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.
My 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?
These 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.
But 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.
About 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 suspicious 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.
I 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.