Last week I anticipated writing a two-part blog about what I am learning from Brene Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. I was wrong. I’m going to be writing about and learning to rise strong for quite a while!
Apparently, the hardest part of this process — the part that everyone wants to avoid — is the one part you cannot skip. It is the “messy middle" between the inciting moment (the thing that gets us off our asses and out of our old stories) and the resolution (the place where the lessons learned bring some form of new life). That messy middle the heart of the matter. . .and it takes as long as it takes. That’s all there is to it.
For those of us for whom opening our hearts is both our greatest hope and fear, feeling what’s inside is ALWAYS messy. . .and discomforting. When I was a little girl, I sometimes had to run away from the TV because I couldn’t bear to watch the tough stuff — the tears, the embarassments, the failures. They hit me hard. They still do.
Instead of tying last week’s blog up into a neat little bow, I find myself still in the brackish water of Ms Brown’s delta, a place which she defines as “the difference. . .between what we make up about our experiences and the truth we discover through the process of rumbling”. The liminal space. The pause. The uncomfortable waiting. The listening. The leaning.
So, here’s my view from the delta:
For years my best friend, Pamela, has been telling me that my anger is holy. For just as many years, I’ve been telling her that she’s nuts. For me, anger is yet another emotion with which I am comfortable. I’ve often said that I have a fuse as long as Sunset Blvd, but that when it blows, it really blows!
In fact, that's not true at all. My fuse is only that long in relation to other people — and it usually never blows. That long fuse, well it's basically non-existent when it comes to myself. I’ve been consistently angry at and disappointed with myself for as long as I can remember. I’ve just ostriched those feelings so deeply underground in an effort to pretend they don’t exist. But they permeates my being as the basenotes of my life scent — an acrid odor I try to cover up with the perfume of pleasing others and putting on my Sunday best for the world.
But last Sunday was different. I woke up FEELING angry. And this wasn’t self-loathing. This was something altogether different, and totally unfamiliar. As I journaled about it with the hopes of releasing it, then got ready to head out for a drive and hike (which is a big emotion tamer for me), I began to feel the anger build. At the same time, I started feeling nauseous, anxious, and then everything I had eaten for the past three days (pardon the TMI) came streaming out. One of my dad’s favorite expressions was, “It’s time to shit or get off the pot.” Clearly the universe agreed.
Normally I feel anxiety in my chest as a big tight knot of fear so excruciating that I pray it will exit a la Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Anything to alleviate that excruciating pain that always remains stuck there. But this was surfacing and exiting my being any way it could. I felt age-old ontological angst rising up from my chest and out my throat.
By the time I started my hike, it was bubbling toiling troubling — rising like a scalding geyser. It would not be ignored.
It. Felt. Holy.
And then it happened.
Right there, on that hike, midway on the journey of my life, I found myself in a dark wood recognizing that I had lost my way, my voice, my truth. That those essences of me had become been the hardest thing to speak of seemed a far wilder and more barren landscape than the one in which I found myself, a wood of gnarled juniper branches blocking my way, harsh and impenetrable. But as I forged on, oh the good I found there. But like Dante, in order to tell of that good, I must have the courage to speak of the other things first.
In that dark thicket on the holiest Sunday of my life, I finally understood my anger. To suppress my voice and my truth, to learn to ignore it — even when it screamed — how could I not despise myself that most intimate betrayal?
Simply put, in refusing to listen to my own voice, let alone speak it to others, I had failed myself. No wonder I struggle with self-loathing. I have thrown myself under the bus over and over again.
I know all the reasons why: My mother was of the children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard generation. I wasn’t allowed to cry, because I was told it meant that you felt sorry for yourself. I wasn’t allowed to celebrate successes because I was told that most good things that came to me were not due to any of my own gifts or talents, but because people wanted something from my famous father.
I know the reasons why I repressed my feelings, felt ashamed of my successes, shut myself down, split myself, distrusted the people who praised me. When I did feel — like the terror and confusion I felt when, in the space of three weeks just after I turned sixteen, my mother sent me to live in Germany for a year because I had hurt her for reasons she could not explain — I shut the abject terror I felt down as fast as I could so I could begin to cope. I made a calendar in my mind about how I would survive each week. And I stuck to it. I arrived in Germany knowing one word: Gesundheit. Within four months, I was fluent and no one knew I was from America. I not only survived. I flourished. Away from my mother for a whole year, away from a world where anyone knew who my dad was, I was myself. It was one of the happiest years of my life!
I know now that my mother hated herself, too.. She — the daughter of a man who hated himself and a mother whom she perceived as having an inflated opinion of herself — could also never be good enough. As a promising dancer, she decided she was not talented enough to pursue the thing she loved doing the most, because she compared herself to her best friend — Merce Cunningham -- one of the most iconic forces in twentieth century modern dance! As a costume designer, she hated herself for not being able to draw and felt herself less than because she hadn’t won an Academy Award. Never mind that she had long successful careers on Broadway and in Hollywood, and that one of her sketches became part of the logo for the Costume Designers Guild. The New York Times raved of my mother's in her first solo Broadway show, "I left whistling the costumes!" For her, no praise was ever enough to fill the deep hole of not being good enough. I know how she felt!
Everything she gave me — all the lessons and schooling and skills — she gave me “so that I wouldn’t feel like I didn’t fit in”. Which is how she felt. Which is how I feel. I have never felt like I fit in. The words she spoke came from a kind love that was based on fear. I heard the love, but I felt the fear.
I have spent much of the past four years trying to forgive my mother. But understanding that we can only pass on what we know, I finally see that she didn’t know how to love because she couldn’t love herself — in exactly the same ways I can’t love myself.
There, in that dark juniper wood, I found the truth that would set me free.
As I often do, I “wrote” most of this blog by speaking it into my phone while I was hiking. I had just recorded most of what you’ve read, when I clicked STOP. Out of nowhere, suddenly I heard my own voice speaking back to me from another recording, saying: “According to David Whyte, ‘Almost by definition, the courageous conversation is the conversation you do not want to have.'"
I literally laughed out loud. I’d been telling myself the truth for months, without even listening. That was it!!! Literally that. I suddenly got it! It’s not just that I am reluctant to speak my truth to others; it’s that I don’t speak it to myself. And even when I do, I don’t listen, because I don’t trust it. So, it’s gotten quieter and quieter and quieter.
Again, I have blamed my poor mother, who flat out asked me to lie (either blatantly or by ommission)when I was asked that had to do with my personal life: What my father did. (He was a “lecturer".) What religion we practiced. (We were “Protestant".) What kind of car she drove. ("I don’t know.") What my mother did. ("Something with houses.")
She schooled me in the unspoken but very real "code of celebrity”, as it existed then. My cousin Lynn shared a story with me last year that I still can’t get out of my head. The youngest child of my mother’s older sister, Lynn was raised in Victoria, British Columbia, where she was fascinated by stories of my mother, who had escaped the island and become the costume designer who married a movie star. When she was a teenager, she was invited to Los Angeles to spend a week with her aunt and uncle. A highlight of the trip was dinner on the Queen Mary.
Their meal had just been served, when a fan came over to greet my father. In his enthusiasm, the man knocked over a glass of ice water, which spilled all over everyone’s food. Lynn, who had been so excited about her fried shrimp, watched the breading go cold and soggy as my father chatted with the man and signed an autograph. As soon as the fan left, the waiter came over to apologize and ask whether he could replace the food. Lynn eagerly nodded, only to hear my parents say — almost in unison, “Oh no, this is just fine."
Fine! Lynn thought. I have soggy ice cold shrimp. My mother then turned to Lynn and said, “We have to say no. If we don’t the tabloids will say that Vincent was a rude inconsiderate person. So, you’ll just have to eat your shrimp as it is."
In that moment, Lynn decided that all the glamour she had imagined in the life of a celebrity could never be worth it.
Hearing Lynn's story of how we lived as seen from the outside made me realize the unspoken proprieties that just became part of my psyche.
The problem with not speaking your truth is that the truth never stops speaking to you. So in order not to hear it, you deafen yourself. In order not to act on it, you pretzel yourself. You contort, you contract, and eventually the person who looks back at you from the mirror is someone you cannot stand.
After reading last week’s blog, my wonderful 82-year-dear dear friend Mary said to me, “I’d never heard the word self loathing until I read what you wrote. I thought to myself, ‘That must be the bottom of the barrel.;"
I actually guffawed when she said that. What a relief to hear someone call it like it is. Self-loathing IS the bottom of the barrel.
In Twelve Step programs, there is great gratitude for reaching a bottom, a place from which the only way to is UP!
Writing this blog is a first step. Not only am I telling the truth to myself, but I’m putting it out there for you to read.
Brene Brown tells us, "The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness. We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity."
When I heard her speak last week, however, she reminded us that we can absolutely expect our courage will be dissed, doubted, diminished, deprecated. People will fall by the wayside. Our lives will change. (Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad -- they knew this to be true as well.) The question is — are we willing to trade in our old stories, our false safeties, for a new narrative, for true safety (safety in truth)?
This is the precipice on which I am standing: The gnarled juniper woods are behind me. In front of me is a beautiful valley with a river snaking through it. It looks like a Brueghel painting. I am thinking about Icarus — the boy who donned wings but flew too close to the sun and so fell to his death.
On my left shoulder, I have a tattoo of the wings of a 16th century angel that has been in my family for over half a century. In the middle of those wings is one word: true.
I am standing on the precipice of speaking my truth, living my truth, doing whatever it takes to honor myself instead of my mother’s stories (which weren’t even hers — she got them from someone else who loathed themself). I am standing on the precipice and feeling my wings.
Henri Frederic Amiel, a man whose own intimate confession of and struggle with self-loathing and whose search for self-esteem inspired many with his honesty over a century ago, wrote, "Conquering any difficulty always gives one a secret joy, for it means pushing back a boundary-line and adding to one's liberty.”
Liberty. Freedom. From the life-limiting narratives that no longer serve us. Freedom to remember the people we were before the self-loathing. Freedome to be the children we once were, who lived in joy as easily as we breathed air.
Icarus. The ultimate cautionary tale embodying all the contradictions I was taught, so many of us were taught: Sure, you can try to construct wings, but god forbid you aim too high. You will die.
I’ve always loved loved loved both Auden’s poem about Icarus, which begins: "About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters."
No, they were never wrong our old Masters, those voices in our heads who would have us believe that suffering is our lot in life and to aim for sun is the most egregious hubris. They were never wrong — at least in their own minds.
But we, we have the choice. Do we listen to those old Masters in our heads? Or do we try out a new interpretation?
This week, as I stood on the precipice praying for my wings, I stumbled across a poem I had never read by Jack Gilbert.
Falling and Flying
Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.
And so we come full circle back to Brene Brown, who tells us “If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall.” The question is if and how we will rise.
We all have wings. Will we be brave enough to use them? Will we be brave enough to fly, to risk getting too close to the sun?
Am I willing to live, to soar, to fully inhabit and to love this one brave life?