The Introvert Travels

Back home, back to work at the hospital today, back to the office tomorrow.  A little sleep-deprived, but rejuvenated at the same time.  Two days of travel with a little adventure and a little soul-searching thrown in did wonders for the spirits here at Farandwee.  What a wonderful way to get a little distance, and yet to feel as if I’m engaging directly with the reality one step deeper than the daily grind.  Traveling strips away the mundane, focuses the mind, makes a clear, crisp line between the static and the music, one might say.  Every time I head out for a couple of days I am refreshed by it, and come back with a new kind of insight—usually more flexible than when I left, but always different.

I’ve always loved traveling but never before to an extent where it felt philosophically necessary.  I’ve always been able to manufacture my own distance, my own vantage point from which to look over my own shoulder at my world.  Recently, though, it seems that I need to take longer steps back, not to achieve greater emotional detachment, but to see more.  As I get older and my experiences begin to snowball and morph into groups and patterns that suggest truth, I find that some of those patterns can take up my whole field of inner vision.  Something about shaking the dust off my actual feet and heading out by myself to some actual place makes it easier for me to get to that inward Big Sky state, where the horizons are very far from each other and the spaces between them clear and open.  I don’t necessarily set out on a trip with the goal of mulling over matters internal, but somewhere along the line it seems to happen, naturally and easily, filtering between the minutiae of itineraries and GPS and menu browsing.  Best of all, I think, is the mulling at the beginning and end of the day, when the rhythm of thinking is indistinguishable from the rhythms of breathing and feeling.  And solo, in a strange place, is the best way to feel those rhythms and to follow their intangible directions.

I’m fascinated by the way I cling to and create opportunities for solitude now that I have a new family sharing my space.  I find that I am unwilling to part with the peace that comes with being alone, and that I am unable to experience that peace without a significant amount of physical space as a buffer.  What’s a girl to do, in a tiny house full of people and animals and object and noise?  Why, travel! Hotel rooms are quiet and empty, and it only takes a couple of days to recharge and step back and take a deep breath before re-entering the swirling tides of reality.  This introvert needs both to thrive—the bustle and activity of being around people and the calm required to recover and process.

More than halfway through my life, I am learning how hard it is to recognize my own requirements, especially when there are others whose requirements are—on the surface—much more pressing and immediate.  I think this awareness of continuing to need solitude is an important piece of the puzzle for me.  I think the connection between the freedom of travel and the mental liberation of being uninterrupted and alone is another.  And the connection between having that freedom and being fully engaged at home is turning out to be significant.  Balancing, balancing, balancing…is what keeps things interesting!

©Mary Braden 2013


The Introvert Awakening

The dust is beginning to settle here at Farandwee, and I’m starting to see the return of sanity on the horizon.  With my husband working and the stepdaughters in school, peace reigns around the home office.  Even the dogs’ obstreperousness has calmed down since they began a regimen of brisk daily walks.   As the days take shape around a midday core of peaceful silence, I find my inner landscape returning to its former tranquility.

It’s been touch and go for a while, I can’t lie.  Sharing my cocoon with an entire new family has proved to be an enormous shock, like being the only person in a room who doesn’t speak the language .  Some days I feel like I simply cannot make myself understood, an embarrassment only exceeded by realizing that I am also failing categorically to understand anyone else.  I must seem to be handling this transition with at least passable grace, since no one has appeared to take me away in a special jacket to a padded room.  But inside?  I haven’t felt this insecure and discombobulated since I was a teenager.

I have a whole new respect for the power of silence. No, not the silence.  The emptiness. The absence of other human beings.  The simple act of being alone in a room is enormously powerful, liberating the spirit and freeing the mind.  It’s not that people don’t contribute to that too.  But while other people may be the best teachers, the actual learning happens in their absence, when their words and actions can be held to the light and mulled over gently until the truth emerges.

I would tire of being alone eventually, I suppose.  I’d miss the marvelous man who shares my life, and the bevy of children who remind us every day how blessed we are.  I’d miss my colleagues, dear and trusted friends that they are.  I’d miss my little village community where all the faces are familiar and the smiles bright with recognition.  But for a few hours every day, being alone is sheer bliss.  The crowded chaos of the last few weeks have reminded me that peace is more important and more real than happiness, and a necessary prelude to the ecstasy of joy.  For some, that peace may come from being amongst people, energized by their energy and warmed by their warmth.  Not for me.  Although there are a handful of people in my life who don’t disturb my solitude–my mother, my children, my husband—there are none who can improve upon it.

The flip side of solitude, of course, is that not even the most confirmed introvert can subsist upon a steady diet of nothing but.  It can be lonely and frightening in the emptiness, even with music, if there is no alternative.  The comfort of being untroubled by the presence of my fellow man has to yield to the even-deeper primal desire to belong to a community.  Even though I require solitude to generate and maintain my inner peace, I also require the delights and comforts of being close to the people I love. This tension is what keeps us fully alive, I sometimes think, balanced on a tightrope between our private and public selves, torn between the clean, cold clarity of solitude and the warm, noisy confusion of the tribe.

Being flung practically overnight from one end of the spectrum to the other may be the most amazing transition I’ve experienced.  14 weeks ago I lived alone.  A week later my children joined me, and 3 weeks after that my husband moved in.  Less than 6 weeks later his daughters joined us.  I have to remember to forgive myself for the anxiety and the panic that still wash over me in waves at times, although the waves are fewer and less frequent.  It feels like a crazy tilting rollercoaster because, for someone as attached to her solitude as I am, it is a crazy tilting rollercoaster.  The only sustainable way to survive and even thrive on this ride is to make sure there is enough solitude in the mix to keep my internal engines humming smoothly.  Only if I seize those hours and grapple them to my bosom will I be able to engage fully, peacefully, authentically with this new, still-foreign yet dearly beloved tribe.

This journey is full of surprises, none perhaps more unexpected than my realizing how intimately my ability to love is entwined with my need to be left alone.  The wellspring of love inside of me is fed by quiet, by being alone in an empty space, by the absolute freedom of solitary consciousness.   When that spring is full, then I overflow with love and the presence of others is a joy.  When that spring starts running dry, it isn’t the comfort of others that I seek; it’s the closed door, the restorative rhythm of thoughts and feelings flowing at their own pace, the buoyant, nurturing emptiness.

©Mary Braden 2013

The Introvert on a 2-Day Pass

The Introvert is alone for the next 32 hours or so, while the newlywed husband and the two teenaged stepdaughters make a fast overnight trip to upstate NY and back.  They left before noon today, and it has been quiet since. The pets are snoozing on the furniture, so deeply asleep that their legs hang inertly and drop with an unresponsive thud when lifted by an inquiring hand.  Opera is playing through the TV speakers, but there is no picture on the screen.  A few cracker crumbs are all that’s left of a small plate of nostril-twitchingly ripe goat Brie.  The kitchen is fragrant with the scent of roasting peaches and the heat of the oven feels good in the cooling afternoon.

It’s amazing, how quickly the peace fills my head.  The music takes me all the way back to childhood, curled up with a book while my Daddy sang along with the precious vinyl records.  I remember him telling me the stories—all love and death and betrayal—and hearing the passion and despair and adoration right there in the music.  I remember dancing with him at my college graduation and at my first wedding.  I can still smell the clean cotton and the sweet tawny smell of pipe smoke from his sleeve, and hear his voice, warm and sure.  It’s pure magic that I can flick a switch and hear the same recordings that filled that warm room 40 years ago.  And when I’m alone with the music, he’s right here too.

There’s no reason in the world why I couldn’t listen to opera while my family is around.  They’re lovely people and used to my being a bit peculiar where music is concerned.  But while I love to have music playing always, there are some things that dig too deep to share with anyone else.  For some it’s a color or a flavor or an aroma that takes them suddenly and awkwardly out of themselves and into a place of intense emotion.  For me, it’s the music of my childhood.  It’s too hard for me to be around anyone else while that is going on.  I had a happy childhood and the emotion is a happy one, but too immediate and too potent to endure with an audience.  When my father died, years ago now, I immersed myself in the music that he taught me to love, clung to it while reality pummeled me into grudging acceptance, and finally came to love it all over again as the symbol of all the beauty and joy and meaning he taught me to see.

It’s been months since I had enough time alone to listen to an opera, since the old music wormed its way under my skin enough to make the tears start.  It’s balm to my soul.  All the brittle, anxious edginess of being up close and personal with other people vanishes and the constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing simply evaporates.  It’s too sweet and sad and perfect to leave room for anything else.  It just is.  When it’s over, I’ll take out my knitting and put in a DVD of “Swan Lake” so I can wrap myself up in Tchaikovsky’s enormous sound and watch the people dance while my hands nestle in the deep, soft shawl I’m making for my daughter.  Because after the wrenching ending of the opera, my heart is at peace.  The fading notes leave cool tendrils of happiness all through my spirit, binding up and comforting the silly angst of everyday life and whispering strength and serenity and joy back into the emptiness that had built up underneath it.

I’ve heard that one doesn’t have to be entirely alone in the house to have this experience, that it’s possible to step behind a closed door and have the same soul-healing peace.  I’m not there yet.  At this stage of my life, the chances of being undisturbed are nearly nil and even if everyone in the house were entirely devoted to protecting my privacy, I’d feel guilty for neglecting them.  That’s my dream, though, to be comfortable and relaxed enough with my beloved new family to leave them to their own devices and take a few hours to re-charge and re-group in total solitude.  We’re all better off when we’re able to tap directly into what feeds us—and for this Introvert, it’s the stillness and the music that restores my flagging spirit and basic willingness to face my fellow man.  Promise to self:  find a way to do this more often.

©Mary Braden 2013

The Introvert as Stepmom

My children have gone back to school after a wonderful summer…my eldest to start college and my baby to start his junior year of high school.  The inevitable bleakness of their departure has been substantially enlivened by the presence of my two new stepdaughters who moved in a couple of weeks ago.  I really enjoy having these two blossoming people in my space, both physical and emotional. They’re not from my world at all, these two.  Different upbringing, different experiences, different expectations of life, adults, the future.  It makes me realize how the years of mothering my own children have smoothed the interactions between us into an intuitive, gentle dance where all the partners know the steps and can navigate the complexities of getting their needs met without a second thought.

Not so these two.  They know the steps to their own mother’s dance, not mine.  They don’t have any idea what to expect from me, or even what they want from me, let alone how to get it.  It shows in their awkward courtesy, their unwillingness to share their real feelings or their desires with me.   What an immense upheaval it must be for them, uprooted from their home to start a new chapter of their lives in a house and community they didn’t choose, under the eye of a woman whose only role in their lives so far has been to force them to share their father’s love.

This is an amazing experience for an introvert, most comfortable in quiet and solitude, at ease only in the presence of those she has known and loved for a very long time.  Now there are two young, frightened, infinitely dear new people here, and I have to come out of my shell and figure out what they want and how to make them welcome.  I have to find a way to let them know that I have no desire to trump their mother’s place but that I would be grateful and proud to be their friend, to help as much as they’ll let me.  Of all the challenges I’ve faced in my unconventional life so far, this one is the biggest, the deepest, the best.  These are not my children, and yet they are.  I love their father, and so I love them.  I can’t raise them; at 14 and 16 they’re already finished with that.  They have a full set of habits already, skills acquired during the years I wasn’t there.  My task is to learn to understand their signals, to become fluent in a language I was never taught.

And I must also avoid comparing them to my own children, who I know as well as I know myself.  Of course I adore them—they’re mine, and I have brooded over them and wept over them and rejoiced with them since the day they were born.  I wouldn’t trade a minute with them, and look forward to a long and close future with them as they build their own lives.  But these two new daughters are an unknown quantity.  Where my own children are an open book, these two are a mystery.  How inadequate and powerless I feel when I am unable to connect. How easy it is to turn that into a judgment against them instead of owning my own anxiety and fear.  This is quite a job for an introvert!

As the reality of being a stepmother starts to sink in, I’m beginning to understand what I have taken on, and the realization is both daunting and thrilling.  How amazing to be able to share with my husband these last few years before his nestlings spread their wings and fly.  What a test of myself and of what I believe about love and faith.  What a chance, to share in these young women’s lives as a loving, interested presence with no axe to grind.  I have nothing to prove, and thus nothing to lose.  My only role is to love them and to offer them my friendship and support to the extent they allow.  This is a gift—chaotic and scary and overwhelming though it sometimes feels to my introverted soul.  This is where the rubber meets the road, where years of watching and studying and mulling must be turned to action.  I am humbled and blessed by the opportunity.

©Mary Braden 2013

The Introvert Considers Transparency

Adjusting to life as a partner with another person is an epic journey.  This being my 4th marriage, one might suppose that I had done it before, but due to a certain failure in my powers of selection coupled with a matching deficit in self-awareness, this is the first time it’s really been a conscious activity.  And what an adventure it’s shaping up to be!

For one thing, I’m having to think a lot more than I’m used to about what I’m feeling and thinking.  A lot more.  This is not my strong suit, by any means, so I do it awkwardly and with a good deal of embarrassment.  And that’s before I even contemplate the possibility of couching those feelings and thoughts in words that might make sense to another person.  I’ve been a careful observer of my own inner landscape for a long time now, and feel pretty comfortable with what I know so far; trying to get it out of my mouth to another person (no matter how gentle and brilliant and tender he may be), is a horse of a different color.

The big revelation so far has been how terrifying it is for me to lay myself open for another’s inspection.  I’m used to thinking of myself as a brave soul.  I’ve weathered my share of convoluted and ugly storms in life and come out a little wiser than I went in, and there’s not much that really scares me these days.  But this, this opening of myself with deliberate transparency is downright hair-raising.  I’m starting to realize how deftly I have protected myself from such vulnerability in the past, how neatly I’ve hidden weaknesses and disappointments and fears in ways that protected me equally neatly from having them acknowledged or understood by those I claimed I wanted to be close to.  Huh.

The depth of my own resistance to sharing myself with the man with whom I want more than anything to share my future and grow contentedly old astonishes me.  My crankiness, exasperation, slippery rationalizations, lame excuses and flaring defensiveness all signal that my deep desire to be open and fully honest with my partner is at odds with some pretty deep anxieties.  I find the thought of letting someone else see my inner gnarliness horrifying, even though I have zero reason to believe that anything will come out of it except deeper mutual trust and understanding.  Although I feel fairly comfortable with myself even in my darker moments, the violence of my revulsion at the thought of being judged suggests to me that perhaps I am judging myself more harshly than is good for me.  Is an unexpected benefit of this foot-dragging slouch towards intimacy going perhaps to be exchanging my own ruthless self-assessment for the far more loving and tolerant assessment of the man who loves me? And could that perhaps be something I can also do for him?  Hmmmm.

I’ve encountered some surprising delights along the way, too.  There’s a comfort bordering on the sublime that comes from being accepted unconditionally, and I’m beginning to trust it and look forward to it.  There’s a deep relief that wells up at the thought of being free from the burden of repackaging the inner Farandwee for presentation to the outside world.  And there’s an amazing gratitude that blossoms at the notion that someone cares for me enough to hang in there with me while I walk this necessary but uncomfortable path.   It inspires me to strive to do likewise.  The knowledge that I am being heard and accepted without judgment makes me want to listen and accept the same way.  The joys of the first few steps along a path where I can find peace and safety in one person’s company make me want to be that one person for him too.

So I have my work cut out for me.  This is a lifetime endeavor, and one which is destined to be especially difficult for an introvert, who lives most happily in her own private inner space.  Shining a light into that space and letting another in, no matter how beloved, is a challenge.  But it is the right thing, the existentially hospitable thing to do, and the result is an inner space both warmed and brightened by the exercise.  I will always be introverted, most at home when undisturbed.  But there need be no further hiding or masking or deflecting.  This is a new kind of togetherness, and it promises to be a grand adventure indeed.

©Mary Braden 2013

The Introvert Remarries

Almost 2 weeks ago, and two months after our wedding, the Husband moved from Rochester, NY to live with me until death us do part. He’s an amazing and boundlessly goodhearted man, infinitely patient with my many foibles and brave enough to leave behind his own familiar haunts to blend his life and family with mine.  I’m indescribably lucky to have such a mate, especially considering the fact that I’m not only introverted to a fault but historically over-fond of having my own way.

It’s been quite an adjustment so far. He brought 2 dogs and 4 cats with him, which brings us to a current total of 3 dogs and 5 cats–although to be fair, one cat has opted for the outlaw life and taken up residence under the house where she apparently intends to stay. This proved even more taxing to my nerves than I had anticipated.  Who knew the pets of a sociable person could make so much noise! Yet we persevere, and the initial compromises seem to be working: cats outside at night, dogs ditto when they’re feeling rambunctious, strenuously discouraged from barking at passing pedestrians (and squirrels and blowing leaves and neighbors) . They’re actually rather adorable when they’re not actively fraying my patience, and I’m beginning to see why the Husband enjoys their company so much. Perhaps in a couple of decades I will fully share his enthusiasm.

Blending two full households’ worth of possessions is proving to be a mind-stretcher as well.  Despite vigorous attempts to pare back our belongings ahead of the move, we find my tiny house literally swamped with stuff.  Two middle-aged foodies get quite accustomed to their own cooking tools, it seems!  So two full knife blocks repose on the countertop, two sets of pots jostle for position on the rack, the already-excessive stacks of baking dishes and casseroles have become precariously teetering mountains and the crock of utensils next to the stove has spawned an equally overstuffed canning jar of wooden spoons, whisks and the like. The upside? In order to preserve the few unused millimeters of counterspace for actual cooking, even the resident teenagers are willing to pitch in on dishes!  With four skilled hands in the kitchen, we are turning out delicious food too, with what feels like a minimum of effort.

Before the Husband’s arrival, I had worried myself sick about whether I could handle sharing my space with another adult.  Having adjusted very happily to single life, it was surprisingly hard to think about giving up my comfortable solitude even for the innumerable joys of being with someone who exceeds all my hopes of what partnership and love could be.  Our long-distance courtship punctuated by intense long-weekend visits was wonderful; it gave me the room I needed to decide I was ready to share my life with someone again.  It did not, however, prevent a certain amount of panic in the face of the actual event.

Two weeks in, though, I think it’s going to be okay.  More than okay, actually.  Although I typically find the presence of people other than my mother, siblings and children at least moderately annoying, the Husband does not trigger my hackles to rise.  He has a near-uncanny ability to tell—often better than I–when I would rather be left alone.  And he intuitively grasps that I very much enjoy being near him without interacting.  So we take turns—we talk and laugh for a while, then he checks out the Interweb or watches TV while I curl up beside him with my knitting and we just bask in being in the same place at the same time.

The Husband is way better than I am at picking up emotional cues and figuring out what they mean.  He’s self-aware and insightful enough to tell me directly how he’s feeling instead of leaving me to guess, which prevents a myriad of misunderstanding that could arise from my cluelessness about such things. He instinctively looks at people and situations in terms of the feelings involved, while I look at them as objectively as possible.  As a joke once, we agreed that he ought to be in charge of all marital decisions depending on feelings while I should take the reins on decisions of practicality.  It’s turned out to be truer in reality than we anticipated!

I hadn’t planned to be a 45 year-old newlywed, or to be embarking upon the journey of building a life with someone when half my life is already over, but it is turning out to be exactly the right thing to do.  I’ve learned to be comfortable with who I am, good and bad. Now it’s time to take it to the next level, walking hand in hand with the Husband along the path to the next adventure.

©Mary Braden 2013