Knowing Ourselves

Shortcuts to self-awareness such as personality typing have their limits, true, but they can also be amazing tools with which to heighten conscious experience. For those of us fascinated by this kind of thing, this blogger knows her way around the Enneagram, has a great page on reasons to explore it, and a guest post by yours truly; have a look.

It takes all kinds

I’ve been occupied drawing inspiration and immense pleasure from the lovely eleven-year-old visiting us this week, but being a somewhat more earnest and analytical personality than my little houseguest, I do miss the somewhat weird, solitary and quiet activity of writing. So here I am, to sort out and integrate my observations.

I think I’m pretty social and adventurous, but along with that (contradictory as it may sound), also pretty serious-minded, timid, and somewhat averse to the frivolous. (One kind friend says I’m deeeeeep.)

Our young houseguest embodies the sense of confidence and mischief and charisma I’ve often wished for over the years. This is for her, and for all who have at times longed for the more carefree and charismatic personality traits she displays. (A friend once told me that of course, and understandably, people will always be more drawn to my charming and funny husband than they will be to me. I have always believed that a true friend values who we are. She is no longer a friend.)

To give you an idea of the level of self-assuredness this eleven-year-old is in possession of: At the airport, her luggage not showing up in the baggage claim area, she has it under control before I even wonder where we might go to register the problem—she’s already approached the appropriate baggage counter and reported the lost bag. She promptly calls her mom to announce her safe arrival, gives her the delayed baggage news, and tells her not to worry, it’s happened to her often and it won’t be a problem.

We get caught up and make some plans, plans that include some visits with some of our friends, which she readily agrees to, even though they include nobody anywhere near her age. She remembers them from last time, and says they’re fun. Keep in mind that we, and most of our friends, are four or five decades older than she is.

At dinner, she’s quick to tell one of my friends how much she likes her glasses (they’re trendier than mine, and she definitely knows trendy), and is happy to explain exactly which phone is going to be the next big thing, and why. She picks up my Blackberry, and within minutes has the password cracked (yes, I now have a better password), and sends I LUV YOU text messages to a number of my contacts.

She’s not yet on Facebook, but, my husband agreeably looking the other direction, she quickly hijacks his page and posts a mischievous status update on his behalf, something about how disappointed he was about being unable to get out of some dreadful meetings on time to go pick up his wonderful and amazing granddaughter at the airport.

At the invitation to join my daughter at a pool party in the home of people she doesn’t know at all, she agrees without hesitation, and when I pick her up, I see that she’s been her usual charming self and has both contributed to and enjoyed a nice time. She asks about my relationship with my ex-husband and his wife (who hosted the pool party), and suggests I befriend them on Facebook. They’ve also introduced her to Enneagram personality types, and now she is quick to explain to us, with a giant smile, exactly where her personality overlaps with her grandpa’s, and why they sometimes have minor altercations involving boundaries.

Monday morning marks the beginning of theatre school. Despite our busy weekend and late nights, she cheerfully gets up to the alarms she’s set on both her iPod and phone, and though she admits to a bit of nervousness and knows nobody in her class, she bids me farewell with a smile. Later, she tells me she volunteered to lead the way with the first acting exercise, not because she wasn’t nervous, but because she figured she might as well just jump in and break the ice. When I pick her up at the end of the day, she cheerfully waves good-bye to one of her classmates with a “See you tomorrow, Wife.” She has several, she explains, it’s a game she plays at home too.

When after another full day our current heat wave brought more houseguests wanting to sleep in the cool of their old basement bedrooms, she jumped up, instantly ready to socialize and chat and play.

I admire and utterly adore this young woman. She chases mischief and fun, but watching a movie depicting a young woman’s bullying at the hand of peers, she’s very quick to express empathy. I wish I had her mind and her energy, her talent and confidence. I’d love to be in possession of a personality as spirited as hers. But the good news is that, despite our society’s seeming tendency to value the more assertive, high-energy personality traits above all else, I think I may have finally, at midlife (for today at least) come to embrace the somewhat more hesitant, thoughtful, nurturing and earnest qualities I have always been in possession of.

Because it takes all kinds—both the spirited charismatic ones who provide laughter and respite from life’s harsher realities, and the more reflective, loyal, in-the-wings kind—to make the world a better place.

Turning off Autopilot

While waiting in line for a macadamia nut gelato earlier, I saw a sign that urged me not to be afraid to do nothing but sit and think while at the beach. It sounds good, but the thing is this: sitting and thinking can yield some unpleasant insights into ourselves.

Without insight into ourselves though, pleasant or otherwise, how can we grow? How can we hope to move beyond those things that, like the turtle I saw today, surface into view only extremely briefly and rarely?

Most of how we operate is subconscious, deeply submerged, habitual, which is of course the antithesis to conscious living. Being conscious to the present may not always be fully pleasant, but it is surely truer and less destructive than living reflexively and unaware of the lengths we go to in order to manage our fears.

Busy-ness is one of my escapes from reality and fear, I’ve come to see clearly again. Being productive, getting things done. And being anything but busy this week, reality looms large. How I see myself, both good and bad, what I’m profoundly thankful for and what I’m bitter about, what I’m confident with and what I’m terrified of—it has all come into sharp focus.

Social and laughter-filled vacations are therapeutic, of course. But I think a retreat from all that distracts and numbs and enables our escapes from reality is revealing and empowering in ways that the usual ones can’t be. The unexamined life is, as Socrates said, not worth living.

Someone, I don’t know who, has said “to change your life: start immediately, do it flamboyantly,” and while that isn’t always desirable (impulses can after all be regrettable), there is something in those words, having spent more than a few decades on autopilot, that resonates with me.

There is often much we’d like to change about our lives and ourselves (at least there is for me), but though we may think what needs changing is this or that external situation, what really needs changing—what it is that gets in our way of contentment—is usually much deeper and trickier to arrive at, and completely out of reach on our chatty, busy, and numbing autopilot.

The deeper, much stickier, and less pleasant truth I’m arriving at is that, besides missing him desperately, I’m hardly conscious of a self apart from my husband anymore. I mean I know in theory, but I don’t know in the ways that count, in the ways that make us resilient enough to bend with the wind.

How Not to get Freshly Pressed: Avoid Ten-Step, Be-Happy, How-To lists

I’m a little bored with the ten-steps-to-anything-you-want lists. Ten steps to happiness. Ten steps around your stone-walling partner. Ten steps out of your personality box. Ten steps to keeping your impossible boss happy. Ten steps to being organized. Ten steps to project confidence. Ten foods to avoid. Ten foods to include. Ten steps to a thin and fit you. Ten steps to a beautiful garden. Ten steps to improving your finances. Ten steps to entrepreneurship. Ten steps to successful breastfeeding. Ten steps to making your posts stand out. Ten steps to being Freshly Pressed. On and on.

I’m new to this, so I could be wrong, but I kind of doubt that praising honest and messy writing over tidy little solutions lists will get you Freshly Pressed. It seems that despite the glut of self-help stuff out there, we still value prettily packaged up and simplistically optimistic over reality.

But sometimes some of us just want to know our lives aren’t the only ones that aren’t all neatly tied up. We want to know that others with similar experiences are managing, and we want to learn from them, but we also want to know that they sometimes don’t manage well at all. Some say this not-managing stage ought to be private, that we ought to offer the story only once resolution has been arrived at. I disagree.

Most of us derive comfort from being reminded that we’re not the only ones who live with insecurities and anxieties and sensitivities. We feel less alone when we’re reminded that others too live with pain, and that they sometimes handle them less than graciously, too. We need to present our best faces at work, and in public in general, and sometimes even with family and friends, and it’s true, nobody enjoys the Forever Victim. But nobody likes Ms. Perfect either, so what’s wrong with striking a balance?

I’m not opposed to helpful information. I’m not opposed to organized writing either. But I am opposed to the idea that the writing always most worthy of our attention is shiny, happy, and primarily informative. Sometimes gritty truth and reality are most worth reading.

Because the truth is that ten steps may or may not get us anywhere but depressed. The truth is that it’s not always black and white and simple.

We come with challenges, personalities, and limitations as varied as the jungle. We’re strong and weak, accomplished and frustrated, happy and sad, productive and lazy, generous and selfish, emotional and rational. We’re conscientious and lazy, principled and compromising, caring and self-absorbed, charming and irritating, tolerant and image-conscious. And we’re all these things for a million different reasons. 

Life does not consist of tidy little stairways, and we don’t often grow beyond the constraints of our particular personalities or find the courage or grace to achieve our goals or endure painful situations by way of ten simple steps. These things involve looking at our deepest fears and motivations and the honesty of fellow travelers. We don’t find community and comfort in being surrounded by people wearing their I’ve arrived badges.

Optimism, direction, information, yes. Picture where you want to go and who you want to be, yes. But be present in the moment too, with yourself, with those around you, with realities that may be painful.

I love to read, but not lists, and not only stories that are finished, all loose ends tied up, problems resolved. I read those who honestly and intelligently and bravely and with humour face the realities of being human, of loss and heart-break, and yes, limitations. Sometimes the waters are blue and the sky is the limit, and sometimes our wheelchairs or our ages or decisions others have made on our behalf are the limit, and sometimes no ten step plans are going to help.  And sometimes we just need to hear from others left cold by the bright-siding, just-do-it lists. 

But as much as the world of literature respects the darker realities of human experience, and despite the reality that many bloggers are actually looking not so much for answers as they are for others who might understand, who might be willing to engage in something less amenable to a numbered list, what mostly seems to float to the top in the blogosphere is the perkier, tidier, how-to stuff.

I’ll have to come up with ten steps to change this.


From Autopilot to Conscious, Present, Empathetic

Sometimes I need a meeting with myself to feel anchored again. Plodding endlessly through the to-do list day after day is fine, but dreary, and can leave me feeling lost in the desert, parched, impatient, aimless.

Rattling around in my head are vanities, feeling ungrateful about wishing for a couple of inches of hair at Christmas and wanting a million more now, wanting back all the follicles that once upon a time were alive on my scalp. It’s not bad, I tell myself, better than none.

I’ve always been a self-soother. 

A former friend once told me I want it all. She was wrong then, and still is. I’ve never wanted it all, but today I do want back some of what I’ve lost.

I go for that coffee break. I go out for it for a change, not because I can’t have one in my office or my kitchen, but because I sometimes need a crowd to silence the internal chatter enough to be present to myself. I sit down and breathe deeply. I resist the temptation to get on with the Do list I know is at my fingertips, and instead, start with a little hobby writing. It’s a good bridge to the meeting.

Fingers tapping on my keyboard, eyes on the stream of human beings walking in and out. I used to do a lot of back-of-napkin writing. Now I’m in love with my Macbook—it’s much faster, allows my eyes to take in my surroundings as I write, and is infinitely easier to read and edit afterwards.

Men in ties, women in heels, chatty, sure professionals. Others in Joe or Lulu Lemon comfort. Middle-aged women in middle-aged fashions. Young happy faces in edgier outfits, ephemeral fashions destined for a very brief life. Some wardrobes clearly in need of cheering up, their owners either working too much or getting paid too little to care. Some very lined and tired faces, which I look away from—being relatively newly out of estrogen, aging still frightens me.

There are children bouncing and laughing, others sitting and watching. A blond and curly-haired toddler clearly and without any inhibition whatsoever taking full advantage of his diaper. Another brown-eyed boy weeping heart-brokenly. His mom has been ignoring him for what feels like a very long time, presumably not to give into whatever it is he’s after.  He’s so genuinely wet and sad though that it’s all I can do not to take him into my arms.

I log into the magazine inbox. It’s a Friday, and I’m happy there’s nothing new there. I look at the story I’d promised myself I’d edit today, and close the file. I remind myself this is supposed to be a coffee break, a slowing down, a meeting with myself, my real self, not my diligent, working, thinking personality. Much of what we do each day is automatic, habitual, unconscious. It’s the personality we’re comfortable wearing, not necessarily an expression of our real selves.

Hobby writing or nothing; that’s all for a few minutes right now.

Love and Life, Orchids and Dandelions

We are orchids, she and I. Easily overwhelmed by too much water or direct sunlight. To thrive, to achieve our goals, we must remember to focus on what is possible rather than on what is not possible. To keep our Qi flowing, we must take care not to repress our emotions. When conditions are right, we rebound well, and will outlast many others. We’re thoughtful and creative and notice details. We will understand and accept your foibles and fears like others often can’t. 

The infinitely more robust dandelions don’t usually understand us, and may not have a lot of patience with our need to build greenhouses for ourselves in winter.

I know this, but I forget sometimes.

And then: misunderstanding, feeling overlooked, tension, a silencing hand held up, a door closed in my face. It frightens me not to be let in, to be disconnected from someone I love, to be silenced. But I discover I’m okay outside the locked door after all, that it’s nice out, that I’m hardier now at mid-life than I might’ve once been. That there are all kinds of trails to take, that the trees will listen.

The primal energy of the ocean beckons. Soon, I will swim, swim, swim.