Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Past That Led to the Future From Here

A deceptively simple picture of the next year for me looks something like this: Get favorite local friend to move in, enjoy the summer months with boyfriend before he moves to Boston for dental school, finish out last year of grad school, collect some PhDs, then move after May 2013 to the next phase of my life, wherever that may be.

Simple enough.

But two weeks ago the picture of my future looked totally different. It was rushed, panicked, scary, unknown, with lots of loose ends and multiple possibilities that kept getting thwarted, changed, surfaced, or foreclosed. That's because the past two months of my life have left me consumed with unexpected changes that have invited new imaginings and called for attempts to solidify new future plans. Three weeks into the new year, my relationship was abruptly ended, meaning my plans to move to Boston in the summer to be with him where suddenly blocked. Since I had been planning to move for a while, my roommate set her housing plans for next year and signed a new lease, which wasn't a problem since I was still planning on moving for my own professional and personal reasons. In the meantime, I visited Chicago, fell in love with the city, and pretty much decided that I wanted to move there. Figuring out when I could move was hinging on a grant that I applied for. And other summer plans were still to be figured out--namely, my plan to drive my car back to the west with him in May and take a one-way flight back to PA together was either going to require me to 1) cut my losses and waste his ticket, do the cross-country trip solo, and relinquish my car then and make do for the rest of the summer, or 2) buy another one-way ticket there and figure out the how to get rid of the car before moving to Chicago (or just take it with me). But it was only a week or so after we broke up before he and I started spending time together again, so it might also be possible that 3) we still end up taking the trip together.  After about five weeks he and I eventually got back together, the possibility of me moving to Boston was reintroduced, I had applied for a summer grant, and he would be auditioning for a summer gig in Cape Cod. If we both got what we were shooting for, I would have money (good thing) and be locked into staying in town for the summer, and he would get paid (good thing) but would leave town in May, cutting even more into our time together, time that would be very helpful in terms of us getting solid again in our relationship, especially if I were to move to Boston.

With all of this up in the air, I was already feeling dizzy. Do I move to Chicago for myself, a city that I love, with friends, and a place that I could afford? Or do I move to Boston for a relationship that's better now than ever, but I'm still recovering from a break up, not to mention that Boston is expensive, I'd have to live with stranger-roommates even though I'm at a place in life where I want to have my own place? What if I get the grant? What if I don't and I could leave sooner (but to where)? What if he goes to Cape Cod?  In order to avoid having more than one panic attack, I tried hard to breathe, wait, be patient, and trust myself to make a good decision when I had to. And I turned to Twitter for my venting.

so i drew this picture of rising balloons on a paper towel
As each day would bring new information, new feelings to consider, and new options, I had to allow myself to settle into a feeling of release. Nothing was settled, and try as I might to make plans, something would change. Like when the airlines called me one afternoon to explain that they were no longer servicing flights from Boise to Philadelphia, and they couldn't change my ticket to another airline. The only available option was to give me a full refund on those two one-way tickets. Perfect. I may have been the only one to be relieved by that drastic business failure. And then I was reminded in a very tangible way that one can always depend on the fact that something will happen. Things change.

On one particular day a couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend-again and I managed to swing free tickets to Boston for the weekend of his audition for the a cappella group enabling me to join him for the trip. Maybe he would get it, maybe he would take the Cape Cod gig. Maybe I would fall in love with the city. Maybe I could see myself living there by the end of the summer. Maybe we would end up in Boston after all. Big maybes.

But the day before we left (the same day that I learned that I didn't get the grant I had applied for), I got an email from my advisor giving me an early heads-up about some policy changes in our department that, if (but more likely when) put into practice would drastically affect the possibility of me relocating at all. In short, even if I got assigned to teach online classes, I would have to stay in this small little university town in order to continue getting my health benefits and a paycheck. If I wanted to move then, I would have to find compelling academic reasons for moving that the administration would be willing to approve (and other professional or personal reasons won't seem to carry much weight). So, bon voyage to Boston, a place where I couldn't live even if I really wanted to! Talk about feeling like walls are being thrown up around me.

The Boston trip was good. It involved some really amazing and meaningful opportunities for us to be together. Perhaps it was the policy changes in my department (or the entire situation actually) that afforded a unique kind of distance. I felt that, in a way, the weekend enabled us to witness the great, the good, and the room for improvement in our relationship. By the end of the weekend I was feeling closer to him than I had over the past two months, more confident in us, and more available to the idea of us being together for the long term than ever before. And, ironically, at the same time it became clear to me that I couldn't see myself moving to Boston this summer, even if my department would allow it. It would feel too rushed, too fast, too risky. If I were to force a move anywhere, it would be to Chicago. In the interest of us, it seemed like the best option would be for me to stay at Penn State.

Yet, over the weekend I explained to him how I was feeling like nothing was presenting itself as a viable option. Everything felt far-away, unlikely, or that it would take the will of a god to manufacture and manifest into reality. To take a step in any direction felt like forcing it.

I usually make my decisions with a kind of ease. It's because I really value what the Taoists call "wu-wei," or "effortless action." (Read the Tao of Pooh if you want a decent introduction to Taoism. I love it.) It involves working with the circumstances, yielding to the elements that one encounters, and using the structure of the situation that surrounds you to accomplish your goals. It's not about being completely passive. You don't just float like a leaf or a dead corpse down the river. But it's not about "taking the bull by the horns" and asserting oneself to command a situation either. If you battle a bull or swim up stream, you're going to expel a lot of energy, tire yourself out, struggle, and end up feeling pretty defeated without actually getting that far in the end. More than being completely passive or completely "active" by manipulating and orchestrating a situation, the idea of effortless action is to go with the flow. It's cliche and we've heard it before, but there's wisdom there.

Upon the evening of our return from Boston, the pieces finally started to fall together and I was beginning to see the structures within the situation. My department won't let me leave unless I become a certified miracle-worker. But if I don't try to work a miracle, I would end up teaching students in three more classes, face to face. In other words, I'd be doing what I love for another year and conveniently still have my car, still get paid, still have health insurance, and still save money. Since he couldn't commit to two summers of singing in Cape Cod, he didn't get in the group, which means that he'll still be around until August. In other words, we have more time together, and when he moves to Boston, maybe we'll be strong enough to endure ten months long distance. One of the final loose ends to wrap up would be finding a roommate who isn't a total loser, slacker, or scumbag. And wouldn't you know it, upon my return from the weekend trip, one of my best friends decided that she didn't want to make a drastic move to Chicago just yet either, and the best and easiest option for her would be to stay in State long as she could find a place to stay. So, things can and do work out. Now all I need to do is find a way to make money this summer.

For the past two months I have tried very hard to discipline myself to be patient, stay open, to wait, and put enough trust in myself to know that I will make sure that I am okay. There were more times than I can recall when all I wanted to do was make something happen, start putting plans together, take steps in any direction at all. But as I said before, the anxiety and stress of waiting, and even of being open to him again, was rooted to the intense vulnerability of my position. For that reason, I knew that to make a move in any direction would at the same time mean that I turn my back on other possibilities. I wasn't ready to take the bull by the horns and do that just yet.

I'm not saying that everything happens for a reason in the sense that God had a plan for me all along. Despite often feeling like the World/Universe/God/Fate/Stars/Chance were all working against me or sending me signals in the form of little hindrances and gigantic roadblocks, neither do I think that one has to posit some kind of transcendent intentionality behind the happenings of the past two months. What I can say is that things change. In spite of those changes, and because of other changes, I'm finally feel like things are settling after a very tumultuous two months. I can breathe again, my head is cleared, and I am happy with the picture of the next year that is projected before me. Of course things will still continue to change and I can't predict where I'll be in two or twelve months from now or who will be with me, but at least I like where I am now. I love those who are next to me. And I feel like I can finally take steps on some reasonably solid ground.
In order to get here, I've had to discipline myself to this lesson: There is ease in letting go, patiently waiting, and gracefully embracing the spirit of each new day. Doing so apparently leads to moments and places where you can snap pictures like this, which I think somehow capture the essence of what it feels like to go with the flow of life.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Right Path, The More Graceful Way

I'm a planner. And a doer. These characteristics take root in some of my strengths, which include self-sufficiency, competency, independence, reliability, punctuality, accountability, assertiveness, confidence and and high expectations for myself and others to act with honesty and integrity. I've always been the very responsible sort who's taken care of things rather than let the metaphorical balls in my life drop. I take care of my finances, my health, plan for my future, am dedicated to my work at present, and value the cultivation of growth in myself and my relationships. People have called me an "old soul," "wise beyond my years," or simply, "very mature for my age."  Of course, in all my years of growing up so far I've definitely made some poor decisions and plenty of mistakes, but I've brought myself to a place where I have learned how to take care of myself in mature and responsible ways. In many ways, I think that these traits are generally good things. And I gather that many people agree.

But here's the kicker, and the honest truth. Sometimes all of my high expectations for competency, independence, and reliability can lead to pretty extreme frustrations, disappointments, and difficulties with others. One thing that I have worked to become more mindful of for years is how when others don't meet my expectations, irritation and critique can come into the picture with surprising force. I don't like the person I become when I lose my patience, generosity, and compassionate understanding. And this is by no means pleasant for other people (bless them, poor souls, for no one likes to feel like they let someone down, and I'm particularly communicative with my thoughts and feelings--good and bad--and I can have a sharp tongue). Fortunately, I know that this unfavorable tendency of mine, like most of our ugly sides, is deeply rooted to some kind of fear.  It's because of this connection to a basic fear--whatever that might be--that our evaluations of supposedly "good" and "bad" things begin to look somewhat different.

For instance, a lot of the effort that I have put into making sure that I am able to take care of myself and meet my own basic needs so that I don't have to depend on others to do it for me is rooted to a fear of depending on people and the vulnerability associated with that. People can and do and sometimes will let you down. Recognition of this fact can find it's way into more obviously detrimental manifestations, though, like a fundamental difficulty with trusting people. I know that we all have our "stuff," and typically for real and valid reasons--it didn't just come out of nowhere, and we develop certain tendencies because they served a purpose at one point in time or another. A tension arises, though, if the time comes when you no longer need the protective walls or defensive mechanisms that seemed so crucial before but you can't seem to shake them. Sometimes we allow the protective walls to become more like the foundation and the roofs that we live in. And then when we try to leave the house of "me" that we built, it feels very, very scary. Almost impossible.

The good news for me is that I don't think I live in that kind of house. In fact, more than ever before, I feel open, trusting, and healthy with respect to how much I can give to another person in terms of myself and my vulnerability. Of course, this has directly translated into a much greater degree of patience and grace with others and their actions. By being able to feel safe and secure in the ways that I need to, which is not mutually exclusive from feeling vulnerable, mind you, I've grown into a better person who very much appreciates that mistakes happen. We all make them. And most of the time, these mistakes need not be interpreted as hurtful. In other words, people make mistakes, and sometimes, people really fuck up, but that doesn't always have to  feel so threatening. Thus, its less the case that people should have to flawlessly pass the "Prove that I can really trust you test" if that test is construed in a way that demands perfection from people. It definitely helps ease the worry if those who might hurt us through their mistakes are self-aware and humble enough to acknowledge their faults, but ultimately, the ability to trust and feel secure must, and really does, come from ourselves.

With all of that said, I want to acknowledge that I am writing now from a particularly insecure place. I'm facing some upcoming decisions that will shape my immediate future, and they have the potential to lead miles down Life Path A or Life Path B, the two of which look--at least from this vantage point--to be drastically different. There are valuable things on either path, but one is a path where I assume the "mature for my age" me and take care of myself, protect against vulnerabilities, and make myself feel more secure. The other grants the important work that "healthier me" has done and involves cherishing the experience that I have had of putting my faith and trust in others, knowing that the supreme value that we tend to place on stark independence is a farce (because we are always already dependent on others), and owning up to the fact that it's not a mark of strength to run away from vulnerability. Either path requires confidence in myself, conviction, and the courage to face whatever fears will walk a given path with me, for while they both carry their good stuff, both paths also present their own (and sometimes fear inducing) unknowns.

I don't yet know which way to go on this one. But one thing that I have been doing for the past few weeks is trying to resist my urge to plan, to do, to make moves. I really, really want to make a decision and go with it at times. It would be clean and easy. For now though, I'm trying to hold on even more firmly to that patience that I have worked so hard to cultivate. While there  may be better or worse choices to be made, there are no right or wrong ones. Neither is there a need for urgency yet, and with each day, things continue to change. So for now, I'm taking solace in the words that I usually say to others when they feel confused, lost, and unsure about what to do: "Something will happen. It always does." And when it does, whatever it is, things will be okay.

To sum up, it might be appropriate to think of these decisions in terms of this image:

And it might be that some decisions will lead to situations that feel like this image:

But I want to approach this transitional moment more like how it looks in this image:

I could have been speaking to myself over a year ago on this one....