We didn’t always wash our laundry
I did my load,
you did yours.
We’re independent people.
And anyway, How To Be Married
is written nowhere
on some authoritative stone.
We’re just making it up as we go along.
As I put our clothes into the dryer—
the arm of your shirt
and the strap of my bra
I wonder: when did this happen?
We didn’t always wash our laundry
It’s been a while. I completed my doctoral work a few months ago, and while I’m beyond grateful to have had that opportunity and experience, the whole thing sucked some soul out of me. As it regrows (as our starfish arms will, given time and nurturing), I am returning to my love of writing, with more acknowledgment of its limitations and less apology for its existence. I find meaning in the creative process, and care less whether the result can be quantified as “good.” As with my music-making, I create to extend myself out into the universe and say, “I am here. Are you here too? Perhaps we have much in common, with each other and all beings. Here is my story. Will you tell me yours?”
You can tell
by the eyes:
how they crinkle
at the corners.
Unhidden, still free
to joyfully articulate
our shared humanity:
I see you.
I celebrate you.
because I want
for us both
to be safe—
is still here.
We are here.
I am smiling.
“For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.
Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied.
With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to need them.”
– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I am not the woman I think I should be.
Or, more accurately, any of the women I think I should be. The physical characteristics alone that I imagine my ideal self to possess could not, from a practical standpoint, all belong to one person.
That is to say, being simultaneously tall and curvy, tiny and petite in all features, possessing thick dark straight hair, I mean curly, I mean so blonde it’s nearly white, I mean vivid red styled in an eye-catching pixie cut—it’s not especially feasible.
But I could acquire all the personality traits I want, right? I can just decide what I want to be like and how I want to experience the world and how I want people to perceive me.
Not really, in my experience. Not, at least, and still feel like myself.
I’m ready to start letting go of this baggage I’ve created. It’s too heavy to carry around. I can feel it dragging behind me as I try to move in the direction of self-acceptance and self-discovery. I even go so far as to place this invented problem onto my relationship with my partner, imagining him to be dissatisfied with a lack I tell myself exists, forgetting that he is with me because, well, he likes me. Not imaginary me or possible me, but current me. Of course he recognizes my imperfections, but the reality is that I am the person with whom he chooses to spend his days. This beautiful gift of acceptance does not deserve to be undermined by my insecurity.
I recently read a book in which the author invented a ritual for herself whereby she took a step toward embracing and letting go of a difficult experience in her life. I like this idea; if I could draw, I would draw the Imagined Ideal Self who haunts my brain and consign it to ashes (burning things tends to be deeply satisfying). Unfortunately, my drawing abilities are limited to painstakingly slow realizations from how-to-draw books.
Instead, I will try to write her. To speak what she is in this public forum, and to tell her she no longer has power over me. Here it goes.
She is vivacious, energetic, the life of the party. When she walks into a room, everyone notices and is dazzled. She enjoys the attention. She is strong, independent, content with striking out alone. Her days are a quest for adventure, filled with daring physical feats and constant new experiences. She climbs cliffs for fun in the afternoon and eats new food with new friends in the evening. Nothing perturbs her confidence and calm, not even constant changes of surroundings. Everyone is instantly her friend. She has extroverted energy for days, but is unafraid to be alone. Her eloquence and wit are quick and always at the ready, and she can debate with the best. Any activity with her is fun and exciting. She is grounded, stable, in touch with reality and how to handle it. She is fearless.
Those of you who know me—which I expect is most of you—know I just described pretty much the opposite of how I am. I am highly introverted, fearful of all new experiences, constantly overwhelmed, and barely able to cope with life changes. I am so quiet that I accidentally frighten people often, because I walk into a room and they don’t notice I’m there until they happen to glance over. I am almost helpless in a crowd or noisy environment. I am often uncomfortable speaking, and in moments of pressure struggle not to completely fumble my words. My sensitivity level is such that I can be almost paralyzed by strong emotions in myself or others. Some days, even the grocery store feels like too much. I identify with Ursula K. Le Guin: “Fear, in a person of my temperament, is endemic and inevitable, and I can’t do much about it except recognize it for what it is and try not to let it rule me entirely.” I take things too personally, and I doubt myself constantly. I have always dealt with some measure of mental and emotional instability, and without the anchors of specific practices and people in my life, can quickly become unmoored from reality.
Until I accept these characteristics, I create unnecessary internal struggle. It is pointless and frustrating to try to operate as someone I am not (as I know from years of doing it). I lose time and energy chastising myself for being anxious and unsettled at what, in my opinion, are small things unworthy of stress. I lose space and joy for myself and others by trying to forcefully alter fundamental aspects of my temperament. I lose happiness in disliking myself.
Even as I type these words, I can hear the voices in my head protesting that the way I am is not a good way to be, and until I can figure out a different way of being, I won’t be worth much. I may not be able to stop the chattering, but I can work to shift my focus toward what is true, toward operating more consistently from a place of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. I am grateful for the part of me that desires to constantly strive to be better, but it often needs redirection. I don’t need to become someone else’s best self. I don’t need to become my Imagined Ideal Self’s best self. Some day—maybe soon—I hope to be able to say that I don’t even want to. That I want to be my best and most self, whatever that turns out to be and however it happens to look.
Imagined Ideal Self, I have better things to do than pay attention to you. You are free to leave.
Sometimes, words come into my head in the voice of a beloved poet. Since I spent much of this past semester working on a lecture recital for my doctoral program about six song settings of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Heart! We will forget him!”, it is hardly surprising that elements of her style are floating around in my brain. The following poems were written out of love and gratitude for the brilliance and depth she brought into the world. How lucky we are to have her words.
I would have ended long ago
Had I not heard your voice —
Your echoes called a song I knew —
There seemed no other choice
But follow, follow, follow
Till gradually, from distant shores —
I myself could see.
I tasted Nothingness today —
Its flavor bitter, pale
And sweet and full and empty
Like earthworms after rain.
I tasted but a sip, then turned
To swallow anxiously
A long, dull draught of Something —
Lest I should not return.
I still see you
here and there
a pair of shoulders
profile of a nose
the back of a head.
your presence in my psyche
no longer powerful.
I would strip you
of the faded residue
if I could.
for I do not miss you
or the pain of being with you
I am glad of your absence
and what fills its place.
do you still flicker
across my vision
standing in line
at the grocery store
out of the pool?
Love does not make you weak.
A heart overflowing
May be riven, shattered,
Left in wilderness bleak,
No refuge from pain’s grim
And steady knife that cuts
Equal to extension
Of self from nuclear rim.
Then, from your sockets ripped,
It cannot be advised
Dark forests to traverse
Unafraid; in this crypt
Are wounds not quickly healed,
Scars that will not leave you,
Memories that never
Can be lastingly sealed.
But, fair soul, despair not:
You are larger—in—than
What outside can befall.
In this fire, we are wrought
So truer colors glow,
And from living questions—
Those that have no answer—
Oceans inside us grow.
for Lydia, with all my love
I thought I knew
words leaping off a page
straight into my heart.
love coming suddenly
and falling, falling.
stories so true
they make life seem pale.
a little of what trees say,
But, I didn’t know
as much as I thought.
I didn’t know
of turning to look at you.
I didn’t know
in a halo of sea-green movie light.
I didn’t know
everything before or after that moment
evaporating like winter breath.
I didn’t know
your eyes being more real
than the real-est thing I had seen.
I didn’t know
It’s not a particularly appealing kind of pie. I mean, “Lessons in humility, my favorite!” said pretty much no one ever (except maybe for some saintly-type people, but that is definitely not me).
I write to you from the lighter side of the dark-ish tunnel that was DMA semester one. I don’t mean that in a complaining sort of way, because I’m getting to study music which really is my favorite, but it’s still been challenging. It’s my third time simultaneously moving cross-country and starting school, and somehow it doesn’t seem to get easier with experience.
And boy, have there been some lessons in humility. I’ve been reminded that:
- I have limits (shocking, right?), and pushing beyond them will result in physical, emotional, and/or mental breakdowns
- When I allow myself to get caught up in stress regarding school and life in general, I am not an especially good partner or friend
- I do very quickly allow myself to get caught up in that kind of stress
- I am more susceptible to having general anxiety issues than I previously thought
- I struggle—and struggle hard—with transition
- Most of the time, I forget to live in gratitude
- I am quick to get stuck in my own little ecosystem and not be able to see outside it
And that’s just a few of them.
Now, when these helpful reminders come along, my tendency is to respond with self-criticism and become all kinds of distraught. I throw kickass pity parties, y’all. Insecurity usually brings chips, Fear makes a mean guacamole, Lack of Perspective has the tunes, and before long who’s at the door but Mental Habits From When I Was Fourteen Years Old. Wooooo.
I have other options. It does little good to me or any other humans around me to wallow in frustration at my dearth of perfection and superpowers. The I Ching teaches that “each experience we have is necessary for us to learn something about ourselves and about the higher laws of life.” Including the humbling ones.
When I run headfirst into the wall, as I do many times every day, those experiences feel like roadblocks, but perhaps what appears to be a dead end is actually an opening. An opening to say: I just made a mistake/hurtful choice/unwise decision, because I am a flawed human being who is not her best self a lot of the time. I accept where I am in this moment, and next time a similar situation arises I will try to act more in line with what I know to be true and good.
When I’m able to say that and mean it, it feels sort of like I took a stick my self was using to beat me over the head and replaced it with a marshmallow, so I’m still pounding my head but with a fluffy thing, so I’m like, “this is actually fine.” Or as if I am sending in ninjas among my Personal Darkness Squad to take all the weapons; nothing has really changed, but now I can’t be harmed.
Of course, that’s what happens when I can actually sort of do it. Which isn’t most of the time.
Hey, look! An opportunity for good self-improvement!
Ok, I’m tired now. This positive outlook stuff is hard work and doesn’t really come naturally to me. But, gonna try to keep at it and not take myself too seriously (shout-out to my awesome partner who occasionally comes over to me sitting on the couch concentrating very hard on my extremely important doctoral homework, looks at me earnestly, and asks, “Are you taking yourself seriously right now?” It’s invaluable to have someone to remind me I’m really just a strange amphibious creature flopping around).
(picture of me being a dork)
There are no keys left on my keyring.
I handed back the first set at the music department office. Where else will I go at 4:10pm every day if not to choir rehearsal? That community embraced me in a way no group has before, embraced me in my entirety, which allowed me, in turn, to give from all of myself. One of my favorite parts of playing for choir is shortly before a concert, when my assistance is no longer needed for the a pieces that will be sung a cappella; instead, after I give the opening pitches, I sit and watch, close-up, the different faces of love. This is Singing. None of us are left the same.
Then, my car keys. I don’t need one in the city, and after this, who knows? People keep asking: what are you planning to do with a DMA? I smile. When have I ever known? But things work out. I want to grow as a musician and person and leave my options open for the future. That’s all I know for now, and it’s plenty. This is where I need to be, because it is where I am.
In the cabinet above the sink: that’s where my apartment keys went. We didn’t use that one often, just for 9×13 metal baking pans and large plastic bowls we brought out to use for tortilla chips when we had people over. These were the memories hardest to leave: a roommate-friendship of three years, the candles in our sunroom, the gatherings of laughing friends, the moments on that couch when I laughed and cried and poured out my heart, and where others did the same to me. The people I love give shape and mooring to my life, and though their spirits still accompany me on this journey, I miss their presence at my side.
The empty spaces left gape at me, and their hollowness is discomfort, pain, and shades in between. But, however I feel about them, there they are, and the thing about having newly emptied spaces is that I am forced to fill them again. I will fill them with new faces, however those come to be part of my world, and I will fill them with myself as I—soft-bodied and vulnerable as a lobster that has left its shell to grow a new one—discover, create and continue who I am in this new chapter.
My hands rest on my knees, open.
I’ve always been a cat of the fearful variety. Lying in bed as a young child, I would think of all the scary things that could happen to my house and my family. Fires, lightning strikes, tornadoes, probably not earthquakes in Minnesota but then again who knows?
I’m scared of new people and new places; I’m scared of talking and of saying the “wrong” thing; I’m scared of not being good enough and of people not liking me; I’m outrageously scared of heights and zombies. And a lot of other things, but I won’t put you through the entire list.
It’s a lot of work: being scared all the time, caring about everything, trying to make zero mistakes, freaking out about most activities. I don’t feel like I’ve let my fear keep me from doing what I want to do, but I do feel like I’ve let it color experience upon experience, allowed it daily to set the tone of my actions and interactions.
I’m just, tired of it.
Tired and frustrated enough that when I open my mind-door and all the fears are sitting there, staring and expecting me to have a reaction, most of what I feel is, “Seriously? You guys are still here?”
And they still are, and I don’t expect they’ll be leaving anytime soon or maybe ever. But, I’m sick of letting them have their way with my psyche. This past year has showed me that I am stronger than I know, and I don’t have to be afraid that things could crumble at any moment, because even if they did, I would still be here.
I’m about to start a DMA program and move across the country (again, fourth time in a decade). I’m super freaked out about it. And, maybe for the first time, I don’t really care. In fact, I take it as a sign that I’m putting myself in a position to grow. Growth is not a product of comfort, as much as I wish it could be. I will make a lot of mistakes. I might even completely fail and wind up in my parents’ basement with no idea what to do.* So what?
Hey world, it’s me, Celeste, and I’d like to make a public announcement that I may end up altogether sucking at whatever I try to do. I’ll do my best, but it can and will happen. And, to the best of my ability, I’m not going to spend my very limited time on this planet worrying about that. Now that we’re all on the same page, please excuse me, I have some life to go live.
*Hey mom and dad, I know you’re probably going to read this, so I just want to clarify that that scenario isn’t my plan. But just in case it happens, you’ve now had a heads up.