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The Love Project

Learning how to love myself. One huge mistake at a time.

Adventures in Vulnerability

Traveler looks at landscape

 

A funny thing happens to me when I start to write about my life.

 

I stop. Promptly.

 

As soon as I start to find the courage to expose my belly, something swoops in and slaps on some familiar armor. I strap it on and shut down the sharing. Real quick.

 

I was on a hike this morning with some girlfriends, talking about this thing that happens to me. Trying to make sense of my need to share and my habit of shutting down as soon as I start to open up. “That’s what you need to write about then,” says my friend. And at the risk of sounding whiney or pitiful, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

 

Renowned shame expert Brene Brown was on NPR this week talking about her new book, which explores the topic of vulnerability. I’ve heard her TED talk and listened to a few of her audiobooks and have become a huge fan. Pop psychology has become so focused on thinking a certain way to change your life (I’ve read all of those books, too), and it seems to me that she’s bypassed all of that and gone right to the core of why so many of us struggle to make real changes in our lives.

 

At our most basic level, we are all afraid we’re not ok. And no one wants to admit it. Because admitting it touches that fear and makes it feel true.

 

But the real work in transformation is not in changing the way we think about ourselves, repeating mantras or creating alternate beliefs, but in going deeper into those fears and opening up to it.

 

Opening all the way up.

 

I am afraid I’m not ok. That I’m not the best parent I could be. That I’m not the best friend or lover that I should be. That I’m not pretty enough, smart enough, fill-in-the-blank enough to be worthy of love. Admitting these things makes me weak in the knees. And not in a good way.

 

But according to Brown, that’s what we’re all feeling.

 

She also claims that the greatest measure of strength is one’s willingness to be vulnerable. That it’s the only true path to living a wholehearted life. What’s remarkable about this is that it’s probably the opposite of what we believe. If I tell someone I’m afraid, I will seem weak. If I confess my feelings of inadequacy, it will confirm that I’m not good enough. But she’s telling a different story. She’s saying we need to acknowledge this rawness. See it, feel it, taste it – and let others see it, as well.

 

My favorite quote from the interview with Brown is this:

 

“Vulnerability is the true measure of courage.”

 

Even as I write this, my armpits are sweating, and I’m just hoping I’m not the only one who feels this way. Because I think the point is that by pushing through the discomfort, we shed the stories of doubt we’ve been telling ourselves. That inner strength is maybe something we don’t acquire, but reveal. So right now, I’m choosing to believe that pit sweat equals courage.

 

I am in awe of people who live from their vulnerability, and I’m so grateful when I witness it. Admittedly, I don’t know anyone who does it all the time. But when I see it in a friend, a writer, a family member, my child – it brings me to my knees. In a good way.

 

I’m choosing to see the path of vulnerability as an adventure, a thick jungle through which there is no clear path. I have no idea what’s on the other side of it, but I believe the only way out is through.

 

And maybe I could have a little fun with it along the way.

Stuck in the Middle with Me

I have an enviable life. I live at the beach and have no real financial concerns. I don’t even have to work to pay my bills. I can watch the sunset over the ocean every night from my patio. I have a gorgeous boyfriend who loves me, and sweet kid who is happy and healthy and a car that always starts when I turn the key.

 

And yet… I am miserable.

 

The worst part about having no real problems is that you are forced to confront the real issue, which is the deeper, tender, rawest parts of you. The parts that refuse to be happy, refuse to feel the love that is all around you, refuse to see the glory in the sun setting over the Pacific.

 

I have had this enviable life for a few years now, since my husband and I separated. He very generously supports me financially and in general makes my life as easy as possible. I am lucky in ways that almost no one is lucky, and still I struggle to feel the peace and comfort and joy that should come along with that. With no actual dramas, there is no story to absorb all the uncomfortable feelings I have, which makes them harder to feel.

 

When I can step to the side of my discomfort for a bit, it’s interesting to notice how much of a habit unhappiness is. I don’t have a job, but I still feel light and free on Fridays and Saturdays and watch a tide of heaviness roll in on Sunday evenings in anticipation of a long work week that does not exist for me. Every Monday morning I feel anxious, a well-worn groove in my mind from many years ago when I did have a job. An emotional ebb and flow generated by some part of my brain that stores memories and doesn’t perceive reality.

 

The cool thing about this perspective is that it’s easy to see how our feelings aren’t necessarily a by-product of some real thing that’s happening, but energies that simply have patterns and a life of their own. And just like emotion, inertia has a momentum as well. With no real demands on my time, I don’t have an automatic sense of purpose. The spaciousness of a life without some obligation can very easily create more of the same. The emptiness, for me, has given birth to laziness and apathy – some days depression is straight-up knocking at my door.

 

These are some of the things that occur to me when people tell me how lucky I am to live where I live without having to work. Lucky maybe because I get a perspective into myself that others don’t have, but it can feel painful and lonely. Lucky also, perhaps, because I have the choice to do some deep work that I might not otherwise do.

Dog Days of Single Parenting

I wake up most days promising to be a better parent. To try harder to enjoy the moments that “go too fast.” To slow down to a child’s pace. And like it. To not notice the cancerous piles of laundry and sticky substances that glisten on every surface of my home. To just be.

There’s nothing harder. Most days I fail. Most days I am screaming inside my head while watching her play or tripping over her toys or fielding her requests to watch her do this thing that’s so incredible that I have to WATCH RIGHT NOW, MOMMY. Most days I want to be anywhere but frozen in time with my child. And on every one of those days I hate myself when I finally put my head on the pillow and run the reel of the day back through my mind and think of all the ways I could’ve slowed down a little, appreciated her a little, been a little less bitchy and anxious for her go to sleep. Or grow up. And I promise myself I’ll do better when I wake up tomorrow.

Summertime brings a unique opportunity to renew feelings of being a child. The warm breezes, smells of burning charcoal, and sounds of squealing children delighting in just being alive remind me of those perfect moments you can only feel when you’re a kid. Waterlogged and red-eyed from too many pool hours. Sunburned and starving after playing on the beach all day. Full on hot dogs and sugary drinks. Afternoon naps in front of box fans on full blast. A time when being suspended in life felt good.

And so yesterday I lathered up my munchkin and myself in sunscreen, threw a few towels in a bag, and headed down to the place where the ocean meets the river nearby. I decided to let go and have some fun. God damn it. And, by some small miracle, I did.

Throwing rocks, it turns out, is amazing.

And then this happened. It was so ridiculous and so cute that I forgot for just a moment how boring parenting can be. And I saw my daughter as someone with a sense of humor and a playful spirit. And I felt like a kid, too. (And also, what’s cuter than chihuahuas swimming in place? Besides, maybe, my sweet girl holding one.)

Our kids can be our greatest teachers, can’t they?

That night I went to bed feeling like the victor of a tiny but monumental battle. I had been in the moment with my daughter – and myself – if just for a moment.

P.S. This is my new favorite writer and blogger. She’s not new to the world, but she’s new to me. Bless her messed up life and her open heart and gorgeous writing. This post made me feel like I was perfect in my skin. Do yourself a favor and read it now: Don’t Carpe Diem.

XXOO

Abz

Why you should embrace the mess

My tiny kitchen was overflowing with snacks and ingredients for the week. Coronas and wine bottles clanged around the fridge as things were constantly moved to make more room. Bags of coffee and corn chips lined the back splash. The counter tops seem to be giving birth to little clusters of cookie crumbs. My beach house, which usually contains only myself and my daughter, housed four extra women for the week. The vibe of a kid-free vacation (for them anyway) bounced and buzzed around this place like a pack of happy little bees.

The place stayed a wreck, to be sure. Wet towels hung all over the place. Trash cans filled up quickly. Sunglasses and keys and smart phones dotted every surface. There is a natural tendency to want to create order where there is none. And there was simply no order to be had in a house of grown women eating, showering and peeing generally on the same schedules. But I sank into it willingly. I am someone who craves structure (eh, hem…control freak), but I experience a new world of joy when I truly let go and enjoy a moment. There is never a way or a reason to organize a moment. It’s just happening as it should. Always, always.

My girlfriends and I laughed and cried and ate and drank all week. We layed on the beach, we told stories around the fire, we complained about things out of our control, we expressed love and gratitude for each other’s friendship. And just like they blew in here with grocery bags and blow up mattresses, they packed it all up and left. It was quiet. I forced myself to clean up and do some laundry and return emails to shift my energy back to the regular old life I lead. It’s like any moment we experience, extended or brief, beautiful or excruciating. It will always pass. And we are left with whatever we gave that moment.

As a kid we used to visit my uncle’s family in New Jersey. A big Italian family, lots of eating and drinking (and eating and drinking). One night we sat down to a big family dinner of spaghetti and homemade meatballs. I carefully lifted a massive, marinara-soaked meatball out of the bowl with a spoon and promptly dropped it on the antique lace tablecloth. I watched it splatter and spew sauce like a body hitting pavement, and I froze in that moment and begged time to undo itself. My uncle’s father, an old man with strained voice like Brando in The Godfather, turned to me. I was sure I’d be sleeping with the fish that night. But he said: “If you didn’t drop any food on the tablecloth, you’d never know anyone ate here.”

I have never, ever, ever forgotten that. It comes back to me when my child colors on the cover of a favorite book of mine or lovingly puts stickers all over a piece of furniture. I’m reminded of it when my sweet boyfriend pulls beers from his beach bag and puts them in my fridge along with half the sand on the southern Cali coast. And I remembered it again this week as I wandered through the spaces that were left when my friends went away. I picked up wet towels, I wiped down surfaces, I cleaned five different colors of hair out of my shower drain.

I was blessed to know, to really know, that these were all signs of people I love having been here.

What your cooking says about you

I have friends visiting from out of town this week. A tribe of beautiful, colorful, genuine women. The conversations are lively and meaningful. We wrap our voices around sex, parenting, friendship, divorce, art, heartache, happiness. Things we all know to varying degrees.

I’ve been excitedly going through my dusty recipe box, pulling out things I’ve wanted to try. I had ripped out a recipe from a magazine awhile ago for a broccoli and cauliflower bake that sounded yummy. It called for avocado oil, ginger and red pepper flakes. Savory, bright, spicy. I offered to make it last night as my contribution to the group dinner. Simple recipe with powerful flavors.

When it came out of the oven, I popped a piece of broccoli in my mouth. It tasted like broccoli and cauliflower and nothing else. No ginger. No red pepper. No avocado oil. Everyone ate and nodded in my direction. It was good enough.

I woke up before everyone else this morning and attacked the pile of dishes from last night. When I was scrubbing the casserole dish that I had used to bake the veggies, I made a mental note to write a blog post about how my cooking reflects how I approach a lot of things in my life, including my writing. I don’t take chances because I’m terrified of offending. I hold a little back when I’m in a position to give of myself. I procrastinate blogging until I have the perfect idea and have the perfect amount of time to write it out perfectly. Which never happens. So instead of making yet another note about something I will eventually say, I decided to just sit down and bang this damn thing out (and on my phone, no less).

It might be a little overdone. It might not be exactly the flavor you were looking for. That’s ok. You don’t have to keep eating. I’m tired of not surprising myself. Caution and under-spiced broccoli is boring.

I’m going to start flavoring my life. Right now. Damn it.

My mother, my daughter

I saw it in her face. It was the first time I saw that look, but it was as familiar to me as the sound of my own voice. She felt unloved, irrelevant, afraid that she didn’t matter to me. It was twisting up behind her eyes as they filled with tears. I asked her what was wrong and she tried to say something, but it caught in her throat. She choked on the words. She’s learning to swallow her pain, hold it back, keep it to herself because she won’t get what she needs if she asks for it. It was the first time I truly saw myself in my daughter.

I’m trying to figure out how to be a single-parent. I’ve been doing it for almost a year, but it still feels entirely new and I feel like a constant failure. (To be honest, I felt like this a lot when I wasn’t a single-parent, but now there just seems to be more weight on my short-comings.) I’ve had a boyfriend for the last six months, and it’s been tough to integrate him into my life with her. Not because of him. He’s a dad to three boys and incredibly easy-going and understanding. He’s a better parent than I am in his ability to be present with his kids.

What’s tough is watching her react to me with him. We aren’t overly affectionate in front of her, though we do kiss a little and hug. He never spends the night with her here (he barely spends the night when she’s not here, but that’s because I have deeply rooted intimacy issues, which I’ll tackle in another post). She talks about her dad a lot to him and clamors for my attention more, inserting herself right between us. She climbs in my lap when we’re eating, insists on sitting between us on the couch, and interrupts us constantly. Usually to talk about her dad.

It’s always an awkward dance between the three of us, and one that leaves me feeling drained and guilt-ridden. But this week things got raw. She pushed harder to get between us, which made me push back. She woke up in the middle of the night, climbed into bed with me and touched and poked me all night. I was so fed up with being harassed, I got in her bed to sleep. She just followed me into her room. By the end of the week, I was screaming at her in the kitchen at 6:00 AM because she wouldn’t fucking leave me alone. Every time I turn around, she’s there. I was feeling insane from exhaustion (emotional and physical) and trapped in this hell of just wanting a little something for myself and have that be ok with this little person who I have given everything to. Including staying in a marriage with her dad years beyond its expiration date.

What I saw in her face this week shook me to my core. It was me. It was 5-year-old me in my mother’s way as she was trying to find some freedom from the oppression of being a single mom. I can still taste that realization that I was an immovable obstacle to her happiness. By the time I was my daughter’s age, I knew so many things I shouldn’t have known. I knew I was a burden. I knew I was unsafe. I saw that creeping across her teary eyes this week when she kept pushing to get closer to me, looking for some spaces in me that still belonged to her. In that moment, I was both my mom and my daughter. I lived and relived all of that in the time it took me to wipe the tears off her cheek.

I saw my guru this week. (She’s trained as an energy psychologist, but she is also an intuitive who provides spiritual guidance, as well as practical advice for how to deal with this human condition. She has changed my life.) She told me that I was, in fact, avoiding spending focused time with my daughter because that’s what I had learned as a child. Somehow I already knew that, but when she told me, I came undone. She explained that’s why she is pushing back so hard, getting into bed with me, sitting between me and the boyfriend on the sofa. She gave me a plan of action, which includes regimented time with her at set times of the day (15 minutes right after day camp and a hour of play before dinner, bath, bed), as well as scheduled time that we are doing our own thing separately from each other.

Having time to yourself as a single-parent with one child, in particular, is a coveted experience, one we might cling to desperately and protect fiercely as the pressures of our obligations squeeze us. But my guru explained, and it’s really common sense, that kids can and should learn to play alone and respect boundaries. This is what will allow them to create their own as adults. And if she’s got all of me for designated times every day, she’ll be able to feel safety and comfort in her moments of scheduled solitude. And so will I.

I know there’s no formula for success with this stuff. Single-parent or otherwise. I felt grateful for having some guidance this week when I was experiencing so much pain about it. I think creating a plan is the best we can do and all we should expect for ourselves. And then we make mistakes and modify. And we can forgive ourselves. And our parents.

The Pitfall of Being in Love

The pursuit of love is really, truly the point of why we’re here. I’m not saying it should be the point, but I believe it is. The kind of love I’m talking about is romantic love. Sexy love. The kind of love that makes you look in the mirror and think “Holy shit, I DO matter.” It’s not the love from your children that does that. It’s not the love from your parents, your best friends, your dog. (The love from your dog probably comes the closest, but it’s still a distant second.) The love we’re all subtly or openly searching for is that kind that makes us warm in our crotches, makes our heart skip a beat, makes us see the profound beauty in ourselves, that for some flipping reason, we can’t see any other way.

I am in love. Deeply, madly, mind-erasingly in love. It happened quite by accident, in a way that would make you roll your eyes and throw up in your mouth a little if I told you. I would probably use the phrase “love at first sight.” And it would be entirely true. I don’t know where he came from or how we found each other, but he’s that person who…wait for it…completes me. I know: ACK! Take a deep breath and let’s keep going.

A few months in, I was aware of being happy in way I hadn’t been in a long time, if ever. Not happy giddy, but happy peaceful. Happy in my cells. Content and more in touch with myself. Then at some point, a little demon came out and tapped me on the shoulder. She whispered things in my ear that made me feel crazy. She said it wouldn’t last. I became jealous for no reason, insecure over absolutely nothing. Even as I was overwhelmed with these feelings, a part of me knew there was no substance to it. When I dug a little deeper, I realized the driving thoughts were all around the fear of losing this special love. This love that crawled in and curled up in my empty spaces. This love that picked up my broken pieces and lovingly put them back in place. And here, right in the middle of fully having this special love, I felt like it was already gone.

It is well-documented that romantic love floods your brain with dopamine. The feeling of being in love is literally addicting. The same way cocaine and caffeine and sugar are addicting. And how do we feel when someone takes away our coffee and our biscotti? God, I love biscotti, by the way. It’s just the right amount of crunch and sweetness. We know that drugs and sugar are bad for us (mmm, I love biscotti), but … how do we reconcile this with love?  Anthropologist and love expert Helen Fisher has given a few TED talks about love. Here is one that goes into detail about what’s happening in our pitiful little brains when we’re stupid in love:

Stem cell biologist Bruce Lipton also explored this topic in The Honeymoon Effect, where he not only examines the physics and biology of love, but tells a very powerful love story of his own that illustrates the science behind love. It’s a fascinating book even though he uses exclamation points.

So, back to me…

I’m about six months into this love thing. It’s real love, I’m telling you. I love this man from the furthest corners of my being. We are deeply connected and getting closer all the time. Yet, when he leaves, I am always empty. It’s as if he takes his love with him. Sure enough, I get texts from him soon after he’s left telling me how beautiful I am, how much he loves me, etc, etc. etc. (I know, I know. Ack.) The point is that my level of security and assurance in the relationship go up and down irrationally. When he goes away, so does my dopamine. Somehow, this man, who has soothed my most chaotic places, is also stirring up entirely new chaos in my heart. He has both set me right-side-up and thrown me sideways.

So, how do we negotiate between the most powerful drive on the planet and the fact that it is designed to make us crazy with the fear of losing it? How are we supposed to behave lovingly towards someone we love when our primal architecture is an agenda of madness? How can we receive the genuine love someone shows when we are also afraid of losing it?

Let me know if you’ve figured it out. Please.

How to Use Jealousy To Your Advantage

I don’t know about you, but the older I get the less jealousy I feel. When I was younger, I wanted what the other kids had: the cool cars, the fancy jeans, the hot jock boyfriend. I had none of those things. I drove a shitty van that my step-dad used for work, wore guy jeans because I was too tall to wear girls, and didn’t date another living human being until I was well into my 20’s (see previous comment about being too tall). I wanted all the stuff I couldn’t have and felt less than because I didn’t have them.

I no longer care about cars as status because, well, who gives a shit, and I can wear jeans made for females now thanks to specialty online stores, and it turns out there are a lot of tall men in the world just waiting to take me and my long legs out to dinner.

But I still feel jealousy sometimes. And I finally realized what a blessing it is.

The jealousy I feel now isn’t about stuff. It isn’t about getting or having. It’s a deep longing coming from an unfulfilled part of me. Not the part of me that wants outer validation for what I drive or wear or who I date. It comes from a part of me that feels like purpose. The jealousy I feel now is toward successful writers. And I don’t even mean successful commercially, though that’s usually how I find out about them. I mean successful in that they’ve made a commitment to write, to tell stories, to learn and refine their craft, to simply show up to the page and try.

It used to feel like a rub, like some agitating pain, coming across new and upcoming writers. Now I understand what that feeling really is: an indication of my true purpose. I know how cheesy that sounds, so flighty, so pat. But when I sit down to write, and I actually produce something, it feels like nothing else I’ve ever felt. Even when it’s hard or I’m afraid I sound like a self-indulgent twit (like right now), it’s the showing up and trying that fills me up and quiets that jealous little monster.

If you start to notice the places in your life where you’re jealous (not the wanting the Audi because your neighbor has one type of jealousy), but the kind that rubs on your soul – you might get to a better understanding of what you’re meant to do with your life.

Have you ever noticed this type of jealousy? What makes you feel it?

Sole Mate

I’ve started down the path of Internet dating. I created a profile on one of these “Meet Your Soul Mate” type websites, and I even started looking for possible soul mates. There’s just one teeny, tiny problem. I do not want a soul mate. I am a loner, and I like it that way. (I think.) I want companionship, but I do not want a burden. I like to be alone – a lot. But I also want companionship (you realize that’s just code for “sex,” right?).

Is that weird?

I want really, really good sex and maybe that entails a soul connection, but the whole “mate” thing implies I’m interested in intertwining my life with someone else. And I’m solidly not interested in that. But I seem to be alone: all of the guys I would potentially be interested in (based on the completely superficial details of their profile…like, whether or not they’re hot) have as a part of their profile: Looking for a Relationship.

Really?

How do they know they want a relationship? And, for that matter, how do I know that I don’t? Just because I was married to someone who I wasn’t passionately in love with doesn’t mean that the next guy I meet won’t complete me in the way my husband never did. But still, when I read that someone is Looking for a Relationship (capital “L,” capital “R”) I hear: “I have this massive void in my life, and I’m ready for YOU, yes YOU, the one reading this right now, to fill that wasteland of loneliness.”  And then I just slam my laptop shut and run away screaming.

I have always felt a little claustrophobic in my relationships, like I never had enough freedom. Not to be bad, but to be myself. Does that mean that I am someone who fundamentally should not be in a long-term, committed relationship? Or have I just not found that perfect complement to myself? Is it possible to find your soul mate…even if you want to be the sole character of your life?

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