Therapy homework one year consisted of writing the letter to my parents that I’d probably never send but always needed to write. At the time, the words gushed like a fresh wound–thousands and thousands and I never even reached the end. At the time, reading what I wrote and sharing bits and pieces became a cathartic therapy for me. It felt a bit like watching the wound scab over. Last week–and I don’t remember why–I pulled the letter up again. This time it felt strangely foreign. Oh I remember every second, but it’s not . . . I just don’t . . . need to remember anymore? It feels a little gratuitous now?
If I decide to go back, I can remember the odd and dizzying experience of trying to find my footing as a 20-year-old in a reality very different than the one I grew up in. Slowly dicing onions with shaking hands, I would contribute some thought to the chatter, something I thought sounded normal, and the whole Chipotle crew would fall silent and turn to look at me a little too curiously. Like I was from a different planet. We’d open the doors to a stream of normal people on their normal lunch breaks, and as I looked down and fidgeted with the tortilla press I would deliver the tense line, “What can I get for you?” over and over until Max stepped in with some brotherly taunting to teach me how to speak terrifyingly confident greetings, like “Well hey there, what brings you in today?!” My shoulders tightened progressively through the day until I ended my shift with a splitting headache and found myself back in bed crying over how completely lost I was.
Memories like these once served a useful purpose in fortifying my rejection of the world I had known where there were no crowds of normal people and I wasn’t allowed to get a job and rarely allowed to go to a friends’ house. The memories helped me prove to others (really so that I could prove to myself) that my childhood had been dysfunctional, that it was a culty experience that left me helpless in the outside world, and that I was right to get out when I could.
But now the memories feel, as I said, a little gratuitous. Like re-watching a bloody surgery I don’t need to re-watch. Reading my letter with its story after story of weird abuse doesn’t seem therapeutic anymore, at least for now. That time of uprooting is done.
We all come with confusing stories about who we are, why we are, where we must be headed, and what is even going on in this strange world. Many of these stories we’ve accepted from others, and they can feel set in stone. The stories speak of values deeply ingrained by our families, or by our cultures large and small. Values we rarely stop to question. Assumptions rooted deep within our psyches. Truths rooted deep within our bodies.
And then when things hit just enough of a chaos point, just enough dissonance and impossibility, just enough crashing and burning–we sometimes get to see that these roots may have been quite arbitrary, and realize it’s time to dig ourselves out.
So we uproot and replant. Or uproot and be blown around a lot and maybe never replant. Life can be hard and is different for each of us.
Uprooting, by the way, is not always a choice and is rarely pleasant. It takes courage and it usually means having hit a low point. So when you see someone uprooted–whether they’re still blowing in the wind or have found different soil–remember compassion.
So what were you told were your roots? Were they really roots for you? And are they still? And do they have to be? And are they allowing you to grow beautifully? Or are they stifling and starving you?
When I wake up in the middle of the night and, with the willpower of a person half asleep and half needing a distraction from the high pollen count, find myself scrolling from Kyiv bombings to missiles in the Korean peninsula to a senator swearing assault rifle regulation is off the table to a rich bully threatening the employees who make him his money to a major news outlet reporting on a major celebrity stating the least sexy thing a guy can do is fart to a money guru tweeting in all caps about the economy crashing and how you need to buy silver . . . it makes me wonder where my roots are?
I think a lot of us these days are finding ourselves tangled in news feeds. Somehow supposed to digest a thousand threats and crises and scandals and tragedies and offenses during an afternoon on the couch. Until we’re left with no willpower and little imagination and just a fizzle of who we were somewhere deep inside, sputtering a little weaker each day.
And then there are those who have a firm foundation from which to accuse and judge and know. Simple arguments and convenient theories and too much confidence and too narrow a window on the world. Some of us live with unquestioned roots that explain everything for us so that we’re not lost and anxious and we know exactly how it will all turn out. Until something drags us down into the street and exposes just how full our society is of things we don’t know, don’t understand, and wish we hadn’t seen, but can’t unsee.
In my experience, the logic-y, dogma-ish roots are too dry and inflexible and they tend to snap when life gets stormy enough. Which may be why despite hundreds of millions of people who are pretty sure they know what’s up, our society seems to blindly stumble from year to year, blaming and blaming and never quite fixing.
And if you also find yourself sleepless some nights, I wonder how your body itself may support you with its own roots in those worried moments. When all the reasons and plans and budgets and jobs and rules and structures and explanations aren’t working for you, maybe your breath will still sustain you like it always has, and your feet will find they’re still rooted to the ground, and you’re still alive, and you’re still here, and you can still touch and taste and see and hear and feel and laugh and cry and hug and dance and sing and do the body things that don’t require a credit score or a stock exchange.
Your feet can’t tell you why the world is the way it is today. Your hands can’t tell you where we’re headed. Your breath can’t change the trajectory of humanity–except that it can calm and center you and that a bunch of you’s make up humanity and that maybe if we all stopped to breathe calmly our trajectory may change. You, though, in your body, right now, can’t solve it all. But I think it’s your chaotic, scrolling brain that is insisting you find all the solutions–not your body. I think your body is just waiting for you to drop in and find the same aliveness and ease that you did as a running and pushing and swinging and bouncing and singing child, before you joined the world of the adults who have to know it all.
Today, your feet and your hands and your belly and your lungs and your movement and your stillness and your ears and your eyes and even your nose and your mouth can be your roots to a different kind of place, a different state. Not one of fixing or judgment or worry or need. One of aliveness, of being. And with those roots you may find some rest and peace.
And while the world needs you to come back to the work from time to time, when you find yourself blowing in the wind I wish you the courage to let the wind blow around you as you feel the ground with your feet and enjoy being a body.
Let’s find roots together as we go? Email address below. <3
“If your legs aren’t already straight, don’t try adding this in. Don’t ever force yourself. Let your muscles and tissues grow and change over months and years.”
This morning’s yoga class felt a little different. It was very slow and mild with an emphasis on finding the edge and then not pushing it. A little was enough.
I trained with an absolutely fantastic trainer way back–it felt like studying with a guru. He really knew his stuff. Honestly I probably couldn’t have found a better source of information and direction. Except my body. My body is also would have been a great source of information for me, but I ignored its signals. After some quick progress, I pushed too far, shrugged off the pains and the not-quite-right feelings, and hit a wall. Usually it took a couple days for my muscles to feel recovered. This time, my body felt overwhelmed by pain and weakness and just . . . tension for days and days and then weeks and weeks and by the time the pain had subsided, an “I-can’t-do-that-again” preemptive pain had taken its place. And I stopped. Completely. I had tried too fast. I hadn’t listened to my body.
Maybe that speaks to you, maybe it doesn’t. Since a concussion turned my world upside down, I’ve been really surprised at just how much one person’s response to being pushed differs from another’s. Once upon a time, I was the type to push myself to the max and then past it. And it felt like I had bottomless energy.
When I was a teenager, I would bring my glove and a baseball out to the rock wall in the back. I’d wind up and throw as hard as I could. A hundred times. And then a hundred more. (For context, you’re not supposed to pitch over a hundred pitches in a row every day. Especially as a 13-year-old. That’s ridiculous.) And then I’d head inside with just as much energy as I’d had before. It worked when I was a kid.
Then I moved up to the Twin Cities and dove into running. I started with a mile or two, then six. Then 13.1 out of the blue. Somewhere around mile 11 my left hamstring didn’t really work, but with a forwarder tilt, gravity pulled me forward the last couple miles. I wasn’t ready for it, but I found ways to compensate, and so it sort of worked. My core and hip flexors were weak, but my legs were strong, so I moved 13.1 miles again and again for the joy of it. And there was so much joy. Then I learned that you can push your pace when you run. Learn to breathe through the stress. So I picked up my pace.
One evening, with Marvel film scores playing in my ears, I set out to push my 13.1 pace. Halfway through, the Winter Soldier beat dropped and my pace picked up. It was electrifying. Until about mile 10. Then my body said “Absolutely not!” and I slowed to a walk that was more like a crawl. I could hardly lift my arms. I took a shortcut home and collapsed on the couch. Dizzy. The nausea and stomach cramps hit like a tsunami. I have never, ever, ever felt that absolutely terrible after a run. In a weird way, it felt worth it, like . . . look at how hard I worked! In another way, it slowed me down. A lot. Nervousness replaced excitement, and it was a while before I tried 13.1 again.
And then I had a concussion. And I stopped moving at all for months. And the strong compensation muscles I had became weak, so nothing was ready for a run anymore. And then my head finally felt okay, so I ran a mile. Then I ran two. And then I ran 8. . . . 8! And that was the day I felt a new kind of leg and back pain that I’m still feeling three years later.
I always try things long before I’m ready.
Because that’s how you be a badass.
And it’s worked at some points in my life. For some things.
And then at other times, it doesn’t. Especially after a concussion. Or especially after getting in touch with my deepest self. Sometimes trying things before I’m ready ends up hurting or scaring or discouraging me. Knocking the wind out of me. And the attempted leap forward turns into five steps back, or fifteen if you watch closely as I subconsciously sneak further and further away from my goal because I just can’t get near that awful feeling again.
Pizzeria Balognett was a little hidden garden of a restaurant in the hills above Italy’s Lake Como, where they plopped down freshly picked eggplant and tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil and salt in front of you, whether you asked for them or not, while the pizzas baked. The pizzas were perfection. So we went back for lunch the next day, and left with at least four more pizzas boxed up to enjoy on the next day of our honeymoon. Our rental host, a British expat, stopped by our little apartment, and when he heard how many pizzas we had brought home, he grinned and said “Such Americans!”
We in America, as a culture, are maximum. Always. We’re never halfway, we’re always the most. And that can be wonderful. Like eight of the best pizzas we’ll ever eat.
I’m afraid that we as a culture push ourselves and each other a little too hard, a little too fast, though.
And it’s complicated by the fact that it seems to really work for some. So we just push. Everyone. All the way. “No pain no gain.”
My therapist recently congratulated me for making a fairly forceful ask in my life. The change I want to see, he explained, happens slowly. Very slowly. The bigger the change, the bigger the pushback. So sometimes a clear, hard push is needed. But not because the change should (or even could) hurry up. Just because the change needs repeated reminders and remotivating.
But then, when that push has been pushed, I need to remember that the change is still going to be a slow process. Yes, we need to push and we need pushing. And then we need to accept that the wheels will turn slowly. Sometimes they need to turn slowly. Sometimes if you force them to turn fast, it hurts a little too much, and they stop turning at all.
Like when you decide you’re an exception to the wisdom about building up to 13.1 slowly. Or like when your trainer enthusiastically shouts that “you’ve got this, keep going!” without first having a two-way discussion about what is good discomfort and what is too much overwhelm or even pain. Or like when you decide the answer to beating social anxiety or loneliness is to fill every corner of your schedule with all the people all the time. Or like when you decide it’s time to cut out every single happy food forever, starting today. Or like when you decide you want to be a reader and then force yourself through three brutally boring hours in a row and find that you can never quite pick up the book again.
Maybe you’re the type that changes fast. Maybe. Although if that’s how you’ve always thought of yourself, but you keep finding yourself giving up or worn down or discouraged, then maybe you also could give yourself some extra time for change, too.
Or maybe you’ve already acknowledged that you need time. That you can’t take big leaps. That baby steps are what work for you.
At risk of sounding cliche, remember the tortoise and the hare? “Slow and steady wins the race.” Because slow and steady doesn’t burn you out, injure you, freak you out, or overwhelm you.
Yoga this morning was a great reminder to let time play its part in your growth. We’re all so damn frenzied about our lives. Goals. Progress. Growth. We need to get this, fix this, stop this, change this, find this, and it needs to happen with same-day delivery!
We know better by now about about muscles and fitness. But do we accept this about our core selves, too? The core selves we so badly want to be, to grow into, to experience, to find.
Is it okay that it’s going to take me three brutally long years to learn how to express negative emotions? Is it okay that it may be summer by the time you’ve actually finished that book? Is it okay that when you join all the flexible, toned 30-year-olds at the yoga class, your downward dog will honestly look more like a malfunctioning twerk for at least a few weeks, and that you’re the only one not wearing designer joggers?
So what’s your thing? The change you need. The growth you’re planning. The relationship or communication skills you want to develop. The goals you’ve set for yourself. How you want to take care of your body. How you want to stretch your mind. How you want to show up for the world.
And is it okay that you may be in this “getting-there” stage for a long, long time? Maybe for the rest of your life?
And if you let the change happen slowly, do you think you may give up less?
You’re trying. That’s enough. That’s a lot, honestly. So be gentle with yourself. Don’t push yourself too hard. You still want to feel safe enough to show up tomorrow. And you won’t if you push yourself past what you can be okay with today.
You’re human. And that’s going to take time.
Take a deep breath, give yourself a little hug, and accept where you are today.
Tomorrow can be just a little different.
P.S. If you struggle with taking it slow and giving yourself room to grow and permission to take baby steps only–I strongly recommend looking for a slow, gentle yoga practice somewhere near you, and making showing up your only goal each time. When you soften into change, it’s amazing the pressure you find your body’s been holding, and how desperately it’s been wanting gentle care.
P.P.S. If all this slow change is too slow, look back a year or ten and see just how much it has been adding up. Keeps adding up. Trust the process.
It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You look over the edge, and it goes . . . down . . . and down . . . and it just keeps going. You try to follow it across to the other side, and there is just too much. It’s . . . indescribably BIG.
I always thought I was a good writer. I even put “written communication” on my resume. Lately I’ve looked back at hastily typed work emails and notice a missing “s” here and a confusing sentence there. Maybe the concussion got to me. Or maybe my writing has just never been impeccable. Maybe I’m human, which is obnoxious.
Actually, I’ve noticed it in some good books lately, too. It seems like in each one–talking bestsellers–there are at least one or two sentences where I go “ooooh they missed that one!”
So what’s abundantly clear is that being “good writers” or “good communicators” has little to do with ridding ourselves of flaws.
After all, if I picked apart your grammar, you’d probably stop listening to me. I know I would.
So what makes good writing? Or effective communicating?
Do you know how long 4500 words is? Google tells me a typical nonfiction book runs 50,000-75,000. On February 28 last year I sat down at my laptop and started typing. The words flowed–after all, abuse is a topic that can flow like Niagara Falls. In about 3 hours I wrote 4500 words. Which means that, in theory, if I wrote a book (at least one that I felt as passionate about), I could knock it out in 40 hours. (Doubt it.)
I’m not saying I’m a great writer. I’m saying I’ve had great writing days.
In April, Willoughby died.
I could sense it coming, so in the weeks leading up, the writing slowed down. The flow dried up. Then it happened, and like a mother-******* trooper, I lied to myself and wrote another blog post . . . this one was about how brains work, and it wasn’t a bad post (!!!), but it was not real for me that weekend. I didn’t mean it. It didn’t matter.
Then I stopped. My 5-posts-a-month goal kept going “hey, I’m still here,” but I had nothing to offer for it. Nothing honest.
I finally did write one more, about Willoughby. This one I did mean. All the way. And then I stopped again.
I guess what I’m saying is that being good at something or passionate about something or committed to something is actually a fairly complicated concept. Not concept, journey. Maybe because you and I are complicated.
Last Saturday someone asked me if I am an all-or-nothing type person. Like, do I have to either do something all-the-way to-the-max or not at all?
Yes. Yes, definitely yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, that is me. Yes.
Which I think makes me a bad writer, in a sense, because sometimes it makes me not-a-writer.
And the question was a good reminder that we’re allowed to be imperfect at stuff.
Neil Gaiman, I think in a Tim Ferriss podcast episode, made the fascinating point for writers that the only thing that can’t be fixed is a blank page.
Life has a way, sometimes, of just throwing you to the ground and beating the shit out of you.
Strangely, those experiences tend to be what make us “good” communicators. Or shut us up completely.
In the last few months, I keep sitting down to write. I keep finding myself at Starbucks, clicking around on WordPress and pretending to customize my site for a while and then finally clicking “Add new post” a bunch of times, and then clicking more “Backspace” than anything else, and then going home with nothing to show.
And it’s not because there’s nothing to say.
It’s because there’s too much.
Like the Grand Canyon.
When I was maybe 16 I walked up to its edge the first time and to this day I still can’t find the words. Indescribable immensity. Too much. Too big. Unfathomable. Uncontainable.
And that’s a bit how I feel these days. It’s not that there’s not much to say in life, it’s that “5-ways-to” lists and little motivation-shots just aren’t cutting it because there’s too. damn. much.
But. (Deep breath.) There’s always going to be too much and I’d be in a world of trouble if you and all the other people got so overwhelmed that you, also, shut your mouths and stopped showing up.
What to say about 2020. Which, can we keep calling 2021 2020? May as well. How about this: What. The. Hell. There’s too much. There’s too much. Turns out there’s always been too much. And where to start!?
There’s this amazing moment in Peacock’s new sitcom Rutherford Falls. The guy who’s always been in charge, on top, big-headed, gets sort of thrown to the ground by life in general, and he calls his friend: “There’s something I have to tell you. . . . I don’t get it.” “You don’t get what?” “It. You know . . . all of it. Any of it. Anything. I don’t get it. I thought I got it, for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it.”
And that has become my life’s motto.
I’d love to say I know what we “should” do with all the absolute garbage of the last year and a half or, apparently, several millennia. (Also, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been astoundingly good, too. Just, also so much bad.) I’d love to say I know the solutions for humanity, that people should listen to and trust me to be one of the “adults” (haha) in the room, but turns out . . . . . . I don’t get it.
In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really comprehend.
And all those The-5-secret-ways-to-absolutely-for-sure-get-what-you-want don’t feel true anymore. “I used to get it. But now I don’t.” Now I’m just trying to not do too much damage and trying to shine a little light in a corner and maybe get some on a few other people.
The big question for me now is turning out to be: Am I allowed to keep writing even though I don’t get it? Even though I’m an all-or-nothing person who just gave the f*** up and laid on the couch after my best buddy died? Even though every time I sit down to write, the only words that flow are vague, cynical rantings?
Last February I felt thiiiis passionate about something, and the 4500 words just effortlessly happened, like they were trying to break free. Now, I feel THIIIIIIIIIIIIIS passionate about EVERYTHING (and almost as confused), and I find that it’s all TOO much. Too big. I can’t do it justice. Starbucks will close in a few hours and by then you will have lost interest in my bitter ramblings. So. . . . what to do. . . .
I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to stop sharing. I’d like to stop pretending like I’m someone people should listen to, someone people could learn from, someone with something to offer. I’d like to admit that life won and I lost and that’s because I’m a loser. I’d like to not let anyone see me anymore. To disappear from social media, for sure, because it is basically lies. To never pipe up when people are talking about big life stuff, because “for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it,” and that feels embarrassing and so frustrating and pretty imposter-y.
Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning. Which is a pretty intimidating title to write for. But he did it, and it has sold over 16 million copies. And do you know what happened to Viktor Frankl before he wrote it? He was imprisoned and abused in Nazi death camps where he barely survived and watched friend after friend die. Yeah. Not that losing Willoughby isn’t sad, but it’s sort of in a different category.
Siddhartha Gautama was a little luckier–at least to begin with. He was a rich kid, but apparently one with a tender heart. From his easy lifestyle, he looked out at a world full of people struggling and suffering and he decided to jump in the deep end, join the struggle, and learn what he could to help people. Instead of letting the world of suffering shut him down, turning away from the yuck, he opened his heart wide around it and met people in the real, icky, confusing world. And now they call him The Buddha. He showed up.
A psychologist friend, one of the most influential people in my life, has helped hundreds of people–couples, especially–with absolutely life-changing communication and relational concepts. He’s given me so much. He has a PhD in counseling psychology which probably means he’s one of the people who gets it. Right? But if you attend one of his seminars and listen to him tell his story, you’ll find that it’s a story of being completely lost and alone and confused as a child in a world that loudly told him he didn’t fit. The easy way for him would have been to disappear. To say “life beat me” and move on. Stop showing up. Certainly not help hundreds of people with their own struggles. But he didn’t. He helps people, even though vulnerably showing up for the world can be so tough. He said something that sticks with me: “People connect at the level of their struggles.”
I’m not going to have a world religion based around me. I’ll be plenty pumped if I just get to publish one book eventually–that would be cool. So not looking to be as influential as the Buddha, but I see three options in my future.
First I’m going to say what is not an option: Going back to the simple, “I’ve-got-this-all-figured-out” worldview. The one with easy answers and lots of judgments. I can’t go back because . . . I’ve seen too much of life. Maybe you have, too. We’re living through a worldwide pandemic after all. Among other things. When the evils of slavery were exposed for Great Britain to see, William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In his depressing (but fair) (and also not totally depressing) book Escape from Freedom, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the process by which our minds, indoctrinated into a simple worldview handed to us in our youths, eventually find freedom. We see too much. We see the world for what it is. Not simple. Not black-and-white. Not all sunshine and rainbows. And this freedom from our simplistic rose-colored outlook on life is so terrifying that we then try to escape. Frequently, we even try to go back. Back to our cult, back to our abusers, back to our lifestyles, back to our old friends. But we can never truly go back. We know too much now.
What do you know “too much” about after this last year?
My friend–a nurse–has watched first-hand as precious human after precious human dies, while all he can do is be there with them as a virus does its nasty business. A virus that we’re doing lots of fighting over and writing parody songs about and trying to ignore. He’s seen too much. He can never go back to who he was before this year.
A lot of us (like me) grew up in conservative homes that proudly claimed racism was a thing of the past and did a whole lot of sweeping ugly stories and statistics under the rug. Many of us have learned in the last year just how awful and just how recent and just how ongoing racism and its brutal impacts are in America. And oh man how nice it would be to go back to being blissfully ignorant. “Not my problem” if it’s not really there. But the thing is, we’ve learned just how much yes, it is a problem and it’s our problem and we can’t just wipe it off and go back about life.
On the phone the other day, a dear friend asked me how I’ve been, and my answer went something like this: “Have you ever felt like you’re actually really grateful for all the abuse and hurt and struggle you went through when you were young, because it gave you so much perspective and compassion and now you can help people? Like you wouldn’t take any of it back, because it’s made you who you are?” “Yes!” “Okay, well that’s how I’ve always felt. But not anymore. There’s nothing romantic about it anymore. There’s nothing silver-liningy about it. Life after trauma just absolutely 100% sucks. If I could take it all back and grow up in a healthy family and a functional environment, I absolutely would, because then maybe I could go a day without struggling with the most basic life stuff because of trauma’s effects, and I’m so damn tired of it.”
What’s your wish-you-could-take-it-back thing? What have you tried hard not to face, not to come to terms with? Or to be too silver-liningy about? What life stuff have you tried to Denial away?
Maybe one day I’ll write down my whole story–or maybe I’ll get you to say yours? But for today I’ll just say: My childhood sucked. It was awful. It was just brutal. Awful awful awful. I’ve got the literal scars to prove it. And then I escaped. I moved up to Minnesota to spend life in a safe place with my best friend. She refused (but nicely) to marry me until I got therapy. So I got happy. I tricked her into thinking I was all better and we got married. I delivered a speech a number of times called “Life is beautiful,” and I still think it was a good speech, but it was also a 22-year-old-Peter speech, and 22-year-old-Peter had decided that life was about finding happiness and that anybody could and you just had to choose where to look. He recognized, for sure, that life is scary. In fact, he talked about feeling such darkness that sometimes suicide felt like the right option. So what “saved” him? Discovering that, no matter how bad it all got, how scary, how hurtful–that if you glance to the side you’ll find something beautiful. “It’s the little things.” It’s all the experiences, all the adventure. And that beauty is worth holding onto. . . . which seems like a privileged take on life when I imagine Viktor Frankl watching his friends die in Nazi death camps. But it worked at the time–I happy’d myself out of the darkness and found the meaning of life: Just be happy. (“Just” makes it sound easy, right?) So that became my motto. My identity, really. If someone asked me about me the first word that came out was “happy” and it came out in a 72-point Comic Sans font with exclamation points.
I decided that life couldn’t be about all the struggle, because I couldn’t handle that.
And then the next 8 years soundly showed me that you can’t happy away the struggle. Life is still life, no matter the blinders you try to put up, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
So after this year and a half of crisis (which, by the way–our bodies are only meant to handle crises like getting chased for a minute by something with a loud roar but shitty stamina. 18 months is too damn long), you and I are probably tempted to do a lot of denial, to put blinders back up, to “go back to normal,” to pretend like we’re okay, to “choose happiness.” And then we may be discovering that we sort of can’t unsee. Life’s just doesn’t look the same after local curfews and ubiquitous military humvees have lost their novelty, and after watching in horror as the “patriotic ones” literally stormed the Capitol. And we can’t even really have a mask-burning party because turns out we’re still going to need them for a while and there’s enough smoke in the air already from the wildfires, which is also losing its novelty, as if we needed more stuff.
So that’s what I can’t do. I can’t just play Legos. I can’t just read novels. I can’t just make jokes. Those are all still good, and I may or may not have a 2379-picture album in my Galaxy gallery to prove that jokes still mean a lot to me. But I can’t just. I also can’t just write simple self-help about 5-ways-to-be-successful-at-a-job-that-you-very-well-may-not-have-if-you-had-been-born-a-different-socioeconomic-status-or-skin-color. And I can’t just post on Instagram about how happy I always am, because “always” is a lie. I can’t do the positivity thing. (Which is not the same as saying I can’t shine some real light or sometimes be positive.) I can’t write cookie-cutter blog posts with cute hooks and cute analogies and cute calls to action. And I can’t do small-talk (but I never really could).
Everything I ever write or say will be in the context of the 18 years of abuse I experienced in an unhealthy home and then the awful saga of two concussions that changed my life and then learning all about anxiety and then living through a worldwide pandemic and then staying up till 3am watching live-feeds of the Twin Cities burning and brave troops trying to protect while brave protestors also tried to protect and then finally experiencing what everyone kept talking about where you lose someone close to you and then also just generally learning to be a human after trauma. (If all this feels familiar to you, hi.)
Everything I write from now on will be in that context, though I know I’ll still write some about cheese, so that context doesn’t mean that life has lost all hope.
So what are my three options then, if I can’t lose the context? If I can’t pretend like life isn’t as too-big as the Grand Canyon?
I could be defeated and stop writing at all, stop speaking up, stop showing up, stop trying to help anybody. Ugh that one is tempting. Home feels real damn safe today, and no judgment to you if that’s where you’ve permanently washed ashore.
Or I could try so hard to write about absolutely aalllll the overflowing stuff that the page stays blank, no matter how many Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Cream Cold Brews I blow through.
Or I could remember that all-or-nothing isn’t the only option. And I could do the unromantic work of saying “Okay, as a writer, what can I share that would help someone?” and letting myself just give my weird best to it, even when it doesn’t feel like enough.
I think I’m going to have to go with the third option.
I’d love to stop showing up. I’d love to admit that I’m deeply flawed (evne my writing) and say “the world doesn’t need my voice anymore.” But then I think after a while I wouldn’t love it anymore. Humans need humans. Isolation didn’t feel good, remember? I could probably fairly comfortably just socially-retire to a life of paychecks and wine-and-cheese and not talk to anybody anymore about mental health or poverty or abuse or kindness. (Remember, that’s the lifestyle the Buddha was born into?) But then I think about how much I’ve benefited from the brave souls who didn’t choose to retire from community–Viktor Frankl, the Buddha, my psychologist friend–and that list would never end. How much I’ve needed people to show up.
I’d love to write every damn thing, but as 125-words-per-minute as I can possibly type, I can’t write everything, and the Grand Canyon of life stuff is too endlessly massive. And I know that if I keep opening WordPress with the goal of finally writing “the right thing,” “the worthwhile thing,” “the big thing,” I’ll keep clicking “Save draft” and going back home. And then I think of all the people who have also been so overwhelmed by life, but still chose to show up incrementally with their imperfect, flawed, humble, half-baked words that have guided the rest of us through life.
A note about our imperfect, as-good-as-we-can-for now offerings: I just finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (By the way, you should read it. It is pretty . . . eye-opening. And pretty distasteful. And incredibly worth your time and attention.) One common pattern that stood out to me among anti-racist thinkers through history was how much their own perspectives shifted through their lives–from Martin Luther King, Jr. to W.E.B. Du Bois. In other words, they could look back and say “I think I got XYZ a little wrong” (frequently it was about discovering the longer they lived that the gentle, don’t-hurt-people’s-feelings methods of fighting racism tended to be less effective than they’d hoped). But their intellectual evolutions didn’t cancel the powerful good they had done before their views morphed. Similarly (on a much tinier scale), I can look back at my “Life is beautiful” speech and realize that it clearly helped at least as many people as I saw crying by the end of it, even though if I rewrote it now it would be pretty different. Imperfect today doesn’t mean useless.
Which brings me back to that third option: I can’t stop showing up to help you, because I know I wouldn’t survive without you showing up to help me. And I can’t wait to help you until I “get it” enough to write all the perfect solutions, confident that I’m never misguidedly misguiding anybody. Which means I’m going to have to do that middle one: Show up as best I can today, which is to say, perfectly imperfect like a human. Like you. Like every other human voice that has helped humans through human history.
So I’ll keep writing, even though all my words will never end child abuse across the world, and will never totally destigmatize mental health struggles, and will never give you the perfect recipe for vulnerably showing up in healthy relationships. I’ll just have to give you the little pieces I’ve got for now–my best educated guesses for today. And I promise to keep offering these, because I’ve been saved and carried and inspired by the best guesses offered by a bunch of other overwhelmed humans.
We’re a strange, stressed out species that keeps getting the answers wrong. But where would you be without that imperfect podcast that made you feel less alone, that imperfect text that made you feel understood, that imperfect news report that gave you a little hope, or that imperfect hug that was actually perfect?
We survive and thrive on each other’s imperfect help.
Grief has been loudly insisting to me in the last few months (actually, the last 29 years minus a couple denial-level happy-go-lucky ones in the middle there) that I’m too broken and imperfect and misguided for my voice to help you.
I bet you’ve had some similar feels this last year or so. That there’s nothing you can do. That it’s all too much. That you’re too burnt out now, too bitter, too over it all. That you should just turn your light off now.
I love pink. It feels happy. When I walked into Starbucks today in my pink shirt, the human behind the counter (with a big history I don’t know and probably lots of sad reasons not to be kind) beamed at me and said “I like your shirt,” and it made me smile from deep down inside my heart. It made me feel good. It made me feel confident. It was like a little shot of life-and-meaning-and-love fuel.
Last year, feeling overwhelmed by and guilty for all the suffering all around the world, I asked an imperfect friend to talk to me about it. He gave some imperfect insights that he had gleaned from an imperfect life. And his imperfect best guesses gave me a hope that keeps me going to this day.
Speaking of 4500 words, we’re only 500 away, and you’re still reading. Why have you read all this? Well first of all, I’ve somehow tricked you into paying attention to my pent up ramblings, so thanks for that. But really–why are we doing this?
If you’re anything like me, life has gotten pretty big in the last year or so. Too big. Personal life, local life, worldwide life. There’s a lot. It’s a lot to show up for.
I’m betting that you’re feeling pretty disenchanted.
That the world is feeling hard to show up for.
That smiles are a little harder to offer.
That you don’t think anyone will listen to you anyway.
That you’ve had so much eye-opening happen that you’re a little embarrassed and unsure of yourself.
That you don’t think the world needs your voice anymore. Your help.
But that person who took my order today offered me this little spark of joy that gave me a real boost.
And that friend I went to last year who had been taking his own blows gave me his best words to ponder and it changed my life.
You know something–even if you only know it vaguely or have a bit of it wrong–you know something, you have something that holds some hope for another struggling human next door to you.
You have some lessons, some messages, some dreams, some hugs, some art, some activism, some advice, some words inside of you that, no matter how small you’re feeling, will make the world a little bit of a better place.
That friend explained to me that I can’t help the whole world and if I try I will burn out and help absolutely no one. He said that I’ll be lucky if I can really deeply help 7 or 8 people in my lifetime–like make a huge difference for them. But those 7 or 8 people can help 7 or 8 others. Who can help 7 or 8 others. And pretty soon the help is multiplying.
But not if you and I give up.
If we let the overwhelm make us too angry to speak or too hopeless to speak, then we’ll be alone and everyone else will be alone.
So if I keep writing bits and pieces that may help a few people–will you keep shining your light?
It’s not perfect. It’s not the answer. And I know you don’t totally “get it.” But that little text, that little Facebook post, that little hug, that little encouragement, that little story, that little perspective–somebody needs it, just like you need it from somebody.
If I keep showing up, will you?
And will you really show up?
I love you, but I’m honestly not super interested in your 5-ways-to-look-happy-on-social-media. I want the real you. I need the real you. We need the real you.
Will you show up for your people tomorrow? The real you, the vulnerable you, the you that understands people, the you with an ear to listen, the you with a kind word, the you with a life-story that will make another human feel less alone and give a little hope, and maybe even a helpful idea or two?
There are a million reasons not to use your voice for good in this world, not to use your voice for love and light.
But there are about 7.9 billion reasons to come out of isolation and offer to help us other humans in whatever imperfect ways you can.
We need your message.
We need your encouragement.
We need your kindness.
We need your story.
We need you.
4648. Maybe I’m still a writer after all.
Some imperfect help for each other? I’ll write for you. <3
My friend Madonna pointed out this morning that as cities and states across America gradually start opening back up, each in their unique way, we are going to start seeing what the real new normal will look like.
For a long time, many people are going to be living in heightened caution. Wearing masks, avoiding large groups, hugging a little less (unfortunately), and the list goes on.
Massive world-changing events drive cultural shifts. It’s happened time and time again through history. Humanity comes out on the other side of massive events with collective changes: New widespread traumas; Heightened awareness of different issues than before; Increased and even urgent motivation for ingenuity and innovation; Maybe a little more consciousness. . . .
And it leads to new cultural flavors and norms: Widespread increases in security; A change in financial priorities, like saving money; Outspoken support of human rights that were once overlooked. . . .
A couple months in, over the first big hump of crisis and shock and solidarity, we notice that the masks aren’t going away any time soon. And we notice that even after they say “you can be together again now,” people still have this uneasy doubt and confusion over what and where is safest, over whether this or that friend is still too uncomfortable, and over when it’s going to be okay to hug again.
So, as my friend pointed out this morning, it’s sinking in that we are not going back. By the time we even could go all the way back, we’ll be a changed world.
There will be collective trauma. Loss. Fear. Changed priorities. Stress.
But what else will the new normal look like? The long term new normal? The world as it comes out on the other side of this pandemic–what will that new normal be?
Before you answer that, stop and think about two interesting points:
First: How does a trend start? A person does a thing. A weird thing. A new thing. A not normal thing. Quite possibly a brave thing. One person. ONE person. Somebody is the first one to do it. That is how a trend starts. That is how new practices start. That is how a tradition is begun, how a cultural norm is born: ONE person does a thing.
Second: Have you ever lived through a time of such widespread understanding and acceptance of whatever-the-heck-you-have-to-do to get through this? Suspension of judgment about how emotional and mental needs are met. Everyone suddenly getting super creative. Psychologists and non-psychologists all rushing online to say “IT IS OKAY IF YOU NEED TO [fill-in-the-blank] RIGHT NOW.” Or “IT IS OKAY IF YOU CAN’T.” In other words . . . all of a sudden, people are calling foul on “Expectations,” walking away from arbitrary standards of what works and what doesn’t. As everyone’s worlds have imploded, humanity has granted itself a free pass on being “normal.” Normal isn’t a thing right now.
Recap . . . First: ONE person can start a “new normal” thing. Second: All “new normals” are currently being accepted.
Can I just suggest that there could not be a better recipe for cooking up a beautiful new normal?
And that every single one of us gets to help decide how that new normal is flavored?
What are we going to put into the mix?
More friendliness? More vulnerability about things like personal struggles and mental health? More meditation? More conversations? More quiet time and down time? More acceptance? More smiles? More outdoor time? More volunteering? More concern and action for the people who need help or are hurting? More respect? More equality? More generosity? More kindness? More solidarity? More compassion? More diversity? More asking “No really, how are you actually doing?” More love?
What are you going to start doing right now, while everyone is allowing it?
What are you going to stop doing right now, while nobody is counting on it?
You actually get to be a part of creating the world’s new normal.
What’s your first ingredient you’re going to mix in? Message me, comment here, call a friend, post it on your story . . . say it out loud, embrace it, run with it: What are you going to bring to the new normal?
It’s ours to shape.
P.S. I’ll start. I’m going to say hi to strangers more and check in on friends more. Love to you all! <3
P.P.S. Thanks for the inspiration to start thinking about our new normal, Madonna, I want to hear yours! ;)