Nothing Lasts Forever

I spent most of the day driving around Ohio in gorgeous, breezy late-summer sunshine. The air was humid and soft from last night’s thunderstorms, but the angle of the shadows and the underlying coolness in the wind hinted that the season’s arc has begun to bend towards autumn.  There is a bronzed glow to the green hillsides now, and yellowing leaves fluttering and twisting as they fall.  The highways are still edged with cornflowers and Queen Anne’s lace, but they are gradually being joined by the golden faces of sunflowers.  The lengthening nights are signaling the earth to hasten its harvest before the snow flies, and all of nature is responding.  The nights are thrumming with the calls of cicadas and frogs, and the mornings are heavy with dew.  Change is in the air, it seeps into my pores and nostrils, and my mind turns to thoughts of what is passing, and what may come.

Autumn is my favorite time of year.  I love the way its promise hovers over the dog days of August, and how its colors—gold, scarlet, ruby, purple—gradually emerge from the canopy of summer’s green and gently fade into winter’s neutrals.  I love the warm days and chilly nights, the crispness in the air and the vistas of impossibly blue sky.  Autumn speaks to my inner child that loves stories with sad endings, and my outer adult who finds awe and comfort in the huge rhythms of orbits and seasons.  Autumn is the downward slope after another birthday, the acclimation to being a little older, a farewell wrapped in the gleaming sheen of a culminating year.

As another autumn approaches, the world seems almost painfully beautiful in its ephemerality.  Not just the colors of the forest and the warmth in the air, but the larger dance of life itself.  Birth and death, weakness and strength, youth and age, how inevitable their blossoming and their fading. How we lose ourselves in the present, in the seductive and necessary delusion that we will always be exactly as we are today.  And yet, on days when light and shadow hang in perfect balance, we are snapped into sudden awareness that today will not last, that we are travelers on a road with no stopping.  At the same time that our hearts fill to bursting at the joy or sorrow or injustice or beauty in the world, we know that they—and we—are only shadows, and that our excitement and our heartbreak are only shadows of shadows.  Does that make our experience more beautiful or more empty? Does the knowledge that we are only brief visitors here in our bodies make their journey more or less meaningful?

As I slide down the increasing slope of middle-age, the poignancy of autumn is increasingly rich at the same time as it stings with deeper sorrow.  This is the late summer of more than just this year, and this path of the planet round the sun.  This is my own August, my own season of delicious harvests and long, soft nights.  I have grown tall and strong enough to weather a howling storm or two; it will still be a while before I am broken down enough to fall.  In these days of freedom and courage and strength, however, the chill of that future is present, coiled and waiting.  Its promise is inarguable, inevitable.  There is no point in fearing it, for it is as much a part of life as squalling infancy or nubile girlhood.  The whisper of mortality contained in a living moment is the reminder that we are only passengers in these meaty packages.  Their hungers and hopes and desires are our songs to the world we live in, and our pleasures and pains are the world’s songs back to us.  Our bodies are the instruments we play in this grand symphony that spans from birth to death.  They bow to the same forces as every other living thing; they partake not only in the cycles of growth and decay but in the deeper cycles that turn random bits of matter into creatures and back again.  We inhabit them only long enough to become aware of our place in the world before the world dissolves us back into itself again.

Feeling the weightiness, the thingliness of my body as it tiptoes along the crest of these harvest years is odd for my self, the spirit that inhabits it.  I don’t feel old.  I don’t feel like a different person than when I was a little child making doll clothes out of petunias or when I was coming of age in college or brooding over my own children as they slept.  It was all me, is still me.  It will keep right on being me until there is no electricity left in my brain to fire the thought.  It’s an incongruous notion, existing as a timeless soul encapsulated in an envelope enslaved to time.  But it feels natural, too.  The world as we know it is subject to time, while our ideas often tend towards the eternal.  Surely there is something vital in this tension, which simultaneously defies and defines our experience.  Everything around us speaks to a natural cycle that dictates our death at the moment of our conception, yet we experience ourselves as eternal.  How much of our living in our minds, in our ideas, is because we are unwilling to face that final moment when the last neuron fires? 

For my part, I am not keen on losing my place in the world any time soon.  I’m not eager to weaken, to slow down, to realize that the last day of summer was, indeed, the last.  But I like to peep at it occasionally, to become familiar with it, to acknowledge it as part of who I am and will become.  The best time to do that is on days like this, when it’s easy to see that the shadows are what brings beauty to the light.  Being wide awake to the shape of the journey makes it possible to walk it without fear.  There will be more summers, and more impossibly bright days and one of them will be my last.  Until then I’m grateful for every bit of every one.

©Mary Braden 2015

It’s Just Fear

There are times when fears bubble closer than usual to the surface, times when imperceptible increases in weariness or anxiety magnify the usual ghosts and vapors that stir the spirit.  When I was young, I couldn’t tell the difference between being afraid and the things I feared.  These days I have learned that the things I fear are almost never truly present; they are chimeras, fictions created by the past to ward off imagined hurts in the future.  When I feel the shifting turbulence of fear inside me, roiling my stomach and quickening my pulse, I know that something in my outside world has gotten around my usual self-protections and stirred up old sludge.

It happens when I’m tired, especially that sigh-of-relief tired that follows a major effort.  Today was my second 12-hour shift at the hospital in a row, following a week of business travel, high-intensity meetings and juggling a million details.  I’ve been physically tired from running, and emotionally stretched from the challenges of a long-distance love affair, and a new roommate.  Without quite enough sleep or quite enough time to relax, my ability to let go of imagined pain weakens, and my inner horizons start to darken with fear.  It’s all going to collapse, they whisper.  This life you’ve fought so hard to create is built on sand, they hiss and murmur, and those who say they love you are not to be trusted. Driving home after my shift, the warm evening sunlight flooding the car windows, I feel a familiar chill grip my gut.  Pull back, says my heart, there is pain coming.  The small hairs stand up on my arms, my knuckles whiten on the steering wheel.

A decade ago, I would have taken those inner voices as observations and acted upon them; history shows how many of my decisions I’ve made on the basis of fear rather than self-knowledge.  Today I know to breathe deep and slow, to open my heart rather than slamming it shut, to imagine light and openness and healing rather than pain and darkness.  Today I know that the best response to those inner whispers is not to armor myself against them but to let myself see what they’re trying to show me.  Listening to my fears lets me know what questions to ask, what shadows are asking for the light.  Paradoxically, the more honestly I allow myself to see what I fear, the easier it gets to recognize that it doesn’t exist.

It wouldn’t do to go through every day in the haze of hyper-attentive navel-gazing that fear-facing requires.  I’m glad it only surfaces in full clarity on rare occasions.  It is an immensely powerful experience, consigning old shadows to memory and feared pain to the realm of speculation, clearing the present for presence, attention and action.  In the car on the way home from work, I was able to see that—once again—what I fear is a replay of the past, something that can no longer happen to me because I am no longer the woman I was.  By the time I got home, the moment had passed and my fears with it.  I am no longer the victim of old horrors, though I can fall prey to their seductive songs on occasion.  It doesn’t last, though.  I know how it feels to have my worst fears come true—and it’s survivable.  Today’s fears are stirrings of a real vulnerability, but they are not the truth.  I know better than to listen to them as prophets.  Instead I let them teach me where my wounded places are, and where I must be gentle with myself.  The future is entirely unknown to me, and the past is entirely gone.  In the present, fears only feel real, they are unable to bear weight.  I can see them for what they are, let the feelings surge and ebb away, and get on with it.

©Mary Braden 2015

Coming Home

Today is Friday, and I got home around 3:30 after being on the road since Tuesday morning.  It was a very successful trip—not only was I able to attend several crucial meetings in person and conduct a job interview, but I fit almost 35 miles of running in, and managed to stay caught up on my online class homework and this blog.  I even found a top-notch Lebanese restaurant near my usual hotel, and sampled deep-fried pierogies stuffed with sauerkraut, cheese and bacon in a little lakeside town in the boonies between Toledo and Cleveland.   I’m getting good at traveling, after almost a year of doing increasing amounts of it.  I’m developing routines so that I don’t forget to pack essentials, can keep electronic devices charged and grotty running clothes safely sequestered from all other garments.  I know to wrap my big pottery water mug in a slinky silk robe and my coffee cup in a pair of spandex capris—to make sure I have something luxurious to wear when I’m alone in the hotel room, and something that doesn’t chafe if I get a bee in my bonnet to attempt a long run.  I know to make sure there’s at least one book worth reading in my suitcase, an extra pen in the glove box, and extra business cards in my portfolio, the outside pocket of my computer backpack and in the console behind the gear shift.  I know that a pair of reeky running shoes fares far better tied to the handle of the roller bag than stuffed inside, and that bringing a bathing suit is the perfect deterrent to entering a pool, even on the hottest days.

I love traveling, but it is beyond lovely to come home.  Swapping out business attire for minimally-constrictive summer slothwear is like being let out of school early.  The combination of   distance driving and marathon training creates a memorable weariness in the legs and seat, which is wonderfully relieved by an hour at the standing desk followed by a rigorously horizontal evening on the couch. It doesn’t hurt at all to have a roommate who likes to show his joy at my return by feeding me with comfort food and fetching me delicious beers.  Getting home in the late afternoon leaves only an hour or so for digging out of emails, making return calls, etc., before all pretense of public usefulness can subside and I can embrace a few hours of uninterrupted, unencumbered downtime. 

I love me some downtime. Watching soothing TV, listening to music, reading, writing, hearing the cat snoring on the back of the couch, seeing the deeply familiar silhouette of the roommate in his rocking chair when I glance up over the laptop screen.  I love the relief of a job done, mistakes that can’t be made because the opportunity has passed,  new developments that can’t take wing until the start of business on Monday.  Coming home after a trip means a hiatus, the pause that refreshes.  It means coming down off the stage and being in my own space again, surrounded by low expectations and familiar comforts.  It’s a grand thing, this place where I have laid my head for nearly a decade, where I have had every emotion under the sun and emerged whole, if not unscarred. This is the longest I’ve lived anywhere, this ramshackle cottage in the heartland, and it feels like home. 

I can’t remember when I haven’t dreamed of the next chapter, the next adventure, the next set of challenges.  My whole life has been surrounded with air castles about what I might do or see or explore if the current gig proves unsatisfying.  I was born, and may well die, full of wonder and anticipation of what waits around the corner.  I don’t lack commitment, that’s not it; I enjoy the fruits of sustained, long-term efforts.  But I do enjoy reminding myself that I am not trapped, that I could do something different if I chose to, and home is where that process flourishes.  At home, secure in the life I’ve made for myself, I can think openly and creatively about what all this effort is for.  I can look at what I want and ask myself if I’m on the right road to get there.  I can cherish a bouquet of potential futures and enjoy the vision of each one.  I can do the thought experiments that keep me sure and grounded in my choices.  Why only here? Perhaps because this is where I’ve fought the hardest to have choices, then to figure out what they are.  This tiny corner of the earth, mortgaged to the hilt though it may be, has given me a place to hide my head when things were dark and has been an incubator for the healing that followed.  This is where I’ve survived my darkest days.  This is also where I learned to stand up for myself, to set boundaries and to live a life free of those who don’t care to respect them.  This is where I’ve said the hardest goodbyes, swallowed the bitterest pills, faced the bleakest dawns.  Those shadows are the engines of change, the bedrock for the choices I make now between competing visions of the good life.  Wrapped in the knowledge that this is where I belong, I can remind myself that the seeds of today were contained in those moments of chaos and fear, that the germ of who I am today was somehow already present in that woman whose suffering seems now like a bad dream.  My peaceful mullings over what the future may hold are contained in the history here, in this slice of geography that has contained my journey for so long. 

Now that my calendar is full of days away from home, it’s a rich and strong pleasure to hold fast to this anchor, to know that the long rhythms still hold, no matter how much busyness may stir the pot from day to day.  This place may not always be my home, but it is the place that taught me what home feels like. Wherever I go from here, this goes with me.

©Mary Braden 2015

Jogging the Marathon

I attempted a 15-mile run today in warm humid weather: 7.5 miles downhill followed by the painful and inevitable reverse.  The first 10 miles were lovely, but when I hit the sun on the last uphill climb, I ran out of gas and had to stop running after 12.5 miles and walk the rest of the way.   From a training standpoint, I know what my mistake was; I started too late to avoid the heat, and paid the price of premature exhaustion.  A couple of years ago, I would have been crushed by this “failure,” heaped coals of fire on my own head for failing to plan better, for sleeping late instead of leaving early, for covering 25% of my scheduled run at a walk, thus negating the entire experience.

These days I find myself far more sanguine.  I still carried this middle-aged body 15 miles under its own steam, still dedicated 3+ hours to the exercise regimen that feeds my soul, still saw the beautiful neighborhoods along my route in the perfectly hazy dawn.  I still strengthened my heart, fed more calcium to my bones, inhaled thousands of deep, regular breaths, increased the oxygen flow to my brain.  I still showed up for the run, paid attention to my body and my surroundings, told myself the truth about what I could and couldn’t do, and was open to the result, even though it wasn’t my original plan.  So what if it didn’t go without a hitch? Who cares? Not I—I don’t mind what byways my process takes any more as long as it’s generally in the right direction.  The long view is what occupies my attention and galvanizes my hope and ambition these days, and it’s working fine.

As I get older, I am less and less wedded to the notion that failure to resolve a problem immediately is a bad thing.  So often my first responses to a perceived problem are lacking in nuance and understanding.  So often the problem itself is not the glitch that I take it to be, but a natural consequence of what came before, an organic development that merits further investigation.  If I react to the discomfort of an unwelcome change by trying instinctively to eradicate that change, how am I ever going to achieve any kind of growth?  As I become more and more aware of my own shadows, and how they interact with the light in myself, I am coming to think that my reflexive tendency to fix things is really a denial of my own capacity to learn through tension, through attentive and detailed observation of the way fear shapes and guides my inner landscape.  Fixing things is important when there is too much at stake to lose; but how often does that truly happen? What challenges can’t wait an hour, or a day, or even a week to figure out what’s at risk, what’s truly being lost or gained by embracing or resisting?  The long view requires me to agree to take the necessary time to learn the dimensions of my troubles before attempting to resolve them. 

The long view also requires me to agree to pace myself to gradual, incremental solutions to problems.  It means letting go of the hurried, pressured drive to win, to the need to triumph and assert dominion rather than exploring what I truly want and need and how best to get it.  Life no longer requires grand gestures from me. I no longer need to prove love or worthiness or value by the size of the risks I’m willing to take.  My task has always been simple—to live a life that reflects who I am, as clearly and accurately as possible.  It’s taken me a quarter-century of adult life to realize that this degree of truthfulness is the only path to the flavor of joy which pleases me most.  Freedom is the ultimate aim of the long view, achieved by gradually stepping out from under the crushing weight of internalized expectations that make us feel trapped and starved, even as we reap the rewards of a society which crowns conformity with a golden crown.

So what if I’m 47 and don’t want a husband? So what if I run with glacial slowness while other people sprint, gazelle-like, past me when I take it on the road? So what if I can’t stand shopping at the mall and buy my business clothes at the thrift store and spend the leftover money on airline tickets and hotels?  What difference does it make to anyone except the voices in my head?  And you know what? Those voices—the lifelong whisperers of how to please, how to avoid disappointing, how to conform—are getting quieter the less I listen to them.  If I take the long view, I can avoid listening to them for weeks at a time. 

The long view means giving things time to work themselves out.  It means learning to love myself and others while that happens, rather than expecting instant fixes to result in a magically-changed world.  It means taking challenges as suggestions for self-inquiry and conversation, opportunities to learn and accept what is otherwise hidden.  The long view lets love blossom as the result of paying attention and appreciating, rather than judging.  Instead of holding up a series of internal hoops for a lover to jump through, the long view invites conversation, exploration, intimacy and radical openness; conflict provokes listening rather than attack, acceptance rather than judgement.  The long view says that love has all of time to unfold and that the joy is in the journey.  It says that there are countless kinds of love and all of them have something to offer.

Don’t get me wrong…life is as full of crises as it ever was.  Trips to the ER, job deadlines, bills to pay and places to be, these will always be the adrenalin-trips we know and love.  But the big questions, the ongoing search for what we’re to do and why and with whom, these are fodder for the long view.  It took years of learning the hard way for me to take my foot off my own emotional gas pedal and start looking at the landscape.  When I fail, like on today’s run, to make my plan come to fruition, I realize that this is how it’s supposed to work.  Life is the great experiment, the constant testing of expectation against reality.  The long view is the shift to observation and reflection rather than constant seeking for action.  It is patience, commitment, willingness to be wrong.  And, more than anything else in this crazy world, it is peace.

Birthday

Yesterday was my 47th birthday, and it was great.  I woke in my lover’s arms in the big city and fell asleep in my own small-town bed, full of blue cheese burgers and hoppy beers.  I spoke with my beloved children, who somehow still love me after all the indignities and worse that I have been responsible for in their young lives.  I saw the sun set over the quiet street where my tiny household flourishes, where the cat abuses the neighbor’s flowerbeds and the dog barks joyously at passing baby strollers.  I shared a laughing, congenial meal with my roommate, miraculously now the master of himself after years of addiction and illness stripped away our marriage and very nearly his life.  I bought myself a present of books with money I earned myself, and promised myself the time to read them as the truer, deeper gift.  I ate Eggs Benedict in our nation’s capitol and flew on a big jet plane to Ohio and drove home in my very own car, with enough money to pay for garage parking and even stop by the BMV to get a new license…on the very day it was set to expire. 

There have been far worse birthdays, times when every reminder of passing time was a reminder of defeat and surrender.  Times when the best thing about turning over another year was the accompanying faint breath of hope that things might not eternally suck.  There were times low in cash, low in love, low in confidence, low in perspective.  The calendar never wavered, though: not in the tempests of fear or the doldrums of depression.  The sun rose and set, the winds warmed and cooled in their accustomed patterns, the rains fell and froze and turned to fog in utter oblivion of my mortal woes.  $5/day for the family’s food turned in the passing of time to a career that meets and exceeds any sensible person’s needs, even including college tuition.  The endless roller-coaster of codependent flailing at the spectre of addiction and misery turned first to solitude, then to peace.  The ill-advised attempt at marriage that threatened a swift return to a life of futility and bitterness was relegated to history before the damage became permanent.  The seasons turned; the white in my hair grew brighter; the light in my heart burned stronger.  I ran some miles, I wrote some words, I knitted things and cooked things and spoke things and listened to things.   I went to hockey games.  I went to operas. 

When I was half my age I imagined that life here at the (generously assessed) midpoint was a calm backwater, the reward earned by a couple of decades of nonstop effort.  I thought that—after somehow successfully pulling a sustainable marriage and a couple of well-adjusted children out of my a**, that life would become some sort of gentle foot-massage, free from doubt or insecurity or head-scratching befuddlement.  Boy, was I wrong!  The truth is that with age comes an ever-increasing sense of amazement, and not always the happy kind.  How did I get so old? How could I have made such mistakes? How can I possibly figure out how to avoid the next ones? Where does safety stop trumping freedom? What life do I want to have lived? What life do I have now? What’s the difference?

If I were 22 and plagued with such questions, I would go mad or turn to a life of rum and Cheetos.  But I am not 22, and the process of figuring out what to do with the next half-century is just about the only truly interesting project left to do.  It’s time to think about what it means to have made so many mistakes and still feel so fundamentally happy.  It’s time to appreciate the people who haven’t judged me on my errors but on my commitment to be a fully-engaged participant.  Heck, it’s time to appreciate the folks who gave up on me and had the generosity of spirit to change their minds back again.  I have been so staggeringly lucky, for so many years; the dark times and the difficult times have not been definitive, only educational.  The vast menagerie of fears that has at times kept me company through life has always been scarier in thought than in deed…a privilege I have done nothing to earn and nothing to deserve.  As I observe the people around me wrestle with and sometimes lose to their demons, part of me can’t quite believe I’m still standing.  Which gives rise, of course, to the eternal question of what does one do when one is the lucky one?  How does one life a life that shows sufficient gratitude for the staggering good fortune of just having made it this far? How do I walk a path that builds others up with the privilege I was born with?  How do I listen to those whose lives mirror my own in ways I can barely fathom? How do I turn their wisdom into useful action? How do I take half a lifetime of half-grasped notions and barely-realized experience and turn it towards a genuinely useful purpose?  So many questions, none of them asked with the breathless eagerness of youth.

It already looks like the Year of Being 47 is going to be a barnburner.  There are questions in play whose answers will be life-changing.  There are forces at work that will have much to teach when their time is ripe.  There will be new demands and new gifts and new promises.  There will be releasing of hopes and embracing of reality—and vice versa.  Four and a half decades of experience have taught me much; the next year will be equally rich, I think, and the next.  For these are the years when the answers matter less than the questions.  We have so little left to prove, and so much left to explore.  We are made strong by our sorrows but retain our best powers.  This is the year of Waking Up and Paying Attention.  I hope there will be many more just like it.

©Mary Braden 2015

RIP Theo Bikel

Today I discovered that a folksinger whose work I grew up listening to has died, at the ripe old age of 91.  His record that I grew up with became available electronically a few months ago…after years of searching for it, I promptly downloaded it and have listened to it several times a week since.  Middle age has sweetened my affection for the music I loved as a child, overlaid the familiar notes and lyrics with all the emotional poignancy of nostalgia.  Over and around the songs fall the shadows of all the grief and loss and confusion that have passed since then; woven into the raspy voice and singing guitar are all the moments of joy and delight and utter innocence that my childhood was full of. 

I was a very happy child, sheltered and adored by parents who understood instinctively how best to give me the peaceful space I needed without ever letting me feel lonely or afraid.  My world was full of music; my father had grown up in a musical family and made the house ring with everything he loved: opera, swing, jazz, folk, chamber music.  I would wake in the morning to the sound of his singing along to whatever was on the record player.  He would tell me the stories of his favorite operas, and dance me in his arms while he half-sang, half-translated the arias.  He loved all the tragic endings and he made me love them too, held me in his arms while I cried a little girl’s tears at the death of the characters whose stories and songs were so sweet. 

My parents pretty much missed the revolutions of the 1960s; my dad went to Ireland in 1963 for a two-year stint pursuing his MA at Trinity while my mom worked as a computer programmer in California, then they married outside Dublin and went straight to UVA where my dad got his PhD in 18th-Cent. English Literature while my mom programmed computers and had me and my baby brother. The family moved to Oregon in 1970, where we settled and stayed.  Much of the musical revolution of the hippie era completely passed my household by; I grew up with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Theo Bikel, the Kingston Trio—no Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Joni Mitchell.  Only as a near-adult did I catch up a little, although my anachronistic musical tastes have raised eyebrows amongst my friends for decades. 

I am still at my best in some ways when there is music playing in a silent house.  It’s as if the friendly ghosts of my youth still haunt my space: people snuggled into comfortable chairs with their noses in books, the smell of cookies and tea, the purring of a cat or crackle of a wood stove fire.  During the brief periods when I have lived alone, I have been able to recreate that feeling, that cocoon of utter comfort; these days when I share my home with another, I create pockets of complete privacy to get my fix—early in the morning, usually, or in the car during the long hours of driving that my job requires.  My boss thinks I’m a hero for being willing to drive across the state at a moment’s notice, but what he doesn’t realize is that those long peaceful hours are my gateway to an orgy of purely self-indulgent musical wallowing.  I learned to love music as a young child and never became much of a student as an adult, so I often feel a bit ignorant and tongue-tied around my friends who have devoted themselves to the intellectual and aesthetic study of music to an extent far beyond my own.  I forget artists’ and compositions’ name in a heartbeat, and can’t hear most of the subtleties that real connoisseurs talk about.   On the flip side, however, my proletarian level of music appreciation makes me easy to please and eager to learn, about almost any music someone thinks is worth listening to. 

As a young child, I had no idea of my parents as political people, barely knew what party they belonged to or what that meant.  As I grew older and began to listen more closely, I began to get a sense of what kind of world they wanted to live in, and to see how it shone in the music they loved…revolutionary Irish songs, anti-war songs, populist hymns.  In my family we even learned about the birds and the bees from songs…the Bawdy Songs and Backroom Ballads albums recorded by that inimitable troubadour, Oscar Brand.  At the same time that I was listening to Kasey Kasem and America’s Top 40 on the radio, I was singing in the church choir and listening to everything that poured from the speakers at home:  Ella Fitzgerald, Josh White, the Jubilee 4, Gilbert & Sullivan, the irresistible rhythm of Scott Joplin and the heartbreaking adagio of Beethoven’s 7th.  The whirling inner cacophony of adolescence was reflected in the music, just as it has been at every turning point in my life since then.  And as the singers, one by one, have died, the bittersweet sheen of loss has added to the lustre of the old music for me, cracking open the shell of weary adulthood and re-opening for me the full emotional range that was mine when I was still brand-new and unfrightened in the world. 

As I explore the path of middle age, I have been joyfully surprised to see how much of the journey has been learning how to reconnect with that little girl with the serious blue eyes.  I find much of my task is to unlearn the reflexes and anxieties learned through decades of adult mistakes and return to that state of radical acceptance that a happy, intelligent child embraces without thinking.  Thanks to technology and a sentimental heart, many of those doors to an older wisdom have been unlocked by rediscovering the music that filled my universe in those days.  Saying farewell to those musicians is like bidding goodbye to beloved imaginary friends; they have given me so much joy that their reality lives in their tunes now. RIP, Theo Bikel, with your humor and your gentleness and your courage.  May your vision of the world be the one that comes to pass.

©Mary Braden 2015

Habit

I am an impatient and highly skeptical consumer of self-help literature, which too often strikes me as simplistic and shallow, insulting to the complex, painful wounds of those who seek solace in it.  I have encountered some exceptions, and I clasp those to my heart with great affection.  The finest of them shine a light on the unruly dynamics of the mind and heart, and speak of how a balanced, meaningful life depends on observing them with attention and learning where they may and may not be controlled.  Since Aristotle, philosophers have opined that we are creatures of habit, that we can change the course of our lives by deliberately changing our patterns of action until they become automatic.  My own life reflects the truth of this assertion, for good and ill.  I have changed my eating and sleeping and exercise habits to make me a healthier person.  I have established new habits of self-awareness, freedom and resilience.  The new patterns have replaced the old until it is easier to follow their guidance than to replicate the entire thought pattern every day. 

There is a shadowed side to this coin, however.  Just as mindful repetition of healthy activity strengthens the mind’s desire to continue that activity, the mindless repetition of empty or downright toxic behavior strengthens the likelihood of that behavior’s continuation.  The cheerful autopilot that gets an experienced runner out the door on rainy days is the same one that steers us away from exploration and joy towards security and predictability, preserves racist and sexist notions intact and safe from examination, guides us towards endless repetition of the same mistakes.  Just as habit is the interim step on the path to virtue in Aristotle’s vision, it is also the complacent accessory to self-destruction if we allow ourselves to be driven only by what comes most naturally.  “We are creatures of habit,” is true not only in the sense that we are capable of transforming ourselves by changing our habits, but also means that we are defined by whatever habits we have, regardless of whether they foster joy or wretchedness.

It’s been years now since I found myself so miserable that the effort required for serious change was less scary than continuing as I was.  Married to an addict who was unable to find his way to recovery, I was a textbook enabler, codependent to the core, an accessory not only in his agonizingly prolonged descent into oblivion but to my own.  I remember the stark terror of those days, the fractured sleep, the inability to eat followed by bouts of sudden, ravenous hunger.    I remember the habits that shaped me then—adamantine denial of my own unhappiness, white-knuckled adherence to the lie that I could force those around me to change, willingness to collapse into impotent, raging despair rather than acknowledge that I had the option of letting go, admitting defeat and walking away.  All my powers and gifts were devoted to maintaining those habits, in flagrant defiance of my own observations, my friends’ and family’s pleas, every noble idea I ever thought I believed in.  Only when external circumstances and internal exhaustion combined to break my will and my spirit simultaneously was I able to begin to see.  I had no good habits then, only the distorted, broken tools for surviving the unsurvivable.  I had to start from scratch.

I was uncannily lucky, in those days, to have friends who loved me through those worst times.  As I toiled my way through the years of loss and grief that had been festering under my iron discipline, I found people willing to listen, to reach out when I was unable to hold on, to share their stories and their wisdom.  As I struggled to find my footing, to face and understand my own mistakes and the truth of the struggles that were now past, I began to see that none of us are free from our own darkness.  None of us makes it halfway through a lifetime without being crushed, beaten down and rising again.  None of us has an easy path to walk, and none of us is born with the tools even to recognize our own fears and shame, let alone to conquer them.  In the utter destruction of my confidence and worldview that accompanied those darkest months, I was able for the first time to see how much of my misery had been sheer habit, born at first of small daily adjustments that became cemented over time into rigid, unyielding reflexes, effectively blocking out any impulse toward attention, observation or adaptation.  There was nothing about my situation that forced me into this isolation; we are all hard-wired to default to  it, given enough stress and enough fear.  I don’t blame the person whose addiction derailed my psyche any more than I blame myself for being unable to withstand that series of assaults.  All parties acted as human beings generally do, and the outcome was unsurprising.  We lacerated each other with our anger and our desperation and our suffering, but our real targets were ourselves and our own pain.  Seeing the anguish we both experienced, there is no way to wish for more.

From the ashes of those toxic habits, new ones have arisen.  I have learned to concern myself less about the actions of others and more about whether my own actions align with my vision of a life well-lived.  I have learned to busy myself with what I can control and observe the rest with a certain amount of detachment.  I have learned that love is inextricable from freedom; I cannot love deeply unless I relinquish any design on the freedom of those I love, and I cannot feel loved by anyone who attempts to control me.  I have taught myself the slow-release joy of forming new habits that nourish this new vision of freedom…running for a strong body that does what I ask of it, eating wholesome food for energy and vigor,  friendships full of laughter and delight, private hours with needlework or books, a daily gratitude practice, music and beauty and working for more justice in the world.  I can never master all the lights and shadows in my heart, but I can shape their dance a little better now—and see a little better where my own blind spots might be.

©Mary Braden 2015

Discretion

I have spent much of the last year falling in love with a man who has also fallen in love with me.  The details are not especially interesting except to us, but the pertinent fact that has carried unprecedented weight is our decision to keep our relationship extremely private, even among our considerable mutual acquaintance. The experience of seeing a love affair take root and grow outside the usual community support systems has been fascinating. In sidestepping the encouragement and celebrations of most of our friends, we have also sidestepped the assumptions, the judgments and the flights of fancy that often accompany the union of two people, especially when they both have complicated histories.

We live hundreds of miles apart, and we both have busy professional and personal lives that somehow failed to evaporate when we encountered each other for the first time and realized within hours that we had stumbled into something important.  We are able to meet in person only every few weeks, and rely on telephone, Skype and Internet chat to continue the conversation that binds us together. We share our story with a few trusted friends, but for the most part this is a solitary path, enlivened by the precious days we are able to spend together, marked by heartbeats rather than hours.  Our choice to make our romance a private affair has cost us the easy comforts of a public role, of fitting easily into our respective worlds as a couple, a known quantity.  But we are also free to explore and define our relationship any way we like, to create a union based on our unique joys and fears and hopes, and to change it as our spirits move us.  We are untrapped, untrammeled by the expectations of others, which makes our path far easier as we navigate the challenges of loving over distance, time and middle age.

There is a price to be paid for our privacy, and it cuts keenly at times.  We are unable to enjoy the social rewards of new and well-matched love. We burden our few confidants with demands for secrecy, and lay ourselves open to betrayal by confiding at all.  These are choices we made early on, when we realized that trying to craft a romance in the interstices of our complex lives was going to take a level of creativity that requires freedom more than it fears loneliness.  Fortunately the distance between us makes the social cost more tolerable; over 800 miles, there are few opportunities for us to move in the same circles; our time together is too infrequent to allow for much socialization—although the few exceptions shine glorious bright.

I’ve been married four times and have left four husbands; I am piercingly aware of my own failings in the nurturing and empowering of love.  Conducting this experiment outside the public eye has made my journey infinitely easier, helped me to avoid the waves of shame and smallness that engulf me when I think too long about my track record in matters of the heart.  Making our plans and exploring our options outside the public eye has stripped away my accustomed excuses, forcing me to examine what I actually want and confront my fears without room for distraction.  As a result, I have learned to speak the truth in a voice that may quaver, but does not fail.  With an audience of one, I am able to hear and absorb another’s truth, and to offer up my own.  In the sheltered space between us, where we have agreed to seek no other counsel, I must take responsibility for my own fears and weaknesses and move beyond them to where the real conversation begins.

In the dance of new love, there are a million ways to misplace attention.  Taking the blossoming affair out of reach of almost everyone but the lovers themselves minimizes those distractions and allows the exploration to be inward rather than outward.  Loving without the protections of a whole community means cracking myself open and looking deep within myself for the strength I need and the understanding that fuels growth.  Because I am solely responsible for what I bring to this affair, I must be careful with my thoughts and my feelings, learn to distinguish between them and to determine which is most true and most necessary to express.  I must hold up my end of a conversation in which comfort takes second place to truth, in which listening trumps speaking every time.  I must find and maintain a level of self-awareness that is equal to the task of truthtelling, while being at the same time open to hearing the truth of another.  It is a test of everything I know and believe in about being a person; it is love writ large by being writ in private.

One thing that is blissfully absent from a love affair conducted without fanfare is the outward pressure to conform to anyone’s expectations.  We are under no obligation to stay up to a given hour, to attend certain kinds of events, to appear at anyone’s behest but our own.  We can give free rein to our childishness, to our delighted laughter and our unhidden tears, and let their power soften and suffuse the realities that we must navigate every day.  There is no one to judge us, no one to question the depth or potency of our connection, no one to gainsay our hopes or limit our dreams.  Because we keep our love apart, we are free to find our own ways to keep its flame alight.  We choose the music to our dance, and we choose the steps to suit ourselves.  In this world where love is rare and fear is great, I have found a way to keep my step steady and my heart light.  After a lifetime of mistakes, I am able to explore love in steps small enough to keep my balance.  I can hold my choices gently and approach them in peace; I can love my lover and love myself in one breath and have that be enough.  In this world where public and private blur so easily, I have found a refuge from which to watch love unfold.  I am content.

©Mary Braden 2015

Fat-Shaming

The weather was so perfect today that I went out for a run right at rush hour.  The first half-mile was along a very busy street, so the air was full of traffic noise and the smell of exhaust.  Jogging slowly up the initial hill, I was off in my own little world, feeling my body adjust to the incline and the pace, letting my breathing settle into an even rhythm.  I wasn’t running fast, or even trying to, just letting my body go through its paces, seeing what it felt like doing.

I was completely unprepared when the young man shouted at me,  “Fatty! Hey, Fatty!” For a split second I didn’t realized it was aimed at me; I snapped my head to the right to see what was going on, looking for the poor soul who had just been publicly humiliated.  And then I realized it was me.  I felt the breath go out of me as if I’d been punched in the gut.  I staggered off balance for a step or two;.  I kept looking at the guy, who was leaning out of the open driver’s side window of his shiny black sedan as it cruised slowly by, watched his head turn to watch my discomfort, then swivel around as soon as traffic sped up. A bead of sweat trickled down my back, oddly cold. 

Running didn’t feel as good after that.  My legs felt heavy, achy, awkward. My breathing refused to sync.  The roar of traffic stopped feeling warm and enveloping and began to feel intrusive, annoying. The wind was too cold, the sun was too warm, my shoes were too heavy, my tank top was too floppy, my sunglasses were too bouncy on my nose.  The original purpose of going out in the first place—to wallow in the weather and gently work out the kinks of a day spent driving and in meetings—was completely lost.  The air on my skin made me feel vulnerable and exposed instead of free and present in the moment.  My legs—strong enough to run a marathon and shapely enough to justify heels and short skirts—looked flabby and thick to my own eyes as they carried me along.  If I hadn’t had an audience of several hundred commuters, I would have cried.

I didn’t cry, of course.  I reached the top of the hill, looked ahead at the intersection where 20 lanes of traffic converged, and ducked instead into a quiet residential street that I knew would loop back and down the hill toward my starting point.  It was lovely and quiet, with well-kept homes and children shooting baskets while their parent carried out the trash and dug in flower beds.  I ran on the sidewalk, listening to the quiet, and regained enough equilibrium to look at how I was feeling.  What a mess.  There was anger there, viperous and full of acid, fully-formed into words and sentences to fling at the stranger who had seen fit to shatter my peace. It was a thin sort of anger, though, spread too thin to be convincing.  The raw, glistening flesh of pain was too close to the surface to be hidden, even by reflexive, defensive rage.

Ow, is what I saw inside myself, Ow and Oh No and Why? The old familiar monkeys all took wing at once, fluttering wildly in my head as I sought to regain my inner balance. “You were a fool to be out running.” they said, “Of course he called you fat—you ARE fat!” “Don’t run any more, and you won’t have to endure that again.” “See, you’re still the same fat girl you always were, running or not.” The words spun into my consciousness, one after another, the same old enemies that I’ve spent years trying first to calm and then to befriend.  In the serene, suburban quiet, one footstep after another, I listened to myself re-create the bitter, lethal words that lurk just below the surface when confidence fails or circumstances conspire to weaken or subvert one’s inner defenses.  I let them flow, letting the rhythmic, meditative  stride show me my own inner landscape without clutching or judging.    For another half-hour those thoughts roiled and clashed in my head, for another half-hour I ran that loop, trying not to stop running or cry or panic. It worked.  The monkeys got bored and went back to sleep, the endorphins kicked in, the legs moved more easily and the breathing began keeping its old appointed time with my footfalls.  The sun still shone, and the breeze still blew crisp and cool on my skin. 

You know the feeling of dodging a bullet? Of realizing that you have just skirted your way around a crisis or been spared an assault whose scope and lethality you well know? That’s what happened to me this afternoon.  Nastiness from a stranger awakened old ghosts and stirred up old memories; my insecurities were all tripped at once, causing a domino effect of shame and fear and self-loathing.  In an instant I was brought low—from a successful, happy, self-fulfilled woman to a bewildered, miserable child, with no way to barricade my peace and keep it safe.  I was violated, forced to confront my own old wounds without my consent and with no recourse.  But I didn’t panic, I didn’t collapse, I didn’t fall apart.  I’ve finally been around long enough to know that random awfulness is not worth all that, that my peace can be disrupted by outside forces, but that it can’t be destroyed unless I allow it.  I know to go ahead and feel my feelings, especially the ugly ones, and to soothe the resulting pain with good things—sunshine, quiet, endorphins.  That guy caused me a truly miserable half hour, but that’s all he’s getting.  The monkeys are entitled to come out and play, but they re not allowed to rampage around my mental space any time they please.  I am finally a better judge of my own worth than some twirp I’ve never met.

I got lucky today, and I know it.  People are shamed all the time, attacked because of their race, their gender, or their religion.  There are people I know personally who endure these attacks on a daily basis.  As I feel myself restored to peace but still shaken, my heart goes out to those who endure so much more than I and fight back so hard.  I saw today just how fragile the leash that controls my inner monkeys truly is; I am indescribably glad that  my suffering was short, but I don’t regret it happening.  I was a little less wise when I set out  into the sunshine and I’m a little sadder now.  But I’ll be running tomorrow, and not even the fact that the world is full of idiots is going to stop me.

©Mary Braden 2015

Working Away From Home

It’s Woody Guthrie’s birthday, and Bastille Day (and, as I learned this morning, also Gustav Klimt’s birthday).  The calendar tells me to think about freedom and revolution and music and art and the working man and equality.  This would be easier to do if I didn’t have to be on the other side of the state by noon, and then drive another 80 miles along the Lake Erie shore to reach the hotel from which I am scheduled to launch to tomorrow morning’s meeting.

I started by planning to leave home in time for a 1:00 p.m. meeting start time, only to discover—partially by accident, as I was idly checking emails on my work phone—that the meeting was supposed to start at noon.  I realized this at precisely the moment at which I should have been leaving the house, but was in a condition of near-undress and with exactly zero packing completed.  I leaped into action, managed to create a passable veneer of sartorial competence and packed a bag in reckless haste.  15 minutes later I was out the door, where I spent the next 195 minutes exceeding the speed limit to exactly the degree required to roll into the parking lot at 11:59.  During the last hour of that somewhat hyperattentive drive, I called into the weekly meeting where the Project Manager reveals the state of the Big Picture when it comes to the project that pretty much defines my job.  I love the Project Manager; she’s ruthlessly clear and unredundant, says what needs to be said and does not suffer fools gladly.  Today, however, her notable gifts were all directed to sharing bad news, which boiled down to this:  the last 5 months of nonstop work by you and your boss, Mary, has been adeptly undermined by the internal departments that agreed to support your initiative, leaving you with none of the resources you have blithely been promising to outside stakeholders, and utterly powerless to affect the expectations you were explicitly directed to create.  To walk directly from that conversation into an auditorium full of eager networkers and listen to a barely-relevant presentation for an hour (thank goodness there were veggie wraps and white chocolate macadamia cookies) taxed my already-frazzled neuron to its limit.

After the presentation, which was admittedly relaxing in that it required no interaction, the gaggle of attendees from my company gathered under the shade trees outside the door to regroup and vent for a few minutes.  Then my boss headed off in one direction and a Cleveland colleague and I found a place to sit and try to hash out the latest in our shared lapful of adventure—namely that my boss had commandeered one of her staff for a special project without first finding out if the staff member was competent and responsible enough to be trusted with it.  45 minutes later, ears still ringing, I was able to stagger back to my car and head for the night’s hotel.  90 minutes of phone calls later, I arrived at the hotel and checked in. 

Life began to improve the moment I got out of the car.  The hotel turned out to be right across the street from the only restaurant in town that I know, an old-school Italian-American place with decent food, Frank Sinatra playing in a continuous loop, and an auspicious winelist.  Better yet, it has a pool and a fitness center, a blessing in this part of the world where sidewalks are a distinct afterthought.  Instead of collapsing in a heap upon entering the room, I found myself moved to go for a run, in spite of my lifelong dislike of being sweaty after 9:00 a.m.  I dug into my suitcase just long enough to realize that I had somehow managed to pack everything I needed, even after my precipitate departure.  Although the tiny fitness center was stuffy and airless, it did the trick. After 5 miles my tiredness disappeared as if it had never existed.  A hot shower and a good meal made the last vestiges of angst float up off of my soul, leaving nothing but peace in its wake.

Tomorrow will be another day of travel, waking in one city and falling asleep in another. The roads are heavily-trafficked and rife with potholes, the meetings themselves are often incomplete or obfuscated, I miss my own bed and the unexamined familiarity of being at home in one’s own physical space.  But I like this more.  I’m getting good at driving all over creation to meet with and forge bonds with people I’ve never met and will only see rarely in the future.  I can pack a bag for 3 work days and a play weekend in less than 15 minutes.  I can handle the annoyances of deactivated roomkeys, wake-up calls to the wrong room, even discovering that my hotel bill will be charged to my personal credit card because the secretary forgot to attach the company credit card authorization to the reservation. It’s just travel, I say to myself, and I keep going.  More and more, that seems to be my default preference; I am just now beginning to understand that the circumstances that swirl and morph around me are *not* the determinants of mood. 

There is freedom in being able to leave home and do this work without a twinge of conscience.  My roommate looks after everything in my absence, probably better than I do myself. Although I can’t control what I am asked to do or insist upon a satisfactory rationale before I do it, I am at least able to allocate my time as I see fit, whether working late or cutting out 30 minutes early for a doctor’s appointment.  The longer I do this, and the more I notice how needlessly confusing and barrier-riddled our healthcare system is, the more I realize that my role, however insignificant, is being part of the solution.  That makes me less tired, right there; it braces my posture, slaps a smile on my face and gets me on to the next thing.  Being on the road reminds me how little I really need and how much easier it is to travel light.  It feels weightless, traveling for business.  The everyday rituals fall aside, and there is no one to please but myself.  It was not always thus, and it stands to reason that it will not last forever.  I am choosing shamelessly to wallow in the adventure of it, and in the humor of the world that exists just below the surface of this one.  I’ll be home soon enough. 

©Mary Braden 2015