Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sorting Nails and the Meaning of Life

I was at work last week, my “day” job as it were, and I came to a realization. I was sorting nails at the back till—desolate territory in this big box franchise—when the seeds of this revelation germinated. It happened rather innocuously: a coworker, relatively new and somewhat standoffish, walked by.  In an attempt to connect I shook my head in mock despair and said: here I am, 52 years old and sorting nails. I expected a sympathetic reply to the tune of: I hear ya or don’t I know it; but instead he gave me a short moralizing comment about how everything is good as long as you have your health. It pissed me off. Royally. I held my anger and replied: I would have to debate that everything is good and besides, we all need some space to complain. Then it was his turn to shake his head as he wandered off.

It irritated me for several hours afterward. How dare he shoot me down when I was just trying to connect? What gall to shame me with his holier than thou preaching? I know health is important, I know my concerns are petty but jeeeeezzzz, can’t I want more? And later I got even angrier because I had been feeling sorry for myself and he called me on it.

A few days later I was mulling over the whole scene and realized that not only had he got it wrong but I did too. Yes, good health, space to vent and wanting more are all good and fine. Even self pity has its place. What is more important, however, is finding joy in who we are and what we do. 

I’ve blogged much about this necessary evil I call my day job.(See May-August 2012).  I’ve written of what  I’ve learned about myself and the colourful characters I've met; the laughter I've shared with my co-workers and profound moments I’ve experienced with customers. On the other side I’ve described how frustrating and, at times, even humiliating it can be: the poor wages and rude behaviours; the meeting of old friends and even worse, old clients. I’ve written about my commitment to being present to the hundreds of people that pass my till and how difficult it is in achieving that goal and how certain parts of myself have been revealed and how it has given me transient shame. Coming back to menial labour at this stage in life gives me nothing, I have come to conclude, if not new perspectives to ponder, space to grow and fodder for writing. I feel I am a better person because of this job.

That said, am I happy? 

Yes. In working at the low end of the career spectrum I find I still like myself: what I do for a living, or at least my most visible way of making money, does not affect who I am at the core. I am still Jo-Ann. Moreover, working part-time at a low responsibility job gives me space and time to develop my passions: my BodyMind therapeutic practice and my writing. I have time to create, to volunteer, to read or to just sit and do nothing if that is my desire. I live what I like to call the artist’s life. I am not raking it in but my inner life is joyfully abundant. I do not like my job, per se, but I like what it gives me: time, space and money, however minimal, to do what I want.

And sorting nails? Even that has its joy. I got paid to meditate for several hours with minimal interruptions. What more could I ask for?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Lines We Draw

The spider mites have returned. They crawled up from whatever god forsaken place they had hidden, strung their insidious webs and are now slowing leaching my plants dry. I do not like them.  They frustrate me horribly. I take an aggressive stance when they appear. I kill them.

I have but a small collection of tropicals: a philodendron, two gardenias, three orchids (of which I wrote about last March), two begonias, a Saintpaulia, a Dracaena, a Pachira and a bamboo. They either have come from rough beginnings (i.e. the orchids and the begonia) or are cuttings received from friends. I have a thing for bringing plants back to life. So when some spineless tetranychidae comes to feed, I get angry.

Unfortunately, my anger doesn’t help much so I clean and prune instead. It’s an ongoing job. The mites are relentless. The technique I have found to be most effective is soaking the leaves in soapy water then putting the plant under a plastic bag for 2-3 days. Mites dislike humidity. It keeps the little bugs at bay for several months, sometimes more. However, my bamboo seems to be chronically affected. Drastic action is called for. I prune with little mercy, soap and cover it with plastic. After a few days when I feel I have the upper hand, I shall prune my bamboo down to base and change the soil. They will not kill this plant.

Like most people, I do not enjoy watching humans or animals die. Our impulse is to do something, anything, to stop the process. It does not matter that death is natural and a foregone conclusion, a part of us feels like it dies too when another succumbs. I extend these feelings to plants and some insects; mites, of course, excluded. It feels somewhat wrong to be biased in this way, after all, a life is a life regardless of the being’s state of consciousness or, I should say, our assumed belief of that state. But we all draw a line somewhere about what is worthy of life and what is not; that is mine.

Still, that line of mine that honours most beings is not so solid. Sure I respect the lives of animals, plants and some insects but I still eat them—the latter most unintentionally. Although I am politically against factory farming, penned up animals and the poor economics behind feeding corn to livestock, my body (unlike those of practicing vegans) does not like to abstain—I tried it for a year and felt the negative effects for far too long. Instead I buy range fed cattle and cage free chicken eggs. I keep my intake down to a minimum and try to pay respect to the animal it was when I eat it. My line, you see, has its issues. 

We all draw lines. Some are rigid; some are like one mentioned above. Lines like that can waver and meander, swirling their way into big loops or interesting gaps depending on the situation. My line against wasteful logging practices is another example: I prefer actual books to reading on-line and posted letters to e-cards. If I was a staunch conservationist I’d be holding a Kindle at night. I don’t. I am also an anti-plastic activist but still wash my polypro clothing even though I know microscopic plastic bits are ending up in the ocean. Interesting gaps to be sure.

There are lines that some draw that are quite rigid. Outside of those that delineate universal moral taboos there are the more individualistic ones that purport to know the truth: I am right; you are wrong. These lines can grow in dimension becoming rigid behemoths where the drawer of said lines can become morally lost and disorientated. Like the politicians who vote for draconian drugs law and then are found buying coke on the street or say abortion is immoral but want to reinstate capital punishment. And even if the lines drawn do not grow in such proportion, you can see it in our everyday lives: nice people who “wouldn’t hurt a fly” buying sweatshop clothes or turning a blind eye to how their computers are built.

I have a friend who has a lovely saying: “Hypocrites welcome”. I see it as an invitation to acknowledge and own our internal and external contradictions. And I don’t mean to own and then ignore like we do with exercise equipment. I mean to really own and build awareness around these grey zones. Like be a pro-lifer but fight for better sex education and free birth control or vow to reinstate capital punishment but work to abolish racial prejudice that puts too many people of colour on death row. Say "no to drugs" but fund better treatment programs and stop criminalizing the end user. Promote trade with totalitarian countries but make human rights a condition for better pricing. Eat fish caught with ethical practices; protest pipelines but start stop driving your car when you can ride a bus; and abstain from buying the latest digital toys each year just because they are new. These solutions in themselves won’t save the world. They will, however, help us regain our humanity.

In other words, we need to constantly examine and reexamine our beliefs. To find ways to dismantle walls of rigidity, own our contradictions and open our hearts to new ways of being. This will not only help us be more compassionate to those who think and act differently but more compassionate to ourselves when we find that the lines we have drawn are not so straight.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Art of Self Loyalty: Standing Up for Young Girls

Last week I wrote about self loyalty. I quoted Pascal Mercier: [Self loyalty is] not a feeling… but a will, a decision, a partisanship of the soul. … The duty not to run away from yourself…The willingness to stand for yourself even if you do not like yourself. The problem, as already outlined, is we are not taught to do this. Rather, there is an outward focus that supports our departure from inner partisanship. Nowhere is this more apparent, it seems, than with young girls.

A new study from the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that [g]irls between the ages of nine and 16 face body shaming and lack of confidence at more than double the rate of young boys. One-in-five Canadians (21 per cent) know a girl who says she’s fat and an almost equal amount (18 per cent) know one who says she’s on a diet. Moreover, 17 per cent of Canadians know a girl who thinks she is ugly, compared to only 7 per cent of Canadians who know a boy that feels this way.

The first time I felt ashamed of my body was in Brownies. I was nine years old. I remember looking in the mirror and thinking I looked like a sack of potatoes tied in the middle. I even spoke it aloud.  No one disputed it. It began a long journey of diets and over exercising.

Forty three years ago I unknowingly abandoned myself. Not feeling good in who I was—most likely a reaction to the family situation—and not understanding why I felt that way, I did what only seemed natural: I compared myself to others and found a lack.  Ironically, it wasn’t TV stars or magazine starlets that struck me as the paragon of perfection but the line drawings of the willowy girls in my Brownie handbook. I wasn’t like them, an impossible feat in anyone’s guidelines, and therefore was wrong, inadequate; a failure.

Four decades later I can still hear the echoes of those inner struggles. Oh, I know how to manage them and they no longer control my life but when feeling stressed or at a loss they can, even now, make enough noise to make me wonder, if only for a moment, if I am good enough. And while I feel vulnerable in stating those thoughts, I also know that I am not alone in feeling this way.   

So how can we support young girls to stand up for themselves, have inner loyalty, and not abandon self as I did back then? 

The Canadian Women’s Foundation offers the following Top 7 Dos and DONTs for parents in what they call nurturing resilience.  I call it fostering self loyalty but hey, as long as the message gets out.

1.    DON’T bite your tongue.
If people say things you disagree with or treat you in a disrespectful way, speak up. She [your daughter or any young woman] needs to know it’s okay to stand up for herself, even at the risk of hurting someone’s feelings or causing disagreement.

2.    DON’T talk about how fat you look.
Never criticize your appearance in front of her or make negative comments about the way she or other females look. Let her know you value people’s inner qualities - like curiosity and courage - more than outward appearance.

3.    DON’T put yourself down.
Never make jokes about how incompetent you are, or make light of your own skills and abilities. She will learn to minimize her own accomplishments and may lower her future ambitions.

4.    DO let her lead.
When choosing school or social activities, ask her opinion and provide genuine choice. Rather than saying, “Do you want to take dance or singing?” ask open-ended questions like, “What interests you these days?”

5.    DO let her take risks.
Assuming her physical or mental health isn’t at stake, try not to be over-protective. Don’t rob her of the chance to be accountable for her own decisions and to learn from her own mistakes. If she fails, congratulate her for trying but don’t rescue her.

6.    DO validate her experience.
If she has ‘negative’ feelings or is having problems with her friends, don’t say “It’s not that bad” or try to cheer her up. Listen with respect, acknowledge that things sound difficult, and ask if there is anything you can do. Don’t pressure her to talk when she doesn’t want to. Instead, find lighthearted ways to strengthen your connection with her, like going for a walk or bike ride. If she is having problems with friends, encourage her to think more critically about the situation; suggest she pretend she is watching the conflict on TV or in a movie; what motivations and solutions does she see? If she is in genuine distress, get outside help.

7.    DO provide fair and consistent structure.
Presented in the spirit of love and caring, rules help young people feel protected and connected. Adolescents are less likely to engage in problem behaviours when adults know what they’re doing, and who they’re with. Set clear expectations for behaviour related to attending school, doing homework, sharing chores, and abiding by curfews.

 And, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention my good friend, Carla Webb and her program, Empowered byHorses. Yes, I am biased, but I think she does excellent work in empowering young girls to be, and to appreciate, who they are.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bread Chronicles IV - Coming Home

Loyalty. We use this word in terms of friends, family, country, even jobs but rarely do we use it in terms of self. It goes along with duty and honour, respect and love. As a girl guide I remember promising to do “my duty to God, the Queen and my country”.  Our Southern neighbours pledge allegiance to a flag while we, as Canadians, stand on guard for our "home and native land". But who stands for us? To whom, if not ourselves, should we be most loyal?

I just finished Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier. It is an excellent read and, as most good books do, got me reflecting upon different aspects of my life. Although this is not a new hobby, I am nothing if not a belly button gazer, Mercier’s words brought this question of loyalty to light.

[Loyalty is] not a feeling… but a will, a decision, a partisanship of the soul. … The duty not to run away from yourself. Neither in idea nor in fact. The willingness to stand for yourself even if you do not like yourself.

But this thought will have to wait, time to start the bread process. I want to add sprouted Kamut kernels to this new batch so I start the process today for bread that I will make in two days. 

Day One: Soak a cup of kernels in water for 8 hours or so. After soaking, rinse and spread onto a damp dishtowel. Do not layer the kernels too thick, maybe four at the most. Cover with the second half of the towel, sprinkle with water and let sit at room temperature for a day and a half. The important thing is to keep the kernels moist but not too moist in that they mold. On that note, do not put them in too warm of a place, but not too cold either. In other words, a place where Goldilocks would be most content. Eight hours before I estimate my sprouts to be ready, I will replenish my starter. 

Okay, back to loyalty: A few days ago I met up with an old acquaintance. I hadn’t seen this person in several years. Back then the relationship had been unequal and my decision to split a reflection of a fierce need for self care. I planned this meeting for several reasons but underlying each was an agenda: I wanted to show how much I had grown; that my need for this person’s approval had diminished and that I was thoroughly my own person. It almost panned out. 

I won’t go into detail but the meeting ended just in time for my self-recriminations to begin. My centred state of being; my “matured” self and sense of containment couldn’t last the full encounter. The old way of being leaked through the last half of our time together and my inner critic stepped in to strip me bare. On the way home I flayed myself with alternating lashes of self pitying regret and piercing anger then tried to self soothe by imagining another meeting where I would do it right. The reprove lasted twenty-four hours before the truth rang out and the warmth of my humanity returned.  

Speaking of truth, something screwed up with the bread starter I replenished this morning. With good plans to make bread now, this evening as I write this mini melodrama, I find she hasn’t risen. At best she looks like a barely fluffed pillow. Not enough. So, I push my bread making plans forward, re-knead and set the starter aside overnight. Meanwhile, I check in on my kamut kernels. I guess starter and kernels signed a non-growth pact: they both needed more time to show their stuff. Hmmm, I guess that could also be said for me.

During that long day after my waylaid visit one could say that I abandoned myself. And, while I am certainly well aware of how that feels this time was different. I was keenly aware through most of it that I was doing myself a disservice; that my self-loyalty had faltered. It was like this calm voice wafting over waves of disillusionment inviting me to slow down, take it easy; be kind to myself. I pendulumed  between the salve of this truth and floundering around in cold black waters but finally the swinging stopped. I gathered myself onto dry land, stood by my side, and took solace.

In respect for my process I reflected on what happened and why. I figured out what needed changing and what called for compassionate understanding; gave space for the sadness but also the joy in recovering so fast, and then finished up with a metaphoric hug. In short, I made the decision to get back into partnership with the person I should be most loyal to—me.

Day Three: My kamut kernels have sprouted a ¼” tail. I rinse and set aside. The starter has also grown to double its size with the re-knead and extra leavening time. I mix these ingredients with my usual pumpkin, sesame and flax seeds; millet; corn meal; oil and molasses, knead and set aside for the first rise (3 hours). The only problem is, due to last night’s delay, I won’t have time to bake today. Instead, about 90 minutes into the second rise, I’ll cover with plastic wrap and pop into the fridge for a slow, cold finish. Tomorrow, I bake.

Personal growth, the long journey back home as it were, takes times. And, like my starter and nascent sprouts, sometimes that timing doesn’t follow a preset schedule. We get stymied in our progress and frustrated at seemingly child-like regressions; we find ourselves embarrassed and even in pain. What alleviates these deviations—these detours along the roadis a loyalty to self.  As Mercier writes, self loyalty is “the willingness to stand for yourself even if you do not like yourself.” 

And that, I believe, is how we know we have come home.

For previous Bread Chronicles, scroll down to the introduction on October 5, The Ferment.