Joy

I’ve been a Quaker for 20 years now, ever since my daughter was born and I realized that, sure enough, there is a Divine in the universe and I wanted to learn how to live in its light.  I find transcendent meaning in the story of Jesus’ life and teachings, although I remain lingeringly skeptical of the institutions they spawned.  My attendance at Meeting has been non-existent for the years since I started working on Sundays  but I still consider myself a Quaker, and still attempt to live a life based on the classic Friends’ notions of simplicity, truthtelling and peace.  I have felt the Divine move in a group of attentive Friends, and I have felt it move within myself; that community has a place in it for me when I am finally able to return.

Until then, though, I find my worship where it finds me, and those experiences have been very powerful, not least because they appear unbidden.   I experienced one today, unexpectedly, and it has left me feeling changed.  Here’s what happened: I did not go for a run this morning, and planned instead to go for a walk during a particularly long and historically tedious phone meeting; my plan was thrown into disarray by epic thunderstorms and a tornado watch at the appointed time.  I felt disappointment and frustration creep into my mind and set up shop.  With a tight work schedule and a tendency to run out of energy by dinnertime, I could see my one attempt at self-nurture for the day going to naught.  I felt cranky and embittered and put-upon.  The meeting was even more circular and tendentious than usual, all 120 minutes of it.  The subsequent meeting was a steady drone of tedium punctuated only by searing pangs of futility.  Working from home has its merits, but one incontrovertible downside is that the array of Better Things To Do is always immediately present when professional delights start to pall.  It took everything I had to avoid silently slipping the headset from my ear and flinging the whole electronic kaboodle into the nearest toilet, only a few yards away.

When at last I was released from the phone, it was still half an hour (well, an hour) before closing time.  I stared in belligerent apathy at the laptop, which stared blandly back at me.  We had nothing to say to each other.  I felt the slow roil of frustration in my belly, and instead of gritting my teeth again, I suddenly gave in.  The rain had stopped, I knew from the radar forecast that a window of meteorological calm was opening, so I shut down the computer, grabbed the phone and some earbuds and headed for the door, pausing only to lace on a pair of sneakers.

“Jumping offline to run an errand, my phone is on.”  Due diligence to my boss complete, I was good to go.  Under grey but clearing skies, I set out along my usual 5-mile route, feeling the muscles ache and stretch with the motion, stiff and reluctant after yesterday’s long run.  It took a mile for the tension to start to ease.  I could feel my inner coils start to relax, the flood of staccato thoughts easing into a gentle ebb and flow.  The frustration at other people’s deficiencies, the self-doubt about my own competence, the overarching sense of impeded progress, of being bottlenecked by constraints beyond my control began finally to let up as my breathing evened out.  My lover, en route between meetings himself, called and we talked for a while, easy and intimate together in the near-sunshine.  The rhythm of my footfalls began to match the cadence of my breath after about two miles, and the abrasions of the day began to fade. After the phone call I switched to music, a treat I only indulge in when I’m walking, not running.  It was a record I grew up with, words so deeply familiar that every syllable is as much remembered as heard.  The sky was clear and achingly blue, the air humid and warm, the clouds dispersing in ever-lightening clusters of buoyant, gleaming white. 

I was out in the country now, as far from home as I could be.  A soybean field stretched to my right, an empty 5 or 6-acre patch filled with scrub trees and underbrush to my left as I stepped out briskly, heading downhill with the sun on my face. The old songs rang in my ears, old folk songs in  3/4 time, and I suddenly felt transported with joy.  The music, familiar as my own name, combined with the peaceful, silent radiance of being alone in the warm summer air, and I felt my feet start to dance.  I felt joyously untethered, floating above the earth on an updraft of sunshine and music, and at the same time I felt suffused with discrete, sensory details that grounded me in the moment with no sense of time passing: my feet, sure and steady in their shoes,  the salty sheen of sweat on my bare arms, the call-and-response of bird and insect from field to thicket and back again.  I recognized no specific thoughts, no judgment  I was aware of an enormous upwelling of joy, so strong and poignant that my mind created its own images of myself weeping and dancing rapturously in the middle of that sunny country road.  I walked on as though in a blissed-out trance, conscious only of the intensity and boundlessness of my joy, for perhaps another mile.  I was aware of it, celebrating it with every step and every breath, letting myself swim in it, drown in it, be subsumed by it.  And then, of course, it faded, but gradually, with no sense of loss or sorrow.  The world resumed its normalcy, my senses regained their boundaries, my heart and mind slipped easily, smoothly into their accustomed rhythms.  I walked on home, wrapped in the peaceful afternoon, changed into someone just a little different than I had been. 

These moments, these unexpected anointings of grace, are why we keep on trying.  They know no creed or doctrine, these inexplicable openings of joy, they simply are. We are designed to feed from them as surely as we are designed to eat and drink and sleep.  Joy teaches us that we are one with the world and with each other, gives us the courage to press onward or to let go, as is best for us.  Joy is where worship aims to take the faithful, but it is equally available to believer and nonbeliever alike. Human beings are made for joy; the work ahead of us is simply to be awake and available to it when it calls our name.

©Mary Braden 2015

Exhaustion

Today I ran 17 miles, in preparation for a possibly-foolhardy marathon attempt in about two months.  It capped off two weeks of serious training that also contained 3 out-of-town meetings, 3 weekend hospital shifts, my first week in an online Economics class, an improvised beer-and-pizza reunion with a dear friend, and the re-launch of this blog.  I am writing this about 3 hours later, on the couch from which I have no intention of moving ,except for personal hygiene, until after the sun goes down.  Nothing actively hurts, but my legs weigh a ton, and I have about enough energy to snack and type—nothing more.

I really wore myself out on that run, mentally as much as physically. I pushed myself to the very limit of my perseverance, and the resulting lethargy makes it clear at a visceral level that I need to drop everything and rest.   My brain isn’t suffering, but it’s definitely not up for looking at work emails or planning travel.  Trying to imagine getting up and cooking a meal or walking into the village is entirely beyond me.  For the first time in my brief running career, I have worn myself right out.

I’ve been exhausted before, but have been terrible at realizing it.  I ignore the gradual accumulation of clues that indicate that I’m losing ground: sleep deficits, short-temperedness, increased anxiety, decreased energy, hampered creativity, obsessing about irrelevant details, defaulting to rich, succulent food that feeds emotional needs rather than physical ones.  I find myself blaming other people or outside circumstances with reckless abandon, rather than holding myself accountable for organizing my response to my own life.  It creeps up on me gradually, this stealthy cocktail of stress and self-neglect until one day it spawns something prominent enough to catch my flagging attention and I recognize that it’s time to get back on the rails.

Running serves as an excellent barometer for monitoring how tired I am, and also a useful metaphor.  Overtraining—pushing the body harder than its resilience can accommodate—has mental and emotional effects that feel astonishingly similar to the dragging deficiencies that appear when I’ve been ignoring my stress level for too long. The difference is that I’m willing to change my training schedule to avoid physical injuries and loss of performance, whereas I was never willing to monitor my inner and outer life to ensure that I remained consistently functional and capable of full engagement in my world.  The more I run, the more that is changing. Sheer exhaustion like today is a wake-up call to pay more attention, to calculate the risks more cautiously, to make sure that I stay focused first and foremost on the long view.  I don’t want to run a marathon if it’s going to diminish my joy in running, do lasting damage to my legs, take me away from the other activities that have a rightful place in my free time. I want to run that 26.2 miles and feel good about it before, during and after.  I want to test my body, push its limits, increase its capabilities, but I don’t want to wear it out. I have plans for an active, energetic future and I want today’s pursuits to feed that vision, even if it means coming up with new and creative ways to give my body what it needs without driving myself crazy in the process.

Recognizing the truth of wise attention to my physical self has made it far easier for me to understand the analogous task of husbanding my emotional and intellectual energy.  Hearts and brains, like legs,  need exercise but not too much.  Feelings and thoughts need attention, but not all of them all the time.  Some patterns of thinking fail to produce any progress towards greater resilience, creativity and strength.  Some emotional habits only re-create situations I already know I dislike.  I’m comforted by the idea that there is no good and bad in these contemplations; there are results that are more and less pleasant, and there is action which is more and less skillful.  My task in attempting to create and preserve a peaceful inner landscape is to become more skillful at preserving and exploring peace; my task in attempting to teach my body to run marathons is to become more skillful at preserving and exploring sustainable stamina, strength and mental discipline.  Each of these feeds the other, but the task is fundamentally the same.

This may sound contradictory, but I firmly believe there’s a place for exhaustion in all this.  There’s a place for testing the envelope, for seeing what happens when all the stops are pulled out.  There’s only one way to know for sure what we can do, and I think part of a wholly-engaged life is to find out.  The point is to make it deliberate, mindful, part of a journey we have chosen to take.  It’s healthy and invigorating to nose around outside our comfort zone, to question and test our assumptions.  Research suggests that getting stuck in a mental and emotional rut is as debilitating to quality of life as sedentariness.  To live in this place of exploration all the time would be desperately taxing, though, if we just started holding ourselves to a new standard with no preparation. Just as a runner banks energy by skillful attention to sleep, diet, hydration and relaxation, a person trying to live with full and active presence in her emotional and intellectual life needs to become skillful at banking the self-awareness, self-love and self-confidence required for that challenging, unpredictable journey.  She needs to set and maintain emotional boundaries strong and flexible enough to protect her freedom. She needs friends and family she can trust not only for support but for honest, loving feedback.  She needs time and space and activity that are hers alone.

Humans are fond of creating challenges to pit themselves against.  We may be hard-wired for it.  Part of that effort is pushing ourselves to the point of exhaustion and feeling the inordinate, even paradoxical, surge of pride that goes with just barely making it.  I’m all about that particular thrill.  But I don’t want to feel it just today.  I want to feel it over and over again in all the parts of my life.  And that means knowing when to take it easy, when to stop, when to push forward and when to pause.  Tomorrow I will rest, stretch, sleep extra, eat good food and let my body recover.  As I look at my relationships, my work, my inner child (inner parent too) and my comfort in my own skin, I must make sure that I take enough rest to preserve the peace that makes growth possible in that realm as well.  There is room in the examined life to train hard and well for better love and deeper understanding.  There must also be room for rest, for self-nurturing, for saying When.  This is a long race, and it is not to the swift; it is to the wide-awake and to those who are at peace.

©Mary Braden 2015

Going the Distance

I’ve known for 20 years that regular exercise made me feel happier, but I didn’t get serious about it until I found myself needing to rebuild my entire inner world after a long, brutal, and losing battle with a beloved husband’s alcoholism and schizophrenia. After our final separation left him homeless and me hanging by a razorwire of unfathomable guilt, exhaustion and terror , I began the painstaking work of re-assembling the parts of myself that had survived the cataclysm. Barely able to sleep or eat, I recognized the value of the advice I kept hearing: slow down, be gentle, take care.  I started going to the office early in the mornings to walk on the treadmill, in silence the first few weeks as my mind fluttered and raced incessantly, and then with music playing.  At first I only walked a mile, then two, then three, fast enough to break a sweat, but not enough to ache afterwards.  Then I started to jog a little, one minute in every ten, then two, then five, until I was running for a half-hour every day before work.  Leaving my empty house in the cold dark, walking into the warm building, feeling my heart and lungs and muscles warm up and my mind slow to a gentle, lilting, wordless ebb and flow became the rhythm of those tentative, exploratory days. 

As the holidays approached, and the world erupted with reminders of how my attempts to build a family and home had failed, I clung to work as an anchor and a distraction.  My weekdays were spent in a cubicle as a case manager for the mentally ill and addicted, awash in a sea of documentation and phone calls.  On weekends I worked hospital shifts on the oncology unit where I had worked as an aide during nursing school and then as an RN when I passed my boards.  Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my best friend suggested that I try to run a half-marathon.  I scoffed, but something about it caught my attention. I looked at training schedules, thought back about how much progress I had made over the previous months, and decided to do it.  That decision, to devote myself to a goal that would take months to prepare for, and that belonged to nobody else but me, was an enormous milestone in my self-awareness, and one that I’m quite sure saved my life.

As the dust continued to settle, as I then commenced another equally ill-fated but blessedly brief courtship and marriage, as I came finally to understand that my peace and freedom truly mattered to me more than sharing my life with any one particular person, I was running.  Week after week, month after month, I gradually built my mileage, started running on the roads, learned to listen to my body and gradually pushed it to new levels.  5 months after I started training I ran my first half-marathon, with my friend at my side to help me navigate the unfamiliar crowds, the mysteries of pace corrals, gear stowage and timing chips.  I ran faster than I had hoped, and didn’t have to walk—my first exposure to how much cheering crowds, irreverent signs and musicians on the corners can improve a race.  More importantly, I kept on running.  As the briefest of marriages peaked and fell, I ran another half-marathon and paid the price for letting the stresses of failure keep me off the roads…I had to start walking at mile 11, and felt like I crawled over the finish line.  Since then I have tweaked my training schedule dozens of times but never let it lapse again.  I signed up for a third half-marathon the following spring and managed to injure my Achilles mere weeks before the race, which I had to cancel.  The same friend spoke up—why not run a marathon? Plenty of time until the fall! A marathon? 26.2 miles of running? Impossible! But something about it felt every bit as right as that initial nudge to run a race.  So I registered and trained for a whole, hot Ohio summer, punctuated by the return of the beloved now-ex-husband, sober and psychologically stable, who is now my cherished friend and roommate, although no longer my romantic partner.  At 46 years old, I ran those last long training runs before the marathon—18 miles, 20 miles, then three weeks of tapering ever-lower mileage until the race itself.

That was a grand day, my first marathon day.  I had spent the few days prior with a new beau whose unfailing support for and delight in my excitement made him the perfect answer to pre-race jitters.  I sent him to the airport before I left for the finish line, though, and ran the race alone, buried deep in the rhythm of my footfalls, the song of my breath, the sunrise and the energy and the ache in my legs and the steadily increasing brilliance of endorphins. Running that entire distance was an amazing feeling, but its meaning was the months of training that led up to it.  I was hooked. I immediately started training again, and despite injuries and working too much and a wealth of fine and joyful distractions, I haven’t stopped since.  Running is the daily reminder of how I have learned not only to survive but to thrive.  One foot in front of the other, slow down if it’s too hard, let your body set its pace, don’t lose sight of form, let yourself relinquish everything except what is right here, right now. The lessons aren’t really about running, they’re about where you’re going and how you want to be when you get there.  Life’s long distances take incremental training, the flexibility to adjust but not abandon the attempt when complications arise, the mental resilience and commitment to persevere. Long lives, like long runs, take lots of water, plenty of sleep and a regular flow of good meals. Shortened mileage one week means renewed effort the next; a strong run today provides mental fuel for tomorrow.  Watch your footing to avoid falls, but don’t forget to lift your eyes to the horizons and take the long view every so often.  That’s the whole point of running, after all, to get where we’re going.

©Mary Braden 2015

Release the Flying Monkeys

“Not my monkeys, not my circus.” Any of us who have dipped a toe into the murky waters of late-20th-century self-help know that mantra well.  Those of us who have loved an addict or struggled with addiction know it like we know our own names.   We each carry a lifetime’s worth of maladaptations within us, says the wisdom, and the key to a peaceful life is to recognize which ones belong to us and which do not.  We can harness our own monkeys (or not), and attempt to integrate them smoothy into our lives, but we can’t do a damn thing about the monkeys that plague the psyche of another.  Is there any harder lesson in this life? Not for me.

I had a happy childhood.  My parents loved each other and we had enough of everything.  My father taught English literature at an unremarkable small university in one of the prettiest places on Earth, and the house was full of books and laughter and good food and wine and conversation from as early as I can remember.  There were glorious summer vacations surrounded by cousins and aunts and uncles and lake water and pine forests.  We ate dinner together every night, sang Christmas carols together, planted gardens and told stories and played games together.  There was music and theater and international sabbaticals and what felt like endless hours of peaceful solitude with a book.  I was the oldest, and the first to leave the nest to go to school, where I learned that other children had TV at home, their mothers went to work, some of the girls wore pants.  I liked elementary school, but never could find common ground with all those other children, who knew all the unspoken rules and could never teach them to me, although some of them tried.  I used to go back and visit those teachers on my visits home from college, those wise souls who sent me to the library while the other kids counted mittens, understood why math problems calmed my nerves, assigned me to read to 1st-graders when 6th grade palled.  I remember no more than a handful of names from those years, and only 2 or 3 with affection.

Puberty was no worse for me than for any other introverted intellectual, which means it basically stripped me down to a core of inarticulate, profoundly confused self-loathing and left me to reassemble something like a functional exterior from the debris. Not a joiner, never able to shrug off the thick mantle of embarrassment and awkwardness that felt like my skin in those days, I had sporadic friendships, moments of crippling shame that still make my stomach roll at the memory, tortured myself for my inadequacy, envied others their apparent skill at the game and understanding of the nuances that perfectly eluded me.  30 years later I still look askance at the memories from those times, barely able to admit to myself how uncomfortable I was, yet increasingly able to feel compassion for that little girl, so eager to grow and so hopelessly ill-equipped even to read the signposts along the path.

A Facebook friend who lives 2 hours from me reminded me that next year is our 30th high school reunion. I’ve not lived in my home town since graduation, nor gone to any other reunion, but we met for dinner a year ago at a Cheesecake Factory near her house on my way home from a business trip. As little girls, we chased grasshoppers together and made them homes out of clean pickle-relish jars.  As teenagers she had been an athlete and a socialite while I buried myself in AP classes and social awkwardness. As middle-aged women, we didn’t even speak the same language, although we groped our way to a kind of blind, compassionate affection that suburban afternoon, wreathed in a haze of memories older than loss or grief or loneliness. She spoke of high school as her last gasp of autonomy before going into the military, getting married, having children. I couldn’t tell her how much I had longed to leave that world behind, or how much my horizons had opened up when I did. There were tears when we parted, but we’ve not seen another since. So much water under the bridge.

Somewhere in there, the monkeys were born, the unwelcome voices that tell me to give up, to live in fear, to deny joy.  They were spawned in the disconnects, in the disappointments, in the body blows that life deals out to all of us, leaving us to piece ourselves back together in the unique and hellishly delusional aftermath of youth.  We all have them, the reflexive and unexamined instincts that once protected us but now only muddy the waters.  My monkeys are not exotic: self-doubt, inadequacy, irrelevance, fear that someone will see and expose the uncertainty and insecurity that float just outside the public eye.  They are no longer strangers to me, these unruly psychic beasts that plague and destabilize my thinking; I know their ways and they know mine.  If I pay attention, I can co-exist with them peacefully, aware of their habits and ready to rein them in when they become obstreperous.  Which is all very well until I am called upon to interact or engage with another human being, whose monkeys are mysterious to me.

That’s where the real circus begins, the dance between two people and their twisted, ancient habits of uncoping. There are so many ways to avoid facing the truths in this dance, so many ways to blame the music, the partner, the rules as the dance disintegrates into stumbling embarrassment.  As I feel myself lose my balance, the most natural thing in the world is to reach out in teetering desperation and clutch on to whatever comes to hand—idea, person, circumstance—in hopes of righting myself.  It took years of tilting the windmill of someone else’s addiction to realize that sometimes the only way to stay upright is to let go of the person who is falling.  It took years after that to realize that I could dance as well alone as with a partner.  I wrestle still with the “need” to focus more on another’s monkeys than on managing my own.

I am learning how to walk this walk.  I am telling my children the mistakes I made and allowing them to make their own in my unconditional love.  I am opening myself to trust and radical honesty and recognizing that my self is strengthened by the terrifying journey.  I take comfort from my growing sense that this process of becoming ourselves and encouraging others to do the same is the point of the entire enterprise.  Monkeys and all, we are meant to tread the steps of this dance together, to hold one another lightly enough for flight.  Our shadows and our light are one and the same, and they are us.

©Mary Braden 2015

Freedom

It wasn’t until I was 45, after my 4th divorce, that I realized that the Grail I’d been seeking was freedom. I had been industriously barking up the wrong tree, seeking validation in every eye except my own, creating chaos and disharmony out of my own delusion and disappointment, and allowing otherwise decent men to do the same at close range.

I have nothing against marriage, that’s not it.  Lifelong bond between people committed to exploring and nurturing each other and themselves, traveling as equal partners through life’s peaks and valleys? What a great idea!  Sanctified by the approval of their spiritual community and protected politically and economically by the state? Terrific! But that’s not what it was for me, and I know enough of the world to suspect I am not alone.  Not because we’re evil, or shallow, or inadequate, but because we have no blessed idea what is required for real, lasting intimacy—and many of us would run screaming for the hills if we were ever to find it.

All of the men I married wanted me to be something for them that they couldn’t be for themselves…an unconditional lover, a kind but firm parent, a presence that affirmed their core importance and validity in the world.  And of course I wanted the same from them.  With differing degrees of skill we pretended to dance, clutching one another as we struggled to hear the same music, blaming each other for every awkwardness and misstep.  There were other demons too—addiction, mental illness, financial challenges, broken promises, crossed signals—but they paled in comparison to the basic failure we all shared—the unwillingness to own and stand up for and take care of ourselves.  We were like children, eager to let someone else make our lives better, and hurt and angry at the inevitable disappointment.

I learned to envy the strong marriages I know, and then to respect them.  There is no more difficult task than to be one’s own master in an intimate relationship; there is nothing more challenging than loving someone without casting a shadow on their own self-mastery.  As I reflect on couples who have succeeded in these twin endeavors, I am awestruck, not only at the astonishing strength and wisdom and commitment they show, but also at the amount of sheer good luck that allowed them to find their way together into reciprocal freedom in the safety and joy of a shared life.  Because freedom—the state of being neither coerced nor constrained—is the only environment in which we can truly grow into ourselves.

Freedom is the lifeblood of intimacy; the greatest gift we can give each other is our love, freely given, day after day.  I had no idea as a young woman that the best thing I could do for the health of my marriage was to remind myself actively to choose it, rather than expecting love and intimacy and honesty to persist by sheer force of habit.  I had no idea that it was okay to say “No” to a person I loved if it were humanly possible for me to say “Yes.”  I was utterly ignorant of the damage that I was doing to the men I claimed to love when I accepted emotional responsibility for their lives and deprived them of the opportunity to learn to self-nurture, just as they had no idea how much their demands skewed the balance of power and autonomy in the relationship. None of us had any idea how shackled we were to the idea that being a couple would magically make life better, or how much a shared life bound by the half-truths and delusions of unfinished selfhood could feel like slavery.

I’ve been very lucky; circumstances conspired to teach me the lessons I needed before I had wasted my entire life.  My former husbands, including the one that now shares his life with me as a roommate and dear friend, have found their way to lives as full of self-awareness and self-determination as they wish.   I have been blessed with two beautiful children, who are both infinitely wiser in these matters than I was at twice their age, and their father and I are able to revel in the success of our shared, if somewhat fragmented and unorthodox, parenting adventure.  I am self-sufficient in the world, thanks largely to accidents of birth and temperament for which I can take zero credit.  While I appreciate my blessings every day, my most heartfelt gratitude is that I know what matters most to me.  I have come to recognize that my freedom doesn’t depend on my relationship status, my job title or my reflection in the mirror. Freedom means waking up in the morning and knowing that I choose for myself the kind of life I will have, and that I am the only one responsible for my own happiness. It means opening myself up to the possibility of failure, and simultaneously to the possibility of triumph.  It means knowing I will survive both, and that no one but myself can determine which is which.  Freedom means thinking more carefully than ever before, because I am accountable for every single consequence of my choices for myself and for those they touch.  Freedom means feeling love and affection and joy with a new and aching poignancy because I acknowledge that I can’t control whether they will last. 

Freedom changes the way we love. Requitedness takes on a whole new meaning because it describes two free people choosing one another at the same time—not out of habit but straight from the core of the self, day after day.  I learned the hard way that feeling trapped by my own expectations and then teaching others to share them is lethal poison to love.  It took decades, but I finally get it.  I am grateful for being taught; I am grateful to know what I know. Life has been generous in showing me what a Really Bad Day is; an unexpected side effect is that I’m very rarely afraid these days, which makes it far easier to tell myself the truth about who I am and what I’m about. Perhaps that’s the freedom worth hanging on to.

©Mary Braden 2015

Midlifery

For months now I’ve been simultaneously not writing and wanting to write, as life swirled around me and time felt packed tight with the thousand things we all do to keep going. For tens of weeks I have been sitting on my own shoulder, watching my feet step out in new directions, seeing through eyes that are fixed on a new horizon, whispering in my own ear, “This is worth remembering. This is where the prologue ends and the real story finally begins.” So here goes, this is where it starts.

This is a time of bravery, this midlife span where old expectations are falling away and the new ones are still taking shape. It’s a time of bravery lost, of confidence shaken and hopes dashed—but it’s also a time of bravery born from the darkness of loss and sorrow, bravery spawned in the bitterness of disappointment and nourished in the tenderness of our first adult attempts to parent ourselves. By midlife we’ve tasted enough self-loathing to last a lifetime, and begun to turn away from that putridly seductive fruit in search of what inspires and deepens and captivates us. We are finding our courage in the ashes of our adolescent dreams and saying over and over to ourselves “Why the Hell Not?”

These aren’t necessarily bad times. There are lovers and spouses and parents and children that fill our hearts, there are careers that are rewarding, and projects that command attention and devotion. There are joys large and small, challenges that exhilarate and elevate us, insights that show us who we are and what we are for. All these years that we’ve spent building and struggling and persevering are paying off. Some lives around us seem picture-perfect, balanced, uniformly functional. Others seem more precarious, more tightly-stretched, more vulnerable. The word “seem” is necessary here because the one truth we have all come to know, in the quarter-century since we reached adulthood, is that what we choose to show the world is not to be confused with what life actually is. We all know the secrets we keep, and we are wise enough to know that those around us are keeping secrets too. We also know that’s just fine—there are barely enough hours in the day to cope the truth that seethes just below the surface in our own heads, let alone in other peoples’.

Truth is the fuel for bravery. As we become able to see who we really are, as we gain enough experience and enough insight to step into our own skins, we become owners and custodians of our truth. Some of us stuff it far, far down where we think it can be safe from exposure, but we know it’s there, and while we may not be able to call it by its name, it shapes us from its hiding place. Some of us approach it like a small child approaching a strange and scary dog…one hand outstretched, head averted, toes reaching for forward traction, the other hand reaching back and holding fast to anything that feels stable. Still others of us sell it short, skimming only the sweet froth from the top and leaving untasted the dark, unfamiliar shadows underneath that make us whole and balanced. We dance around the truth, lie to it, lie about it, decorate it, ignore it, make fun of it, but it is ours. Midlife is the fulcrum of life’s teeter-totter, the long, poised moment between the uphill climb from the womb and the downhill—much faster—trot towards the end. It takes bravery to stand here, facing this most central truth, knowing it is our burden not only to carry but to integrate and understand.

Bravery and truth are the twin weapons we bring towards that good night. They are the foci of our great ellipse, shaping our wanderings into a coherent path, continually pulling us away from inattention and delusion so that we can continue our journey with integrity. Our bravery is not foolhardy by nature, although it can provoke recklessness. It is not unafraid, although it can deny the power of fear. It is the bravery of knowing there are worse things than loss, that there are worse things than pain, and that we already know that we are strong enough to bear the unbearable. By midlife we have all encountered experiences that brought us to our knees, crushed our hearts and spirits and spit us out to find our way back to the sunlight. We know how it feels to give up hope of healing and survival and to heal and survive anyway. Our courage is that of the veteran, of Priam, not Achilles. Our truth is not rooted in the world’s approval, though we may have it. Our truth is one of exploration, of inquiry, of self-knowledge and curiosity and radical acceptance rather than rejection.

As we come to know ourselves and devote ourselves to living more genuine, more courageous lives, we must consider speaking and living those lives honestly in the world. Some of us refuse to do this, hampered perhaps by shame or fear. Some of us leap headlong into new and precipitous ways of living, releasing too completely the lives we have built and the lessons they have taught us. We all struggle to discern what our responsibilities are, where our joy and our suffering are to be found, what we can afford to risk. We look around for people to share our truth with, and we consider what it means to hear another’s truth and encourage its growth. Bravery and truth can deepen and enrich existing relationships, or close those who have run their course. They can open new and exciting doors for mutual discovery in strong marriages and lifelong friendships, or they can force us to relinquish those we have clung to overlong. As we exercise our freedom to become who we are, we recognize our preferred fellow-travelers and devote ourselves to the friendships that will inform our old age. Midlife contains heartache for many of us as our youthful errors of judgment bear their inevitable fruit; illness and death brush against us; financial and professional struggles challenge our priorities; we must let go of our sense of limitless, immortal potential and seek instead to live with full and present attention right now. Bravery and truth.

©Mary Braden 2015

One Week In

Day #7.  The last day of the first week of the November Blog challenge.  So far I’m really enjoying myself.  I’m more aware all day of the thoughts passing through my head because I anticipate taking them out and looking at them again when the workday is over and I can settle down and think about what to write.  Several people have suggested that I avail myself of some of the innumerable blog prompt resources out there, but so far I like going through the day with basically no idea if or when any kind of inspiration will strike.  The whole day has a new rhythm and focus with this task waiting for me at the end of it.  I haven’t figured out very much about that yet, but in all honesty I think that’s what I enjoy most about this so far.  Something new is taking shape in the way my mind works and as long as I keep putting words on the page then I get to see how it turns out.

I’ve never really written regularly except in journals, an exercise which never lasted very long.  I’ve written to calm my nerves, to help me make decisions, as a tool in figuring out what I think or feel and why.  It’s a tool I’ve used more and more rarely as I get older, possibly because I used it when wrestling with emotional challenges, and that’s not something I do in the same way now that I did 20 years ago.   As I mentioned in a recent post, I am more able to observe my own feelings now than I was as a girl, which means that I don’t always need the artificial separation that a pen and paper afford.  What I do notice is that I do much more thinking than I used to, and that I have little to no experience writing about that.  I think this is part of what I’m supposed to be learning ]with this project.  How does one write about a thought?  Is it personal, does one own it with “I” and “mine?”  Or does one step away from it, allow it a form and sense of its own, described in third-person detachment?   What about the context?  How many details are necessary?  How much backstory?  What emotional frame is necessary, and what weight should it have?

So I get to start figuring this out, with nothing but the contents of my own head and 4 decades of experience with words.  7 days in and I can’t quite tell how I’m doing.  The words sound like me, which I think is the most authentic route to what I’m after.  The few paragraphs I’ve put together so far make sense to me, although I notice that some ideas take several tries.  I haven’t seen a pattern to those yet, but I very much suspect that there is one, and that when I recognize it, my sense of what and how to write will be enriched by that knowledge.

23 days left in the month, 23 days to watch this process at close range and see how it unfolds.  Thank you, readers, for accompanying me, for walking beside me as I essentially talk to myself aloud to see what I have to say.  Your patience is greatly appreciated.

©Mary Braden 2013

The Introvert At Home

Life can fit a lot into one day, which rocks the world of an introvert.  Today was one of those.  An hour of heartfelt spousal conversation followed by 8 hours of training at work, followed by drinks and appetizers with colleagues and then an hour at the lovely and sad viewing of a dear friend’s mother who recently died.   It’s enough to fry my single emotional neuron until it sizzles, yet so satisfying to touch all the surfaces of my world in just one day.

Coming home at the end of this day, finding my quiet home and family waiting for me, reminds me of how precious that peace truly is.  Here I get to rest my body and, more importantly, my mind.  Here I know every inch of wall and window, every loose board and squeaky hinge.  As my shoes come off and the purse gets tucked away in its corner, my brain lets go of the dust and grime of the day’s interaction and resumes the gentle hum of relaxation.

Not every day is as crazy as this one, so on many evenings I fail to appreciate the value of a warm, well-lit place to call my own.  Tonight I celebrate that value and sing it to the heavens.  What a privilege to have this tiny corner of the earth impenetrable by the outside world.  How sweet to remember all the battles fought to keep it, some barely won.  I’m not much a creature of sentiment, but I care for this tiny yellow house as passionately as I ever cared for any place in the world.  As the weather gets cold and the wind starts to whistle at night, this is a dear and welcome place to be.

I’ve lived in many places over the years, but this one has been my home the longest. This little village has seen the most difficult and humiliating chapters of my life as well as some of the most joyous.  I’ve been married here and bought a house here and watched my children grow here and mourned deaths here.  This is where I’ve made friends and lost friends, laughed and danced and howled and wept.  Home.

Tomorrow will be another day to get up and leave home to deal with the outside world.  The excitement and weariness of moving amongst people will sweep me along until at last, like being spit from the final spate of roiling rapids, I will coast peacefully to a halt and be home again.  This is a pattern I could get used to,  this gentle rhythm of days and weeks punctuated by long sleep and easy wakings.  I have called many places home over the years and loved them all.  The beauty of this one is that I have been walking through its doors for enough years now that it is second nature to me. This is the place that holds more memories for me than any other since childhood, and the one where I want to see new ones blossom.  In tomorrow’s excitement I could easily forget how fine it is to let the pressure off and put my feet up at the end of the day.  Tonight, I’m celebrating it.

©Mary Braden 2013