Friday, October 26, 2012

Tsunami of Heat Waves

I am sure, dear reader, that you are getting tired of me talking about, or at least alluding to, my peri-menopause blues or, as it were, excess heat. But here we go again.
The hormonal imbalance of middling years, otherwise known as peri-menopause, is a phenomenon of many faces. I know of some women who are asymptomatic or, at least, never complain about their symptoms. Others get moody or have migraines, have hot flashes and night sweats. I am overjoyed I don’t get headaches and I’ve always been moody so extra emotions don’t faze me. I do get tired, fiercely tired actually, but it is nothing that ten hours of sleep and a nap or two wont cure. Other times the excess heat from the imbalance makes me light headed. This, too, is okay as long as I have a vertical wall nearby for reference. It is the logic scattering days that truly get my hackles up—those brain defying moments that leave me yearning for a dollop of cognition or a whollop of common sense… the days that make others look at me and wonder what the hell I am thinking let alone doing.
Take last week. There I am at my part-time job when I have to give a customer $35 in change. Easy, you say? All I need is a twenty, a ten and a five? Well, guess again. I take out a five and my brain, stymied by a wet mass of cotton that has somehow eased its way into my cerebral cortex, tells me to stop while reaching for a ten. The “logic” goes as follows: two fives make a ten; I have one five in my hand so I need another one. Oh, but stop, I already have a ten in my hand and two fives, a ten and a twenty will be too much money. I put the bills back to start anew and yet again I get stumped at the ten and how many fives go into it. I stare at the five, and then at the ten. It is as if in staring at the thin coloured paper an answer will arise. But nothing comes forth except an acceleration of brain synapses attempting to fight their way through the cotton batting. I try to slow them down, take a deep breath and rethink the whole process. My brain won’t let me. Instead, I feel the cotton morph into waves—big waves, rolling waves; a tsunami of heat waves of which I am trying desperately to stay afloat. The movement pushes and pulls, submerging me in a metaphoric cold sweat that once had me pleading for an early coffee break so I could cry in a bathroom stall bemoaning my early onset dementia.
I finally take a breath and, holding the bills in my hand, look at my customer. He smiles reassuringly. Are you doing okay, he asks. I want to cry. Yes, I say, yes, all I need is to get through this day and I will be okay. He nods. It is like he has just held out his hand and I know, with the surety of a drowning victim, that I am safe again; that I will get through this moment. And that I do.
It is funny how some people’s words can do that for you. They are full of understanding, compassion … even empathy. 
A few days later my brain goes into overdrive again. I am trying to do a relatively easy, but not often used procedure on the till, when I find that I can’t remember how to do it. My mind goes blank. I feel flustered and irritated. I look up at the customer; he says: take a breath. I want to punch him. It was like someone just told me that I was stupid or needed brain surgery. It took all my energy to focus on not snapping at him and calling for someone to assist me in completing the task.
Later I compared my reactions to the two events. With the first I was able to compose myself and carry on; with the second I went from flustered to irate with nary a breath in between. I then thought about the two customers. Both, indeed, offered kind words but perhaps it was the latter man’s giving of advice (at a rather trying time) that changed the dynamics. Sure it could have been my state of exhaustion after a long day of customer service but I wonder it if was something to do with his intent. There is a big difference between offering advice and just being present; between being empathetic and giving pity or even sympathy. The first man stayed calm: he didn’t rush or urge me to be kind to myself; he just smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if he knew, first hand, this happens to all of us.  With a few gentle words, surrounded by a blessed silence, he let me know that I was okay. The second man’s voice, however, when I try to recollect, felt more like he was coming from a place of knowing better, or of trying to help the poor store clerk get through her day. It felt condescending. Then again, perhaps I am just projecting on to him.
Regardless, I know now through my experiences of being at the other end of a cash counter I will never, ever say to a store clerk who seems to be having trouble:
“You must be new here.”
“It’s okay, honey.”
“Try it this way.”
I know I have made similar comments in the past, especially the first one, but I think I have learned my lesson. In future, when I come across a flustered retail clerk I will give him or her the space and time they need to get through a difficult moment.  Then again, isn’t that what we all need? Space and time, a helping hand if necessary, but mostly just the knowledge that without judgment, without urgency or impatience, someone cares; someone understands enough just to be present.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Survivor: The Real Reality Show

I was thinking about the human dynamics of my part time job the other day when I realized it was analogous to that of survivors stranded on a deserted island. There are those who try desperately to get off; those who have accepted their fate with bitterness; and those who have accepted it with grace and humility. And yes, there are those who actually like the island but, as in my job, they are few and far between.
In situations as these—minimum wage jobs and other such shipwreck scenarios—coping strategies are brought to the forefront. Behaviours in these theatres of the absurd can be extreme, even bizarre. Take this one conversation I had with a fellow employee. I had just met this person; it was our second conversation with the first being rather perfunctory.
Colleague: I am tired today
Me: Yeah, me too
Colleague: I had a friend over last night
Me: [nod]
Colleague: Yeah, you know when you have someone new in your bed how it’s hard to sleep?

Okay then.
Others (and I definitely include myself) cope with behaviours that range from passive-aggressiveness to humour, perfectionism to flirtation. The job is a microcosm of the human stage: incredibly fascinating and endlessly entertaining.  Moreover, when I can sit in the observer’s seat with a dispassionate eye I not only learn a lot about myself but can be more compassionate about some of the more ridiculous things we all can do to be seen, heard and just plain validated.
The other day, for example, I found myself trying to dig up dirt on a fellow employee. This employee had hurt me, albeit indirectly, when she had asked, rather indelicately, about a facet of my appearance of which I am very sensitive. Fortunately, the person I had tried to recruit as a co-conspirator didn’t respond the way I had hoped and the malicious intent of my question: "so how is it to work with so and so?" went by unnoticed. Later, in the comforts of home, I thought about how I had almost entered the shark-infested waters of gossip.  At first I was just plain disgusted with myself. I hung on to that for a few moments until I realized that I didn’t need to go there. No damage was done, nothing was stirred up, and no one was hurt. True I had crossed a line, there is no denying that, but in that crossing it also enabled me to explore a part of myself that I don’t like to acknowledge: my passive aggressiveness. This part is age-old. And, while I can normally keep it under control by a more mature ability to respond directly when hurt or challenged, I am currently living on my own deserted island: I am not always at my best. 
So, with just a little bit of introspection, I worked through why I had felt the need to do it: I was hurting; I was angry about being hurt and, because I hadn’t responded appropriately at the time of the insult, that is, stated how her comment hurt me, was using passive-aggressive tools in an attempt to make myself feel better. Then I thought about my intended victim. I don’t really think she consciously intended to insult me. Perhaps she was trying a one-upmanship on appearances but, in reality, I also know her to have poor boundaries (hence the comment) and even poorer coping strategies.  Then again, mine were not so great either.
Sigh. Living and learning as I go.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cure for Boredom

A few weeks ago I went on one of my regular walks: up the hill through the residential area and to the forest trails beyond. I am extremely fortunate in where I livetwenty minutes of walking gets me on a trail that leaves the houses and streets behind in another fifteen. I head up here usually twice, sometimes three times a week depending on my schedule. From the trail head I can access several peaks or just enjoy a leisurely walk in amongst the alders, cedars and hemlocks. I am, I repeat, extremely fortunate.
I like to consider these trails as my own personal sanctuary. I seldom meet anyone. Sure, I come across the occasional dog walker but as I keep my sojourns to the weekdays my path is usually undisturbed by any of the two legged species. I’ve seen the occasional bear and a coyote but mostly it is just the squirrels and birds that keep me company.
A few weeks ago, however, my refuge was invaded. I had just crossed a narrow creek bed and climbed the short but steep path on the other side when I spotted some wads of toilet paper. I immediately tensed; I stopped and looked around. Who had done this? A few steps later I found an empty beer bottle, then a plastic bag and, incongruously, a tube of toothpaste. The tension became anger. I picked up the bag and stuffed within it the other pieces of debris. I continued on but was on high alert. I knew that anyone who denigrated nature would have no qualms against disrespecting a person. And although I always carry bear spray I am conscious that I am still a woman alone in the mountains. Bears may be unpredictable but humans, I have no doubt, trump their unpredictability in spades.  Still I try to let caution rather than fear rule my path.
Walking slowly up the short rise just beyond the makeshift toilet and bottle dump I spied the campsite. It sprawled over the path and up the hill. I quickly stepped back below possible observation. For a brief moment I considered going forward and confronting these miscreants. I am a strong advocate of “taking back the night” and other such actions that challenge the philosophies that keep women tethered to the safe and known, but I am no fool either. I gathered what garbage I could (excluding the toilet paper) and retreated back the way I had come.
On the walk home and the days that followed it was interesting to note the degree of violation I felt. Not only had my sanctuary been treated with disdain but I felt sullied and, irritatingly so, afraid.
Fear is no stranger to me. In the past I’ve been afraid of the dark, of men and dogs, bears and a general assortment of authority figures including teachers, cops, and bosses. Over the years I have worked hard at creating a safe inner haven that defeats these fears while physically pushing my limits to challenge them. I have walked and hiked in the dark, camped in the wilderness on an overnight solo trip, and learned how to approach animals with cautious respect. Authority figures can still create an internal tremble but that, too, is far from the fear it was.  I like to think I know my fears and can deal with them. So it was with surprise and eventual anger that fear dropped in on me in a place where I had done so much work in confronting my anxieties. I felt enraged that some disrespectful campers/partiers could disrupt my hard earned peace. 
Although anger can be a great motivator it took me a while to take back to that trail. A few days lapsed with stewing over the audacity of these individuals. Then there was almost a week of days where I couldn’t return due to other commitments and several more days of just plain procrastinating. In all it took two weeks to go back and face my goblins.
I knew the campers wouldn’t be there on the day I went up but still I was far more wary than usual. Armed with plastic bags to pick up garbage I slowly hiked back into the hills. Autumn had fallen with alacrity and alder leaves strewed the pathway. Despite this the still air was quiet. Even the birds were silent as I walked through the windless trees and over the drought heavy creeks. As I approached the destination my pace slowed and my senses heightened. I stopped to listen. Silence greeted me. I moved on. With relief I noticed the toilet paper was gone and, clearing the small rise, saw nothing of the blue tarp that had called out like a beacon when the camp was still up. I walked on and saw how others had been there before me. It must have been a work party that descended on the camp as the ground showed the effects of rakes and shovels. I can only imagine what was there before that needed such a cleanup. I toured the area and picked up some missed over odds and ends: broken glass, torn pieces of foil wrappers, cigarette butts and bottle caps. I said a few words of thanks to nature for forgiving the trespass and to the folk for cleaning it up and carried on.
In writing this now I think not so much of the fear but of my arrogance in the surprise I felt when I fell into fear. I thought I had built up enough internal safety that an external event like that would not have disrupted me on such a level. For a few days I was even distrustful of others and cynical of people’s behaviour and motivations. True the denigration was in a place I consider a sanctuary. Also true was that the anxiety didn’t last but it is interesting the denial and self deception that we can fall into: I didn’t think my fears could ignite so quickly and, however temporary they were, be so inhibitive.
I was talking with a friend the other day about the parts of us we don’t show, even, sometimes, to those we know and trust on an intimate level.  He was saying how his current partner wanted to know “all of him” and part of him was rebelling in revealing too much, too soon. I said, you can always tell her that she’ll never get bored with you because of the continuous new discoveries she’ll have each day. I guess the same goes with me: the fearful parts within me, the parts that seldom show their face even to me, can still hold too much sway in certain circumstances … and while that surprises me, it also confirms I’ll never be bored.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Her Shawl Wrapped Around Me

<i>I went down to the place
Where I knew she lay waiting
Under the marble and the snow
I said, Mother I'm frightened
The thunder and the lightning
I'll never come through this alone
She said, I'll be with you
My shawl wrapped around you

My hand on your head when you go
And the night came on
It was very calm
I wanted the night to go on and on
But she said, Go back to the World
This is the first verse of Leonard Cohen’s <i>Night Comes On</i>. I feel the lyrics deep within. They force me to face the longing I have felt most my life. Although I lost my mother when I was 18 she had disappeared long before through an avid appreciation of alcohol. Unlike the mother in the verse she has no gravestone of marble to mark the presence she once carried on earth. It was not her desire.

Several years back, acting on my own desire, I created a shrine in the mountains where I could go and visit her. It was not that I needed a place to praise or show respect; I needed instead a place to rage and call her out on her behaviour. I did this for many years. Sometimes I could feel her presence: a wall of denial, a victim pointing the finger back at me; but other times there was only the quiet stillness of the forest, one that held the space, accepting my need for expression.

Over time I stopped visiting the memorial. I moved on to other paths and the need to vent slowly leeched away. This morning, however, the need to see her, visit her; feel her presence, was overwhelming. I followed the inner calling.

The first thing I noticed as I entered the forest was that my old trail had corroded. It was never well used but now it was cluttered with debris: branches, fallen trees, and large rocks that made the steep gravelly slope more treacherous than enjoyable. I chose another route, one farther down the mountainside. This trail paralleled the one of old but was longer, less direct and had other points of call. I had taken it years before but it too had changed. Countless feet had smoothed the way and trees were now marked with blazing orange tags.

I missed the old way and soon got off this newcomer and transversed the slopes back to the original line. It wasn’t hard to find. I had been up and down this trail over a hundred times: it was like a homecoming. I saw the boulder I used to pretend a bear was behind and where I expressed my inner rage by hitting broken branches against it. I noticed how many branches lay upon the ground inviting me to vent. I passed by remembering how, years ago, I would always run out of these make shift weapons.

My way leveled out and I spied the remains of summer flowering asters, arching the trail with delicate leaves and slender stalks. I loved this part of the path, it was an elfin like entrance to the shrine not far ahead.

I walked on. My feet went by memory singling out the irregular shaped stones and angled wood that remained in place from years gone by.  All was familiar until I came to the washout. It had always been there but now heavy rains and rock fall had eroded it further: it was too dangerous to cross as I had in the past. Another soul had marked a trail that skirted up and around. I followed it as it safely led me over the debris and, ironically enough, above the shrine. The trail carried on, up and to my right but my destination was below. I cut back down.

It is funny how the washout only destroyed the trail just metres before my mom’s “resting place”.  It meant that no one would pass in front of it, that the place was held in sanctuary. I skirted down the slope past ferns, rotting logs and hemlock saplings. The old path was still there but unused. The log I used to sit on calmly waiting.

I spoke to her then. It is not the first time we have talked since I stopped visiting her memorial. I have spoken to her many a time in the comforts of my home and security of my journal but it was different being back to the place where so much was said, so much expressed. I told her how my need had motivated the visit; how Leonard Cohen had inspired me. I didn’t realize her presence until I belatedly felt the warmth. I should have been cold or at least cool in the early morning shadows of the forest. Instead what I felt was as if a shawl had wrapped around me. I knew she was there.

I am a firm believer in magic. I trust in the twists and turns of life that brighten the eye, whisper music in the ear and sensitize the touch. I believe in trails that disappear one day and return another and trees that warn and protect if only you listen. I also see magic in the everyday encounters with people on the street, in stores, and afar from a seat on the bus. I know if I open my heart to experience the energy I transform, however quietly, however dramatically.

I also know that some folk will place my experiences with mom in a pretty box labeled projections of self healing and forgiveness. And yes, sure, that analysis is true, the outer always reflects the inner. But I also know it is not so much about forgiveness or letting go of the past as much as holding out my hand to the future.

In reaching out to mom I don’t assume to know why she did the things she did or that she was only “doing her best”. We all do things we regret and, sometimes, we don’t act with integrity at the times most needed. What I do know is that I am willing to be supported by her today as much as if she was alive and sober and opening her arms.

Maybe it is easier to make amends and new commitments when communing with the dead. Then again, perhaps not, it took over thirty years to get this far. The bottom line is I don’t want to shut her out anymore. I want her shawl wrapped around me and her hand on my head … and that, because I have asked for it, is what I shall have.