the tough stuff

The Terror of Freedom and the Illusion of Permanence

I did something emo recently. I posted a vague, ever so irritatingly melancholy status on Facebook without referencing what the hell it was about. I don’t know if anyone read it, but I felt I owed it to anyone who did to elaborate a little. And to myself, as a reminder to never be One of Those People again.

Of course it’s a Neil Gaiman quote. When I die, I really hope I can be a ghost that can not only move through walls but also through all the barriers of human anatomy, through the great divide between the physical and the intangible, and haunt the inside of that man’s brilliant head. I want to live inside his imagination, but I’d be content just to be a passenger for a day or two, and observe what comes out of his mouth. He’s just so damn quotable.

The instant I read this, I was transported back to an early conversation I’d had with a boyfriend when we’d first started dating. I’d ended up in tears through being unable to unlearn something that has completely stolen a lifelong hope. We’d been discussing ghosts and the supernatural. A bit of religion was probably thrown in there too, but that’s definitely a topic for another day, and conversation had moved to the idea of existence after death.

For my entire life, I’ve clung to the hope that this isn’t all there is. My mum went through all sorts of spiritual journeys growing up, and I remember learning about everything from chakras to the Dalai Lama, but one thing that captivated me as a child was the idea of reincarnation. I didn’t know if I necessarily believed it was actually possible, but I hoped desperately that it was. She taught me that we’re all reincarnated in groups of about fifty, I think she said, and that the people who have the biggest parts in your life are because their souls have always been incarnated with yours, just in a different form. She taught me things like  that maybe in a previous life, I’d been her mother, and the idea always fascinated me when it came to love, relationships, best friendships… Did this mean that it was possible to always find your way back to these people over and over again throughout all of eternity? That no matter what happened in life, somehow true love, whether for family, friends, or someone else, would triumph across all of time and space, even death? The idea wasn’t just reassuring. The thought of every relationship with someone you care so deeply about ending after a handful of years on Earth seems such an incredible waste. For friendships and love and bonds to burn so brightly for such a short time, only to be extinguished by life’s ephemerality. I couldn’t bear it.

But over the last year, my beliefs have come to rely more and more on empirical fact than on hope – I realised that one reason a lot of people hold on to religion not because it’s real, but because it gives them hope. A crutch, a lifeboat upon which to sail through stormy seas. But just believing in something because it made life more bearable kind of goes against what I value. I value proof, questioning, searching for evidence, and discovering the truth before simply accepting someone else’s. And the notion of human connection’s immortality beyond death cannot ever be proven. And that makes me incredibly sad. I think logically, I’ve come to accept that in all likelihood, this really is it. But there’s a tiny sliver somewhere in my heart that holds onto the hope that these infinitely unlikely bursts of brilliance will happen all over again. I guess it’s a sliver that not just inhabits my heart: part of my newest tattoo includes the words of Emily Dickinson, who believed that “love is life, and life hath immortality.” More updates on the ink later.

That took a bit longer than I thought to explain, but I guess I’ve just been feeling a little sad lately. The past has been weighing heavily on my heart, I suppose triggered by continual reminders of what used to be. People I was once incredibly close with cut me out of their lives, largely as a result of who I am. I have baggage. I worry. I get overwhelmed by emotion, and I am subsequently too much to deal with. Over the last couple of months I’ve seen photos of parties, celebrations, and weddings I always imagined to be sharing with people who instead turned their backs. I’m not blaming them. My insecurities, anxiety, emotional extremity and pent-up esteem issues made me a pretty shitty person to be around. It just sucks that I’ve put so much work into dealing with it, managing it, and being a better human being, and it’s still not good enough. People would rather move on or actively tell me, as was the case a couple of weeks ago, that they’d rather keep their distance. I feel lost and torn: I desperately wanted to get my issues in check so I could be a better person to be around, and so I could reign in my tendencies and alleviate some of the worry and heartache – but I don’t know how much is something that can be fixed, and how much is simply how I was made. I want to be true to who I am, to wear my heart on my sleeve and to see the good in how much I feel – even if it does mean bursting into tears after reading a news story about a local tiger cub dying at the zoo, or getting myself into a teary-eyed panic while waiting for a loved one’s test results – I’ve battled with my emotional tendencies my whole life and hated who I was because of it, but lately I’ve tried to embrace it – not see it as such a bad thing because it’s not usual, but see the good in it, that it’s because I care so damn much. But then if I think of things in those terms, I set myself up for failure – people left my life because of who I was. So I don’t know which way to turn.

“But the lonely are such delicate things, the wind from a wasp could blow them into the sea with stones on their feet, lost to the light and the loving they need…” – The Shins

The lives I watched continue without me on Facebook have made me feel very lonely lately, so I did delete a large chunk of people from Facebook. I was confident it would make me feel better if I didn’t see it all the damn time. And I suppose, in a way, it did – but it also served as a huge reminder that I have lots and lots of free time now. I used to be terrified of coming home and not having plans. I figured it meant that nobody wanted to do anything with me, and that I was always last on other people’s priority list. Since I started seeing a counsellor and taking medication to get the anxiety under control, I really have learned to switch how I see free time, and in most cases I’m now able to see it as a luxury with which I can enjoy a good book, make photo albums, catch up on EastEnders or crank out another few hundred words for the book. But with all these reminders lately, I’m starting to get scared again. Evenings alone are spent suchly because everyone else has other people to be with. The freedom of time alone isn’t something to cherish any more. It’s a terrifying place in which your mind can go into overdrive, reminding you of all the people who once wanted you around, of all the plans you’d had, of all the doubts you have about yourself. Time alone allows your thoughts to take control. And when those thoughts start in a place that feels a little lonely, the destination can leave you feeling completely abnormal and thoroughly abandoned.

‎”Isn’t it funny how some thoughts and cherished memories can become your worst enemies? The ones you loved to think about, the memories you wanted to hold up to the light and view from every angle–it suddenly seems a lot safer to lock them in a box, far from the light of day and throw away the key. It’s not an act of bitterness. It’s an act of self-preservation. It’s not always a bad idea to stay behind the window and look out at life instead, is it?”

As down as I’ve felt lately, the universe has made a pretty huge effort to let me know I’m not alone. Literally seconds after I received one text confirming someone’s decision to cut contact, I received two more – one from a wonderful new friend I made through Fringe Festival this summer, with whom I instantly clicked and spent several hours telling our entire life stories to each other, and one I hadn’t seen in years, who’d just found my blog and wanted to reconnect, and to let me know that if I ever needed a friend, I had one. I really do believe that one door closing generally allows another, better one to open, and honestly, that very much has been the case this summer. The people who’ve come into – and the people who’ve continued to be – in my life are people with whom I never have to worry about hiding my emotions, or how long they’re going to stick around. They know everything, and they still want to be here. And that means more than I could ever express.

I’ve been listening to this song a lot lately. Yes, it gets stuck in there for days and days, and it does sound like some sort of bizarre fusion of country, The Lion King and Cecilia (you’re breaking my heart), but for some reason I love it. And it seems kind of fitting for right now.

Some nights, I stay up cashing in my bad luck
Some nights, I call it a draw
Some nights, I wish that my lips could build a castle
Some nights, I wish they’d just fall off

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh I’m still not sure what I stand for, oh
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know any more…

This is it, boys, this is war – what are we waiting for?
Why don’t we break the rules already?
I was never one to believe the hype – save that for the black and white
I try twice as hard and I’m half as liked

Well, some nights, I wish that this all would end
‘Cause I could use some friends for a change
And some nights, I’m scared you’ll forget me again
Some nights, I always win

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost
Oh, I’m still not sure what I stand for most
What do I stand for? What do I stand for?
Most nights, I don’t know…

Ten years of this, I’m not sure if anybody understands
This is not one for the folks at home; I’m sorry to leave, I had to go
Who wants to die alone all dried up in the desert sun?
But man, you wouldn’t believe the most amazing things
That can come from some terrible nights…

I’m a little down, but not a moment goes by where I’m not incredibly grateful for the people I have. I guess by writing it out, I just needed to remind myself of that again. I’ll be back to positivity again soon.

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The Stranglehold of Memory

Be kind to me
My robot heart is fragile too
Keep it well, keep it true
My robot heart
– Hawksley Workman

There’s something that’s been bothering me a lot lately, and it comes in the form of discrepancy. I think we all tend to feel unsettled when we’re not at peace: when our actions and thought patterns defy what we want them to be, it causes inner conflict. I find that usually, simply recognising the existence of that discrepancy is enough to move toward doing something about it. But what happens when the gap seems impossible to close? Sometimes, when a behaviour or thought pattern has been so deeply engrained for so very long, it almost feels impossible to do or see things any differently. The stranglehold of memory exerts such a strong force over our minds that even when logical actions and reactions are staring us in the face, we can’t help but surrender to the reflexive patterns we’ve followed our whole lives.

One of the reasons it’s causing me such distress is because it goes against everything I try to stand for. As I mentioned not too long ago, practising acceptance of the past and focusing on the future is something that helped me get on with life after everything was thrown up in the air. Reminding myself that we only get one life, and making it a priority not to waste a second on things that have already happened has allowed me to be more productive, more proactive, and more positive. But I find I keep slipping up. I allow my mind to default to panic and disaster mode at the slightest sign of history repeating itself, despite all present-day evidence to the contrary. The trouble with investing your whole heart into people is that you give them full permission for the potential to hurt you catastrophically. And when people have done just that, and repeatedly, it’s hard not to put a guard up. One thing I’ve reiterated many times lately is that no matter how many times my heart has taken a beating, it’s not going to stop me from putting it straight back out there. But what happens when you do that, yet your mind is unable to let go of the fear it could all happen again?

“But don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while,
even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?”
– Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveller’s Wife

A good friend recently gave a good analogy. Imagine if you were assaulted or mugged in a dark alley one night. You’d probably be a little scared of dark alleys for a while, even if they were the most beautiful alleys on the planet. It’s the oldest of lessons: touch a hot element and get burned, and you’ll learn not to make the same mistake again. But that goes so very much against how I want to live life: I want to take risks and hope for the best; I don’t want to cage myself in and become a prisoner of fear. I want so desperately to be able to get to the end of my life and look back without regret – to say I gave it my absolute all, and have “oh wells” rather than “what ifs”. I want to live with passion and zest for life, believe in happy endings and in the innate goodness of people. I want to believe that people care about each other, and I want to believe in love. Not just settling for unreliable friends and acquaintances, or a partner you wish understood you. Not just settling for a job that pays the bills but doesn’t make you excited every day. But finding those fairytale endings, those brilliant friends who’d cross oceans to make you feel better when you’re down, that perfect partner who knows you better than you know yourself, with whom you never have to wonder, that amazing job that seems designed for the most unique skill and interest set that belongs to you alone… I want to believe in it all, but I can’t stop my mind going into panic mode at the tiniest imperfection. I can’t shake the feeling that investing my heart into things in similar ways I’ve done in the past is going to result in disaster, so instead of accepting and believing that sometimes in life things can work out, I default to it’s happening all over again in some futile form of self-preservation mechanism. I inadvertently doom my own existence by allowing past events to dictate a future that by all rights has every potential to be wonderful.

I realise life isn’t perfect, I realise I’m not perfect and I realise people aren’t perfect. I realise that nobody can live a fairytale existence free of hurt, pain or disappointment – that’s just real life. I realise I probably need to lower my expectations of the world – not even expectations; hopes… any situation can go brilliantly or terribly, I just don’t know how to break free from the worry that’s become so at home in my mind after a series of life blows. It’s human nature to want to protect ourselves, but I’ve always maintained that by guarding ourselves we miss out on the incredible depths of emotion that could be felt by opening our souls to another human being. Greater openness involves greater risk of destruction, but living a half-life isn’t really living at all. So how does one break away from the risk of self-fulfilling prophecies? If you always expect the worst, it has a habit of becoming manifest. We inadvertently plant seeds of sabotage that will allow us to feel comforted should things fall apart, giving ourselves the option to later say our fears were fully justified. But doing this destroys the present moment. Kindness is questioned, assumptions are made, and the path that could be walked in bliss and beauty is strewn with imaginings of worst case scenarios, or detours to hunt for signs that history is doomed to repeat.

Why is it so difficult to let go of former hurts and simply embrace the opportunity for a fresh slate? Why are we conditioned to allow the past to dictate and curb our present ability to live? Why must memory exert such a frighteningly strong stranglehold, and why is it so difficult to simply choose to shape the future instead? I want to live in the now, free of the worry of the then invading all over again. I just don’t know how to break free. My mind is being a frightful rebel to what my heart wants it to be.

Oh, you delicate heart
There’s deep enough wells for our tears
When we break ourselves carelessly
Through a tumbling down of our fears

Battlefield

So, I’m going to hazard a guess that my absence from the blogosphere lately, on top of several vague tweets and a thoroughly emo Facebook photo didn’t go 100% unnoticed. I say this as a result of something I hadn’t imagined happening: a complete outpouring of love, concern and support. This community has been incredibly kind to me in the past on many, many occasions, and through good and bad, I consider myself blessed to have built relationships with so many of you. Real life friends have become pillars of strength, and so many some would call “strangers” have offered solace and guidance – but someone once told me that a stranger was “just a friend you hadn’t met yet”. So many of you have truly shown the meaning of real friendship over these last few weeks whether the distance between us is five blocks or five thousand miles. So for all the e-mails, texts, hugs and phone calls, please know that the gratitude I express through saying “thank you” here can only reflect a small percentage of the magnitude of how very deeply I mean it.

I’m not going to go into details of what happened over the last couple of weeks, because this is partly the story of others, and it’s not fair for me to put something out there if it’s not one hundred per cent mine. But a lot of you already know, and trust me, everything you’ve expressed, advised and warned me about has been looping on repeat inside. I never thought Jordin Sparks would be my new best friend, but the only way I can describe what’s been going on inside me is in terms of visualising a battlefield.  I’ve had two sides raging against each other in my mind; one comprised of soldiers of shock and armies of anger under a ruling hand of disbelief; the other of heart, of hope, and of forgiveness. There seems to be a middle ground of reason which doesn’t seem able to join with either, and sits rather uncomfortably on the fence as both sides battle for its allegiance and the right to call it theirs.  In about twenty minutes, it will be reckoning night, and there can only be one winner. This is a fight to the death.

Supporters of both are cheering on loudly; banners of fear and betrayal held high as the opposition’s cries of compassion fight for the victory. Each believes wholeheartedly that they are battling for the right reasons, and I find myself sitting somewhere above it all, watching from afar. But the clock is ticking. I need to join a team. How could it be so difficult to choose between two sides so completely and utterly at opposite ends of the spectrum? One side’s soldiers wear shades of grey; a monochromatic army of emotion past and horror realised. As a fabulous song reminds me, everything they’re fighting for is like punching in a dream and breathing life into the nightmare. The ghost of disillusion hovers like a weight over them all, penetrating their swords with the stranglehold of memory, fuelling the fight to rage on. The other side, by contrast, doesn’t seem to have a uniform, but though in and of themselves they bear no semblance of cohesion, juxtaposed next to the resistance, are united with a sort of glow. Their cross-shields are emblazoned with symbols of love and hope; giant doves adorn armour and shimmering spells are cast across the battlefield, taking down dozens of greys at a time. In the heat of war, neither side seems to notice their torn observer, and I find myself praying for some kind of sign. The team to which I pledge allegiance will pave the way forward, and it is not a decision to make lightly.

The clock ticks loudly, an obnoxious reminder that my time is up. As I close my eyes in those last remaining seconds and surrender the decision to a blind leap of faith, the banner of a lone soldier catches my eye, and I see him looking directly at me. The rest of the field becomes a blur as our eyes lock in a simultaneously fleeting and eternal moment, and suddenly, my decision is made. The answer had been sitting inside of me the whole time, and was scrawled in giant, shining letters across his flag. Philosophy. I had to do what I did in every other walk of life, and apply my philosophy just as I would to anything else. I’ve always been a firm believer in humanity’s ability to choose their reaction, and no matter how difficult any situation may be, we all have a weapon of choice. My mission over the last year has been made evident time and time again: choose the right one. Fear is a trusty protector, and has been relied upon in battle after battle to shield from harm. But it’s only one weapon. A weapon that also blocks out the sun, and along with it, the potential for everything wonderful.

We cave so easily to the option of self-constructed walls around our hearts in misguided endeavours to keep them safe. The temptation to hold on tightly to those things from the past is almost sirenesque (did I just make that word up?), but like those sailors stolen from the seas, doing so only results in destruction. The power of acceptance has been pointed out to me in the past, and I think the lesson here may be to simply accept that in itself, and work it into my life’s philosophy. It’s an ongoing and ever-evolving mission statement, but I suppose in the grand scheme of things, that’s what life’s really all about. As I touched on earlier in the week, my philosophy already includes choice, love, forgiveness, integrity, and a focus on the big picture. At the end of the day, every one of us is only human, and if every person on the planet held onto all the hurts and pains from the past in order to protect themselves, this world would be a terrible place indeed. I think my lesson here is to focus on life from this point forward, not backward. Reaction to something that’s already happened isn’t going to stop it from happening (space-time continuum issues aside), but I believe accepting it, leading with love, and focusing on shaping a better future is the way forward.

We all have a choice. I just hope my heart is leading me in the right direction. Here goes…