Crescendo of Spring; My Full Cup

Today, on my walk through the neighborhood, I felt a crescendo of the season, which began when I spotted some lavender lilacs in bloom. Finally, I thought, they’re here. Now, May and springtime seemed complete. Turning a corner, there were more lilacs, then more a little further on. I took a picture of a select bush of them standing tall under a clear sky. Further on, trees gently shook in the breeze.

I grew full from all the verdancy around me, such thriving, joy-provoking leaves and blooms everywhere. And the sorrows lingering inside my mind and body welled up, folding like a wave into a stronger, confident fount of thrill and gratitude. Not for the first time, I thanked the trees and plants for their bountiful splendor; the cared-for homes all about (including my own); the big-hearted, gentle man I have for a husband; the meaningful job I have; and on and on. I was not dismissing the mountains of pain in this present, uncertain world or sad and anguished moments strewn over the path of my own past, some of which still overly-inform certain relationships for me to this day. Rather, I felt like a vessel with room inside to hold all of this. I was a container fashioned of gratitude and awareness of the present, beauty-filled moment, soaking in the richness of my surroundings. All of this became like a substance spreading out from the edges into the depths inside me, my bones, my heart. This could and would sustain me now and in the days ahead, this here-and-now sense of presence, a wealth beyond measure.

“Remember this day, these moments,” I said to myself as I gazed upon a Japanese maple, its almost burgundy and rust-red leaves shimmering in the sun.

I wistfully wished I could share this time with some others in my life in addition to my husband. I walked along in this paradox, a sense of joyous unity with everything around me yet awareness of prolonged separation from particular people with whom I share strained histories. Such is life for many of us, perhaps even everyone to some extent these days, this happy moment of clear connection in which we find ourselves that also holds lingering sad ones of disconnection. That is what it is. But, again, all of this was folded into me, bathed and held by an ocean of gratitude, a sense of aliveness, and then, also, I realized, hope.

Today, finally, I understood more clearly a truer, deeper meaning of “My cup runneth over.” And my cup is part of an ever-larger cup.

Reflections From My Closet

These days, I sit at home in a small closet in front of my computer, meeting with people virtually, all day long four days a week, witnessing their pain and successes, healing psyches where I can. Down at the other end of the bedroom, outside of the closed door sits a noisemaker switched to sounds of the ocean surf, playing in a pleasant loop. It’s a good, meaningful chunk of my present life yet not exactly one I would have envisioned for myself even in the recent past, this working within my house to avoid an invisible, impersonal danger that’s steadily killing people far and wide.

These are strange times from which I squeeze out gratitude and beauty wherever I can find them in my corner of the world, safe in a closet. Sometimes, I look through a little window onto a changing sky above my neighbor’s roof, trees occasionally blowing in a strong wind, other times still. This helps delineate the days for me, a little. I always return my focus on the computer screen, a portal into the homes and lives of others. Like me, they sit indoors or in their car, watching the world outside, weathering this period of limbo, avoiding sub-microscopic purveyors of death for yet another day.

All in This Together

Three days ago, I started posting short videos of myself on Facebook, where I talk to my friends and, by the second one (of three at this writing), anyone in general. Due to this pandemic pandemonium, as I’ve been calling the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve felt a need more than ever to be seen and heard, connected and not alone. In a span of five days, my mood state has especially soared up and down, hopeful some days, discouraged the next. I’ve made it my clear intention to remain open to the new possibilities arising from this strange, distressing world situation. This has already borne out some positive experiences and understandings, for which I’m grateful. However, with so many drastic changes happening at once, I find adjusting to them a mix of intriguing, surprising, fulfilling, scary, and unpleasant. Hence, why some days feel better than others. I think this is to be expected. Many of us are undoubtedly experiencing a similar see-saw of emotions.

Just a short while ago, I was soberly reminded of how people besides myself are feeling painfully challenged. Standing first in line with a shopping cart, purple rubber gloves covering my hands to protect me from the corona virus, I waited with several others for our local Trader Joe’s market to open for the day. A sixty-something-year-old woman took a cart and then stood near the entrance, opposite the queue of people. I mentioned to her that the line started over where I stood, to which she angrily snapped, “I understand, but I’m not getting in it! Everyone will be able to go inside anyway!” A short while later, a worker came out to place disinfectant wipes by the carts. He turned to the woman and matter-of-factly reminded her where the line was in order to enter the store. She let fly some “f” bombs at the man and explained that she comes to the store every week, recently had a knee replacement, and would let other people go by to get inside. She just was not going to go all the way down to the end of the line. I chimed in, “So do we,” in response to her fact of frequently shopping at T.J.’s. She then swore at me as well. I gestured with my index finger before my mouth, releasing a “Shhh.”

I take no pride in how I responded to this woman. There I was, not only speaking for myself (as, indeed, I do shop at Trader Joe’s every weekend), but presumptively for the twenty or more people waiting behind me. Such an angry and seemingly entitled response evoked my own “us against you” reply. Having been bullied at school during a good share of my childhood and adolescence, I know all too well how it feels to be singled out and “put in my place” by a group. But, that said, I spoke this morning from a protective, reactive part of me I rarely ever express, getting caught up in this poor woman’s polarizing, angry part of her psyche that spoke from actual pain and difficulty she’d been enduring.

In a short while, I found myself thinking how it was sad this older (than I) woman felt such a need to lead in public from a place of vitriolic anger. Perhaps she could have explained to the Trader Joe’s employee and the rest of us there that she was experiencing some difficulty from having her knee recently replaced. Would it be alright if she didn’t wait in line, but enter the store first so she could then get off her feet that much sooner? This I would have understood and compassionately permitted. She was probably at least sixty-five years old. And gods know what else was going for her in addition to this world health crisis. I wouldn’t be surprised if the worker would have allowed her inside right away, perhaps even a bit sooner than the rest of us. After all, I’ve read about some stores allowing elderly individuals to come in and make purchases an hour or so before the mad rush of shoppers flood in. Of course, all of this is mere speculation, since the scenario did not happen that way. Very likely, the angry individual had already been shamed elsewhere for simply having needs, be it recently and/or repeatedly in her distant past. Clearly, this particular morning, she felt an inner pressure to lead her life as if prepared to fight against the rest of the world. I’ve certainly been there too now and then.

I came away from my shopping trip reminded yet again, more than ever, that many human experiences are greatly shared, including ones that have yet to arise in the future for some. Such circumstances and events have simply not occurred for those people– yet. While it wasn’t me in the moment feeling particularly hurt inside to then harshly defend with anger a deep sense of vulnerability and intense need like this woman customer clearly was going through, it certainly has been me in other instances. If I live long enough, my body will remind me too that I need to get off my feet sooner than those who are younger or have stronger knees. But, I trust I will do all I can to set my anger to the side and lead with a gentler voice and words to advocate for my needs. With age has come some wisdom for me to draw from, should I choose.

Reflecting on standing in that store line, I recall looking behind me more than once at the growing stream of people waiting in the bracingly cold wind of early spring in Massachusetts. We were all in need, coping as best we could in the face of incredible uncertainty, there to get food and other basic supplies. I was impressed with how well-behaved everyone else was being, each and every person undoubtedly filled with concerns about their own and their loved ones’ future. Yes, I was at the head of the line, but well aware how we are all in this together.

Addendum update: Since the above writing, a mandate by the Commonwealth of MA went into effect whereby people aged sixty and older must be allowed the first hour each day of shopping in a grocery store, at the exclusion of everyone else who is younger. The disgruntled woman customer I wrote about can rest easy from now until this pandemic crisis is over whenever she waits in line, first thing in the morning, at Trader Joe’s. She has been fairly and duly accommodated. I hope for her sake that this makes her life a bit easier, enough to hopefully begin to facilitate improving her behavior in public.

Brief Thoughts on Elitism

As a white professional with a higher degree, I have grown more aware over especially the past three years how I am 1) perceived by some as elitist and 2) have inadvertently participated in reinforcing that unfortunate but sadly somewhat accurate view. For one thing, I was raised to value higher education above all else. Those who didn’t achieve it like I finally did (thanks to all of my privilege to access this resource) were somehow inherently lacking. Hence, it was deeply implied, they were inferior. Obviously, nothing could be further from the truth. I do my best to live from this clearer understanding and value everyone with their natural intelligences, be they formally educated or not. We all need to live and walk from this place of awareness, not simply talk from it.

On Visiting a Dead Person’s Home

Earlier this afternoon, my husband and I went to look through the house of his recently-deceased, close family friend. We found some appealing and useful items. It felt odd and sad, this picking through a dead person’s belongings. But, now at least some of her things have a new home. We’ll think of this dear woman kindly whenever we look at and/or make use of what was once hers.

(Note on this post’s accompanying photograph: I long admired this mirror in my husband’s recently passed away friend’s living room. It is something he and I will always treasure as we now enjoy it in our own living room.)

Brief Thoughts on Love

I’m glad I waited until later in life (early 40s) to meet and marry the right companion. My husband and I grew up seeing so many people around us either stay in bad marriages (such as his parents’ fate) or go through a series of toxic to so-so unions before finally finding a harmonious match (as has been my father’s path).

And for those who are single, which I was for most of my life, may they be happy, enjoying love in all the many ways it exists in relationships.

It intrigues and sometimes amazes me how we all start out as children so naturally understanding of and living from love only to then grow up and work on having to find our way back to that same perspective and way of being in the world.

Brief Praise and Rant About the Recent Oscars

I was glad to see Joaquin Phoenix win an Oscar for JOKER and Renee Zellweger win one for JUDY. Both were well-deserved for the incredible transformation they each made in their leading roles. However, I was disappointed that Tom Hanks did not win Best Supporting Actor for A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. He was powerfully, touchingly transformed as Mr. Rogers. Brad Pitt, who competently played a comparatively far less dynamic character in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, garnered a clearly undeserved win next to Hanks. The Academy has long been so uneven and peculiar in its awarding choices.

Detoxifying From Watching Women Slapped

I grew up watching a lot of old movies and TV shows (reruns by the time I was viewing them) in which a recurring scene was that of a man slapping an upset woman to calm her down, bring her back into a more rational state of mind. It was the quick formula solution to stop her from being “ruled by her emotions.” This always felt upsetting, confusing, and deeply wrong to me. Fortunately, I never saw my dad do this at home to Mom, or other friends or family members act this way with their close women loved ones. Anyway, as a child, I felt such a dissonance, that of being deeply disturbed by this violent act against a grown woman on one hand while somehow wanting to trust that the adults– in this case, the men– new best what to do in this particular dynamic. It is interesting how I don’t remember men getting slapped by women in response to expressing strong emotions. The stereotype and expectation was that men aren’t “overly” emotional like women. And when and if they are, they must be promptly straightened out. Some man would sometimes slap another in some screen drama to “shape him up,” but this seemed rarer. I do remember a scene in STAR TREK TOS, whereby Captain Kirk repeatedly slaps Spock, when that latter is in a particularly sad, shame-filled state. That felt wrong too and very dissonant with the bonding moment that was supposed to be underscored between these two life-long close friends in such a pioneering TV show. But then bonding through violence never made clear sense to me. I always thought intimacy was about honoring emotional expression, so long as it’s not abusive/harmful, towards developing a sense of closeness with another.

The media has such a way of perpetuating and shaping stereotypical behavior, including such awful, wrong gender biases. There is an old, rigid arc of emotional expression patterns so many movies and television shows would perpetuate and which I’ve had to detoxify from during my adulthood. Seeing women getting slapped by supposedly well-meaning men is one of those particular image arcs I’ve had to get over. Thank the gods society at large finally no longer tolerates portraying such ugliness in moving pictures as a matter of course. That kind of imagery alone was and is blatant validation of violence against women and against those who “act like” women, i.e., show their emotions in response to feeling vulnerable– be through states of fear, shame, sadness, anger, etc.

In America, we still have a long ways to go as a culture with treating women, non-binary folks, and *explicitly* expressive sensitive men with care and respect in the face of strong emotions. But, there has been progress, thank goodness. The apparent fading away of routine slaps in the face to mostly women and some men “acting like women” in newer movies and television shows (made roughly within the last forty years or so) is an encouraging marker to this being the case.

On Healing From My Past

As a person, I am many roles and attributes– husband, brother, son, friend, psychotherapist, gay man, eclectic Pagan, movie lover, writer, sensitive, empathetic, introspective, caring, imaginative, sometimes overly-critical, and many more things. What I also am, though it is not a central identity for me, is someone who survived a relatively/moderately traumatic childhood. (So many people have survived their childhoods, which is nothing to necessarily brag about– though one can if they wish– or be ashamed of. Probably each and every one of us can say we survived at least something during childhood.) This included divorce of my parents before I was five and much uncertainty thereafter, due, in part, to frequent moves and having to adjust to several new schools and living situations.

Shortly after my parents’ divorce, my birth mother gave me up to my father and his second wife, having found herself, through no real fault of her own, overwhelmed and ill-equipped to be a single parent. I’m also convinced she was hoping I would be a duplicate of her older brother, who she idealized while watching him fill in as surrogate spouse to their mother, my grandfather largely away from home as a career Marine during much of her childhood. What my mother got with me, however, was something very different than my stoic yet caring uncle. She didn’t quite know what to make of me when I left toddlerhood. My emotional sensitivity and fascination with her high heeled shoes, long hair, and makeup made her uncomfortable.

Other unpleasant to even very painful difficulties arose after this initial trauma of divorce and later what I experienced as abandonment by my birth mother. However, simultaneously, I was also thrilled to finally go live with my father and the woman I would soon call “Mom.” Being a sensitive gay child on the non-binary spectrum (in my case, identification with feeling partially, but significantly female in a physically male body) became an added challenge. Most of the community I grew up around was quite intolerant of such differences. I was bullied throughout much of school, especially during sixth through eighth grades. I inherited a propensity for an anxious, highly reactive temperament. This, combined with my early personal history, resulted in some pretty serious anxiety (both generalized and OCD) and long bouts of depression throughout adolescence and much of my adulthood. Looking back, there is no doubt that I suffered from PTSD as a child and adolescent as I lived through deep relational disruptions and repeatedly perceived threats to my safety, with a good share of these perceptions based on actual reality.

After many years of effective psychotherapy, particularly a combination of Internal Family Systems work and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and increasingly mindful living, I’m glad to say that I haven’t experienced any clinical depression for almost nine years. I have been fortunate to not require sustained use of prescribed medication, although I did go through some short trials of assorted antidepressants (with misery-inducing side effects resulting each and every time) and long-term use of a benzodiazapine (Klonopin) for the anxiety. However, I was even able to give that drug up completely about seven years ago. Being free of the need for any prescriptions has been a relief, yet I also honor and understand those who find help in maintaining a regimen of psychopharmacological meds. We all must try and do whatever is necessary for our well-being.

The chronic, generalized anxiety and OCD will always be what I contend with to some degree. They are part of my body’s lot in life right along with some other health vulnerabilities, such as high cholesterol and skin that occasionally produces melanomas (only two thus far in twenty-seven years, both in situ/stage one, thank the gods) requiring prompt medical attention. But, my OCD has lessened in intensity enormously, having last been seriously bad for an extended period when I was fifteen years of age. I realize now that the OCD was intensified at the time by assorted stressors, including a reaction to an accumulation of traumas. Now, it’s something I chuckle about and bond with others over as they describe to me the unique little quirks of their own OCD. As for the generalized anxiety, I think it’s debatable whether I actually clinically suffer from it any longer. My day-to-day intense, chronic worrying has largely decreased. Ten years ago, I wasn’t certain I’d ever reach this level of inner peace I feel today. Mind you, I still have quite a ways to go on that front. Finding and living within inner peace most or all of the time is a lifelong effort for so many of us, perhaps even for most save for a very few (like the Dalai Lama, among others). My nature being what it is, I’m still to a certain extent what others would call “high strung.” That and growing up with having to cope with frequent disruptions to my sense of security as a child, I’ll likely always tend towards initially catastrophizing in the face of change or new difficulties. But, I am able to more quickly step away from such negative thinking and feeling, instead of getting stuck and bogged down in it so often like I used to do. I’m confident I function within the average range of the general population when it comes to dealing with uncertainty and life changes, with me being somewhere in “normal range” on the broad bell curve, for what that’s worth. For certain, I’ll never be fully “normal,” whatever the hell that even actually means. Mentally healthy and adjusted, on the other hand, well, I am definitely more that than not and it’s wonderful.

These days, it’s been about maintaining all the healing I’ve done for my psyche/inner system of parts while continuing to release some remaining deep-down pain from my past as I live more and more freely in the present. I’ve manifested most of my life dreams I started having as a young teenager, namely that of having a psychotherapy career, owning my own home in a pleasant neighborhood, and being married to a fabulous, loving man. I continue to live them each day, for however long I’m meant to do so. All I, and we, really have is now. I enjoy building from the wondrous now.

I’m starting to live into another big dream of mine. This simply is to commit to writing more often than not and see wherever that takes me next in this incredible journey called life. If I publish anything I produce, that will be a cherry on the sundae at this point. At least I’m writing and some people are reading it here on my blog, which I’ll do my best to have exist long after I’m gone.

A fact is, we all had, and have, our unique challenges in life, including, for a lot of us, mental health challenges, and often very serious ones. These are nothing to be ashamed of any more than the plethora of medical problems people live with and can finally freely admit to having more often than not– at least compared to when I was younger and when my parents were children. Being human is to be born into a body and mind with so many vulnerabilities and difficulties, arising from enduring tough environments, genetics, the inevitability of aging or some combination thereof. It’s our resiliency, including deep capacity to heal, that gets us through and never ever ceases to amaze me, both that of others and in myself. And it’s in mindfully sharing who we are, how far we’ve come, and whatever we are going through– good, bad, indifferent– that affirms what being alive is all about: connection. Connection– bit by bit– in ourselves to who we are and trusting that is enough. Connection with others and their wonderful, good enough selves, no matter how wounded in body or mind, so long as one’s wounds allow for genuine connection to come through, however limited initially. And, of course, connection with the rest of the world around us, nature, the All.

I used to think I was basically just my wounds and was worthy of so little, anxiously, shamefully, and sadly hiding away from a lot of life. But, I see now how we need not be defined by our wounds or imperfections, none of us. (And those who seem to intractably, pervasively live and act out from just their pain are, well, ultimately the most challenged, but I refuse to give up all hope on even them.) However, out of our efforts to heal from these injuries and foibles, we can find opportunities to derive wisdom and access to more compassion and other virtues, both for ourselves and others. This healing includes releasing shame, particularly the shame of assorted false beliefs that boil down to the thought we somehow only are our wounds or perceived flaws, victims of our worst experiences. Nothing could be further from the truth. As psychologist Richard Schwartz has written extensively about, what we actually are at our core essence, or Self, consists of calmness, courage, creativity, clarity, curiosity, compassion, confidence, and connectedness. And that makes it all the worthwhile to share in this journey called life, finding out, while doing so, that we are all– not just us, alone– imperfect in body and mind but uniquely wonderful, lovable Selves anyway, and always were.