The Marrow of Vulnerability

Summer tends to be my season of discontent. More so this year than ever before. The curated insouciance of sun, sand, and vacation photos mean nothing to me. We wait as a relative passes from known to unknowable in the haze of Alzheimer’s, punctuated by endless rounds of teenage school clothes shopping. Insouciance in its current form means a “casual lack of concern”, a version of being “cool”. But I play etymology operator, passing through French and Latin origins, landing on an uneasiness of mind. This seems more apt.

canstockphoto1290841My last post left on a dark note and I could not make myself come back from that. Exhortations of it’s not that bad or it could be worse (a very Minnesotan way of saying turn that frown upside down) served to irritate and isolate me. I knew I was in a rut, growing ever deeper the more I tried to pull myself out of it. Solitude is curative but nearly unattainable during the summer. The garden provided little solace as the late summer heat and bugs make every moment uncomfortable.

I could not complain. Every whinge would be met with “first world problems”, a phrase that has the desired effect of shutting someone down. I curled inward with books. I started with Brené Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I moved onto another of her books Rising Strong. And then I read The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. I was slowly reading myself out of the rut. A suggestion by a blogger friend, Donna at A Year of Living Kindly, led me to Wayne Muller’s How, Then, Shall We Live?

canstockphoto6270889These are gentle books, language unmarred by politically expedient shortcuts to label, categorize, and dismiss a person out of hand. They spoke the language of vulnerability. I have come to a point in my life where the defenses and protection I worked so assiduously to develop, are no longer working. It’s the outcome of shuffling across the middle age line, when thoughtfulness and evaluation about the years ahead are needed. It’s a magical time, when you realize that you must make conscientious decisions with the knowledge you’ve attained – that it’s time to put away the primer, training wheels, and excuses.

I used to think I had the vulnerability thing down. I’ve certainly written enough about my personal history and flaws on this blog. I got comfortable with the feedback that I’m authentic and honest. The funny thing about telling stories is that it is one step removed from owning the stories. I could write about my father’s suicide or the domestic violence I grew up with, no problem. I could write about bad boyfriends and awful jobs. I could talk about mental health issues and depression. I could joke about being a writer who procrastinates and struggles.

canstockphoto59545124.jpgBut I couldn’t write about the ache I felt when my daughter, in her toddler years, would ride on her father’s shoulders. The times I’d brush away tears and get on with things. I couldn’t write that growing up, never knowing from minute-to-minute how the adults around me would react, made me pathologically empathetic, to the point where I’d recognize how others felt before acknowledging my own feelings. I couldn’t write about the shame I sometimes feel that I am the way I am – that every subject becomes a think piece. These things get put aside, so I can tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end.

The thing I’ve learned from my reading these last few weeks, is that because I have refused to integrate my stories into who I am, they own me. When you are owned by your stories, it’s hard to see the possibilities. You live your life defined by the limitations of those stories and not in the realm of choice and opportunity. As a response to my lived experiences, I built armor and exploited my stories as narrative, never allowing myself to feel them and grow beyond them.

canstockphoto21174About the time I began unraveling, a couple of months ago, I stopped working out. I got soft and pudgy. I’d always been determined to be strong. After I left the Army, I spent years afterward running, weight training, doing workout videos, training in the martial arts, going to the Y. There was an urgency to stay physically stronger, as if to protect the tender insides with bands of muscle. It was protection against anyone having power over me, against ever letting anyone hurt me.

I thought about how hard I would push myself, of all the injuries I’d gotten over the years, and how the outcome was the same as if I’d done nothing. I was still a pudgy, middle-aged woman with knees that hurt on rainy days. That I was motivated by what might happen if I didn’t exercise is ass backwards. I had taken something that could be joyful and enjoyable and made it mandatory or else.

This serves as an apt metaphor for the mental protection I’ve learned. I’ve learned to be canstockphoto23183995suspicious of joy, because something bad will happen in the next minute. I’ve learned to never let myself be too happy for too long, because then I won’t be steeled against the next moment when hell rains down. When opportunity comes along, opportunity that can open doors for me, I tamp down my enthusiasm, in case it all goes wrong. In all cases, the outcome is the same. I kill the follow through and I don’t enjoy the process.

I’ve railed against my own defenses. Just be happy, dammit. Can’t you enjoy something for five seconds, before you think of all the downsides? But this approach has proven fruitless.

There’s only one thing left to do. Because if I’m going to feel shame, fear, anxiety, and hyper self-criticism, I’d at least like it to be because I’m playing offense – because I’m making amazing attempts to do things I’d never imagined I could do. Because I’m laying it on the line, writing books that don’t sell well or running for public office and losing or reaching out and connecting with another human. If I’m going to feel shitty feelings, I’d rather it not be because I’m hunkered down and safe.

canstockphoto25034608I started working out again, but less from fear and more for self-care – the world did not come crashing down, all pudginess aside. I’ve said yes to some new opportunities, collaborating on a writing project, mentoring, getting politically engaged with other humans. I feel like a walking bruise, literally and metaphorically. But to be vulnerable is not just opening yourself up to pain and failure – it’s allowing all those other, unfamiliar beasts in – joy, happiness, enthusiasm. It’s going to be a weird, awkward ride.

30 Comments on “The Marrow of Vulnerability

  1. Nothing wrong with weird and awkward, especially when it can lead to all kinds of possibilities.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Interesting. I think you are on to something big. Isolated is a feeling I have heard and felt time and again from military women. I also have felt this way over the years. Being in about the same time era as you I think we had some pretty hard roads to drive on in order to prove to ourselves and to other women that it is possible to be strong and also be empathetic and human. The men (and our father figures) we worked with did not encourage empathy leaving us feel less than important and sometimes worthless even though we knew what empathy we had was the right thing to do.
    I was given some great advice once as a young female leader. Don’t ever say sorry for your actions it is a sign of weakness in the eyes of leaders and men. That includes saying sorry to yourself. Be kind to yourself, be empathetic and be human. The world counts on all of us to do that.
    Best wishes and continue stepping forward one day at a time. TAC!!

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    • I’m okay saying sorry if I am in the wrong (which happens on a regular basis), so I don’t know if I necessarily follow that advice. If someone sees that as a weakness, I tend to think they’re the problem. I’m not a knee-jerk apologizer, though. Pulling up my boots and marching on through.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not wrong. Just different way of looking at things and there is nothing wrong with that. We are all different for a reason and each of us are here to walk a different journey. Be keep doing the wonderful things you are doing!!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad you are okay with saying sorry and apologizing. I feel very ambivalent (actually, no, it’s not ambivalent, it’s negative) about the advice out there that claims women apologize “too much” and criticizes them for apologizing. I know too many people–mostly men–who don’t apologize enough (or don’t apologize at all), and that behavior leaves a lot of hurt and destruction in its wake.

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        • I know people who do the reflexive apologizing, which I do find irritating. An apology has integrity when it is in reference to something specific and not just something people say when “excuse me” would suffice.
          I have my own reflexive things, though, like saying “right” when I’m in agreement. I was talking to a friend from Egypt and she stopped mid-sentence and said “Yes, I know that is right. Why do you keep saying right?” I often find people who don’t speak English as a first language have a better bead on meaning than I do. I’d come to use “right” as a reflexive filler, like some people do with “I’m sorry”.

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  3. Working out is good, but I really like the idea, for you, of running for public office 🙂 That is, if you can make it about the experience and detach from outcome (which might well enforce cynicism). Unsolicited, I am re-reading a brilliant book by therapist Bruce Tift, “Already Free: Buddhism Meets Psychotherapy on the Path to Liberation.” It’s an intelligent, no-bullshit reflection on developmental (secular, therapeutic) and fruitional (spiritual, Buddhist) approaches to suffering. it normalizes difficult emotional experiences (a relief in itself, to me) and suggests how to most constructively work with them without making oneself into a perpetual self-improvement project. I admire the work greatly.

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    • Bruce Tift’s book is on my pile. I think you might have mentioned it before, so I tracked down a copy. Tomorrow I’m filing paperwork to fill a vacant seat on my city council. I’m a little freaked about it – I feel a bit like throwing up right now. No one will ever accuse me of grace under fire.

      Liked by 3 people

      • You go, girl! Nothing you do in public (or private, for that matter) will be more disgusting than what has already been repeatedly modeled from the top. 🙂

        Glad you tracked down Tift. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a book that speaks so intelligently and powerfully — and simultaneously — to our ordinary, cramped brains and our more expansive spirits.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Weird and awkward will build those muscles, I think. All the muscles. And make for great writing as well – “everything is copy” (Nora Ephron). Glad I read this post – made me think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Tina. I have been feeling quite grim over the last month or so and sometimes it doesn’t feel good to put that out in the world. Feeling better, taking action, and getting back to writing – with a sigh of relief.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This post gave me goosebumps. You sound like such a strong, resilient woman who has been through hell (numerous times) and has come back stronger. That strength is not marred by the vulnerability that rings true throughout your post.

    I admire your ability to analyze your feelings, and your efforts to bounce back.
    I was moved by this post. Thank you for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your kind words. I love that you used the word “resiliency”, because it’s an undervalued skill. It’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up that counts. I sound like a talking meme, but some truisms are…well, true.

      Liked by 3 people

  6. As always, I marvel at the honesty and lucidity of your thoughts and the grace and elegance of your writing, Michelle. While it may be easier and less painful to live an unexamined life, those courageous enough to explore (and even write about) the depths experience a richness that may not be joy, but offers meaning and authenticity. Joy and satisfaction must be lurking in there somewhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve gotten to the point where not being happy or joyful just seems ridiculous in the face of the many fortunate things about my life. It helps, too, that I’m taking more actions to counter the bad news in the world – sometimes less thinking and more doing does the trick.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Good work, Michelle! Thank you. I found this a resonant and valuable post. Read it on a long plane journey overseas and, reflecting on it, Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” came to mind.

    (Also, I’m inexplicably thrilled to learn of your involvement in local govt!! How encouraging!)

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    • I re-read that poem upon your mention. Lovely, just lovely. Probably feels more apt while in flight!

      I’m pretty nervous about this city council attempt, but then, most things that I’ve done that scare me, tend to be preceded by A LOT of anxiety. There’s a subconscious force that keeps me moving forward in spite of myself. I just had the thought “well, if I’m lucky, I won’t get it.” Way to win, Michelle.

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      • Two things jump out reading your response. The first is: what if it’s not about you? (What if it’s about the people who could be served by the position of responsibility that has opened?) The second: is this about ‘winning’? Feel the mix of (messy, human) feelings you’re having, and follow the flow of that force you mention and see what invitations follow. Take your time. You’ll know what next to do …

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Michelle, I read this the minute it popped into my mailbox last week. I find it difficult to comment on your posts immediately. They have such an impact on me, and I find that I really need to think about them for a little while. This is going to sound strange, but a lot of what you say is exactly what I feel that I didn’t know anyone else felt before. Does that make sense? For instance: “I’ve learned to never let myself be too happy for too long, because then I won’t be steeled against the next moment when hell rains down.” This is me. That is how I live. I am a very joyful, happy person, but I live in fear of the next bad thing that’s going to happen. I know that is partly a result of my childhood conditioning. I have also experienced a lifelong string of sudden and unexpected deaths of family and close friends.
    Thanks for making me think, and also for making me feel less alone, less awkward. I truly enjoy your blog posts.

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    • I’m glad that you find something here that is useful. It’s probably presumptuous on my part, but I never imagine my experience as a human to be particularly unique. A lot of us are in the same leaky boat. There does come a point, though, when you realize that changing who you are is an insurmountable task and the more realistic approach is to work with who you are. I’m trying to learn that and to treat the hand-wringing side of my personality with kindness and gentle humor. I frequently tease myself about my worrying, by going full catastrophe: “then the sun explodes and we all die” – a little poke to give myself perspective.
      This week, I’ve hit the apex of anxiety – a funeral, a parent and grandparent’s illness, my child transitioning to high school, sick pet, applying for a city council position, insomnia. The only thing to do in the midst of it is to pay attention to self-care: sleep, nutrition, exercise, reading. It’s hard to do mid-worry, but I can already feel some of the tension receding.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m sorry to hear about your rough week. Sounds like you have a good self-care system in place. I usually try to remind myself (and often!) to be gentle during those sorts of times. Take care. Good luck on the council run.

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