Sometimes I Think I Know Stuff but then Pema Chödrön Reminds Me I Know Nothing

I have not hidden the fact that 2016 was a rather tumultuous year for this writer (to put it lightly). In my reflections on the explosive events of last year, it occurred to me that the mantra I started chanting in early February 2016 included these words: “what is best for me, what is best for me, what is best for me.” As someone who understands a bit about that murky place where science meets magic, I should have known that such a mantra would result in the fiery explosion of all things in life that did not serve. It wasn’t long before I was ejected from a toxic work environment and fleeing a toxic relationship. I lost my pets, most of my belongings, 15lbs, and pieces of my heart. My friend died and my bike was stolen (methinks it carried some horrendous juju). What’s best for me, I said?

There were times when I was tempted to shake my fist at the universe and scream “what the fucking fuckity fuck?!” I did shake my fist at my former place of employment and former partner and scream and cry and hate and hate and hate (all in the privacy of my own home or my own head or sometimes in the middle of the woods and once accidentally on an airplane but just for a moment). But when those feelings finally moved through my dancer’s body and found a place of rest somewhere else, I turned my attention to a more sophisticated understanding of this journey called life.

It is so easy to blame isn’t it? It is so easy to point fingers at our spouses (former and otherwise), lovers, parents, Republicans, cis-hets, bosses and say “it’s YOUR fault.” It is so easy to puff out our cheeks, turn red in the face, and say with righteous indignation, “it’s because they/he/she/xe do it wrong!” It is so easy to jump on a moral high horse and proclaim everyone on foot to be a heathen/sinner/adulterer/bad dancer without actually stepping into their lived experience with compassion and an open heart.

I know cause I’ve done it. I’m fairly certain we all have though I won’t profess to speak for Jesus or Ghandi or Buddha or Mother Teresa or anyone else for that matter. It’s just so easy. I feel better when I have someone to blame because it takes some pressure off me. It eases my pain to know it was caused by someone else. Or does it? In those moments when I have been righteously indignant (and there have been many), MY body is the one that is tense and red, MY brain is firing on all cylinders, and I am the one who feels angry or incensed or frustrated or whatever. Does my righteous indignation actually have an impact on the people with whom I am righteously indignant? Not so much.

Enter Pema Chödrön. Sometimes I think I know stuff and then I listen to people who actually know stuff and I realize I don’t know anything. I do know how to breathe. I’m pretty good at that these days. Conscious breathing… deliberate, intentional inhales and exhales as a tool to regulate my nervous system. Since I live with PTSD, conscious breathing is my Jesus Christ; it is my personal savior. Without it, my prefrontal cortex would easily fly offline and my scared amygdala would run the show. It’s not pretty when that happens. So I breathe and I name colors and I look at clouds and I smell the wonderful essential oil blend given to me by one awesomesauce member of my tribe and I remain calm. It was from this place of calm that I was able to open up Pema’s books (again) and read her wise words (again) and be reminded that all the shit of life is simply that… shit of life. Life is not throwing shit balls at me because I deserve them or because I attract shit throwers, life throws shit balls because nothing is stable and permanent; sometimes life throws daisies and rainbows and sometimes life throws shit balls. Pema does not advise running from the shit balls, but rather, asks how we might turn the shit balls (she uses the term “arrows”) into flowers. Shit flowers? That I can work with.

I have recently been the lovely recipient of yet another act of cruelty, yet another pointed attack by someone who hates me. This hurts. This feels like a giant mother fucking shit storm. It comes with all the shitty emotions: embarrassment, humiliation, fear, anger, hatred. When I first learned of this attack, I wanted to blame BLAME BLAME the person who targeted me once again through a social system. I wanted to blame BLAME BLAME this person for their projections and attacks on my life. I did blame them. I do blame them. It comes in waves. But then I return to the teachings of Buddhism and ask myself, “how do I turn this shit storm into a daisy storm?” This does NOT mean bypass all my emotions and pretend that daisies grow from my butt. Au contraire, it means sitting in the shit storm with my shitty emotions and simply examining them. “Look at this shit puddle. Isn’t it interesting?” “There is a shit shower of blame descending on your body right now. How quaint.” “Maybe I should dance in this shit. Or paint it.”

This is NOT about blaming someone else or even examining how someone else is throwing the shit. This IS about examining how I feel in the midst of a shit storm and the shitty thoughts and emotions that arise in MY body. This is about me taking responsibility for myself and my feelings even if I feel (gulp) wronged. Pema also says we have to let go of this notion of right and wrong which I totally agree with in my brain and have a hard time internalizing in my body especially when it comes to abuse and oppression.

I want to be clear that I am able to sit in the shit 12 years after ending abusive relationship #1, and after 6 years of intensive therapy, and after 12 months of solitude/intentional healing time. If you are currently experiencing abuse or harassment or lack of safety in any way, don’t feel like you have to turn anything into daisies. Your #1 job is keeping yourself safe and sane.

The big question I am holding for myself (and the one I will pose to you) is how to put this into practice in the midst of a social-political climate that, frankly, is begging to be blamed. It is easier for me to apply this at a personal level (using a loose definition of the word “easier”). How do we rest into impermanence, groundlessness, and blamelessness when our country is led by… well, the person who is currently residing in the White House? How do we hold others accountable for acts of cruelty and oppression? Pema? Anyone?

I suspect that if Pema read this post, she would chuckle slightly at how I missed the point. In terms of knowledge and wisdom on par with our great teachers, I am a single-celled organism with some major evolution ahead of me. Yet I can feel the breaking of habitual patterns in my response to the current shit storm. Twelve years ago, when I last experienced a shit storm of this caliber, I did three things: 1) pretended it didn’t really happen, 2) denied most of the emotions it brought up, and 3) blamed myself, blamed someone else, blamed the gods for the storm. This time I choose to feel my feelings and hold compassion for myself and others. I still want to blame. I still do blame. But when I notice myself blaming, I sigh, look at it, and let it go. Conscious examination of thoughts and feelings. That’s all.

Thanks, Pema.

“Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can we acknowledge what we are feeling. Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.”

Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart 

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Forging Meaning Building Resistance

When we are in the fire, we cannot escape the pain and fear of annihilation. It feels like it will never end. Yet one of the few things I know to be absolutely true is that emotions are fleeting. In my somewhat wise middle-aged years, when someone sets fire to my body yet again, I know to breathe and breathe and chant “this too will pass.”

I’m not saying this is easy. I have been brought to my knees in tears and pain over and over by the cruel and abusive acts of former partners. Yes, I must sheepishly admit that I have been in more than one abusive relationship. The particular way I shape myself around partners causes me to ignore controlling and violent behavior for far too long. It also recently occurred to me that one becomes conditioned to such behavior; after one abusive relationship, the next one seems normal. It took many years of living under the control of another person for me to finally gain clarity about what constitutes healthy relational patterns. At this point, I am confident that I can say “never again.” Learning has occurred!

When dealing with acts of cruelty, it would be easy to revert to my own unhealthy coping skills, namely calorie restriction and substance use (though hiding under the covers, binge watching Netflix, and isolating myself would also not serve me). I am happy to say that in the midst of pain and conflict, I haven’t engaged in any of the above activities. Rather, I work diligently on my PhD, dance, spend time with nature, write and write, listen to music, eat and eat, sit in meditation, and engage with community. Look, friends- HEALTHY COPING SKILLS! It is possible to make use of them!

I was recently catching up with a dear friend with whom I had not spoken in a while and was musing about my role regarding a former toxic relationship. Where could I hold myself responsible? Is there something I could have done to prevent the onslaught of cruelty that followed my exit from the relationship? My friend asked, “is anyone else in your life telling you that you’re sick, hysterical, and out-of-control?” Uh, nope. Not even my doctors and therapists. In fact, they observe strength of character, healthy coping skills, and an ability to hold myself accountable for my choices. My friend then said, “so if one person is telling you you’re sick, hysterical, and out-of-control but no one else is, doesn’t that say more about that person than you?” Zoiks. Thank Goddess for the rational reflections of people who love us.

Acts of cruelty, abuse, prejudice, discrimination, microaggressions… these are all occurrences which plague queer people, sometimes on a daily basis. These are the matches used to set our bodies on fire. We will walk through that fire again and again. If one lives a non-normative life, it is nigh impossible that such things can be avoided. So I figure I have a choice: I can curl up in the fetal position under my covers, never to emerge except to hit the bottle or pop a pill or I can forge meaning and build resilience from these very acts of violence. That latter choice makes me smile.

I kind of enjoy the idea that a person or a group of people are so intimidated and frightened by my power and non-normativity that they have to spread rumors, target me through social systems, attack my choices, and exert a tremendous amount of energy to try and annihilate my existence. To those people I say, neener neener neener, I still stand. Like Obi Wan, Gandalf, and Dumbledore before me, I am more powerful after I am attacked. Resilience to adversity makes us stronger and at this point in my life, I am like a Bristlecone Pine and may be around for thousands of years. Tee hee.

I recently watched a Ted Talk about forging meaning from adversity and want to credit Andrew Solomon with the concept. If you’re interested, here it is:

The stories we tell about our lives are the building blocks of our reality. Will you choose to tell a story of victimization or will you choose to tell a story of resilience? When you’re in the fire, remind yourself that it cannot last forever. Let the flames increase your power so that when you emerge, you have the strength to tell your truth.

Love before hate. Always.

End This War on My Body

You drive words like knives 
into my skin
Tell me I’m not OK
I don’t belong
I did wrong
I am wrong

You don’t look in my eyes
don't ask who I am
You drive your oppression
From fucked up projections
Straight to my heart
Hoping (don't speak it)
hoping it will stop beating

If you stop my heart
Stop my queer body
You don’t have to look
At non-normativity
Or ask yourself
why you play their game

You drive words like knives 
into my body
fists like words 
An offering of bruises
to remind me my place is
Below
Below  

From your stance up above
Gazing downward
in judgment
Not caring to know
To know
To truly know
The miles walked in my queer skin
The love birthed
From my queer blood

You use systems like weapons
To keep me oppressed
“they are there to help…”
Averting your gaze
As this act of violence
so full of lies 
Destroys my queer life

If you stop my heart
Stop my queer body
You don’t have to look
At non-normativity

This ends now
This war on my body
I stand firm on the ground of my spirit
And say (again)
ENOUGH

Rip into my skin
Tear into my heart
Throw my life, my love
Into the fire
Again
And again

Leave me torn
Bleeding
Bruised
Staring at you (yes you)
Who threw a knife
And looked the other way
as it pierced my heart
My still beating heart
Hoping (don’t speak it)
hoping it will stop beating

I stand firm on the ground of my spirit
With ghosts who bravely said
We’re here
We’re here
We’re not going anywhere
My still beating heart
My resilient heart
My uncrushable heart 
its rhythm in my body
beats 
fuck normativity
fuck normativity 
fuck normativity...

How to Survive Acts of Cruelty

This is what it feels like: Someone reaches into your chest, grasps your heart, yanks out a chunk (they always leave some behind so you can really feel the pain), throws it on the ground, and stomps on it. You are used to this feeling because it has happened before. For some people it happens on a daily basis. For others, the pattern is once every few weeks or months. An act of cruelty inflicted by a spouse or lover, a former partner, a current partner. How do we survive? I mean, we only have so much heart to rip out, right?

Breathe.

It seems our hearts might have the capacity to regenerate. Yes, it is painful to regrow bones and it is painful to regrow myocardium, but when it does regrow it will be stronger. And our abusers are not counting on that.

Cry.

When an act of cruelty is initially inflicted, it is important to feel our feelings. For me, that generally shows up as tears. Sobbing, actually. Big, deep, gulping-for-air, holding onto the wall sobs. Ideally, a beloved friend will be nearby to ask if you want support, to hold you if that feels good, to wonder at someone’s calculated ability to rip out a chunk of your heart. Cry it out, feel the pain, let it move. If we don’t move the pain and sadness it gets stuck somewhere in our body and will leak out later in an unproductive way.

Get angry.

This might show up immediately or it might not manifest for months or years. Whenever Anger decides to present xemself, let it move. Write about it. Speak it. It’s OK to feel and express anger. It’s not OK to turn that anger towards another living creature, so be careful how it gets channeled. It’s easy for people who have been bullied to turn around and bully others. Don’t perpetuate the abuse.

Make art.

I cannot stress how important this is for survival. Paint, play music, write poetry, dance; engage in whatever artistic endeavor feeds you. Paint your anger, dance your sadness, collage the pain, sew your future… there are an infinite number of ways to foster healing through creativity. Even if you are not the recipient of personal acts of cruelty, the people of the United States are currently in an abusive relationship with the White House (in case you were wondering what an abuser looks like, look no further than Trumpie Wumpie) and we need art to maintain our sanity.

Go outdoors.

There is solace to be found in nature. The unfolding of a fiddlehead fern, softly falling snow on a pond, the scampering of squirrels or the grazing of deer can all offer balm for the heart. Even a short moment of mindful connection with a tree can be the medicine needed for heart regrowth.

Breathe.

Acts of cruelty have forced me to examine my beliefs and values. What matters in life? The material things that were destroyed? Loss of money? Slander? Stolen ideas? Despite the intense pain of loss, I have had to admit that ultimately, none of this matters. I am not here to amass wealth, lie and cheat my way into a powerful position, or remain emotionally or spiritually stagnant. Sigh. So I take the long view and attend to the ways that survival will strengthen my heart. I will not be crushed by cruelty. I will notice yet another lesson in non-attachment. My heart will grow.

Breathe.

It also helps me to recognize that I am not alone. Acts of cruelty are inflicted on people all the time, every day. My white privilege ensures that I do not endure racial taunts by strangers, nor do I fear deportation or harassment by police. As a non-disabled person I move through my world with ease and do not have to face daily microaggressions pertaining to my body. Perpetrators of intimate partner violence tend to follow a script. I sometimes wonder if they realize how stereotypical they are in their cruelty. So anyone who has survived such acts knows what this feels like. You are not alone.

First we survive, then we heal, then we grow. No one’s heart deserves to be ripped out. No one’s spirit deserves to be crushed. You did not deserve to be treated cruelly. Breathe, cry, get angry, make art, go outdoors, breathe some more, regrow your heart.

Love before hate.

Always.

Binge Watching Heteronormativity

I am not a huge fan of movies and even less of a fan of television. Therefore, it is rather odd that I have recently found myself watching an obscene amount of really bad, really heteronormative media.

What is going on?

On November 8th, when this country elected Trumpy Wumpy to the office of President, I fell into a deep and somewhat debilitating despair. I cried for two solid days and started looking at immigration websites for countries which I thought might accept me as a resident on day three. As someone who normally stands at the front lines of every fight for social justice, this time I just felt defeated. I have no more fight in me (or so I thought).

A week after the election, feeling like a shell of a person, I sat on my couch and stared at the fire. Then a thought popped into my head, “I need to watch something hetero.” I sat a bit longer, trying to come up with the most heteronormative movie ever made when the title, Father of the Bride flashed into my head. I gleefully found it streaming online and immediately watched the entire outrageously heteronormative film. Then I found Father of the Bride II and watched that on the same day. Admittedly, I growled at the actors, pointing out the not-so-subtle instructions on how to be a man or a woman…

Man: Bumbling, unobservant, goofy, tyrannical, possessive of the the females in his life, wealthy, out of touch, playful, juvenile

Woman: Pretty, intelligent (for a girl), nurturing, wiser than man, soft, wants nothing more than romantic love, stylish, mature

I won’t go into the overt racist and homophobic stereotypes that appear in the films, but know that they are there.

Over the course of the following several weeks I watched (this is highly embarrassing):

Gilmore Girls
Little Women
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

At some point in this train wreck of a past time, I realized that I was engaged in an activity from my younger years- binge watching heteronormativity in the hopes that intense study of the phenomenon would allow me to accurately perform it.

I am reminded of all the years I spent trying to be a girl, pouring over fashion magazines and watching What Not To Wear to gain a better understanding of how I should perform my gender. I have not engaged in this activity for a decade, but it showed up in November after we elected Cheeto-head.

Why?

I am still uncovering the motivation for this recent hetero binge fest, but I suspect it has something to do with fear. I am an out queer/trans person. I write about the experience of being a queer/trans person. My doctoral research centers around the experiences of queer/trans people. My survival instinct likely kicked into overdrive and said, “Hold the phone! If you want to live you better learn how to perform their shit and assimilate into their world. Otherwise they are going to kill you.”

I had a dream last night that I grew my very short hair out into long, luscious locks. I wasn’t quite sure how it had happened, but people kept complimenting me on my beautiful, feminine hair. My only response was, “I feel like a drag queen.” I did not like the hair, but I noticed how nicely I assimilated into the dream society. This is not so far removed from my actual experience. When I shave my head, most people raise their eyebrows and say, “why did you do that?” When it starts to grow out I hear, “Your hair is starting to look nice again. I’m glad it’s growing out some.” If I ever wear anything that remotely looks like girl clothes, I am complimented. “You look so pretty in that.” “You look very nice today.” But when I wear my normal men’s clothes, no one says anything.

It’s interesting how people use compliments to let you know how well you are performing gender or not. The subtext of their words are:

“When you do things that push the boundaries of gender, you make me uncomfortable and I hate you for it.”

“When you assimilate in a way that makes sense to me, I feel better and therefore like you more.”

How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days shattered something in me. Even straight people must be offended by this! It was so overtly misogynistic, both men and women appeared ridiculous. Maybe it is supposed to be satire and I just didn’t get it which is quite probable. It did have a serious moment were the audience is supposed to “ooh” and “ahh” at the slender lead actress in her swanky yellow gown. I wonder what would have happened if they sent her to the party dressed as a Dapper Dan in bow tie, vest, and hat? And the lead actor could have worn the beautiful yellow gown (I’m sure he would have looked marvelous in it).

Shit. There I go again with my inability to assimilate. This period of binge watching has ended. As much as I might think I want to give up my queer identity in order to be accepted by the masses, I know I won’t. Living a lie won’t help me or anyone else. If I’m killed for being queer, so be it. I won’t be the first person. Plus, who knows if Mike Pence will get his bigoted little hands on our rights, or if there are enough people who don’t hate us to stop him and Trumpy Wumpy’s team of racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic cronies. And finally, if I go into hiding, then I’m not standing in solidarity with my fellow queers and we all need each other as we head into a period of time that we may refer to as “The Dark Years.” Or maybe just “The Years of Cheeto” which at least makes me smile.

USA DECLARES WHITE SUPREMACIST VALUES TO THE WORLD!

I wear black because I am in mourning. I am in mourning for the country I thought I lived in. The country that is most certainly dead. My privilege allowed me to believe that Hillary would win by a landslide. It was beyond my comprehension to think there were enough United States citizens who aligned with Drumpf’s values of hatred to elect him president. I was so wrong.

In the past year, Drumpf has said the following:

Mexican immigrants are rapists

He will kill the families of “terrorists”

He wants Hillary assassinated

Muslims should be banned from the USA

Women should not have reproductive rights

Marriage is for straight people only

It’s OK to perpetrate non-consensual sexual acts (i.e.: Nothin’ wrong with rape)

He is narcissistic. He is a pathological liar.

He is selfish, self-centered, inarticulate, incites hate, preaches hate.

He does not understand how to run an ethical business, let alone a country.

The subtext for the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is “Make America Hate Again.” Or, as the electoral college just informed us, “Bring Forth America’s White Supremacist Values Again.”

Drumpf is not my president. Drumpf will never be my president. I do not acknowledge his position because I do not believe in hate.

I do not acknowledge his position but I do acknowledge my racial privilege. I acknowledge the ideological, institutional, and systemic racism upon which this country was built. I acknowledge the implicit and explicit sexist values upheld by Drumpf and his supporters. I acknowledge the extreme violence perpetrated against trans people. I acknowledge the high rates of alcoholism and suicide of Native Americans.

I have been saying for years that this country is ill. I see the symptoms of its illness manifest as depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and PTSD in the children and teenagers to whom I offer therapeutic support. The election of Drumpf to the presidency of this country is proof of this illness.

I hear some of my fellow writers and activists calling for strength and action. I wish I could say that I am in a place to offer such things, but I am not. I am afraid for my life and my liberty.

We just elected a man to the highest office in the world who admitted to molesting women and denied any wrongdoing in doing so.

I support everyone who holds enough privilege to face this embodiment of hatred head on. As of now, that’s not me.

To all the people who voted for Drumpf: You can have this country. I will take my brilliance elsewhere.