Category Archives: Lessons in Catastrophe

Loneliness

I haven’t written in a long, long time. Neither here, nor anywhere else.

I was too scared. I didn’t want to look into the dark places. I didn’t want to search through the shadows.

I’ve come back tonight because I need somewhere that am I not alone. Here, at least, I can find myself.

I have always found life to be a little bit lonely. In some ways this is self-inflicted: I have never been good at reaching out when I need support. For many years, my default position when I was threatened was to shut down, close off, wall up. If I didn’t let anyone in, they couldn’t see the damage. They couldn’t cause more damage.

The flaw with this logic is that it also left me utterly alone. No one could see the damage, but they couldn’t help heal it, either. That is a high price to pay. That is too high of a price to pay.

So yesterday, when I found myself in pieces, crying on the hallway floor, I picked up the phone and asked for support. The support came. It came again when I wrote to more friends. These are new behaviours for me; new patterns. It is better.

But this place is still so, so lonely. I think that these places, where our hearts break…I think they will always be lonely, no matter how much love and support we have surrounding us. I think that the experiences that shatter us create loneliness, because no one else can be with you in that pain, and no matter how much support you are receiving, in the moments that we hurt the most, we are alone.

At night, when we are trying to sleep but cannot find rest because our lives have been split apart, we are alone. In the mornings when we are in the shower and we end up mixing our tears with the water, we are alone. When we are travelling or grocery shopping or folding laundry or sitting in a bathroom stall, we are alone. We hear every thought that flits through our mind, alone.

Alone.

We are such social creatures. We need love and support and affection. We need to feel that we experience life with others. We need to share what we feel. We are reaching out across the divide, but really…I think we are just like Adam and God: always, always reaching. Always just inches, moments, heartbeats apart.

The deepest pain we walk through alone.

I feel alone. I have lost so much. There is a long, cold, difficult path ahead of me and I am daunted from knowing that I will be walking it all alone. No one is here with me now. And even if there were…there is no one inside of me to help with how it hurts, to listen to my thoughts and feel my broken heart and to really know who, and how I am right now.

Except for me. And I find there’s not much else I can do right now except to cry, and write. For myself.

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam

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Part Two of ‘This Moment’: Graffiti and Mary Oliver

[Life is short, and we have only the time that we are given, nothing more. Never more. Remembering that in our brief lives each moment of joy will pass, like each moment of pain, is the story of ‘Part Two’, which I will be adding soon]

Part Two

I can’t even begin to tell you how short your life is.

When I was in my teens, I came across a quote that used to make me giggle. I shared it like a joke with my friends and family. “Don’t tell me life is short. It’s the longest fucking thing you’ll ever do”. While I am still amused, I no longer believe it. I no longer have the ignorance and bliss that allows us, as innocent youth, to believe this: that what we have, that family, that love, that all those we hold dear, are forever.

Because really, isn’t that what we all thought? Wasn’t that exactly the falsehood that we believed so ferociously?

Until. Until we lost something irreplaceable. Until we were blindsided by sudden loss and the unbelievable heartbreak of really, truly, finally having to say goodbye.

Before Christmas I lost someone I love dearly. A few months before he passed, he took a trip down to Atlanta to say goodbye to his family there. When he got back home, he told me about how on every other trip he had always left by saying, Au revoir. This means, quite literally, ‘to the next seeing’. On this trip, however, he said Adieu. To god.

We don’t get a lot of time. Often we don’t even get the short amount that we assume we’ll get. Our bodies, these days, can last so much longer than any of our ancestors’. Most among us assume we’ll hit seventy, eighty, perhaps ninety. We have doubled, and more, our life expectancy. “It’s the longest thing you’ll ever fucking do“.

Expectancy. We expect to get the whole package. We expect.

And yet…and yet you could be dying as you read this, and not even know it. Inside of you could already be growing the cells that could turn into cancer. You could be deciding to take that job offer that could lead to getting into that taxi that could lead to being in that car crash.

Poof.

We don’t get a lot of time.

This too shall pass.

Although you might now be wanting to turn away from the perception of morbidity you think I’m presenting you, I’m going to ask you to stay. Because rather than weeping over death, this is an affirmation of life. We don’t get a lot of time, so use it. USE IT. Hold on to your life with both hands; respect your body and care for it because it is keeping you alive. Did you hear me just then? Your body is keeping you alive, and it is fragile. Respect and care for it.

Those small moments of joy, whatever they are for you: revel in them. Grow. Gift the world with your joy and your accomplishments. Do what you know in your heart to be right.  You are getting so much less time that you expect. Work hard to know what makes you happy; who is important; where you need to be. Your goodbyes are coming so much sooner than you believe. Rush into love, wherever you find it, in each and every one of its myriad of forms. When you find it, let it set you on fire. Blaze with it. This is not a dress rehearsal, and you will never, ever be here again. Be here now. Now is all you’re ever going to get.

And ask yourself:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

(The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver)

J.M. Barclay

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The King’s Challenge – Part One of This Moment

This post has been on my mind for a long, long time. Let us start with a story. Have you heard the one about the proud king?

nce upon a time, there was a proud king who wished to show that he was more intelligent than all of his ministers, and all of his subjects. He decided that he would prove his intelligence by setting an impossible task. So one day, he called his court together, assembled all his most trusted ministers and greatest scholars, and announced his task:

“I charge any of you to come up with the answer to my challenge: bring me an inscription that is true in every moment of life; that will make the joyful man sorrowful, and the sorrowful man joyful”.

At first, the challenge caused a flurry of activity. The courtiers conspired and the ministers mulled over what the answer to the riddle might be. The oil burned long in the midnight lamps of the king’s subjects as they all raced to be the first to answer the challenge, while the king revelled in the knowledge that he was so brilliant as to have created an impossible riddle.

Days turned into weeks, and weeks into months, and every time a traveller appeared at court, the king issued his challenge. But as the months neared becoming a year, still no one could best the king’s riddle.

Exactly one year after the king had announced his riddle, a old traveller appeared at court. His clothes were ragged and his feet calloused from long miles of walking. He had a long beard that seemed as if it might not have been washed in months, and frail hands that grasped a carved walking stick. As he bowed down before the king, the king asked, “Do you think you can answer the riddle that I devised, that none of my court nor any of my ministers nor a single scholar nor any other traveller has solved?”. The traveller replied humbly, “I can only try, your Highness”. So the king told him the riddle: “Bring me an inscription that is true in every moment of life; that will make the joyful man sorrowful, and the sorrowful man joyful”. So the old traveller bowed down again, and left the court to ponder the riddle.

Later that evening, as the king was preparing a feast to celebrate the one-year mark of his challenge, and to revel in all his wealth and stature and intelligence, the traveller returned to court. He walked up to the king, bowed his head low, and then passed to the king a small piece of paper.

The king’s subjects and his ministers and his scholars all watched as the king unfolded the scrap of paper, and they all saw as his normal, self-satisfied smile turn first to confusion, and then to a frown. For on the little piece of paper were inscribed the words:

this too shall pass

°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°°

I heard a version of this story a long, long time ago, and since then it has filtered in and out of my mind many times, but usually at moments of great pain or loss. Over the past year or so I have found myself returning to this story frequently as I struggled with certain kinds of ‘rights of passage’ that come with growing up: your body failing, the death of loved ones, the frustration of life’s foibles, the difficulty of truly closing the space between you and another human being.

Despite my initial inclination to turn to this phrase in the most darkest hours, I have come also this year to appreciate its duality: it is as true in times of joy as in times of sorrow. Although the king’s challenge suggests that the phrase will turn the joyful man sorrowful, I have come to realize the beautiful, positive joy of the phrase even when it is read in times of joy. To me, the phrase is not the comfort that pain will pass and sorrow that joy will too, but rather the comfort that pain will pass and the most powerful reminder that we must hold on and immerse ourselves as fully as we are able in times of joy…for they, too, will pass. It is a reminder that each moment of joy is as precious as it is surely fleeting. From this point of view it isn’t sorrowful, but hopeful: it encourages us to soar in those moments of joy.

Life is short, and we have only the time that we are given, nothing more. Never more. Remembering that in our brief lives each moment of joy will pass, like each moment of pain, is the story of ‘Part Two’, which I will be adding soon.

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Thoughts for Thursdays – Unknown

In this past year, I’ve had a lot of bad days.

I’ve had days of pain that turned into nights of painful sleeplessness. I’ve lost loved ones. I’ve given up on who I thought I was becoming in order to become who I really want to be. I’ve been healing from a devastating trauma. In the past year, I’ve had a lot of overwhelming days.

I used to be the kind of person who believed that unless you’re doing something incredibly important dahling (as defined by  a ridiculous set of measures) then you were wasting your time. I know better now.

Now I know that life deals blows painful beyond anything you’d ever imagined. I know that loss can bring you to your knees and pain can curl you inwards on yourself. I know that there are days when the most you can ask of yourself is to survive. To just take a breath, and let it go.

The point is just to try. And when you try, and all that you can manage is to breathe? Then…just breathe.

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Anyways

You will fall.

You will fall and your heart will shatter open, until all the shards of everything you thought you were lie scattered on the pavement, for friends and lovers and enemies to step upon.

You will dream.

You will dream, and in waking meet a world that seems to have no room for your dreams, nor time to lend a helping hand.

You will love.

You will love, and in loving expose every corner of yourself, and meet with rogues and scoundrels who will let your precious love slip through their fingers to splinter on the floor.

You will create.

You will create, and in creating present fodder for critics and naysayers, who will not understand your efforts, nor your vision.

You will decide.

You will decide whether falling means you will never get up, whether heartbreak means you will never love, whether rejection means you will never press on, whether to listen when I say to you: dream. Love. Create. This world will shatter if you let it.

Let it. Because the alternative is not to feel.

Shatter. Then reach out. Rebuild. Bet on yourself, again. Do it all over again, anyways.

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Who do you talk to when you’re alone?

The thing about the past year of my life is that I’ve spent most of it alone.

I don’t mean alone in the sense of not having a partner, or friends, or family, or with a lack of communication to these people. I mean it in the true sense of the word: in the absence of other people. Day in, day out, when everyone I knew was working their job or studying in school, I spent my time…alone.

I have written and mourned and talked about what this has been like for me. There is a reason that solitary confinement is a punishment. I have felt as if my life was on hold, like I was the sole inhabitant of a solitary little eye of the storm, while all my loved ones went about their own lives. I have felt like I was stagnant, stationery, un-evolving and withering. The truth of the matter is that this hasn’t been the case at all. I’ve been changing and growing and flourishing in a way that is so different to anything I’ve ever experienced before, so different from anything my friends had ever been through, that I haven’t been able to recognize it until now.

Tonight I saw clearly what my year-long journey has been about. I can see that although I have not been earning a degree or climbing the rungs of a career path, I have been working towards something incredibly important. The catchphrase that can describe what I’ve been working on for the past year is simple and sweet: self-awareness.

After all, I’m the only self I’ve had around to be aware of.

I’ve learned that I talk to myself when I’m alone. We all do. I don’t mean stark-raving mad chattering, I mean that internal dialogue that accompanies us wherever we go. The one we normally can’t hear because the noise of our lives, our commitments, our friends and family, are drowning it out. My life has been incredibly quiet, so I’ve done a lot of talking to myself…and a lot of listening.

I’ve found new places in my heart and am working on healing old wounds. I’ve noticed harmful patterns of behaviour and surprising likes and dislikes. I’ve discovered that I can have insight and perspective into even my own feelings, and how to better look after myself.

So might I suggest…listen a little. Maybe take a long bath by yourself. Yes, that means no books and no music. I really do mean by yourself. Or perhaps the next time you feel a little uncomfortable about a situation or when you have a strong reaction to a person, take a moment. What are you trying to tell yourself that you haven’t been able to hear just yet?

The fact of the matter is, what I really discovered wasn’t how to be alone, but how to spend time with an old friend, a lover, a sister: my self. I know her better now, and that? That is going to change everything.

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Lessons in Catastrophe – Resentment

Resentment is one of those emotions that doesn’t get talked about much. It’s a tricky, complicated, and poorly illuminated emotion. It’s not one of the pretty, shiny emotions like joy or compassion or selflessness.

But we all feel it. Just like we feel guilt and shame and anger and jealousy. I am going to speak about resentment because shoving it back down and trying to ignore it doesn’t help.

I am resentful that all my friends are living their lives and I can’t live mine because of my physical condition.

Yep, there I said it. It’s not pretty, is it?

Every time I listen to a friend talk about a great school project, every time I hear about their travel plans, every time they land a great new job or tell me about an adventure…every single time, I am reminded that my life is on hold and that I hate it. Every time, I am resentful that they are able to take active part in their lives while I feel like I am stuck waiting until I can participate in mine…stuck at home, alone, resting my back in bed.

Emotion is complicated: I am thrilled for my friends. I’m thrilled about their internships and their studies and their travels and I am genuinely happy that they are happy. I am excited for their adventures. I want them to share their joys with me, and I would be devastated if they felt that they could not. I am still…resentful.

So how do I handle this resentment? I make sure that I am clear with myself about the target of the resentment: I do not resent my friends, I resent my own situation. This allows me to make sure that I don’t take out my resentment on the people I love. When I speak to them, I allow myself to be happy for their achievements and adventures. I reserve the resentment for myself, when I am alone, afterwards, and I can process this resentment.

I try to remind myself of the ways in which I am lucky–and there are many–and to acknowledge that while this feels permanent, it is not. I will also have my own adventures.

And then…I take a deep breath, and I tell myself that it is ok that I am resentful. I do my best to sit with how I feel, and to acknowledge it without judgment or shame.

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