Saturday, November 15, 2014

cut me wide open, til i grinned / guess it's time.

"yeah i got what i wanted
 they bled out my organs
 they cut me wide open, til i grinned
 guess it's time."

These are the first four lines from Lydia's album Paint It Golden. While this album means many, many things to me, it has one significance above all the others. It reminds me of how I learned to love. Everything.

I care very deeply about people; anyone who knows me well knows this. I am concerned for the well-being, health, and happiness of all those around me, no matter how little or how well I know them. And I love very deeply; my friends, my family, my significant other if I have one, and even strangers.

But those who have known me for more than a few years know that I was not always this way. Actually, I used to be quite the opposite. As a kid, and even through most of my teenage years, I was incredibly disconnected from people, and I couldn't have cared less.

I grew up in a family of four: my mom, my dad, my sister, and myself. My dad was never home because he worked in another city, but more because he didn't want to be. Being part of a family was too complicated, too inconvenient. When he was there, everyone's relationship with him was strange to say the least. Asking you how you were doing was really just asking how your grades were, and whether you were doing anything "valid" with your free time. Everyone held their breath in an attempt to not stir up his disapproval. No surprise that he and my mom fought when he was there. One or the other would walk out for a few hours, rendering every corner of our house cold and confusing.
My mom has always loved me and my sister very much, and expressed it in so many ways. But that did not make growing up easy. She had too many things on her plate. She and my sister were always close. They were always emotionally intense, and when my mom lashed out my sister would fight back, or break down. Whatever was on my mom's plate, my sister put on hers too.
I did the only thing that made sense to me; I learned how to defend myself. I learned how to swallow down all of my emotions. I told myself that I was going to be different. No matter how angry, upset, or sad I felt, I kept a straight face and kept quiet. To me, this was strength.
Eventually, this control I gained over my emotions turned into a relative lack of emotion. I felt nothing. There were no peaks of joy or sadness or anything in between. I had flatlined and I was proud. I thought of myself as a marble statue; scream in my face and I won't even flinch. I spent all my time inside my own head, fantasizing about the future, about different realities. I remember closing myself in my room, poring through Architectural Digest magazines. Picturing the places and spaces where I could live a different life. I didn't want to be where I was; I just wanted to get it over with.

I made it through and moved out. Went away to college. Said, now I am living a new life and I can be myself. But I kept my guard up--maybe not fully consciously--believing other people would only derail me. I was never where I was, because my tunnel vision was looking a year ahead, five years ahead, ten years ahead. It was the only way I knew how to operate. So naturally, I only attracted other people who had their guards up, who were not present either. Superficial relationships between people who care more about maintaining their facades than any real form of connection. Having fun was "connection." I held onto the notion that I was invulnerable.

In the second year of college, an unfamiliar feeling started to gnaw at me. A sense that there was something missing from my life. I was rapidly vacillating between surrounding myself with my friends and holing myself up in my apartment, ignoring the knocks at the door. I finally realized that this was because, despite all these friendships (some of which were genuine), I was incredibly lonely. I struggled to admit this to myself because I had taught myself that this was weakness. And at the same time, my parents were going through divorce. This not only added to the number of things I shoved down in order to keep my composure every day, but also seriously complicated my thoughts about relationships.

I had pushed someone away for months who wanted to get to know me better. I hadn't known what to do with this person's sincere interest and patience, as it was so unfamiliar. One day, I sat alone in my apartment as I had been doing more and more. I was looking over the city skyline from the 13th floor...I'll never forget that view. I was going over and over the past couple months in my mind, over and over things that had amounted to nothing. Suddenly something clicked, and I decided that I was going to do it. I was going to care.

Now it sounds clinical, but that was my mode of operation. Make a decision and act on it. The decision I had made 10 years before was to shut myself off, to build walls as high as possible. Seeing how successful I was at that, I was sure that I would figure out how to make myself vulnerable in turn. But confident as I was, I was fucking terrified; I had no idea what it was going to feel like. I had to confront my thoughts, and above all my fears.

I knew when I jumped, I was going to free fall. And that's exactly what I did. We made plans to see each other. Plane rides and train rides and long nights in other cities. Wanting to fall as far and fast as possible. I remember the 18 hour train ride from Chicago to Philadelphia, coming back home; staring out the window at the snow covered landscapes with Lydia filling my ears and head. Everything looked different. The world was changing.
I got back to my room, put my bag on the bed. Looked out at the skyline. This was not the same place I had been before. Everything had a smell and a taste now; rays of light had character and meaning that sent my brain spinning. I listened to Paint it Golden on repeat for weeks as it was the only thing that even began to relate to what I felt. I was sure the emotions would cause me to tear through my skin at any moment.

Needless to say I fell for this person, hard. I basked in every single wave of emotion that overcame me, while also watching myself in the third person. The feelings coursing through me were stronger than any drug could be. I felt like I was drowning, but that I was meant to breathe the water into my lungs. I felt like I was being gutted alive. Clawing away those layers of marble I had so meticulously sculpted revealed a stranger blossoming underneath. Who was she?

My shell cracked into a million pieces. I felt everything; all the things I had never allowed myself. I laughed, I sobbed, I lost my composure with complete joy and abandon. There were finally peaks. It was exhilarating and frustrating. These feelings pulled me into the moment, as there was no way to ignore them. I learned how to be where I was, when I was, a little more. I learned how to live in the future a little less.
I started to see beauty in what was right in front of me, to appreciate and embrace people in their messy imperfection. I was messier and more "imperfect" than ever before, but I finally felt alive. There was a switch in me that had been flipped, and I was hungry for raw emotion with no value judgment. I was hungry for whatever was real, even as I continuously struggled to define that.

Needless to say, the relationship eventually ran its course. We grew in different directions and hurt each other one too many times. But much of the reason I was growing was because of the changes it had caused in me; my perspective on the world was shifting and continued to shift beyond the comfort zone of that person.

Yet my love continued to grow and flow in all directions. I came to realize that love is not about two people, or any specific people. It is a way of life, it is an attitude, it is an energy. That was the only time I have fallen in love romantically in that way, but now I fall in love with the world around me every day.
I have figured out how to manifest love in everything I do, everywhere I go. I want everyone I encounter to feel that love in some way. Even the fleeting interactions I have in coffee shops or on the subway are chances to smile, spark a little bit of joy, and create meaning that was not there before. In my view, even the way I speak and carry myself can demonstrate, even in the most subtle way, light and kindness and compassion. And the best part is that the more I do this, the more I feel that love and positivity coming back at me from all directions.
Beyond the fact that this way of being brings me so much peace and contentment, I believe that it has the power to change the world. Agree or disagree, but I believe love is a force that can overcome all things - all the negativity and hurt and disconnection that surround us. It is a positive feedback cycle that we can grow, if only we can tune into that side of ourselves and share it with the world whenever we have the chance.

I still listen to Paint it Golden all the time, and it tugs at my heartstrings. It reminds me of how grateful I am for all that I feel - joy, pain, and everything in between. But most of all it reminds me to keep myself vulnerable so I can keep pouring out love. It is the strongest thing I've known.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

brain food.

Here's a peek at the books I'll be reading over the next few months. If you want to co-read and discuss any of these, say the word!

^ click to enlarge ^

Main themes: healing, mind-body connection, straightedge, veganism, politics, mindfulness, design

Saturday, November 8, 2014

these are gifts.

I am here.
I am here to record my story. My thoughts, my experiences, my struggles. My moments of joy and exhilaration. What I give and what I receive. I am here to record my journey, because life moves fast. My head and heart are constantly overflowing and I will attempt to catch these fleeting waves of energy in strings of letters. I am here, and that alone takes my breath away.

I have decided to write my first post about change, because change is a dear friend of mine by now. I crave change; I seek it out.
This, I know full well, is because my greatest fear is of stagnating.
But furthermore, change is what life is to me. As long as I am living and breathing, I require of myself that I change. I insist on evolving and expanding in an attempt to understand the full potential of this life.

Throughout the last few years, my life has changed in countless ways. When I look back on the past five years, I can identify at least one massive change per year - but in most cases many more. This is nothing like I thought it would be; nothing like I imagined. Some of the cycles of change that occurred have been very rapid, and others have been long. Some changes were welcome, others...not so welcome - at least initially. And many have been self initiated. Sometimes, because I have been able to see clearly that the state of things is not what's best for me, but other times motivated by a spark of that stagnation fear.

Sometimes I wonder how I have stayed level-headed through all of this...what some might call turmoil, or instability. Well there is a little secret that I figured out somewhere along the way.
The traumas and turmoils of life are gifts. They must not only be likened to gifts, but truly understood as such. These struggles present opportunities for massive growth...and that, in my mind, is a precious gift. When I finally realized that all the things I had been experiencing (and would continue to experience) were growing pains, my perspective took a 180.  The keyword is growing. Synonyms for growing: sprouting, budding, bursting forth, blooming, flourishing, thriving, emerging, becoming, beginning to feel. When I am going through something extremely difficult, I picture my bones growing, pressing at my skin a little. That metaphor is beautiful to me. I picture myself becoming taller and stronger, because I know that's exactly what's happening mentally and emotionally.

The second realization I have had is that kernels of joy and comfort can always be found in the everyday. And life is everyday + everyday + everyday, is it not? Finding these kernels is simply a matter of tuning in mentally. When you put yourself on a positive wavelength, opportunities present themselves to you. Opportunities to share a smile with someone, opportunities to banter and laugh, opportunities to taste a beautifully earthy undertone in your coffee. It sounds simple, and that's because it is. It's all about the simple things, and the simple things are always there. This realization has changed my life drastically.

It may seem paradoxical, but another thing that has kept me afloat is the power to initiate change myself. When things shift and crumble around me, I know that while those changes were not within my power, there are many things I do have the power to change. So in these times, I tend to overhaul a lot of things at once.  When you think your life is falling apart, or at least some aspect of it, you are prompted to reassess. You can choose not to, but that generally results in pain instead of growth. I interpret the changes that I cannot control as signals that my life is moving and changing. So I get up and get moving, asking, "how far can I ride this wave to become a better version of myself?"

I like to conduct thought experiments about interactions between my current self and one of my past selves. (These thought experiments are pretty amusing because I rack my brain trying to relate to those past selves and fill in their thoughts.)  One consists of me telling, say, 17-year-old Emi, the sequence of events that would transpire over the next 5 years. It would probably go something like this:
            Me: "Hey! How's it going? So I just wanted to drop by and give you a heads up on all the weird, crazy stuff that's about to happen in your life. Here's a little guidebook I put together - sort of a minimalist kitsch aesthetic you'll come to appreciate. Anyways, there's a whole lot of bullshit in there. A lot of unpleasant circumstances. And definitely a bunch of people that are going to waste your time and emotion, trying to bring you down just for their own satisfaction. I know you're gonna have to learn the hard way, but just trust the process."              
Her: "Umm, I think you have the wrong person. Because this is not at all what I have been picturing and planning out for, literally, years."            
Me: "No, I'm like, 110% sure about this. I actually just lived through it, which means you're about to!"            
Her: " I said. I have this plan..."            
Me: "[dry, slightly maniacal laughter] Yeah yeah I remember. But that is not how it's gonna go down because it turns out life doesn't really work that way."            
Her: "Alright well...shit. This, yeah, this does not look appealing. I really don't think I want to deal with this stuff. I think I'm gonna opt out and crawl into this hole in the ground now."            
Me: "Wait, not so fast. Maybe I forgot to mention that this is all totally worth it. You're going to be so, so ridiculously happy and so incredibly strong after all of this. You're going to transform in dimensions you don't even know exist yet. Just trust me, kid."

I'm glad I didn't know all of the gifts of growth I would receive in advance, because my head would have been spinning. I'm glad life happens one day at a time, and that when the challenges grew, I rose to meet them day by day, drawing on the strength from the last battle overcome.

And the truth is exactly that...that I am happy. Ridiculously happy. I wouldn't trade any of the experiences I have had for something easier, for a more placid or status quo life. I wouldn't have the strength and standards I have today if this were a smooth ride. I wouldn't have the fiercely positive outlook that makes me proud to be who I am, and excited to wake up every single morning. This is nothing like I thought it would be; nothing like I imagined. I am unafraid. And that's why I'm celebrating.