Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

Eating bitter

Since I started studying taiji and doing a little reading about Chinese martial arts, there’s a Chinese saying I’ve encountered a few times: “eating bitter.” It refers to the idea that in order to progress at learning kung fu, you need to be willing to undertake the hardships of training, to work hard, to accept pain, to be mentally focused and tough. Western cultures have their own ways of expressing the same idea: that in order to pursue something difficult but worth achieving, discipline and work are needed. And these are things which frankly, I am terrible at.

I am not good at picking big challenges and taking them on. I’m not even good at little challenges. I don’t hold myself to very high standards; I feel like I let myself off the hook a lot. And the consequences of my slacktitude surround me, they are weighing heavily on my life right now. I’m not making a point of practicing my taiji regularly; I’m not making a point of spending regular time in prayer and meditation and quietness; I’m not eating well and overeating and gaining some weight; I’m spending too much money stupidly; I’m putting off basic chores around home that need doing, that would make me happier if they were done; I’m not getting through my work as quickly as I would like to, just because I get distracted too easily and don’t keep focused on doing what is needful. None of these things in themselves are necessarily anything to be overly hard on oneself for; life is what it is, and too much “should” and “ought” are poisonous. But the common thread, the thing that I am struggling with, is a lack of self control. It is the fundamental undercurrent that shifts everything off balance.

There are other internal consequences. I struggle with a lack of self-confidence and often doubt my ability to accomplish things, and I believe it’s directly related to the fact that I don’t often push myself to try new challenges and risk either failure or success. I don’t well believe that I am in control of my life, that I can choose to do something and carry it through. And a fairly big part of this unbelief is that I lack discipline. I try to make changes and can succeed for a few days, maybe a week, while I’m still excited and focused and feel positive. But then I forget, or I have a bad day, or I just let myself slack off a little bit because I’m doing so well, and then it all goes away. I get distracted and don’t continue. Every time I do it, a little bit more confidence erodes. Right now, I don’t feel like I want to take on anything, any kind of changes, even though I feel like I badly need to change some things — I don’t want to face another disappointment. I feel like I’m doomed before I even start.

There are other things. Life feels to me really unfocused now, muddled, aimless. There are some pleasant distractions, but no purpose underneath, no drive, no passion. Nothing to look toward as a goal, nothing to draw me on. I don’t know if this is cause or effect, if the lack of self-control I feel is muddling things, or if I am muddled and lack self-control because I don’t have anything to help focus me, to define what is important.

When life is too easy, nothing matters as much as it should. When possessions come too easily, they’re not appreciated and taken care of. When everything is convenient and available, one never learns how to “make do,” either by hacking something together or just going without. In many respects, my life has always been easy. But I feel flabby and dull and ineffectual inside my habits and creature comforts.

Maybe there are some people who are naturally gifted at being disciplined, but it seems to me that most people have to learn it. Some are trained in it by their families when they are children, some put themselves in situations that teach it to them later in life, some have dire circumstances thrust upon them and are forced to learn how to cope. I am wondering tonight, is it ever possible to teach discipline to oneself? Is it something possible to get better at on one’s own, or would it be fruitless to even try? Because I feel very deeply today that I need to get better at this area of life, and I don’t know how to go about it. I believe that if I want to ever do anything that’s hard and worthwhile, I need to come to grips with working hard and making do and accepting pain, physical or mental or emotional — not in a masochistic sense, but just weathering the hardships that naturally come as a result of pursuing something hard. Like strengthening a muscle: if you never feel any strain, then it’s not getting stronger.

I don’t know how to put myself into a place of strain, of tension, in order to grow in discipline. I don’t know where to find more training in it, in the situations where I most feel its lack. I know that growth comes out of hard times, but I am human and want to be safe and comfortable, even while I want to also be sharp and strong and experience new things. I don’t want to eat bitter. But I know that many things I do want lie on the other side. I’m looking over there with longing, hoping that I can find a way across, and simultaneously hoping that it won’t be too painful. How terribly, confusingly, touchingly human.

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Lack

I think I’ve mentioned before that I am a homebody.  I live by myself and spend a lot of time on my own, both by inclination and habit.  I need a lot of time to think and process the world, and also time to recharge my energy from being out in the world.  I’ve long known this about myself and I’m perfectly comfortable with it as a basic fact of my life. There are still limits, though.  There is much freedom in living as an independent person, but there are also difficulties, and one of them is troubling me now.

There is a little hollow, aching place in my emotional insides today, the kind of aching place that I can’t soothe by myself.  Because it is the ache of wanting contact with other people — the kind of contact expressed in physical presence.  I have very good friends, but they are mostly far away and our contact comes via words on screens — a good thing, but not everything.  And there is no companion here to build a life with, no partner, no lover, no spouse.  I don’t feel that my life is lacking in love, but I think what I am missing today is affection.  To be hugged; to be held.  These are things I simply don’t have in my day-to-day life.  On many days, I don’t notice the lack, but today I am missing them badly.

I know if anyone is at fault for this it is myself.  I grew up in a reserved family and I am a naturally reserved person; I don’t really know how to be affectionate.  I can receive a hug, but I have not learned how to offer one.  I don’t want to be all alone, but I hold myself apart.  I am not comfortable with the context of touch — I’m finding it difficult to even write about.  It is something I want and need but I am not comfortable with the idea, and I withdraw back to familiar distance and aloofness. This reality of my life is partly circumstantial, but it is partly created by my choices and actions, and I don’t know how to change them.  It’s a little bit scary to think about.

Unfamiliarity isn’t the only thing.  On most days, I still have difficulty with the idea that people could actually want me to be around — that not only do they simply not mind if I happen to be there, but that another human person could actually think that their experience of life is better because of my presence in it.  I mostly assume that either people don’t really mind if I’m with them, but it doesn’t really make much difference to them one way or another; or that there’s some kind of obligation that means I ought to be in the same place as them, and hopefully it’s not too unpleasant an obligation for them.  The idea that someone would literally be made happier because I am with them than they would be otherwise is a very strange one to me.  This doesn’t really help me to get close to people in any respect, physical closeness included.  And the possibility of developing a romantic relationship is almost unfathomable; not that someone simply doesn’t mind if I’m around, but to be singled out, chosen as a person of particular and special interest?…  No.  In an academic sort of way, I have to acknowledge it as possible, under the heading of “Everything is Possible.”  But at heart, I don’t really believe it.

Once again, I find myself at a loss; no neat ending, no tidy conclusion.  Not the way I’d prefer to end an essay, and not really the way I’d prefer life to be either.  In lieu of a proper ending, then, I will say this:  my kind readers, if there is someone in your life who is reachable and huggable, please give them a hug.  As soon as you are able.  It matters.

The slide

I can feel it happening again.  Nerves.

I don’t know what it is tonight.  The morning was fine; the afternoon, I think fine but now I’m thinking it over, I’m not as sure.  I think I was starting to be moody before I went for my normal Sunday visit to my parents.  Nothing out of the ordinary happened there; just time at home.  Now I’m back at my place, and I’m … anxious.

One of the worst things about anxiety is that it feeds on itself; it feeds on just the suggestion of itself.  I know I’ve struggled with it and not always done well, and so just the thought, wait am I anxious? can make me become anxious.  Especially when I can’t pinpoint a cause.  I want so badly to have a reason for feeling bad, so I know what to change.  And right now, I can’t find it.

Options: is it physical?  Mental?  Spiritual?  I misinterpret signs, especially physical ones; I’m the absentminded sort that occasionally forgets to eat until late afternoon, and then wonders why I feel vaguely sick.  Or I wake up with a headache, and just think that I’m grouchy.  Signals get crossed.  I can’t think of anything that’s physically wrong, though.  Maybe simple tiredness, did I get enough sleep last night?  I’m not sure.  I’ll have some tea, my head is stuffy.  That never helps anything.

Is it the fact that it’s Sunday, and tomorrow is another week back at work, with all the associated uncertainties?  I don’t feel it for sure, but it can’t be pushed aside.  Possible.

Am I putting anything off?  I think there are a couple of things I have been avoiding.  I should make sure those happen next.

Anything else?  I really don’t know.  I can feel the tension in my neck now, it wasn’t there when I started writing.  Focusing on the idea that I’m anxious sometimes makes me feel worse, but I don’t know how to think it through without focusing on it, and if I don’t make a point of noticing, I’m afraid I’ll continue to slide away until I have to deal with something harder and worse.

Uncertainty is the worst thing.  I hate not knowing what’s going on, not understanding things, not being able to get thoughts and words around it so I can know what it is.  But it seems like uncertainty is my lot for the moment.  If it is, then … so be it.  I will sip my tea and search for some calmness, and whether or not I find it, tomorrow will come and I will keep walking.  Hobbled or not.  Wish me luck.

Broccoli and a hard place

This post is not going to be easy to write, not because the words are hard but because it means facing up to difficult things.  But without the facing-up-to, the difficulties will just continue to exist, elsewhere, where I can’t get my hands on them.  I’m grateful for the writing, to help me face the hard stuff.

I have been of many minds about work this year, from tearing anxiety to actual happiness and contentment to worry to fear about leaving to fear about staying to frustration to resentment to regret.  Overall, it has not been a positive trend.  A few weeks ago I was pushed to the point of simply wanting to drop everything and leave  — no alternate employment ready, no ideas for what I wanted to do next, just desperation to make the unhappiness stop.  It was not a considered decision and I’m glad I didn’t go through with it.  But I also haven’t been able to believe that I can really go back to being happy and content where I am, doing what I’m doing.  Not anymore.

There are better days and worse days, but in general, most of my days are not very good.  It’s not that they are actively bad, though; I work for a really good company and with really good people, I mean genuinely good human beings who I like.  I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder every other minute, I have enormous flexibility regarding my schedule, I’m well respected, I’m well paid.  All to the good, yes?

But not enough.  I look at the list of good things, and it’s still not enough.  I’ve been staring at this fact for weeks, trying to understand what on earth I’m looking for if it’s not this.  Seriously, how many people are desperate to find any kind of job right now, and I’m discontented with this situation?

The thing is, you can have great huge gobs of the wrong things, and they don’t make up for not having the right ones.  This week, after a very helpful session with a counselor and some pondering on my own, I think I can name the thing I don’t have, that makes everything else just piles of wrongness:  challenge.  I’m bored.  I’m alternately twiddling my thumbs, or else completely disinterested in what I’ve got to do.  I really hate to say it; I feel like an enormous whiny selfish brat saying that out loud.  With so many people overworked and stressed or not having any job at all, I’ve got a job that looks wonderful according to specs, and I’m unhappy because I’m bored?

You, my clever readers, may well think here, “There’s a solution to that, why don’t you ask your employers if they’ve got more challenging work?”  I could; in fact I know there are challenging things that need to be undertaken.  The next problem is … I just don’t want to undertake them.  I work on the technical staff of my company, in a technical job — the things they are going to ask me to do will be technical in nature.  And I just … don’t want to do this kind of technical work anymore.  Computers can be useful tools for making things, but my job has not involved much making; I’m one of the people who implements the things other people make, and answer questions so they can get on with their making, and fix things when they get broken.  It’s troubleshooting and problem-solving and can occasionally present interesting puzzles, and I’ve proven myself fairly good over the years at solving the problems or circumventing them.  But my real love is making things.  Words, yarn, fabrics, connections, ideas, music, stories, laughter.  I don’t get to make any of those things, or much of anything else, in the job I have.  I used to enjoy it more, but I don’t now.  It feels empty.  I try to care, I try to engage, but I have not been able to, not for a long while.

So I’m in this place that feels a lot like getting really hungry, and asking the people in charge of food if I can please have some.  And they say “certainly, here’s a nice big bowl of broccoli, eat up.”  Which is all well and good, except I hate broccoli.  It’s a worthy vegetable and I’m sure very healthy for the people who can stomach it, but I’m not one of them.  My metaphorical choices, then, are to keep getting hungrier and hungrier, or to force myself to choke down something that repels me.  I wobble back and forth, getting hungry enough to have a nibble, and then I gag and go back to starving.

But while I’m moping over my broccoli, there are people who are really starving, people who have nobody to give them food at all, and have been trying hard to find someone in charge of some food, who would love to have my broccoli because it’s far better than truly having nothing.  So I have this broccoli I don’t want, and feel guilty for not appreciating it more and eating it up and asking for more broccoli.  Even though I just don’t like it and I don’t know how to engage it or try to make it more palatable.

I really do feel like a whiny git, writing this out.  Like a spoiled kid who wants things to just be different, and doesn’t know or care about the realities of the world that make “just be different” impossible.  I’m grown up enough to know that the world doesn’t always change, that I cannot expect life to be easy and uncomplicated, that I have accepted responsibilities and need to carry them out as well as I can, including the responsibilities of my employment.  I feel that I am carrying them very poorly, and I wish that it were a valid option to simply put them down, to cleanly and honestly leave them behind; or else take them back in a firmer grasp and carry them better again.  I don’t see my way clear to doing either.  I don’t have anything to put them down in favor of, and I have been unable to live up to my own sense of how I ought to carry what I have.  I have gotten this far, but I’m still left in a hard place; I really don’t know what to do.

My taiji master said something during class on Monday evening; that anything half-done looks like a failure.  A cake half-baked is a gloopy mess; a house half-built is a set of sticks with some wires and bits sticking through them.  My living reality includes this gloopy, half-built mess that is my job, and my longing for change, and my confusion and tiredness.  Part of me, even tired and confused, still believes that there are other things in the world for me to do; that I’m not stuck, I’m just half-done.  All I can do tonight is pray that the work will go on; that I may have the strength to stay in the oven a while longer; that I will be enabled to grasp the hammer and keep building.

Escape

One of the things that always seems to be true about September, but which I don’t ever remember until it happens, is that it goes by incredibly fast.  Here we are, almost halfway through, and it feels like it’s just begun.  Fall tends to do this — after August’s dreary lull, the schedule quickly fills in when September comes around.  This year is going to be even busier than most, many of my weekends are already booked through the next couple of months.  It’s all fun stuff, but this homebody’s head is going to be spinning.

This weekend I didn’t have any plans, and I decided I’d take advantage of the opportunity to relax and store up some energy.  I pottered around today, I got a few easy and needful errands done, cleared up some piles of clutter, did some spinning and TV-watching.  But for much of the day, I didn’t really feel relaxed.  Not that I could have told you that mid-day, I thought things were pretty much going as planned.  But there are little signs that crop up when I’m not completely settled, and eventually I had to admit they have been cropping up today.

After spending an hour skimming a book, looking up a quotation that I thought I was going to write about this evening (maybe another time), I pulled out the makings of supper and got to work.  Midway through chopping vegetables, I finally put down the knife to ask myself, what’s wrong here?  Why am I feeling kind of nervous, sitting here over a pile of carrots?

One thing I have been learning, through this year of hard ups and downs and unexpected turns, is that if I’m feeling weird, there’s something driving it, whether or not I realize it.  The hard downs come when I don’t take notice and deal with whatever it is, which is hard sometimes to do — I can be really disconnected from my emotional state-of-being, especially when I’ve got lots of mental stuff to distract myself with.  This time around, though, I realized it’s the mental stuff that is beginning to be the problem.

It’s been a really nice week, in a lot of respects, with the weather turning and some nice things happening, and I have felt mainly relaxed and happy about it all, which is sadly not really typical for me.  It’s a great sign of progress, I think, that I managed not to spoil it by Tuesday afternoon, by being overly hard on myself about something dumb.  But along the way, in a manner that I don’t really know how to explain, I started living more and more inside my head.

To say that I have a vivid imagination is a fairly dramatic understatement. I’ve always had a strong imagination, and a strong draw to stories, and both of these facts put together means I live with a vibrant, enormous set of worlds and stories in my head, full of characters that have caught my attention over the years, some of them born out of other people’s ideas and stories, some of them my own inventions, a few of them a great deal like myself (except, you know, better), and all of them doing interesting things all the time, whenever I go and visit them.

I’m pretty sure that some people will read this and say “yes, me too!” and some will say “huh?” and others may say “wow, you’re weird,” but so it is.  Some threads of story and setting and people have been kicking around inside my imagination for a very long time indeed.  There have been times in my life when being able to imagine myself away from reality was a badly-needed defensive tactic, against situations that I just couldn’t emotionally deal with.  I don’t know if it was ideal, but it was what I had.  And some of those habits of escaping reality by retreating into a more friendly, interesting, and controllable world of the mind have hung on for a long time.

A wise friend said to me this morning, in a completely different context, that I am perhaps prone to over-thinking when I should be living.  That came back to me this evening, sitting with my pile of carrots, wondering why I was feeling nervous.  Because I realized I’ve been, not over-thinking, but over-imagining — drifting away from the real world, drifting into my imaginative realms, having conversations with people who don’t see with real eyes or walk with real feet, and who can’t offer real friendship or support.  There’s a kind of temporary emotional counterfeit possible, living with imaginary friends, but underneath there isn’t any root, just a hollow place.  I think my unsettledness came from drifting too near the hollowness, from disengaging too much from my own world — even as I was walking around in it, walking on my own real feet, I was not experiencing the real ground underneath them.  I was not seeing the sunlight or tasting the air, while my mind chattered with people less substantial than either.

I thought about this for a while, and then resumed the real thing I had started doing while not paying attention, making soup.  Carrots, celery, potatoes and green onions chopped and cooked in ham broth, some wee orzo pasta added, pre-cooked ham diced and pitched in at the end, seasoned simply with salt and pepper — it came out really well, which makes this un-seasoned cook very happy.  I haven’t made a good ham soup before, not one that I really liked a lot, and today’s attempt is a success.  It is furthermore a real thing, a reconnection to the reality outside myself, and it eased my belly and my heart.  It’s a reminder that I have been given a real world to live in, a world where I can walk on my own feet, see with my own eyes, and find adventure that I get to experience for myself.  It is not a controllable world, but it is a very interesting one.  And the friends I have out in it are far better than any I have thought up for myself, because their words and support are real, they have roots.  They are helping me become a character that’s, in many respects, a great deal like myself.  Except, you know, better.

Blue

“Never seen a bluer sky
I can feel it reaching out, moving closer
There’s something ’bout blue…”

— Yoko Kanno, “Blue”
from the Cowboy Bebop soundtracks

If I say that today was a blue day, all of you will immediately misunderstand me.  Today was quite blue, but in no respects was it sad, gloomy, or unfortunate.

I quite like the color blue — most of the colors of blue, in fact, and furthermore the entire “cool” side of the color wheel, where blue resides.  Blues and purples, blue-toned reds and greens are the colors that draw me over and over, the deeper and more complex, the better.  Sharp, vivid orange and yellow are fine accents, warm shades can be nice for a change, but it’s the cool colors that I love most.  I won’t say that blue is my absolute favorite color, but it is definitely at the heart of my happy-color-range.

Fall weather has finally settled in to this part of the world, I’ve been waiting impatiently for cool weather.  Temperatures have fallen dramatically, we’ve had plenty of fresh breezes pass through, and the summer haze has disappeared.  The world is clear and bright again; it’s like the sky has woken up, alert and lively, now the oppressive humid murk is gone.  Summer’s bright greens are fading, but the sky shades all the world in cool blue, these early fall days before the leaves turn.

Today held a classic fall sky, all sturm und drang, alternating clear blue with enormous, glorious clouds, stern rather than stormy, sailing fast and high on a stiff breeze.  Huge cloud banks would cover the sun, all gray and dark through the vast middle, breaking into bright, fierce white at the wind-torn edges.  And past those brilliant cloud borders, far up in the peak of the sky, blue becomes something singular in my eyes — there is a quality of color and intensity in the cloud-breaks that arrests my attention, that I can barely put words to — it’s like the ordinary mundane world splits open for a moment, and I remember I am looking up into everywhere, out into the grandness and glory of everything that is.  Not merely into space, but into reality.  Even more than a clear starry sky, these peeks of profound blue make me feel this.

Before I ever left my house or spotted a dramatic sky, my day was already shading blue.  While it’s still early fall and fairly warm, hence the very end of skirt-and-sandal weather, I pulled out one of my newest outfits, a heathered sky-blue shirt topping a gorgeous silken wrap skirt, made from vintage sari fabric, in the most vivid deep royal blue I can imagine.  The outer layer is a crushed-silk fabric printed with white and yellow in flowers and geometric patterns that remind me of embroidery, with a texture that both looks and feels velvety soft and indulgent; the longer underlayer is plain blue, but a satiny, shiny texture that sets off the patterned fabric brilliantly.  It is one of the most beautiful articles of clothing I have ever owned, and while I still have nice enough days, I want to wear it and enjoy the feel of it and how I feel in it, beautiful and graceful.  Not so long ago, I would have been very self-conscious wearing this skirt, but now I’m grateful and happy to have the chance, and I don’t mind being seen, because it is a lovely thing and should be appreciated.  I’ll miss wearing this skirt when we shift over to slacks-and-socks weather, and I will love pulling it out again next spring, when the sun comes back and winter’s gray skies come back alive in blue.

I know fall’s canonical colors are red, russet, and yellow, but their time hasn’t come yet.  Early fall to me is blue, and today I’m reveling in it.

Small People

Today is my niece’s fifth birthday.  When she came along, I became an aunt for the first time, a role I have been pleased and tickled to fulfill ever since.

I like kids a lot, at least in moderate doses.  (What can I say, I live by myself.  I’m accustomed to great whacks of peace and quiet, on demand.)  My niece, whom I often call Pig-Tail Girl because she often wears her hair in pig-tails, is one of my favorite people, and I believe I can honestly say that I am one of hers too.  She has never failed to be excited and happy when I come to visit, and that makes me happy too.

So Pig-Tail Girl had her party last Saturday, including a number of her friends from pre-school and their families, plus some other family and friends with their kids, ranging from 6 down to about 2 1/2 years old.  My sister-in-law throws wonderful parties for my niece — my brother helps, but his wife is really at the center of the awesomeness.  She had games planned, a fun craft project for the kids, a rockin’ hand-decorated cake, floaty balloons, tons of food.  She puts so much work into making everything great, and it shows.

I was tasked as documentarian for the first stretch, taking snapshots with my sister-in-law’s camera (did I mention she’s an awesome photographer too?  I hope I did justice with her camera, because I certainly didn’t do as well as she would have).  Sack races, pin-the-nose-on-the-tomato (perhaps you had to be there), crafty-works with paint and glue and felt, opening presents.  Then a lull, while my brother got to work on grilling hamburgers and hot dogs, the adults chatted, and the kids started playing with various toys, both new and old.  I put the camera down and wandered, but not for too long.

Two of Pig-Tail Girl’s pre-school friends, both of them sweet blonde-haired girls, got hold of a toy which, if I spotted it correctly, was a shark’s head on a wand with a trigger mechanism that would open and close the shark’s mouth.  I have no idea if it belongs to Pig-Tail Girl or came along with one of her friends; regardless, these two nice young ladies decided they would nibble on all the adults in turn with their wee sharky accomplice — no serious damage, let me be quick to assure you, just kind little love-bites.  They confronted me in the kitchen, all grins and giggles.  “Hee hee!  We got you with the shark!”

Little did they know who they were dealing with.

Aunt Crispy the Instigator immediately swung into action, both hands forming shark-mouths, chattering away at the Dastardly Duo.  “Ha-ha!  I’ve got two sharks, and they’ve got both of you!”

With a squeal, the girls were off, me in hot pursuit.  They dashed down the hallway to Pig-Tail Girl’s bedroom, running around the bed to hide in the corner.  I dove across the bed, peeking over the far side and poking the girls again.  They were up and out of the room, me in chase-mode once more, until they turned at bay and I was caught, one waist-high blonde enforcer on either arm, dragging me back to the room I had just chased them out of.  I was summarily dumped in a corner and told I was “in jail,” which I protested loudly and incredulously, before taking my chance to make a daring escape.  More squealing ensued, more chasing, more grabbing my arms and attempting to drag me in various directions, with me sometimes letting them pull me along, sometimes pulling them.  More of the kids took notice and joined in.  At one stage Pig-Tail Girl, the Dastardly Duo, and one of their young gentlemen friends all undertook pushing me out into the front yard, for I know not what dire purpose — because as soon as we reached the front yard I turned the tables once more, pulling them all around, getting into tug-of-wars with me acting as the rope, grabbing and tickling anyone who got within reach, whooping and carrying on in a most undignified, enormously fun manner.

I love being an instigator aunt; I love having the chance to be ridiculous with a pack of kids.  I love presenting them with things they don’t expect and then seeing how they react, like turning the tables on the Dastardly Duo rather than saying the anticipated “oh yes, you got me!”  If I dare admit it publicly, where parental-types might read this, I love winding them up and being wound up with them, going shrieking around the house and yelling for no good reason.  One benefit of not having to take any of the small people home is that I don’t have to worry about conserving my energy, and sometimes it’s great fun to take advantage of that. And sometimes, it’s just plain fun to go yelling around for no reason. How often do we grown-up sorts get to do that?

I love being an aunt, getting to play with the small people.  Happy Birthday, Pig-Tail Girl, and here’s to much more ridiculous fun to come.  I hope neither of us ever completely grows out of it.

Credit

On the advice of some good friends, I am going to give myself credit for something.  Something at which many people would not bat an eye, but which for me counts as a fairly big deal.  If only because I say it is.

This past Sunday, I went to visit a friend from Ravelry at her home in Philadelphia.  It was lovely to go and chat about yarn and fiber and other things for an afternoon, and eat yummy homecooked Thai food, and try out a new-to-me spinning wheel, and get to see lots of interesting fibers and knitting in person.

The credit-accruing part of this visit, the part that made it border on Adventure … is that my friend lives solidly in the middle of South Philly.  Yes, kind readers, that means going to visit meant braving City Driving.

I am an inveterate country girl.  Born and raised in the middle of figurative central-Pennsylvania nowhere, amid hills and woods and farms and cows and cornfields.  Lots of open space.  Lots of twisty back roads with light or nonexistent traffic.  For me, this has always constituted “normal.”

When I grew up and started working, Highway Driving gradually became part of my “normal” category of places that cars go.  All of my Big-Girl working career stuff has been located in Harrisburg, PA, which means I have spent a lot of hours and miles on the highway, commuting from my home area of nothingness to the outskirts of the nearest city.  But I’ve primarily been located in the suburban/commercial areas north of the city proper.  I’ve mainly avoiding going downtown, even in my small local city, which I daresay counts more as a largish town in he grand scheme of things.

So when I accepted the invitation to go see my friend, I didn’t actually realize that she lives in a city — a real city, not a large town with pretensions.  If I had taken a closer look at her address before saying I’d come, I wonder if I would have been brave enough to go, or would have chickened out.  I’d like to think I would have been brave, but I’m not completely sure.  As it was, it didn’t matter, because I didn’t actually realize the area I was heading into until the day before I went, when my family pointed it out to me.

Once I’m committed to something, I am able sometimes to be bolder about it; oddly perhaps, if I’m doing something on my own, I am more able to be bold than if someone else is involved.  Anyway, I persisted in thinking that it was not going to be a big deal, and telling my family the same.  I made sure to look at maps beforehand so I had an idea where I was going, which usually serves me in good stead when I’m heading somewhere new, so what else was there to fuss about? 

My dad kindly offered to let me borrow his new GPS unit — by which I mean, he said “I don’t care if you use it or not, it’s going along in your car and that’s that.”  This came after me saying something like “I don’t know how a GPS works and I’ve never used one and I don’t want to be distracted by some mechanical lady telling me what to do while I’m trying to navigate big highways and streets in town and dodge traffic and lord knows what else.”  (In my defense, this conversation happened near 11 p.m. following a late-afternoon birthday party, in which several shifting collections of 5-year-olds dragged me around my brother’s house for an hour.  I may perhaps be forgiven for being tired and snippy; regardless, I apologised to my father the next day for my crabbiness.)  Dad is of the protective sort toward his family, including his grown-up little girl, and he wanted to make sure, as far as he could, that I wouldn’t have problems.

On Sunday after lunchtime, I set off.  Starting out on highways; no problems.  Closer to the city, highways get bigger, traffic gets heavier, interchanges are more complex, exits are closer together.  Less familiar territory, but not completely unfamiliar.  The GPS was the most help here, with its clever way of telling me what lane I needed to be in for the next interchange — I didn’t know it would do that.

Getting off the highway onto Passyunk Avenue in south Philadelphia threw me into a much different world than I am used to.  It’s been a long time since I’ve visited Philly, and I had forgotten the closed-in feeling I have there, that everything is smaller and closer together than I expect.  Streets are narrow, there are tons of cars in seemingly very little space, the blocks are short in this residential part of the city.  I worked my way into the right area, grabbed a parking spot I could manage (I know the theory of parallel parking, but it’s not a skill I’ve ever needed to develop in a practical way), got out my map to check where I was, intending to drive further on if necessary — and discovered I was nearly there, before I’d even realized it.  My sense of Philly’s “smallness” had deceived me, I thought I had a good step farther to go.  Thankful for my easy, lucky parking space, and that I hadn’t had to wander the one-way streets looking for a place to land, I locked up the car and went off to have a very pleasant afternoon.

It wasn’t, in the end, a very dramatic adventure at all.  I had a bit of further trepidation leaving the city, after dark, when I sometimes have trouble even on familiar town roads.  One of my issues with driving in big towns is that I have trouble resolving details quickly enough, when everything is unfamilar; I’ll be distracted by the car pulling up alongside and pedestrians on the sidewalk, when what I really need to watch is the traffic light turning red in front of me.  This can be compounded badly at night, when everything is lights — street lights, tail lights, traffic lights, house lights, lit-up businesses, neon signs, on and on.  Especially if I’m tired, I really need to concentrate to pick out what’s important and ignore the rest.  And don’t get me started on the horrors of wet roads, with all of those lights sending great bright streaks across the pavement at me — aagh!

Thankfully, Sunday was clear weather, and I was headed out the same way I’d come in, more or less, and it went okay … barring the one traffic light I nearly missed, but I saw it in time and didn’t run the red light.  (In my defense again, they don’t have lights hanging over the streets like I’m used to, only off to the side.  WAY off to the side.  Ahem.)  Found the highway entrance, navigated the multiple interchanges back out to open road, got myself home, tired but none the worse for wear.

It wasn’t until a day later that I realized what I’d really done … drove myself into a major city and back out again, with very little fuss or drama or worry.  I’ve primarily blocked the possibility of city driving out of my mind for years, and therefore blocked a lot of other possibilities too — as I told my friend recently, they keep a lot of interesting things in cities, and so you have to learn to navigate them if you want to see those things.  I have wanted for a while, mostly secretly, often not really acknowledging it even to myself, to travel — to get to see some of the wonderful places and things in the world, and to visit some of the people I know who live far away.  But travel, especially international travel, would mean dealing with cities, and therefore it has always felt off limits, like something I would never dare actually do.  Even if I really wanted to.  After this weekend, though, it’s no longer quite as impossible as it was last week.  To me that’s a serious win, and I’m pleased.

Entr’acte

Today is a dangerous time. Not the facing lions or sharks kind of dangerous, not even the killer-rabbits with nasty, big, pointy teeth kind.

I mean the danger of complacency. The danger of getting through something hard, feeling you’ve dodged a bullet of sorts, and then relaxing. Not hearing the next round being chambered. (Have I mentioned I’m a metaphorical thinker? That last one may be a little over-dramatic, sorry about that.)

It’s been an unusual week, and I feel a ton better than I did on Monday, after being forced to deal with the hardness that was Monday. Living inside a badly depressed day and not giving up was the key to booting me out of this last bout of depression. I feel enormously better, and better about myself, for having done it.

But I’m reminding myself, one win doesn’t constitute complete change. Yes, a single win can be a significant marker of change-in-progress, yes it’s important to have wins and acknowledge them, no I’m not trying to rob myself of something to feel good about. I still feel good about Monday. But I’ve been here before. I have a bad patch, and then I get past it, and then I sit still. I don’t keep moving. The situations which led me to be down, or anxious, or stressed, or hard on myself are still in place. The same bad mental patterns are ruffled, maybe shifted, but not removed. Somewhere down the road, they’re waiting to catch me again.

Real change is slow and real change requires sustained effort over time, and this is a skill I haven’t developed far enough. I let things drop, I get discouraged, I get distracted. I forget. For whatever reason, I get complacent. I don’t continue the work I start, and then later on I get tangled by the dangling ends. I fall back into the bad old patterns, and have a fight on my hands. I have to claw my way back out again.

I daresay some emotional up-and-down is a given part of life, but I would wish for the extremes to be leveled out; I would like to be more resilient in the face of hard situations and emotional lows; I would like to be more free of the bad old mental and emotional patterns. To be more healed, to be more whole. There’s still work to be done.