Bleakness, choosing life, care and enough.

This is how it is sometimes: I flow with life during my day; I meet its challenges with equanimity and good humour; I enjoy the beauty of the day and the vibrancy of my colleagues’ company; I leave the office knowing that I have made a difference, and that the world is a little better for how I’ve spent my day.

Then I get home and slip into bleakness. There’s only so much vibrancy I can do; there’s only so much I can give, and even when I’m not sleepy, I’m tired. Not necessarily physically, but spiritually. Intellectually. There are nights when I want to look at pictures of cats on the Internet, or stare into space, or soothe myself with things that mean nothing: junk food for the mind. Nights when I don’t want to have to think, when I don’t want to produce anything worthwhile or challenge myself. When I can barely bring myself to do those life-affirming things that usually feed me: get my music together for tomorrow night’s choir rehearsal, write, read, email someone I love or leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook post because I value my friends and that contact is vital to me. Nights when it’s too early to go to bed but I want to anyway, not because I’m sleepy but because I want the day to end. Because I’m fucking tired and I want to turn everything off, just for a while, before I put my game face back on tomorrow. And there’s not necessarily a reason for it – nothing in particular triggers it, it’s not a reflection of anxiety or stress or even the difficulty of the day – it just is.

I don’t know what causes it or how to deal with it, other than to just roll with it. Give up for tonight and start again tomorrow, in the hope that it will be a better day. Tell myself that I’ve done well to get this far: eaten a healthy tea, played the string game with the cat, done the washing-up, and now written a blog post, even if it is just a long-winded complaint.

And even if tomorrow’s not a better day – even if I’m assailed by flashbacks or undermined by the insidious creeping anxiety which strikes without warning – I’ll still do my best. I’ll still choose to be vibrant while I can, and to value those things in my life which give it meaning. I’ll still engage with friends and colleagues, work hard during my day, put all my effort and my soul into tomorrow’s night’s rehearsal. Even if the life that tomorrow presents me with is bleak, I’ll still choose life. And the day after that, and the day after that.

And, in my year of care, I’ll try as hard as I can to care for myself in that. And, in my year of enough, I’ll remind myself that my best is sufficient.

And for now, that will do.

 

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Random happenings with one underpinning.

The following things happened to me today:

  • I zoned out while walking to work and almost got run over by a forklift carrying a load consisting entirely of boxes of oysters. Ew. What a way to die. Killed by food the consistency of the contents of a sneeze.
  • Walking along the river, one fish breached out of the water; it was gone in a sunlit flash of silver scales so quickly that I almost doubted that I’d seen it at all.
  • A lorikeet flying overhead dropped one bright green feather onto my shoulder. It was as soft as thought.
  • I said hello to the street cleaner again. His name is David (I know that now) and he shook my hand. The conversation made me smile.
  • My work took me into the darkness of the human experience: mental illness, fear, poverty, the bleakness of what human beings to do each other in a so-called civilised country – and I faced, as I do every day, the reality that I can do nothing about it other than have the courage and the grace to simply be a witness.
  • I received an incredibly passive-agressive message from someone I count as a friend. The extent to which it angered me surprised me a great deal.
  • Another friend gave me three cupcakes to congratulate me on my new job. This was a much nicer communication.
  • I ate lunch in the park near my office, and shared it with a family of two adult and three juvenile magpies. I was surprised at this because I had thought that magpies raised only one infant at a time. Also, magpies don’t like carrots.
  • I listened to the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem with tears journeying quietly down my face. Sometimes, the beauty of music leaves me literally breathless. 
  • My day was filled with a thousand other unnoticed moments, moments in which I was distracted by my to-do-list which grows no matter how many neat red ticks I place next to completed tasks; moments in which I focused on those small jobs which make up my working day; moments in which my attention was captured by colleagues coming to me with problems or questions or requests (or, in one case, a gross and friendly insult to which I responded in kind); moments in which I paid no attention at all to the world around me, to the beautiful realities of life for which I should be grateful, and to the starkness of those bleak moments which should make my soul weep but to which I have become accustomed.
  • In all of those random things that happened to me and in which I participated, the Creator of the Universe, the Source of my being, the Ground of compassion and the Force of love, was present. All of those moments existed within It, and because of It, and there was no point at which I was separate from It. For most of these moments, I was unaware of this Presence, this silent Love; that doesn’t matter though. Presence was still within me, and I was still within Presence.

I think that, in a way, this is also prayer.

A wanna-be monastic and the opening to prayer.

In one of those odd twists of synchronicity that often seem to happen to me, each of the six or so books I’ve read recently – both novels and non-fiction – have seemed to involve some sort of reflection on the monastic life. I’m not the sort of person to see divine instructions in the random coincidences of life, but it’s been enough to make me think. Not about joining a monastic order – although think of the blogging and journaling possibilities that such a journey would entail  – but the idea of the monastic life, centred on prayer and ritual, to which the bustle and demands of life’s busyness take a subservient role, is deeply attractive.

I’m strongly, gently called to the idea of folding my days around the beauty of prayer. The idea of pulling myself out of the bright and sharp impositions of my day to re-centre myself on the Sacred, in which I already and always have my being – I’ve known the importance, felt the pull of this for a long time – and yet, I’ve really done nothing about it. It shouldn’t be that hard to remove myself from the commotion of the day, even for the moments it takes to say a blessing – but it is. It should be a reminder that I am never separate from the Creator of the universe, in which I dwell and from whom I can never be apart. But there’s a barrier, to something that should be as natural as breathing.

It’s hard, to find that entry point, that opening to whatever passes for prayer in my mind. That door through which I can step away from the chatter and worries and to-do lists of my nine-to-five mind, into a space of openness and emptiness from which to acknowledge my place in the very Being of the Sacred, as well as Its place in my very being. I need that entry point, some small gentle ritual to provide a catalyst for that moment – and it needs only be a moment – of stillness.

My research skills are exemplary and my intellect and capacity to use words are such that I have no doubt that I can find, easily, some beautiful and poetic and theologically-appropriate opening to prayer, even if I have to write one myself. But doing that would be its own form of procrastination. Because a lack of words is not the real barrier.

The real barrier is this: fear. Because true, mindful engagement with the Sacred involves opening myself, and to open myself I must empty myself, and to empty myself I must let go of all those emotions and fears that I keep under such rigid contra. And that’s something, despite how hard I’m working on my own healing, that I’m too scared to do: I’m scared of what will happen when I let them out of my control.

Like pretty much else, it’s a work in progress. Like pretty much else, I’m hoping that the determination and the longing and the hoping, right now, are an ok substitute for the actual reality. Because I’m getting there – just not quite yet.

Richness and poverty, and what I can do about it.

When I left my ex, I found myself with a vacuum to fill: how to spend my leisure time. In all the vast, empty space of my new freedom, this was a small challenge with which to wrestle: compared to the immensity of learning safety, the question of how to choose my own activities was a walk in the park.

There were difficulties to it, and I actually felt a sense of relief when my DVD player broke, and took one choice from the terrifying new array.

All of which prompted me to have a conversation with myself: what did I want this new life, suddenly and miraculously my own, to look like. I wasn’t up to thinking about the big things – career, travel, family. I meant the little things, the day-to-day things. Those small things that go together to make up a life. And I decided: simplicity, solitude, vibrant friendships, music, hard work, and intellectual richness.

It’s been hard but I’ve built a life which – with some trial and error – maintains a balance of all of these things. It’s a sometimes precarious balance, and there are times when it feels like the merest angle’s tilt will tip the balance catastrophically, but it’s mostly in balance. With a foundation of the love of amazing people, I’ve created a life from the wreckage of abuse and violence, and it’s a good life, and I’m grateful.

There’s only one thing my life lacks, though (other than the winning lotto ticket, and the capacity to eat as much chocolate as I like without consequence): if my life is intellectually rich, it’s spiritually barren. I dwell and have my being in the loving Ground of all things, and yet, it’s an intellectual phenomenon. Head, not heart. I engage with the Sacred in the same way I engage with air: I’m aware of its flow over my body, it’s temperature, I know that without it I suffocate and die; but over the course of a month this miraculous experience might cross my mind once, if I’m lucky.

I yearn for the Sacred. To be able to live, knowingly and mindfully, in the nourishment of the Sustainer of the world: I thirst for that. And somehow, all I have to do is find a way of opening myself up to that. Of resting in that love, of submitting to that compassion. Of folding myself around the rhythms of prayer, and learning to centre myself, once more, on the Source of my life.

Not sure how to go about it; but at the moment, I wonder if the yearning might not be enough. Just for the moment.

A year of care, and a year of enough.

If 2014 is my year of care, it’s also my year of enough (see http://www.theunlost.com for information on the Year of Enough). The care bit’s a mixed bag – I think that true, soul-deep self-care is one of the more difficult things I could have aspired to – but I’m also focusing on this year as a year of enough.

I don’t mean enough as in: Oh well, that’ll do. It’s not a year of settling for less, of being comfortable in mediocrity, of doing less than my best. It’s not a year for compromising my integrity and my skills and my self; it’s not a year for making and accepting excuses for why I can’t do it, why I will be happy in simply not trying. Why I will let me weakness determine how I will or will not be, how I will or will not live my life.

It’s not a year for making demands, either. It’s not a year in which I will reach beyond my capacities for the unimportant and unachievable, for the unattainable. It’s not a year for dinging my worth in the idea of more: more achievement, more skill, more learning. More money and more possessions. More busyness, more responsibility and importance. More, more, more. More is great, and important, but the problem is that if you’re always focusing on what more you want, you forget that, so often, you actually have enough.

Which I not to say that I don’t want more: if my aspirations die then so do I. I want to work to meet my potential: as a social worker, as a chorister and singer, as a person of faith, as a friend, as a creative force, as a creature of the Creator. And then I want that to be enough.

Choir went back today – the first choral Eucharist of the year. And my hands shook because that’s what they do when I sing, and for a while there wasn’t enough air in the Cathedral to penetrate the writhing anxiety screaming silently behind my sternum and up into my throat. And in that I sang fairly well-ish and at times quite badly, but I got through it and I put all my self into it, and I did my best and I wasn’t perfect but my best was enough. My best was enough for the choir and it was enough for the Creator to Which we sang, and now all I need to do is let it be enough for me.

Like my year of care, my year of enough will be a work in progress. It will be hard, and I’ll screw it up, and undermine myself, and if I’m lucky it will get easier with practise and habit. It will be hard, but I’ll do my best – and that’s just going to have to be enough.

A chorister and a cookie.

So I worked out recently, apparently because I’m a bit behind the times, that I’m a chorister. That I don’t get a choice in that. That’s just who and what I am, and I could no more change it than I could grow taller, or suddenly become pretty. And it’s cripplingly hard to sing at times;  the very act of standing with my choir family, and allowing my voice to blend into the glorious mass of music we’re creating, opens me up to pain, and emotion, and fear, and makes me vulnerable to flashbacks and panic attacks and all of the shittiness of post-traumatic stress disorder. But I can’t not sing. I can’t not be a chorister.

Choir famine – known by people less pathetic than I as “choir holiday” – ended today. I found myself in the choristers’ vestry in the Cathedral, and it was like coming home. It was the incredulous, disbelieving relief of a caught fish released from harsh heavy sunlight into the cool lightness of its home pool. It was the blessed intimacy of an expatriate hearing her native language, of an exile returning to the depth of familiarity of his home streets. And my voice was strong and not horrifically inaccurate (although my choirmaster might have a different opinion), and the music seared itself into my very soul and I felt my blood sing for joy – this is where I belong. This is what I should be doing. This is where I am known, and accepted, and don’t have to put on a front or play a role, and can find the courage to simply be my own self. This is where I am loved, and love in turn. This is where I know just how deeply I am blessed.

There are two times I can remember that I compromised the choir, when I was with my ex. The second time: I had a concussion, sustained on the Saturday night, and on the Sunday morning when I stood up the world ducked and weaved around me and I felt the spinning nausea of drunkenness without a drop of alcohol passing my lips. I missed out on singing a Sunday morning service, and I woke at midday to several concerned messages from people who – despite my best attempts to keep myself apart – had become friends. The first time: I was frightened, and things were bad, and, reading the cues from the man who was the centre of my universe, whose whims determined whether I was safe, whether I slept, whether I took blow after blow to crush me, I messaged my choirmaster to tell him that I couldn’t make Evensong. I think, from memory, that the flimsy excuse was that I was too tired. I did it to avoid a beating; my memory is that it didn’t work. I seem to remember that I took one anyway. A bit of a waste, then, really. Plus, I missed out on good music.

That was the last time I deliberately compromised myself as a chorister (I’m not counting the second time: I could hardly help having a concussion). From then on, singing became the thing – over friendships, over my writing, over work, even over my own safety – that I never compromised. I would sing, each Friday night’s rehearsal and each Sunday, knowing what the consequences would be: I knew that there would be punishment. The chances of taking a beating – or at least a few bright, heavy blows – were pretty good. But I was willing to pay that price. Some things are worth taking a beating for.

Right now, singing’s hard, and to be frank, I’d rather take the physical pain of a beating than I would live with the brutal reality of my own mind betraying me. But I don’t get that choice. Singing is hard, and painful, and I really wish it wasn’t, but it is – and surely anything that’s worth taking a beating for is important enough to persevere with.

Because, whether I like it or not, I’m a chorister. And that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

On being a chorister, and what I pay for that.

Pretty much the first thing I do in the morning is turn the radio on: ABC Classic FM’s breakfast programme. I then sit at my desk and write for half an hour before I commence the process of preparing myself for what my day will bring. It’s a nice way to begin: music and writing.

One of the things that I’ve been wrestling with – that I struggled desperately with in the sprint to the finish line that was Advent and Christmas, demanding and intense and exhausting – has been how difficult it is to sing. How painful. How debilitating it has been to find that the PTSD symptoms are so much more intrusive and disruptive when I sing: the thing that kept me alive has been the thing that’s opened the door to flashbacks and anxiety attacks and it seems that I coped better with domestic violence when I was living it than once I escaped. I honestly thought about simply cutting my losses, quitting the choir and letting the loss of indescribable richness be fair payment for the loss of indescribable pain.

Only, the other morning, I was listening to ABC Classic FM, and suddenly I was surrounded by the silvered strains of a choral Ave Maria. Renaissance, probably – my musical theory is not good enough to date it precisely, but the glory of the unaccompanied polyphony – intertwining melodies vibrant with radiant yearning – filled my mind and soul and I found myself brimming with the power of the music, like a seedling which can break through concrete in its longing for the brightness above.

Music like this, over the time I’ve been in the choir, has become my staple diet. Each week, each rehearsal and service, revolves around music like this: small human creations which, like a tarnished mirror, reflect the Divine and in doing so become divine themselves. Music which fills my soul with breathtaking heaven, and with breathtaking pain. And, listening to this musical prayer, exquisite in its agony, I found myself thinking: How can I possibly leave the choir? How can I yield to the burden of these symptoms, the weight of this diagnosis and its reality, if it means that in doing so, I cut this music out of my own soul? How could I possibly mutilate myself in such a way? I’d be better of stepping off the edge of the cliffs that mark the sheer rocky border between land and sea. The only difference is that the death as a result of that action would be physical. I think I’d rather that than the death of my soul that would result from the severing of such music from its very core.

Because I am a chorister. No matter how hard it is, how painful; no matter what memories rise to the surface with all the brutality of a thorn tearing through flesh or what emotions sever their way to the surface, I cannot not sing. Because I am a chorister. I could no more cut that music from my soul than I could cut my heart from my body, or my brain from my head. That’s what I am; so that’s what I do.

Which leaves me with one path: to persevere, to sing, regardless of the pain which has overwhelmed the joy, and to hope to God that it gets easier and that, once more, singing becomes a source of vitality and animating spirit in my life. Because, up until Christmas, it was an opening for pain, and fear, and shame, and grief. But surely – surely, she whispers fervently – what once gave me life will continue to do so, if only I can persevere.

All I can do is hope. And, in the meantime, show up to rehearsal and sing.