I have been paying attention to my people, watching the process of letting go, and I notice patterns emerging. I want you to imagine that these patterns are beautiful, like shadows cast through wrought iron on a sunny day. They are mutable and consistent at the same time. These past few years, I have been releasing my own treasures: physically, emotionally, mentally. There has been a downsizing of beloved people, pets, and material things. So many material things – costumes and props from past lives, pieces of history.
About eight years ago, I was out of town, attending to a truly dreadful business. I won’t go into detail, because it is not my story to share, but it was a thick, wrenching business involving nastiness and lawyers and vulnerable children. It was multi-layered: some of the “good guys” weren’t all that good, and the family I was attending to was perforated by grief and stress coming from many, many angles. It was basically a hell lasagna. I don’t know if any of the other participants remember it this way, but I do.
My daughter was at home during this time. This was good: I would not wish that experience on anyone. But she was my talisman, and I was alone without her.
I went to return home after my day in court, before hearing the outcome. I didn’t have my driver’s licence, yet (late bloomer), so I made my way down to the station. When I went to pay for my ticket, it was $7 more than I had anticipated, because I had neglected to book a day in advance. I didn’t have that $7.
In retrospect, this was not a crisis: there are a hundred ways I could have traveled the next day, or the day after that. No one would have died. But at the time, I was so desperate to get home. I needed to remove myself from the days of ugliness I had just waded through, and I needed my island and my family as much as I have ever needed anything.
All of this must have shown on my face, because the woman behind the counter got her purse out and rang in the ticket, paying the extra $7 herself.
She did not know me, and
she did not have any idea what my week had been, and
she did not know why I needed to catch that bus, but
she handed me my ticket.
I tried to make an offer of repayment, but she shrugged, and just said, “just pay it forward.”
I was halfway out the door when I thanked her, but my voice was already breaking. I cried all the way to fucking Nanaimo. I cried again when I got home.
I still can’t actually tell this story without crying: I have cried just typing it out. And then I cried again, when I had to explain why I was crying to the concerned person who accidentally walked in on my typing.
I tell this story a lot for a lot of reasons. I tell it because it is my own reminder that this gentle debt is never repaid – it is something I have the privilege of paying forward every time my circumstances allow.
I also tell this story to let you know that although there will be times when your generosity is taken for granted, there will also be times when you elevate someone who is so desperately struggling – and you will simply never know how you helped them cross a chasm. Please don’t be discouraged. Kindness is easy: find fundraisers for people unable to make their rent, and always seek out the most marginalized. If your own cupboards are bare, you still have the capacity to be generous with your words and deeds. Throw them like seeds in the most barren soil, even though you will never know what might take root. Throw these seeds sincerely, knowing that whatever grows will never be yours to harvest.
If there are times when you have nothing left for anyone else, that’s OK, too. I hope that there will be hands to lift you up.
I didn’t even send that woman at the station a thank you card. It is something I regret, but I try to let that be part of my lesson. I hope I do justice to her gift to me.
So I saw this article on self-compassion, and I want to talk about it.
I want to talk about it, because self-compassion is a practice that has absolutely and unequivocally changed the way I move through the world.
However, I can’t talk about it honestly without talking about my drinking, so this is going to get a little personal, y’all. Even if you don’t relate to my story of addiction, stay with me.
Some of you may or may not know that I used to drink. Lots! I started on peach pastel “champagne” at around 15, moved over to espresso martinis and lemon drops in my early 20’s, and settled into a steady routine of various shades of wine around 25. Occasionally, when the massive quantities of bottles stacked up for recycling, I would tell myself, “I’m not alcoholic, I just have European sensibilities.” It was never, ever, less than a half bottle at dinner. Most often it was more. Sometimes much more. Once, it was five bottles of Chardonnay (a “tasting”) over the course of an afternoon with a friend. One afternoon. One friend. I used to wake up, like clockwork, at 2 in the morning, and lie awake for almost exactly two hours. I would dedicate this time to a special practice I call “self-loathing”.
I really did. Dear friends, I would itemize all of the ways I knew better and could do better, and how I was just a little extra trash, because I knew better but DIDN’T do better. I knew in surgical detail what this consumption was costing me financially, emotionally, physically.
This happened nightly, because there was never a night without alcohol. Fourteen hours a week of concentrated self-loathing. Fifty-six hours a month. I became an expert.
I would take penance: run to the gym, clean the house. Fortunately, I did not loathe myself during other hours – not audibly.
I had the good fortune to work in a terrible job with a wonderful woman. I don’t remember if I was engaged in a full-fledged confessional (it’s possible), but she started talking about the concept of self-compassion. She used words that struck me as distinctly old-school woo-woo, like “inner child”.
But listen: the “inner child” is an absolutely apt metaphor, because we are all on a fundamental level, soft-bodied, comfort-craving creatures who lack meaningful lifetime experience and are driven by base desires. On some level, we are all fumbling as toddlers, bundles of feelings and impulse, and inescapable bodily functions.
At those two o’clock in the mornings, I gave time to the idea that I could forgive myself a litany of fuckups, just as one would forgive a puppy for pissing on the carpet or chewing a precious family photograph. Ideal? No. Deserving of compassion and understanding? Yes and yes.
At two in the morning, I started to silence that voice that spewed vitriol in my own direction. I started to regard myself as that kind of fucked-up little mammal who meant well, but who kept pissing on the carpet (Metaphorically, you guys. Metaphorically). I began to respond to myself in same the way I would respond to my loved ones: with gentle forgiveness, and encouragement to do better.
Do you know what? It was transformative.
It cleared the space so that I could really learn to love this incarnation.
My world is much more richly textured, now. Some days I am given to delusions of grandeur – I won’t go into detail, because it’s embarrassing, but let me tell you: those days are fun. Other days, I am convinced that I move through the world with all the social grace and sexiness of a high-pitched Mr. Bean. Some days, I am basically a rocket scientist; other days, it takes me ½ an hour to realize that if the office kettle is broken, I can still make tea in the microwave (true story). I let myself have all those moments: moments of being amazing and moments of being a little weird and kinda gross, because frankly, we all are all of those things, and none of them affect our ultimate value.
I did, ultimately, learn to moderate my drinking. I still need to be careful: if alcoholism is a riptide and sobriety is the shore, I still stand in the inter-tidal zone. I am vigilant about portions, and about balance: marking my sober days on a calendar, and paying attention to the contents of the recycling.
The self-compassion allows me to still love myself when I fuck up (and fuck up I do). It also lets me see honestly where I am, and allow me to adapt my behaviour accordingly.
Even more, the self-compassion also allows me to spend time painting, even though I will never achieve perfection in paint. It gives me permission to write when I should be cleaning out the sentient beings that may have spawned in my fridge. It lets me take responsibility for my failings, and move forward.
All of this is easier without the weight of untempered shame.
I am imploring you to try it. I promise it will feel profoundly ridiculous and embarrassing, but so does everything. It is like the lifting of a heavy blanket that you didn’t know was suffocating you.
This Valentine’s Day, I am holding space for all of my brothers, sisters, and gender-fluid siblings, who have fallen in love with someone inappropriate, or unavailable. I am holding space for every person who has ever watched love back quietly out the door, for everyone who has ever been held captive by their own hearts. I am thinking about those for whom romantic love has been ruined, and those who exist on the starvation diet of active imaginations and acceptance.
We are told, over and over, that this is a world for THAT kind of love. That for love to be real it must be singular and intensely sexual, that it must be a happily ever after, and that anything else is beneath consideration.
None of this is true. Love IS a thread that stitches us together and rips us apart, but it also is also a light that illuminates everything, whether we want it to or not.
Tomorrow morning, when you wake up, take a moment to adore your own body, in all the places you are free from pain. Take a moment to remember a kindness that you have done for someone else, and a kindness someone has done for you. Commit to paying the latter forward, because love is not static: sometimes it is steeped in joy, and sometimes it demands sacrifice. You have probably experienced both.
Tomorrow morning, take a breath in gratitude for the loved ones you have had to release into the world to continue their travels without you: lovers, children, parents, pets. Take another for those who have loved you, and let you go (there are more of these than you probably realize). Take a breath in gratitude for the love that still permeates your life, and one more, in faith, for the love that you haven’t learned how to see (it is massive).
There is no question that Valentine’s Day is a commercial construct with dubious origins. That is the truth. But it is also a day we can choose to be reminded that love is expansive, not singular; it does not require chocolate or diamonds, or expensive dinners.
I am choosing to celebrate Valentine’s Day in this way – not because I haven’t yet figured out how to swim the murky waters of romantic love, but because romantic partnership is just one slice of a very large, delicious pie that we all deserve to dine from.
Sometimes, I can feel the sun, before it rises. I can feel the clearness of the morning skies on a cellular level, like trumpeters announcing with fanfare an approaching Queen. THE approaching Queen. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have been swimming in grey for weeks, and now I feel like dancing.
I did dance, this morning. I put on highly inappropriate music and bounced around my living room, around my bathroom. I danced in front of my aging reflection, and mouthed words of welcome to the spring. Toothpaste went everywhere, because: multitasking.
Last year, around this time, I walked to the ocean just before dawn. I sat on the sandstone formations that make up McFarlane Beach, and waited for the light. It came, but not as I expected: it was not a silver thread spreading where the mountains touched the lightening sky. It was more the drawing down a curtain. The sun washed from the treetops down to where I sat on the rock. At that moment, I really did feel a part of everything. I am reluctant to name god/dess, but in that moment, I felt profound evidence that this blissful light that touches everything, touches me, too (and conversely, the light that touches me touches everything else).
Isn’t this the closest thing to being in love? This anticipation and expansion? This soft, soft air like a whispered kiss on our skin?
It is so easy to contract in winter’s fallow, to forget that spring could not be held back, even if we tried. Let us all be like apple trees, preparing to bloom.
If you have never done so, paint a self-portrait.
Trust me on this: you will rediscover every bit of your beauty. Do not make it a faithful representation, a record of the ravages of time on skin: there are more important songs to be sung.
I am begging you to be bold:
If you cannot find a canvas large enough, use a cotton sheet. Make it a bed of burnt umber, on which you can lay your extravagant colours.
Place your scars, like road maps. Carve in red your bleeding heart, and stitch it together with threads of gold, the way the Japanese practice Kintsugi. Let these metallic lines mark your journey, so that you can remember where you came from, and again find your way home.
Like the old masters, surround yourself with symbolic things: your grandmother’s gloves upon your knee, a love letter. Give yourself permission to apply them to the canvas – use glue and safety pins, if you need to. Draw in the words you cannot bear to say aloud, and then paint over them. The canvas will remember. It will hold all of the things no one else has learned how to see.
When you are finished, begin anew. Begin, this time, on bed of gold, and on it, inscribe upon it all of the things you wish that were. Give yourself a crown, or a babe in arms, or seat yourself upon a stack of every book ever written. Do this, so that you can remember where you are going. Do this, because the paint is magic.
I know that paint is magic, because the first time I was in New York, we went to the Museum of Modern Art. At the time, there was a painting by Matisse hanging in the stairwell, between the second and third stories. In seeing The Dance, I was confronted with pure joy, manifested.
I guess that here, that you might pause look up the painting – but it will not describe the painting any more than a photo of cake describes the experience of cake. And even if you do find yourself standing in New York or St. Petersburg facing the one of the originals, it may not be your brand of magic. You might not stand, awash in embarrassing tears, on the second floor stairwell, and then again on the third (because you needed to see if the rapture applied on third floor, too). Matisse may not have written in the language that you speak, but listen:
On that canvas, Matisse illustrated a kind of ecstasy that gave birth to that same feeling in at least some of those who saw it. It generated that which it described.
So: imagine all of the ways that the world might rise up to greet you, if you tell it where you are going. Imagine what you might manifest, if you record all of the things that you carry with you, and then resolutely carry on.
I know it is not the same thing, to paint a feeling and a person. I know, too, that Matisse is Matisse, and the rest of us are humble mortals, but still: paint a self portrait, at least once. Claim your story, and let the threads of your insides and outsides tie together.