smile, but don’t worry; be happy.

 

I might be lacking in the cash department and seriously lacking in style by European standards, but I married Rich, so I have much to be happy for!

 

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Be. Here. Now.

A few days ago, my husband and I moved from our first apartment in Boitsfort to a house on the other side of the same town. In my many years of traveling and moving from one place to another, I have begun to see a pattern to the process.

  1. The first place I live in will likely not be the last. In other words, it generally takes me about two tries to find a place that will provide the kind of sanctuary I desire in a living space. I have experienced this in many places I have lived, and Brussels has once again proven to be the rule rather than the exception.
  2. Don’t expect to feel instantly in love with your new environs. For some, it may be love at first sight. For me, it can take a while to adjust to being in a new place. As a friend once told me, it can take a while for the spirit to catch up with the physical body when you travel a great distance.
  3. It can take a while to create community. Good friends and a feeling of being a part of a meaningful community doesn’t happen overnight. I recommend diving into the pastimes that bring you joy, especially the ones that get you out of the house (if you are an introvert like me, you might need an extra nudge). This will bring you to other people with similar values and passions. This is how I have been able to find kindred spirits in my own travels.
  4. Moving sucks. It was a pain in the butt to get our selves, our two cats, and our stuff to Brussels. It was less painful but still not fun to move 1.3 kilometers from our first apartment to a new house. Even with the limited belongings we brought with us to Belgium, I somehow manage to accumulate so much stuff everywhere I go. Case in point, as we were walking to the new house to meet the realtor and proprietor to sign the lease, I noticed a beautiful lamp in a pile with sign that read À Donner (To Give Away).

I want that lamp, I said to my husband, making my sweetest possible, pleading eyes at him.

We are already asking our proprietor to remove most of the lamps at the house, he replied. I don’t think we should walk in with another one.

Maybe, I could take it and hide it in the bushes? I suggested.

How about you can take it if it is still there after we sign the lease?

Ok, I responded forlornly.

We began walking away, but I kept turning back.

Finally, my husband said, Ok, go back and get it. I scampered back toward the lamp, trying to get there before the woman walking toward the free pile from the other direction. It was my lamp, not hers!

You are ridiculous, he laughed and rolled his eyes at me when I returned, triumphantly carrying the lamp like a precious baby.

Later in the afternoon, I walked by the spot where I met my lamp on my way to meet my husband our new landlord at the bank, where they had driven in her sporty two-seater Mercedes, I saw that every single item that had been piled up on the sidewalk completely gone, as if nothing had ever graced its presence. Had we walked a different way, I would have been none the wiser. My material load might have also been lighter, but such is life.

We moved into our house the next day. We woke up early, drank coffee and ate a hasty bowl of oatmeal. Then, we proceeded to make countless trips down and back up the stairs, bringing our not-so-small collection of belongings to the ground floor so my husband could pile them into a tiny European Zipcar Peugeot 208.

The night before as we lay in bed, we had taken bets on how many trips it would take to get all of our stuff from our apartment to the new house 1.3 kilometers away.

Ten, I suggested. No, 12!

Eight, my husband wagered.

Good thing we had no riches to lose. I used to joke that I had married Rich, but the joke ceased it utility when said husband Rich took a leave of absence from his job to become a starving PhD student, wife in tow.

Ready to take the first load, my husband said. He got into the Zipcar and drove off while I waved. I walked back up the stairs. A few minutes later, my iPhone buzzed. The key isn’t working, my husband had texted. Can you walk over? Quickly?

We are on the clock with the Zipcar, so I put on my sneakers, grabbed the keys, headed downstairs and out the front door, and began to jog the 1.3 kilometers. I figured I would run until I had to walk, but stubbornness runs strong with me, and seven minutes later I had pulled up panting at the house.

Goose! My husband laughed. I didn’t mean that quickly.

Well, I said, I wanted to see if I could do it. I didn’t add that it was pure stubbornness that wouldn’t allow me to stop running, even had I been in pain.

In the United States, there is a saying, No pain, No gain. I remember a former coworker musing, What if there was just no pain? No pain, No pain.

Huh. No needless suffering? What a concept. Clearly, this idea is far too enlightened for American culture.

Back in Brussels, I drank some water, and then my reward was a ride back to the apartment in the Zipcar. Huzzah! Riding in a car was a rare treat since selling our Prius and leaving vehicular travel behind.

No pain, No pain was clearly not in my immediate present or future. By the end of the day, I could barely walk up and down the stairs. Each time bend of my right leg sent shooting needle-like pains through my knee. The next day, I hobbled around for a few minutes every time I sat up and tried to walk.

Now I remember why I stopped running, I told my husband. It sucks!

At this point, we were both downing ibuprofen and hobbling around.

BUT we were out of our petit enfer (little hell) and hoping against all hopes that we had begun life anew in a petit paradis (little heaven).

A couple of nights later (when we could both walk in reasonable comfort), we decided to go a walk in our favorite forest, which was now just a few paces from our front door.

We walked along the sidewalk toward the forest, passing a row of attached houses on the way.

Is that an anchor? I ask my husband, pointing at a rusty object with three individual hooks all attached at the straight edge.

It looks like a grappling hook, he said.

How do you know these things? I try not to tell him too often, but he really seems to know everything.

Grappling hooks, I mused. I feel like I have heard that in a song somewhere.

AS we neared the forest, we felt a cool breeze beckoning us to enter, which we did without hesitate.

Ah, we sighed as we stepped beneath the canopy and into the crisp, cool shade.

Let’s follow this trail, I suggested. There was a tiny path leading up into a part of the forest we had not yet explored on our previous wandering.

Ok.

As we walked, I furrowed my brow, deep in though trying to figure out where I had heard those two words: Grappling hooks.

Dar Williams’ As cool as I am! I shouted and started mumbling the lines, trying to find the phrase with grappling hooks in it.

I think it’s loneliness, suspended to our own like grappling hooks, I trilled.

Suddenly, I felt firm hands on my shoulders, shaking me out of my reverie.

Marieke. Slow down. Be here. Now. In the forest.

I stopped and looked around. It was breathtaking, tiny leaves appeared as if suspended in the air, light trickling through the canopy from small openings where sunlight filtered in tenuous streams.

I exhaled.

We stood for a moment, breathing, and then began walking, more slowly this time.

Is that a fox?

I lifted my gaze and looked ahead.

A creature with a bushy tail had turned to look back at us before disappearing into the shrubbery on the left of the trail.

We walked to the spot and decided to turn left onto yet another enchanting path.

There he is, my husband whispered.

We stood still, watching the fox watch us for a moment before once again disappearing, this time not to return. How could he be there so completely and then just be gone without a trace, I wondered.

Let’s look for a fairy ring, my husband suggested.

Careful, I warned.

True.

As we walked, I could feel the forest healing us, drawing out our anxious energy and replacing it with energy as calm and green as the leaves that floated around us.

Stinging nettle leaves swayed as if dancing in the breeze.

You should take a video with your phone.

I didn’t bring it. I figured I could use yours if I wanted to take a picture.

Ha. I didn’t bring mine either.

We laughed. We were free.

I love you, I whispered. Raising my voice felt somehow incongruous in such a sacred, ancient space.

I love you, too.


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Stuck in the middle with you

This past month, I have been busy. I have been so busy doing all of those things society has told me are important that I have not done any of the things that my inner self has taught me matter more.

It’s like I have been embodying a different set of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Pay mortgage. Try to sell house. Struggle against loud neighbor. Work. Take panic pills to relieve the anxiety caused by sleepless nights from living above a loud neighbor.

Once I accomplish these goals, then I will be happy.

Struggle. Work. Suffer. Struggle. Work. Suffer.

I know that some Buddhists say that life is suffering. I think the existentialists might agree, and the nihilists would say that there is no point to anything ever, period, but this is just ridiculous.

So, after finishing a second round of edits on a student dissertation this afternoon, I decided to revisit one of the pastimes that I have learned from practice will bring calm and, dare I say it, joy.

To be completely honest, the walk was not my idea. While sitting on the couch editing for hours upon end this morning and early afternoon, I had also been engaging in another unhealthy habit, namely, texting my husband regular updates regarding the every movement and sound from our downstairs neighbor.

My texting was a symptom of a stress that has been building since I joined my husband at the apartment he had found and rented this past fall. Within days (or was it hours?), it had become clear that we were living above a party girl. Not only did she enjoy all of those extroverted activities that my husband and I simply could not understand from our introvert perch on the top floor, but she enjoyed them at a sonic level that reverberated into our top floor apartment, keeping us up until the early morning hours at least one but usually two times each week when she would invite other extroverts to join her for the evening.

My husband and I did what we had learned from life and having been raised to be respectful and cognizant of others. We kindly asked if she might end her parties by 10:30pm. We used nonviolent communication techniques and left nice notes accompanied by homemade desserts and chocolate. We switched the timer hall light on after 10pm to gently remind her that we wished to go to sleep.

As the months passed by, our interactions began to escalate. Terrified to the point of extreme panic over confrontation and conflict, I begged my husband to go down and ask her if she and her boisterous companions might be more quiet. Bless his heart, my husband did just this while I cowered (literally) under the covers and tried not to vomit from fear.

Things really came to a head after our neighbor returned from two weeks of vacation, during which time we had experienced blissful, unending quiet. Unfortunately, we had also become sensitized once more to her thrashing and crashing around. In fact, over the months we had come to refer to her as “hippo.” Yes, she’s a voluptuous woman, and I recognize that our choice of nicknames could be misconstrued for it’s possible double entendre; however, the name held because it fit her movements so very well.

Every day, we knew the second she returned to the vicinity by the slamming of the door at the ground floor entrance to the house. I would hold my breath as I listened to the pounding of her footsteps on the stairs and felt the familiar wave of enmity surge up inside.

I detested this woman. As a child, I was often told by my father that “hate” was a strong word to be used sparingly in one’s life. Well, I hated this woman. I hated her loud moving around and slamming of doors, drawers, and any and everything else she touched.

At some point, I attempted to refrain from referring to her as hippo. For one, I quite like hippos, and it was causing me to cringe whenever I saw a photo or video of this creature.  Hippos simply did not deserve this. Additionally, I thought that perhaps if I referred to her as our neighbor or even (gasp) by her name, I might feel ever so slightly more endeared to her.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. The night she returned from vacation, she had people over. Two nights later, she has people over again. We knew from previous conversations with her that she found our request to be able to go to sleep at a reasonable hour embêtant (annoying). The nerve of our asking her to have her guests be quiet or even (deeper gasp) leave at 10pm on a weeknight?! It was beyond comprehension for our neighbor, who seemed to live in a world that was not inhabited by people outside of her small circle of extroverted friends and family.

“She’s doing this on purpose,” I would snap at my husband as we lay awake at night, listening to the booming voice of our neighbor’s brother as it floated up through the floor so that it seemed like he was sitting beside us at the foot of the bed.

A few days earlier, I had gone down to ask if she and her guests might keep it down. Yes, it was only 9:30pm when I made my first of two failed forays in a mission for quiet. She yelled this at me and explained that she was visiting with her family and they were just eating dinner. Just. Her brother boomed at me and said they would call the police for harassment.

Let me pause here for a moment to explain why I find flaw in his argument. Since you, my devoted readers, have predominantly gotten to know me through the written word, you may not realize the absurdity of this claim. For one, I barely reach above 5′ in stature. While I do possess wild and voluminous curly hair with a mind of its own, i think my face, which is quite youthful in appearance, lends a non-threatening air to my overall being. Yes, on occasion I have inspired tears from very small children during my time as a uniformed park ranger, but generally I do not seem to command all that much authority, at least in my own subjective opinion.

I did have a boyfriend in high school tell me that other adolescent girls were intimidated my me (to which I rolled my eyes in response), but that has been the extent of my intimidation factor. I certainly work hard to avoid conflict because it’s so uncomfortable to live with the emotional and physical repercussions that inhabit my being when I engage with the perceived enemy. At one point in my life, I accepted a job in Massachusetts to get as far as possible from a stressful work situation in Alaska. Enough said.

On this evening, however, I was as puffed up as a pissed off rooster, and so booming brother, despite the fact that he towered over me in the doorway of the apartment, did what any brother would do to protect his sibling. He told me where to go.

The question remained: Could it be possible that she was creating all of this racket just to take evil pleasure in pissing us off?

Two nights after my rooster interaction with hippo, booming brother, and co., she had come home at 12:30am with said boomer. They had carried on in loud voices until 2am.

It was at this point that my ever-grounded husband suggested that we give our notice and get the hell out of dodge. Sure, the cost of rent was much easier on our wallets than a house would be, but I already I had to take daily allergy medication to combat the mold that insisted on growing along the interior and exterior of several of our windows. Why not try for a quieter place that might also be easier on my sinuses?

My husband suggested that perhaps we consider the battle lost and move on to quieter pastures. He was right, of course, as he SO often is about these kinds of life situations. I has been preparing to go into battle, but I recognized the wisdom in this intention shift.

“I think she’s just oblivious,” my husband had responded to the dark room.

“Yeah. I’m sure you’re right,” I said back.

This afternoon, I texted my husband, “I wonder what it’s like to be the only person in the world?”

And then, moments later, “She’s bringing lawn chairs down from the attic and putting them out on her rooftop terrace. Run away!”

Ever the rational, wise, old owl to my squirrel, my husband responded with the suggestion, “Why don’t you go for a walk?”

A walk? You mean, leave the house and stop my needless suffering? What a novel idea. I waited for the loud one to come back down from the attic and slam her door and then quietly opened and closed my own door, turned the key in the lock, and hastened down the stairs, out the front door, and into a world outside of the confines of my own mind.

I walked to our favorite pond and looked for the coot babies we had been watching. I found the small family, engaging in about the same behavior as the last several times we had seen them. There were now two left of the original cohort of seven.

They were moving seamlessly through the water, dipping and bobbing their heads to find food, independent of mom and dad.

Typically, when I go for a walk, I find it very important to keep moving (see earlier comment about being part-squirrel). It’s imperative that I walk for at least an hour to ensure that I get sufficient exercise so that I do not gain weight (another unhealthy life lesson that has taken root over many decades of cultural and social brainwashing).

This afternoon, however, I just didn’t have it in me to walk beyond the pond. I desperately wanted to just sit and watch the coots live their seemingly simple lives. I know full well that the life of any wild creature is far from carefree. Certainly, a bird that has seven children in the hopes that one or two might grow to adulthood has no illusions that life is about anything other than primal survival.

I found a quiet spot beneath a tree at the edge of the pond, and I watched them. Sitting there on the outside looking in, I took several deep breathes in.

Sit. Breath. Listen. Breathe. Close my eyes. Open my eyes. Feel the deliciously soothing coolness of the wind.

I sat for a long time, so long that the bugs and spiders started thinking of me as just another object to climb over.

I know that there is much ease that I take for granted in my life. However, I wish I did not participate so readily in the world of worry that my kind have created over the centuries.

Two hours later, I stood up slowly and looked toward the coot family. Five tiny babies had appeared at the edge of the rushes, following the same mom and dad as the teenagers I had been watching for the better part of the afternoon.

Five more! My heart lifted and ached for these creatures, continuing to live with so many odds against them. Such tenuous, tiny beaks, opening to parents that had survived and brought them into a world of uncertainty, biology, and beauty.

I stood and watched the growing family for several minutes. The teenagers made strident, peeping calls. I didn’t blame them. They had already lost five brothers and sisters in their short life. Their younger siblings made gentle peeps from their hiding spot at the edge of the ridges.

I said a silent prayer for ease and continued life to the coots. Then, I began a slow walk out of one world and back into another.