Thoughts on love and personality

Back in June I had my 48th birthday. At the time, I didn’t have any big celebrations because there was a lot going on with work and travel and family. I wasn’t feeling 100% well, either, and was tired a lot. I did have Happy Birthday sung to me twice that day: once during a phone meeting by my colleagues halfway across the world in India, and a second time that evening at knitting group. It felt good that I had people who cared about me enough to sing to me.

Talking with friends and my sister about this year’s birthday I made the observation that while I couldn’t say I felt old, I definitely no longer felt young. My earlier illness, the hot flashes at night and during the day, and the chronic sleep deprivation from trying to work an east coast schedule while living on the west coast was taking its toll on me.

Around this time I found a Regina Spektor CD at the library and was reminded of the lyrics to On the Radio, which seemed to perfectly fit with my mood.

This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not

I listened to the song a lot as I kept pushing through an exhausting month. Then it was July and I got sick again. Luckily I was able to start putting some balance back into my life in July as I recovered. I spent more time reading and thinking, and reflecting on past events in my life and how I got to now.

Over a year ago it was suggested by a colleague that I get the Gallup Strengthsfinder book to get more insights into work that appealed to me. The results of the personality test were not surprising to me, and reinforced my understanding of how my mind works. My key themes are Input (I absorb information like a sponge), Context (learn from the past), Restorative (I love to find solutions to problems), Learner (I love to learn), and Intellection (I’m introspective and need time to think and reflect). So it’s probably no surprise that I was reflecting on the past, trying extract lessons from it, and thinking about problems in my life I wanted to solve.

I started asking myself if I was OK with not having romantic love in my life. Specifically I was asking myself “Is it enough to have the love of some close friends and family? Am I happy with that?” I never got to a more definitive answer than “maybe.”

You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t

I thought that the best way to address the cycle of loving and losing was to close up shop for a while. I had adopted that attitude after breaking it off with B. I had told myself that I would spend my first year here focusing on building my friend base and settling into small town life, so that’s what I had been doing.

All my thinking about past relationships had led me to think that I was just not good at the dating and relationship stuff. I was being introspective about my marriage, in particular, and feeling sad. But I wasn’t closing myself off completely from men because I was doing social things like hiking and going to other types of Meetup events. I was friendly but not flirty. I wasn’t trying to attract dates and made attempts not to let myself get drawn into conversations that could be considered risqué.

I had a couple of outings with one new male friend that I met through a Meetup group. I was anxious about doing any one on one outings with a man, but I made it clear that I wasn’t interested in dating, just making a friend and that seemed to go OK.

As I moved through the sadness I started reading some of the more spiritual books I kept from my move and continued to reflect. And I started thinking that maybe what I had been dealing with weren’t problems to be solved, but just experiences to live through.

Then it was August. On an evening after work I was hiking with my group when one of my fellow hikers mentioned that he had a two person kayak and asked if anyone wanted to go kayaking. I said I liked kayaking, and he suggested we should go that weekend. But I had to decline because I already had plans for my weekend, so the conversation moved on to other things.

I did want to go out kayaking with this guy, so I contacted him a couple of days later to set up plans for the next weekend and we ended up talking on the phone for a bit about logistics and talking about different places we could go. Before we closed the conversation, he mentioned that if I wanted to get together for something else, like a movie or a play that I should feel free to let him know.

So I thought some more, and I kept thinking about how appealing he was. All right, here’s the blunt statement: I thought he was sexy. Although he didn’t look at all like the type of person I usually am attracted to, he was really flipping my switches for some reason. I spent a few hours that afternoon working through my weekend chores and thinking about what I knew about him. I considered whether I could or should suggest that we do something that night. I recalled that he had been asking around for recommendations on where to get a massage during our hike. I made up my mind to take a risk and sent him a text suggesting that we do to little place in town that did chair massage that night. And he accepted.

You laugh until you cry
You cry until you laugh

We met at the chair massage place. We had our massages and after we walked out he asked if I wanted to get dinner. With no hesitations I said yes, so we went and had dinner and talked a lot. I was still a bit nervous, but eventually it got late enough that I just became tired and he took me home and that’s where it ended that night.

A few days later he texted me. I was having dinner my neighbor, a really cool older woman who likes to cook for me and others on a regular basis. I had been telling her about my recent outings with the opposite gender and how I was wanting to keep one strictly friendly, but another one maybe not just that. I showed her the text; he asked if I wanted to out to a movie that night. Neighbor lady suggested that I invite him to my house for a movie. So I did and he came over with wine and snacks.

And everyone must breathe
Until their dying breath

After that I spent a couple of weeks on a roller coaster of feelings. I really liked him. I wanted to see him more than just at hiking group and he seemed to want that, too. We got together a few times for dinner and saw each other at hiking group outings and I was liking him more each time.

I kept thinking about whether I should be doing this or not. I had thought to wait until I was here a year before I even thought about dating, and this was definitely dating. I was fighting with myself over it. And then this past week I went through a little mini-crisis in my head and decided to forgive myself for breaking this arbitrary rule I had set about when I should start dating. I decided to just go with it and see where things went. After spending a lot of time with him this weekend, I’ve decided that maybe there wasn’t anything “wrong” with what I had been doing in regards to romantic relationships. Maybe things just worked out the way they did because life changes on you.

No, this is how it works
You peer inside yourself
You take the things you like
And try to love the things you took
And then you take that love you made
And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart
Pumping someone else’s blood
And walking arm in arm
You hope it don’t get harmed
But even if it does
You’ll just do it all again

And I also decided that somewhere along the line I had started playing it too safe. So here I am doing it all again. Maybe. I don’t know where this is leading, but I don’t care. Because now I’m trying to just enjoy today and not look to the past for clues or see my life as a problem to solve.

Highs and Lows

Fair warning: there’s some adult content here!

Stuff that makes me feel good:

  • I’ve been getting into a groove with exercising in the mornings. I found this fitness program that I really like on the local PBS station. It’s a sort of ballet/classical dance based program and each episode is only about 25 minutes long. I went looking for DVDs online and found that in addition to the DVDs you can subscribe to a bigger catalog of streaming programs, so I did that instead. With my employer fitness program subsidy it only costs me about $7 a month. In case anyone wants to try these classes they’re at essentrics.com. At the end of each session I say “Thank you, Miranda Esmonde-White!”
  • One of my close friends from Chicago contacted me a couple days ago and asked if it would work for her to visit me over Labor Day weekend. Yes!! She scored a super cheap flight. We’re going to have so much fun!!
  • I’ve been listening to the Against the Stream podcasts more often and thinking about how I can add meditation into my days. I’ve sat a couple of times for a whole 20 breaths.  Woo hoo!
  • In a totally different vein, I’ve also been amused by listening to the Guys we F****d podcasts (NSFW!), starting with the oldest ones first. I still have quite a few to catch up on, but am finding them intriguing. I admire that these young women are claiming their sexuality so boldly, and find some of their advice to be spot on, yet at the same time I think they still have some things to learn about relationships. But they are stand up comedians, so the podcast isn’t meant to be super serious. A few of the shows have been annoying, but I just skip past those. It will be interesting to see how the podcast continues to develop as I catch up with the current episodes.

Not so good stuff:

  • I cried during a conference call today. I think my colleagues (both women) knew what was happening. One sent me an email message tonight that was really nice. I’ve been working on a project that is really frustrating the hell out of me because I seem to be hitting all sorts of roadblocks. The project team keeps telling me I need to step up and make some progress, and that just is getting to be too much for me because besides this project I have like 5 billion other things I am supposed to be doing. I have 3,500 emails in my inbox. I’m waaaaayyyy behind on just about everything, and I keep getting more piled on. My new boss (yes, I have a new boss and a new organization I’m kinda sorta not quite fully integrated into) says things like “Just speak up when you need help,” so I do and the people he tells me to get help from are also already really busy and help just a tiny bit and then it just bounces right back to me. *sigh* Every Friday I am ECSTATIC that the weekend is nearly here. Every Monday I am hopeful. By Wednesday, I am frequently in the pit of despair. But I have a job, right? I am employed and able to pay my bills and all that. That’s good, right? Right?
  • I am currently in a stand-off with my father and stepmother. When I was back in Chicago for my mother’s 75th birthday my dad was unexpectedly hospitalized. I hadn’t been planning to add a visit to my dad that trip, but I had a rental car and some flexibility in my schedule so I drove out to see him in the hospital. He was released a few days later and has been doing OK, but I apparently made a couple critical errors around that whole event. I didn’t know that he and stepmother don’t want any references to them EVER posted on social media. I had made a reference on my Facebook account to going to the hospital to see him and what his condition was. Big error, apparently. A lurking relative contacted dad and stepmom about his “health scare” which is how they got tipped off. They let me know they did not like that I had posted something about them on Facebook, etc., etc. Fine, I took my lumps and said I wouldn’t ever reference them again on any social media [which I guess I’m sort of breaking right now], but apparently that wasn’t enough and they were still miffed about it. Also, the fact that I had expressed any interest at all in dad’s treatment by asking questions was seen as bad, too. When sister had a visit with dad and stepmom last month, stepmom apparently complained vehemently about how I had not only shared information about dad’s health with all sorts of people who didn’t need to know (and not just mentioning that he had been hospitalized on Facebook, but likely talking to my friends about it, horrors!!) but that I also had tried to give my dad medical advice. ????? I guess by asking questions, I was giving advice. So for the past three weeks I have been in a f*** them mood and refused to call them, and since they refuse to call any of their “kids” (we are expected to call them once a week…yes, EXPECTED, as they have made abundantly clear to me) we are in a stand off. They’re older than me and not in as good health as me, so I’m gonna bet they break first. We’ll see.

Not sure if good or bad:

  • Last weekend I did some social media “gardening” (such as removing some “friends,” etc.). One of the things I did was update my Google profile photo. I don’t use Google +, although I do have an account, but I use Gmail and comment on Blogspot blogs and had noticed that my photo was very old (like, at least 14 years old!). So I changed it out for a more recent one. Ever since then I’ve been getting notifications that men I do not know (they are all men) had added me to their circles. I have checked my G+ privacy settings and strangers should not be able to add me to their circles, so I’m very confused by this development. And a little creeped out by it, too. Is G+ now some sort of clandestine dating site where guys troll for women? WTH?!
  • I had a very odd, but very sexual dream about an old boyfriend last night. The boyfriend in my dream was someone I dated a very long time (like nearly 30 years) ago. I had ended the relationship because he had become very disrespectful of me (by cheating a couple times, and essentially raping me once) and then proceeded to creepily stalk me for a while afterwards. So it disturbs me that I had this dream about him and it involved sexual stuff. Certainly I’m feeling healthier these days because I’m having…ahem…cravings, but to dream about this particular guy in this particular way…ewww. Maybe I need to listen to less Guys we F****d podcasts.

Making friends and loneliness

In my last post I made a reference to my loneliness. Because of my recent dramatic move across the country, I think that my reference to loneliness conjured up images of me sitting alone and dejected day after day, night after night, but that is far from the truth. I actually have a fairly busy social calendar.

Just a couple of months ago, a friend emailed me and asked me “What are you doing to “find friends?” I wrote her a very long response and am copying it here. In my original email, I referenced a friend who I had helped move from Chicago to the South Bay Area a few years ago, and I also named my employer. Here I’ve disguised those names, but it is otherwise word for word the same.

“How does one find friends?” Well, working solo that becomes more challenging.

When my friend R moved to Santa Clara a few years ago to take a new job, the culture of the organization emphasized going to the office every day, so she did make some friends at work. I tried the “going to the office” route for just over a month and found that I was actually being encouraged by my boss and colleagues to just telecommute, so that approach wasn’t going to work for me. (Besides, the working model at my employer is different, and I wasn’t meeting many people in the office that were local to me or with whom I had many other interests.)
I tend to think of myself as being fairly introverted, but I do want to have friends in the area and I know I need to develop a local social and support network. As an independent woman, I’ve been saving for my old age, but social capital is just as important as monetary capital, and I have to build that social capital from scratch here.
I’m in a small town (population is under 80k here) which sort of works in my favor. One thing I did was make opportunities to meet my neighbors. I walked the dog twice a day and would smile and greet people whenever I could. I’d tell them I was new and ask them questions like “Is this typical weather?” or “What are you doing?” That last one was asked of a young woman I saw standing on a truck using an umbrella handle to pull down fruit from a tree. I learned about a new fruit, got a taste, and learned how to say it in Spanish (misperos) so I could look it up when I got home.
I dropped off jars of homemade sour cherry jam with my closest neighbors and chatted with them. I received a couple of dinner invitations that way and made sure I brought some good stuff to share with the meal. A woman around the corner from me is apparently the neighborhood fixture who keeps an eye on everything and “loves to feed,” as her adult daughter once told me. I’ve swapped more of my preserves and homegrown garlic (one of my last “crops” from my old Chicago garden) with her for Meyer lemons from her tree (which I used to make marmalade for future gifts!) and goodwill gifts she leaves me like her homemade pesto and frittata. She also now has a key to the house “just in case.”
Shortly after arriving I looked up the local knitting group on Ravelry, and I go to knit night almost every week. I joined Meetup.com (very big in this area) and joined a few groups devoted to hiking and/or social pursuits in my local area. I went to the local Unitarian Universalist church for services (UUs are open to every type of faith, and atheists/humanists, too, so they’re usually pretty cool), and met some nice people that way.
I talk to everybody: the postal workers, the grocery clerks, the people walking dogs past my house.
The way I think of it, I can get as much alone time as I want/need since I live alone and work remotely, but face time with people is much harder for me, so I make the extra effort. I now have swapped mobile numbers with a few of the neighbors and some of the people I hike with so we can reach out to each other outside of Meetup times.
Since I wrote that email, I’ve also added volunteering with a local animal rescue charity to my list of social activities. My weekly schedule is now pretty packed, and I find myself being more selective about my time commitments.
My schedule this week is a great example of how much social time I get:
  • Sunday — went to the beach with a new friend for a picnic and some walking and wading in the cool waters
  • Tuesday — knit night at a big public market
  • Wednesday — dinner with the neighbor
  • Thursday — hiking with a local Meetup group; dinner out after the hike
  • Saturday or Sunday — on one of these days I’ll be going kayaking with a friend, but haven’t confirmed which one yet

Last Saturday morning I volunteered with the animal rescue charity at the local farmers market, and I’ve committed to doing a volunteer activity with them once or twice a month on Saturdays.

So, my loneliness isn’t about missing social time with other people. My loneliness is felt because of this desire I have for a partner in my life and my sadness around having to end relationships with people that I thought would be that long term partner. Lately I’ve been thinking that I really didn’t get to the “feeling sad” part of the grief process around the end of my marriage. I think that’s where all this sadness comes from sometimes, and so maybe it is a good sign that I’m nearing the end of processing through most of that experience.

There’s no doubt that while I am building friendships, I do lack very close friends here. I’m regularly in touch with my closest friend back in the Chicago area, and my closest local friend (R, who I helped moved to Santa Clara) has been someone I regularly connect with, too. R will be moving up to Oregon, though, so I won’t be able to see her as often. Perhaps that’s another reason I’ve been feeling sad and teary at times.

It’s perhaps becoming more clear that I really am not yet completely in touch with what is going through my head a lot of the time. Maybe that’s not simply my experience, though. Maybe it’s fairly common for it to take months or years for the penny to drop and realization to dawn.

Working through the four maras

When I downsized before moving west I got rid of a lot of books, but there were a select few that I saved and brought with me. One of those keepers is Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. For such a slender book, it packs quite a punch for me, and while I first purchased it way back in 2009 after my divorce I still have yet to finish it.

The chapter on loneliness has pulled me back again and again, and I’ve written on it twice before, here and here. Since I’ve had some feelings of sadness and loneliness lately, I thought I’d pull out the book again and remind myself why the feeling of loneliness is not a horrible thing to be avoided but one to be embraced.

After some reviewing and underlining of passages, I moved to another chapter in the book, and — wham! — just like that, I have another set of resonating concepts to consider and process through. (This is why I like this book so much; I’m always finding something to which I relate and on which I can reflect.)

Chapter 11 on the four maras is my new work, I think. The first mara, devaputra mara, is when “we react with this tragically human habit of seeking pleasure and trying to avoid pain.” I’ve done my share of that over the years, but I think I’m doing well with recognizing this tendency in myself and accepting that pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin.

Skanda mara “has to do with how we always try to re-create ourselves, to try to get some ground back, try to be who we think we are.” This one bears more thinking about. “Instead of struggling to regain our concept of who we are, we can touch in to that mind of simply not knowing, which is basic wisdom mind.” This one isn’t coming to me easily, so it needs more reflection.

Klesha mara is about how we use our emotions.

We use them to to try to deny that in fact no one has ever known or will ever know what’s happening. We use them to try to make everything secure and predictable and real again, to fool ourselves about what is really true. We could just sit with the emotional energy and let it pass….Instead, we throw kerosene on the emotion so it will feel more real.

…By becoming aware of how we do this silly thing again and again because we don’t want to dwell in the uncertainty and awkwardness and pain of not knowing, we begin to develop true compassion for ourselves and everyone else, because we see what happens and how we react when things fall apart.

Oh, yes! Over the past few weeks I’ve been experiencing a lot of emotion and just letting it happen. It can be a challenge when the emotions surge during inconvenient times, like while I’m working or when I’m around other people who I still don’t know very well. It’s not looked upon well when you show a lot of emotion at work, especially if you’re a woman.

And then there is yama mara, which Pema describes as having to do with the fear of death.

The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens…From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice, smooth ride.

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. From the awakened point of view, that’s life. Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together. So even though we say the yama mara is fear of death, it’s actually fear of life.

Yes, plenty to think about and plenty to process here. This is why it’s been taking me years to get through this book.

Crazy times with mom

Right now, we (my sister and I) are going through some crazy times with our mother. This shouldn’t be a surprise to me, since mom and crazy go together hand in hand.

Mom hasn’t taken proper care of herself in many years. She currently has several health conditions: asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure for sure, and possibly GERD and sleep apnea, too.

Shortly after I moved to California, it became apparent that mom was having trouble remembering things. Conversations could be circular, where she’d ask the same questions over the course of a conversation. We all noticed this: my sister, me, and my stepfather who lives with her and experiences it perhaps more than any of us. He asked for our help because he was at a loss for what to do, so sister and I stepped in to do what we could.

What started out as some brainstorming and organizing of mom’s medications and health care has turned into what feels like complete abdication of any responsibility for mom’s care. OK, this is an exaggeration, but not by much.

Mom doesn’t seem to be inclined to do the most basic things for herself, such as eat regular meals, take her medications, and get a bit of exercise. Left to herself (as she has been for six days a week while stepfather goes to work) she naps, watches TV, lets the dogs in and out of the house, and occasionally snacks on things like Triscuits. She is supposed to use an insulin pen four times a day — once with each meal, and a final time just before bed — but rarely does so. Stepfather says he reminds her to take a shot before bed and often tried to get her to do it in the morning, but he failed to get her to eat breakfast, too, and insulin without food is not a good thing.

Stepfather is a kind man with a big heart, but he is way out of his depth. He is barely literate (this is fact and not just a mean thing to say; he readily admits that he can’t read very much) and doesn’t understand mom’s doctors most of the time he takes her to appointments. He prefers sister take mom because she understands the doctors better and can ask good questions.

Sister works a full time and demanding professional job that involves business travel, too. In order to take mom to doctors she has to take a day off of work because just getting to mom’s house in a rural area outside Chicago, taking her to the appointment, dropping mom back at her house, and then returning home takes at least five hours.

While I’m not present to take mom to the doctors, etc, I am helping out by researching and organizing details about her care, as well as making phone calls to insurance companies and to follow up with doctors. Sister and I talk several times a week about mom care details.

One of my recent trips was back to Chicago to see my mom on her 75th birthday. She is a different person than she used to be, and I don’t just mean because she has more grey hair. She has no spark anymore. She just doesn’t seem to care about anything and has commented many times that she never thought she’d live to be this old.

Throughout my childhood mom acted “crazy” a lot. She would get angry and start yelling, screaming, and sometimes throwing things. (And apparently she still does; stepfather told sister he sometimes just retires to the bedroom when she is in the midst of a “tantrum” because he told her to take her meds.) She would threaten to kill herself. I’m not sure exactly how she would do this with sister because we avoid talking about the details, but with me she did things like swallow handfuls of pills, or threaten to drive us off the expressway into a deep quarry.

We all realize mom did these “crazy” things to get attention when she wanted or needed it. Instead of asking, she just acted out. I’m left wondering if her current behavior is just another way to get attention, or if it is an attempt to will herself to die.

Mom’s past behavior has left its mark on sister and I. Enough that I frequently wonder these days: why not just let her continue to court a stroke or cardiac arrest? Why keep trying to get through to her that she must eat and take her insulin and high blood pressure medication? Why am I now on the hook for paying to get her out of the house and into activities at the local senior center? Why must sister and I give up time during the work day to wrangle an adult acting like a willful child?

Yes, this is the person who birthed me, potty-trained me, taught me to talk and walk. She’s said she loves me. She’s also the person who scared me to the point that I learned it was safest to stay away from her as much as possible, and so I hid in my bedroom or stayed away from the house when I was old enough to drive. I’ve often described my mom as an emotional vampire with me because she seemed to want to live her life through me. I moved out at 18, and while I did spend a few months under her roof after college. I was very happy to get into my own place as soon as possible, and this has had a lasting effect on my own emotional well-being.

I can’t fix mom’s issues with self-esteem or coach her on good emotional and mental health practices. All I can do is try to balance my own needs with helping as much as I can with her care. I often feel like I’m losing that balancing act.

There was someone I loved who grew old and ill.
One by one I watched the fires go out.
There was nothing I could do.

except to remember
that we receive
then we give back.

— from At the River Clarion, Mary Oliver

Breaking the silence

Work has been exhausting and challenging.

I traveled a lot in June: four days for work, three days for vacation, seven days for a mix of both.

I went through another round of diverticulitis and have now lined up a visit with a gastroenterologist.

Here and there I’ve fit in some fun things to do in the area.

In the spaces in between work and practicing basic self care, I’ve been processing through a lot. There are are a lot of feelings stirred up by family issues and by having time to think and not simply react. I’ve been delving into Mary Oliver’s poetry quite a bit because so many of her poems just resonate for me now. Like this one.

The Journey
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.