Our Truest Self: the Inner Elder

I am pained as I write this. My hands shake just enough on the keys to add an audible unpredictability to each click of a character.

One of the two communities where I feel most at home is in turmoil, with many long-term members flocking to join their voices with a small core who have self-exiled as an act of resistance. While I absolutely support them in leaving a space in which they no longer felt safe or heard, I am heartbroken at the way in which it was done, and at the fallout that has ensued.

Over the past four years I’ve enjoyed deepening friendships with individuals who are now on opposing sides, and know them well enough to feel confident saying that they are good people. Neither in their heart of hearts means to harm. Each has tried with real diligence to work through difficulty, think collaboratively, and empower others. They have in fact based their entire lives on these principles. Until now, I have been continually impressed with their desire to move past what is comfortable or easy, and truly challenge themselves to find solutions that consider all people and their needs.

Of course, each of my close friends is, as I too am, fallible. We have made mistakes. Said things in anger. Lashed out from a place of pain, whether in private or fully in the public eye. It remains to be seen whether or not the damage will be permanent. But I believe we have some choice in the matter.

Let’s turn the lens on ourselves. Think of the elders you trust and respect, those who hold a wisdom that causes you to be still for a moment, humbled and grateful to be in their presence. Why do you hold them so dear? What qualities do you see shining past wrinkled flesh and kind eyes? What of your elders do you quietly hope to grow into one day? I can tell you now it is not their anger. It is not their pain, worn as a badge.

We look to elders for a reason. They have lived through far more than we can imagine, and have been hurt, shamed, and loved to a degree that is beyond our current comprehension. And yet they have a quiet, boundless strength. A depth born of hard-won perspective.

So my question to you is this: 20 or 30 years from now (or let’s say 40, to allow extra time for real wisdom to show its face), how will you look back on your words and actions from this era? Will it still be with righteous conviction? Or will there perhaps be something softer, such as a deep sadness, mixed with a compassion that knows no boundary between self and other? As an elder reflecting on these, your younger years, will you feel any regret?

We are at a fork in the road, versions of which we will no doubt encounter at crucial junctures throughout our lives. Do we choose to take a step toward the elder inside us, the truest self? Or do we turn away from the wisdom that is already there?

True Friends, and Crisis as a Metric

It’s been a year. One that, for a long time, did not allow for the ease of backward-looking reflection. Everything took place in the moment, highlighted and compressed, the molecules of time stacking in layers of intensity. When 2015 started I was a month into the reality of cancer. It was, thankfully, non-invasive and contained (a milk duct gone sideways), but still a tiny time bomb with an invisible clock. I had found it myself in a semi-regular breast exam, a distinctive lump the size of a Jelly Belly (likely popcorn flavor, as in my imaginings it had the same hue and inherent desirability). My doctors were proud: I was their poster child, a woman who had not only found the aberrant tumor myself, but actually brought myself in for a second opinion. Four surgeries and many months of altered body image later, I am now cancer-free, with cute little perma-perky tits that would make most twenty-somethings proud. It has been a year.

Recently I spent two weeks in Oregon with someone even younger who went through a much more brutal and dramatic cancer surgery, one that took half his tongue and replaced it with a section of forearm (the non-tattooed one, thankfully). Among other necessary indignities he had a feeding tube through one nostril and a temporary tracheotomy to bypass the swollen and problematic upper entrances to his respiratory system. For eight days his family and I sat at his hospital bedside, holding his hand in turns and calmly talking him through the episodic terror of his trach being blocked by gobs of phlegm and blood. He endured. We endured.

Throughout both his experience and mine, I heard one expression more than any other: “You don’t know your true friends until times like these.” On the surface, this saying has a logic that makes sense — difficulty weeds out those who don’t care enough to hack it. But I’m not sure. Something about the facility with which we utter such phrases rubs me wrong. Are we that simple? Are the affections of most of our friends really so groundless, so transient?

What I saw was that individuals often had different ways of showing up. A handful of mine volunteered to come with me to doctor appointments, sit through surgeries, or otherwise be 100% present as needed. These people were absolutely invaluable, lifting a good portion of the weight of the process from my shoulders. I suspect that they would have been deemed the “true friends” referred to in the aphorism. They were vocal in their support, utterly dedicated, and moved around sections of their busy lives to accommodate my needs.

But I also had people who, in the face of my ongoing crisis, didn’t spend long hours talking me through medical decisions or giving me rides at early hours of the morning, yet who wrote songs for me like “Let’s Talk About Tits” (complete with PowerPoint presentation of tits and boobies, the birds) and “Mammary Blues,” both of which were performed to a completely enthralled audience at my Bye Bye Boobies party. At the same event others told stories of the legacy of breasts among the women in their family, or recited verse from poets long dead. Over fifteen of my friends signed up on a spreadsheet to bring me food in rotation shifts every evening for three weeks. Were these also my ‘true friends’? Of course.

As are the people who simply grabbed my hand when hearing the news, not knowing what to say. And those who continued to dance with me as though nothing had transpired, letting all of it float through in the communication of shared movement. Not everyone has the words, or the time, or the confidence that what they utter will be the right thing rather than something that only makes everything worse. We stumble through difficulty the best we can with what we’ve got.

However we show up in times of crisis is not the full measure of our heart. It is not even an accurate reflection of emotional maturity, as there are myriad reasons a person may not be able to engage on a deep level in any particular moment. Grad student stresses, ailing parents, or the looming end of a significant relationship can all draw resources away from availability. It does not mean the person does not care.

When in the throes of our own personal hell, it can be easy to tag friends as “good” or “bad” in a very dualistic manner, judging them based on their level of engagement with our situation. Yet this is unfair, biased by our clouded lens. Yes, we are possibly going through something more intense than they have ever experienced. Sure. But what if we accepted all help, no matter how big or small? Even the tiniest text from afar that said, “Oh man! I hope you get better soon.” How supported would we feel then?

Crises do show us who our friends are — some of them. The rest are still there, whether vocal or not. Their hearts may not be on their sleeves, but is a tragic mistake to think that they do not love. What would it be to accept it all?


We are not static: a manifesto

Over the course of many years living at the behest of an unquenchable passion for learning, I’ve come to re-realize that my stepmother’s words, on some forgotten night in the consoling Oregon desert, are true — life (oh life! infinite in variation!) is not linear.

This may seem like an idiot’s aphorism, but it counteracts an assumption that runs deep in our society. If you look carefully at your own thought patterns, habitual tendencies, and belief systems, you will likely discover that behind all the ephemera taken as fixed lies the expectation that the major components of your life (achievements, career, relationships) will progress in a “Point A to Point B” fashion. This is simply not true.

I was always an odd child. Never terrifically popular until well into adulthood, I slept with my nose in books, created worlds on paper complete with language and topographical detail, and sat up in trees until the sun went down. I idolized international spies, world-class criminals, and assassins (because of the requisite do-or-die mastery of craft), as well as writers and artists. I could have been any of them. Or all. What fed me, and continues to do so, was the understanding that I could learn anything, or be anybody. I have my father to thank for that. He was unerringly explicit that all one needed was an inquisitive mind and a complete dedication to learning. With that, even when you fail you never fail. Knowledge is its own reward. I took that to heart and didn’t look back.

So what have I done with it? I’ve been a bartender, bouncer, painter, writer, editor, acupuncturist, qi gong instructor, lay counselor, world-traveler, trekker, photographer, neuroscience researcher, and founder of a soon-to-be-birthed nomadic online magazine called SITUATE. While some of my relatives might prefer that I just “settle into one thing and do that,” I doubt I will ever constrain myself to a single venture. I am simply too captivated by what there is to learn. With an eye to becoming a true digital nomad, in recent months I’ve begun courses in web design and development. This existence, and my experience of it, continues to unfold in new directions.

Of course, there is an argument to be made for dismissing with distraction and plumbing the depths of craft until one has achieved mastery. How else would we have had the brilliance of minds such as Frida Kahlo, James Baldwin, or Virginia Woolf? Yet it is not against this that I rebel. My quarrel is with the mistaken assumption that greatness (or “success” in modern lingo) is formulaic.

At constant suck on the digital teat, we are bombarded with admonitions to “change your life in 3 easy steps,” or “revolutionize your writing with these 10 necessary apps.” Underneath these lies the message that if you only structured your life correctly, or bought the right software, you would get what you want. If you do A (e.g., work hard for 10 years at a desk job), it is only a matter of time before it leads to the desirable outcomes B (good income) and C (happiness). A + time → B + C. In reality not only do we not have perfect control over the direction our actions take, but to put it simply, shit happens. Like all who survive in the animal realm, we must be adaptive. We must roll with whatever we are given, and recognize when the path we’ve been on no longer serves us. Resilience is born of creativity. So color outside the lines. Try a new view. Move beyond your imagined limitations.

The false belief that life is linear is actually damaging. It can form the basis of negative self-assessment and criticism. Why is this not working for me? Why are my peers so seemingly happy and I am not? I thought I was doing everything right…what am I getting wrong? None of these thoughts is particularly useful, except perhaps to spark a re-examination of priorities in preparation for a new direction. If we think we are til-death tied to a specific career or professional identity, we prevent ourselves from real and necessary growth. If we mistake ourselves for what we do, we are in even deeper trouble.

I’ll be the first to admit that some of the choices I’ve made have sidelined other important areas of my life or held me back in less obvious ways. We each have our patterns to work through. Despite this, or perhaps because of such missteps (and what I’ve faced as a consequence), my trajectory has been a steady progression that has first and foremost grown me as a person, and second both broadened and deepened my skill sets. As for every other person I’ve ever know, my path has been anything but a straight line. And it has been immensely gratifying.

We are not static. We are beings in process, constantly shape-shifting and stretching our capacities. Embrace the movement. To stifle that creative impulse is to die.