Am I Done Yet? Shame and the Writer.

When you’ve been with a project for a long time – and I’ve been with the work of my post graduate degree for almost ten years – it’s sort of weird to let go of it.  Especially when it doesn’t feel like I did my best.  I handed the thesis in last week Friday.  A big heavy blue bound tome, that looked the part, but left me feeling empty.

Because it could’ve been better?

Because I’m painfully aware of how my habitual pattern of refusal has kept me time and time again from doing the work I dream of doing?

Because there is still the letter to the examiners to complete?

Instead of the expected and hoped for rush of release, I reached my target and fell flat.  Seeing only the gaps, what’s wrong with the work, the real possibility of failure.  Or the even scarier possibility of being given yet another chance to give it my best shot.

What might have been a celebration of completing  became a wallowing in self-criticism.  I shudder when I think of the examiners reading what I have written, sweated over and sacrificed for.  Close my eyes like I’m on a scary roller coaster I’m riding over and over again in a grim endurance test.  I start to write the letter to them explaining what I have done to the manuscript in response to their last set of comments, and feel ashamed.

That’s what’s at the core of this refusal to be cool with where I am at: shame.

It’s been written all over the life story exercises of the West of the Wheel.  A deep abiding shame.  Damn!  And there was me thinking I’d got this thing down.  Ready to enter serene and smiling into the East.   When it doesn’t turn out that way, my impulse is to give up.  I can’t do this.

Can I?

Who is the ‘I’ at the centre of all this chat anyways?

My writing partner and friend in the Circle writes to me.  A reminder that these are the fault lines.  Recognise the cracks, but don’t fall in.  Not this time.  Wallowing in my shame is Resistance to Life.  And life is sweet at its heart.  Sweet and shameless.

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My Circle partner shared a powerful reflection on shame, thesis submission and the intersection of the personal with the social scientific by Alison Pryer.  You can read the full post by clicking the link at the end.  It’s so beautiful, and true.  Her story, and the bravery with which she writes,  put my stuff in perspective.  And the way that it is poetry that offers her a wild exit from the sense of shame that threatens to paralyse her creativity resonated deeply with what it means to me when I let go and allow that channel to be opened.  Reflecting right now, the experience I can liken it to is the one I had giving birth: something that could’ve so easily been tainted with shame, but for various reasons wasn’t, unlike other parts of my life.  Why was that?  Pryer alludes to it when she writes about the poet maintaining a state of alertness while lovingly attending to the world.  Much of the pleasure of making poetry lies in the wait for and then the chase after that which is elusive, and which will always ultimately evade us. Like pleasure itself, poetry is somewhat unruly and feral. It can’t be controlled or scheduled. You have to take what comes. Thus, the poet must remain in a state of alertness, must attend lovingly to the world, in order to experience and represent wonder and possibility.

Here is a bigger extract.  I urge you to click the link at the end.

All of us have at some time or another keenly felt the intense burn of shame – the horrible recognition of our deficiency, inadequacy, and unworthiness, that feeling of exposure and social alienation (Kaufman, 1980). Shame is the obliteration of vulnerability and trust in relationship. Thus, shame is only possible when we make or find ourselves vulnerable, as I was in this particular pedagogical situation as a doctoral student being publicly examined at my doctoral defence, where I had chosen to talk about my explorations of a subject matter that was taboo. Clearly, I had been naively trusting, blind to the power of academe to uphold its unspoken culture of silence, even though I had so accurately described it in my work.

 Unfortunately, further factors compounded my shame. According to Elspeth Probyn (2005), shame “always attends the writer” (p. xvii). Also, those who have experienced shame early on in their lives have “a greater capacity to re-experience the feeling” (Probyn, 83). To make matters worse, according to Gershel Kaufman (1980), shame is “always particularly amplified in a culture which values achievement and success” (xiv). By the end of my doctoral examination I was teetering on the brink of failure.

Perhaps western culture goes too far in its almost complete pathologization of shame. So much so that it is shameful to even talk of shame. Yes, shame is always unwelcome, always uncomfortable, painful even. Shame “marks the break” (Probyn, 2005, 13) in relationship, in connection, in community, in trust. We feel shame not because we don’t care, or because we have no interest in a given situation, but because our interest, our love, our care, our desire for mutuality in relationship is not returned. We are spurned. We yearn to repair “the break” so that our interest, love, desire, and care might in some measure be reciprocated. Shame, writes Probyn, “illuminates our intense attachment to the world, our desire to be connected,” (63) and is always deeply embedded in contexts, politics, and bodies.

As I have since discovered, it is how we respond to an experience of shame that matters the most (Kaufman, 1980; Probyn, 2005). Shame can be a highly generative emotion, a catalyst for self-transformation. Probyn puts it this way:

Shame is not unlike being in love. The blush resonates with the first flush of desire. It carries the uncertainty about oneself and about the object of love; the world is revealed anew and the skin feels raw. Shame makes us quiver. (2)

This keen appreciation of our longing for connection and community is in itself deeply transformative. Shame, shot through with desire, may embolden us to tell new stories (Probyn, 2005), or to tell old stories in new ways.

            Poetry may be the ideal medium of inquiry for someone (like me) who’s longing for connection and community has been heightened through an experience of shame. The making of poetry is deeply concerned with building relationships and seeing affinities (Simic, in Zwicky, 2003, 47). It is also about finding community, coming home as it were, to our own lives and the life of the wider world. Thus, it is a medium that affords an ecology of both knowing and expression. Jane Hirschfield (in Zwicky, 2003) expresses this more poetically:

Every metaphor, every description that moves its reader, every hymn-shout of praise, points to the shared existence of beings and things. The mind of poetry makes visible how permeable we are to the winds and moonlight with which we share our house. (16)

Poetry is also an ideal medium of inquiry for someone (like me) who has experienced trauma. The poet, Charles Simic (in Zwicky, 2003), writes:

My hunch has always been that our deepest experiences are wordless. There may be images, but there are no words to describe the gap between seeing and saying, for example. The labour of poetry is finding a way through language to point to what cannot be put into words. (85)

Much of the pleasure of making poetry lies in the wait for and then the chase after that which is elusive, and which will always ultimately evade us. Like pleasure itself, poetry is somewhat unruly and feral. It can’t be controlled or scheduled. You have to take what comes. Thus, the poet must remain in a state of alertness, must attend lovingly to the world, in order to experience and represent wonder and possibility.

         Simone Weil (in Zwicky, 2003) says, “The poet produces the beautiful by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love” (102). Adam Zagajewski (in Zwicky, 2003) insists that in poetry we exercise our capacity “to experience astonishment and stop still in that astonishment for an extended moment or two” (p. 108). Thus, the creation of poetry calls for a nondualistic appraisal and understanding of the world, one that privileges neither thought nor feeling, intellect nor emotion.

         Earlier I quoted Probyn’s (2005) claim that “shame always attends the writer” (p. xvii). However, the quality and clarity of a poet’s perception helps to dissolve feelings of writerly shame by rekindling profound connections to the world. Simic (in Zwicky, 2003) proclaims only half in jest:

The ambition of each image and metaphor is to redescribe the world, or more accurately, to blaspheme. . . . The truth of poetry is a scandal. A thousand fornicating couples with their moans and contortions are nothing compared to a good metaphor. (46)

So the poetic impulse – that generative, loving state where whole worlds are birthed with mere words – is of necessity quite shameless.

Cultivate a shameless heart filled with light.  Be that girl.

Over and out.

http://www.ccfi.educ.ubc.ca/publication/insights/v13n03/articles/pryer/index.html

 

 

 

This post arrived in my inbox at just the right time. I have one week to go till I re-submit my PhD thesis, my family have gone ahead to South Africa, and I am alone with this work, gifted with a slice of time to birth it, temporarily freed from the obligations of family life. Yet, I feel this heaviness, and fear, despite being so close to the finish. It stops me in my tracks. Dangerous quicksands. So this felt like a miracle. A reminder to tread lightly through these last tasks, to allow them the space to happen, and continue to proceed one light step at a time towards completion. As Brenda puts it so well in her post, ‘I go small and lightly so I don’t stop completely and let insecurity win’. Beautiful and timely words indeed.

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Lightly Child, Lightly

It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them…So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. ~ Aldous Huxley, Island

(Above passage discovered in David Kanigan’s beautiful blog Lead. Learn. Live.)

I have the hardest time going lightly.  I’m damn sensitive. I absorb every comment, look and gesture.  Criticism is felt deeply, so is praise. I can’t turn it off.  My friend tells me I analyze  too much but I secretly know I love to analyze and it is natural and involuntary for me. When you intensely process life  you do not go lightly.

Want…

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When Work is Resistance

I’ve thought a lot about resistance over the past year.  Read Stephen Pressfield’s book, been inspired and shaken by the rallying cry to recognise the insidious forms resistance takes.  For me this meant getting on with my work; with writing; no matter what it took.  The results were powerful, and productive.  I realised I did have it in me to do this thing.  To finish the thesis I have been working on for years.  To move on.  To use other forms of writing to take the pressure off the dissertation, to allow it to be what it is (an academic training exercise) rather than the bearer of all my memories and experience.

I’m handing it in in two weeks.  And the pressure is on to keep working.  To keep up the momentum and get it done.  And I’ve been there at the coal face.  Everyday, writing, editing, crafting.  Releasing the need for it to be perfect (it isn’t).  Releasing the need to know everything (I don’t).

So what’s gone wrong?

I got an inkling of it when my daughter fractured her arm in the playground last week and the first thought that flashed into my head was , “But what about my work?”

Then a dear friend extended an invitation to come to a surprise birthday celebration for her husband.  First response?  “But what about my work?”

Well, what about my work?  In pursuing it so single mindedly I have begun to exclude other daily practices that give my work life and purpose.  In the aftermath of the resistance to engage with what is happening elsewhere in my life, my work has begun to congeal.  I find that though I turn up everyday, progress is slow, the creative spark that was transforming the text vanished.  Resistance came in by the back door.  Not because I wasn’t turning up for work, but because I wasn’t turning off the work.

I see that Resistance is also about not participating fully in my own life.  That the single minded pursuit of work, when it is at the cost of a balanced Wheel, drains the life blood of what sustains the work in the first place.

The Love that keeps you turning up.

The Love that lets you leave when it’s time to.

Untangling the threads of these final weeks, I see that my challenge is not to simply turn up for work.  It is also to blur the boundary of work and play, to make work a long term satisfying practice that I return to, restoring the meaningfulness of work as part of my Life, rather than a crash diet I go on every now and again.

Pause to keep going.  Funny that.

Not Writing at Dawn Bears a Late Harvest (aka Another Day. Another Cup of Tea.)

Since my resolution to try writing at the dawntime I haven’t written a word between 4.30am and 6am.  I got as far as turning the computer on at 5am on one day, but then the baby woke up again and all bets were off.  He’s been poorly too and the nights have been rough.  So I’m sitting with some questions.  Is this a failure? Is this a manifestation of resistance (the baby is sick…. I’m so tired…. so I can’t write).  Well.  Yes! All of the above.  But that’s not the end of the story.  Because I may not have written a word, but I have been ‘turning up’.  At dawn, I wake up, and even as I regret not writing, I have in the past week been present with my work at this time.  My thoughts have been fermenting ideas, though it’s been hard to see what the fruits of it would be when I couldn’t follow through with the dawn writing I wanted.  Instead, the fruits have appeared at other times of day, when the writing does happen.  Today, I gave a lecture titled ‘What makes us human?’  I was terrified by my lack of concrete preparation, it’s also been a very long time since I spoke publicly.  It rained and rained in the morning.  Getting us all out the house left me soaked to the skin… crouched under a broken umbrella.  But once I’d dropped my daughter at school and my son with a friend, the hour before the lecture was there.  Stretched open and ripe to pick.  Resistance wanted me to ‘wing it’ as I so often do, but instead I allowed the percolations of the dawn time to get their space.  The lecture that emerged was cool…. it had life and substance, imperfect yes, and also full of questions and the dynamic of the conversation that makes us think about being human in the first place.  I delivered it to all of four 17 year olds on a university taster day, and a couple of their teachers.  There were no great accolades or rewards here, just the satisfaction of a job done, and seeing the shift in their faces as some of those questions got through and resonated.

Afterwards,  I went to a greasy spoon cafe and got a full English and a cup of tea.  Soaking up the beans and fried tomatos with a buttered slice, washed down with the golden brew, I sat with the sense of satisfaction that comes when you’ve done the work.  It passes.  That’s cool.  I’ll fight the battle again.  And continue to turn up at dawn.  Whether I write or not, it’s the showing up that counts.

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Waking Up Before Sunrise to Write – Can I do it???

Reading this wonderful post, I laughed and recognised:

http://www.julietallardjohnson.com/blog/

These words at the end hover around me……

“Write first thing, before sunrise if necessary. Carve out that time in the early hours and let every thing else be after your writing –-”

I try to carve it out in the day.  Snatches of time where I can write.  Now that I am committed to the Wheel of Initiation, my writing obligations have doubled.  I owe both my thesis and the stories of the West my time and energy.  This amongst everything else that needs my time and energy.   There are plenty of very good reasons why I don’t have enough time to write.  They are valid and true and real.  And if I allow them to persuade me to put off my work for another day or more opportune time, well, for a split second I am vindicated.  And after that just plain old hollow with a gnawing feeling in my chest that something is missing.  I have sat with that feeling for years, putting things off for another day.  And that sort of scares me.  That so much time so easily slips away.    Because for better or worse, writing matters, or rather, honouring the Creative in whatever way you do it, matters.  And actually, funny this, when you get down to it, when you get started, it’s no big deal.   Wow.  I let years slip past me for no big deal?  Yup!  And no big deal there either… because another manifestation of resistance is to get all caught up in how much time you’ve wasted and what’s the point now it’s too late etc etc etc etc ad infinitum.

Still.  It is hard to find the time……

Lately, my son has been waking me at dawn everyday.  Around 4.30am, he cries softly and I wake up to give him some milk, and we both fall back to sleep.  This time at the point of daybreak has become very precious.  Sometimes, instead of slipping back into sleep, I have listened to the dawn chorus (one of the few times you ever hear a symphony of birds in Central London).  I have slid out of bed and looked out the back window at the colours of the dawn.  I have chanted Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padme Sidhi Hum under my breath as my son feeds.  I have felt the infinity of the moment of dawn and realised that dawn is always breaking somewhere as the planet revolves.  I have felt a connection to all those who rise at dawn to meditate.  And I wonder if I can wake up a little more, and use this spaciousness to write in… even if only initially for a little time.  Maybe half an hour to start.  Even ten minutes, then back to sleep till the alarm goes off at 6.45.

This feels like a big deal, and yet, my desire to write (even write badly) my way out of the West and out of my Thesis. is bigger than my desire for an extra half hour of sleep.  This is a new thing.

So….  I take the step and say I will try.  Perhaps trying is not good enough and doing is better, but I’m being gentle on my sweet little self.

Just for this week.   Just for the morning that is coming up.  I am giving this space to the West, and to the Thesis.  They need it, the quietness, the solitude.  No blogging at this time.

I will blog in the day, in those snatched times.  About how it’s going, if it’s happening, how it happens.  Because this kind of public, organic writing is a cool way to reflect and summarise.  And get unblocked too.  Blogging for me right now takes the pressure off the other writing I am doing.  In the years that have passed, I have asked too much of various pieces of work… asked them to bear too much weight.  So they have become stuck under the burden.  I am grateful to this medium for providing that relief.  And I also acknowledge that those other labours require more privacy and space.  I will try to provide it.  I will try to be awake before the dawn.  I hope that however long this pre-dawn writing time lasts, I will be able to mark the end of the space by responding to my son waking, as I do everyday, and falling back asleep with him for that final hour, full of the love and energy of the Creative.

I wish this!

Fear and the Initiate

What is it about initiation that requires a state of fear to emerge? This is in addition to the exhiliration and the wonderment of excavating the layers of pain that have accumulated over a lifetime.  In anthropology, it is a central question in the vast literature on initiations across myriad cultures – are initiations by necesity violent and disruptive? Violence itself requires clarification here.  Yes, many initiations contain elements of physical violence, but there is also the violence of rupture in the psyche as the old ways of being are dismantled and the initiate is cast into a state of confusion.

This is where I am.  Stranded in the West, the place of purification and release, writing chapter after chapter of a life story which becomes more detailed and demanding even as the time I have to write it shrinks.  Aren’t initiates supposed to be unfettered by family obligations and parenting responsibilities? What does undertaking the deep work of examining your life in this kind of detail mean when you are NOT the ideal neophyte? To be plain, how do you do it?  Right now, I’m blundering about bludgeoning my way through without much finesse or clarity.  I snatch writing time.  I wonder how on earth I will finish my thesis, or write my way out the west when the baby is sick, school pick up is now and the laundry won’t do itself.

I see and read the wonderful work of other mothers, with more children than me, and I feel a little envious of their composure and connection to a deep well of joyful conversation with the Creative that right now seems to be elusive.

I recognise a pain story here.  The one I tell about how other people have the answers and resources, not me.  I feel this one tugging on my arm now.  A shadow that whispers if it’s not perfect it’s not worth doing, and leaves me floundering in the messy uncompleted.

In between, I scan the skies for signs and melody.   Anything to give some indication that it’s worth continuing.

And here’s the rub.  There is no choice but to continue.  And I mean that.  Signs or no signs, when you’re this deep in the woods, you kind of have to just get on with it.  Sigh!  And there’s me hoping for some dazzling sideshow of brilliance and recognition to keep me going.  Entering the Wheel of Initiation on the high of a quasi-miraculous series of lucid dreams means its hard to let go of wanting those fireworks to keep going off.

Anyway.  I’m glad I wrote this.  Gave myself the permission to write.  To be here now.  Sitting in the dark, tapping this piece into my phone for a quick upload.  Hanging in there, fearful and without the razzle dazzle.  Somehow going forward.  Inch by inch.  The state of fear is a messenger.  It tells me to watch out for those inner saboteurs who would gladly kill my fledging process because there is not enough acclaim or tangible reward in sight.  It reminds me that sometimes its necessary to keep your head down, crack a joke and get on with it.  Cheeky smile intact.  Judgement put on ice.  And if I really need a sign, just look up.  There it is, on the left side of Waterloo Bridge, crossing to the North Bank.  Fight the Nothingness.  Big Ben chimes eleven, and I’m done.

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The Spiral aka ‘Keep Getting Up’

My son learnt how to stand by himself yesterday.  Today he kept practicing.  Standing, grinning, falling down, getting up again, grinning some more.  This is his work and he lives it because in his world that I am delighted to witness, the false separation of work from the rest of life doesn’t exist.  He keeps standing up regardless of how many times he falls down.  He keeps standing up because he falls down a lot!  So it is.     And it is lovely! I find that it harder to get back up, return to writing.  This life story asked of me by the West of the Wheel; my PHD thesis.  Watching my son, I am reminded that no matter how many times I fall down – don’t write, get distracted, get caught up in a dark cloud – I can always get up.  So I do.  However unsteady on my feet.  Write a little or a lot.  Get.the words out; hold the judgement.

Walking home from school today through the pocket-sized woods, my daughter noticed a beautiful snail shell. Pale green with hints of yellow, it was unlike any snail shell I’ve seen before. Examining it closely, we saw the perfectly formed spiral that was at its heart. The spiral reminds us in perfect symbolism of the continual return; the constant revelation of the next turn.  Engaging its lesson, I renew my commitment to return to my work and let that work become part of a life I love.  When I lose my bearings, and I will, the spiral helps me to find the way back in.  Keep standing up.  My children constantly offer me chances to wake up (usually between 3am and 5am….ha ha!).  Too often, I don’t get it.  But when I do, I’m the luckiest woman alive.  5am birdsong is the best there is.  The sleep that follows, sandwiched between them, the sweetest.

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Clearing out Pain Stories & Trusting the River

Right now I am writing my life story, a big part of identifying the pain stories and agreements that are running the show behind the scenes. This felt initially quite indulgent and a bit egotistical.  also hard…. too big.  But this is what is called for in the West of the Wheel.  Old ways of being must be allowed to die with dignity in order to make space.  It’s a bit like clearing out a massive old cupboard, a really really big one. Have I mentioned the size of this thing? Seriously. Huge.  It’s taking our circle forever to go through this part of the Wheel.  But this is the thing with clutter – everyone has different quantities of it and relationships to it.  In our circle, going through the Wheel for the first time, this is a first telling.  Perhaps we are being ambitious. Trying to do a mass clear out, and detailed ordering at the same time.  That’s a lot of labour.  But the more clutter you clear, the lighter it gets.  We are sharing the stories in weekly chapters, each of us taking turns to be teller or listener.  Whether sharing or witnessing, the experience has so far been  tremendously powerful in releasing all the stuff that had been locked in these stories.  It’s good, important work.  And like any work that is significant, there’s a lot of resistance up in here!  It is so hard to turn up for this and stay motivated to write. Yet, like any other clutter busting project, once I get past the gates of resistance and  start, it’s like a rushing river….. torrents of words and memories spill out of me.  The power with which they come tells me that these stories have been longing to be released.  Clamouring for a hearing, however humble. We have barely scratched the surface of childhood in two months, but if this is how long it takes, then this is how long it takes.  Shew! All we have to do is keep turning up for work, letting the river carry us where it will, clearing all the debris on its way.  At this stage, it can be tough to let go and trust the river to do its work.  Maybe, the trick here is not to try too hard to understand the process at this stage…. just let go and get on with getting it out.  See where it goes.  Watching, and feeling, the river flow when you’re in it.

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Setting Intentions

It’s hard for me to set intentions.  This is the second time I have been in the South, and again, this struggle with setting an intention.  Like it’s on the edges, but finding the exact words eludes me.  I am grasping at something, not fully formed but waiting to be born.  And I know it is waiting to be born because in the last few weeks I have had recurring dreams where I am heavily pregnant and about to give birth…, but it is not quite the right time yet.

So today was a long session in our initiation circle… sharing the free writing we have been doing around crafting an intention.  My circle partner and I are both tired….  and the session feels like we are circling this thing, constantly ebbing and flowing around cracking it, then doubting it….  I find myself in particular being resistant to pinning this thing down.  A commitment phobia.  We discuss how I am putting a lot of pressure on myself to get this thing exactly right, and that that might be part of the stuckness.  I have the following insight about this which applies to many other parts of life, especially in my writing work:

*In wanting things to be perfect, I prevent myself from completing tasks.

Indeed I can circle them for years at a time, as I have done with my Phd thesis.

So after the group, I take my baby son to the bedroom to feed him.  we are cocooned in Oxytocin.  Both of us tired. Me from wrestling with intentions; him from learning how to pull himself up in his cot and crawl around the flat.  We fall into a deep sleep, but not before I grab this book to look at while I breastfeed.  It’s one I looked at a few weeks ago, and one part stayed with me and is now circling my head demanding to be looked at again.  It is Illusions by Richard Bach, and here is the part that got me.  The part where God speaks direct to the reluctant messiah who wants to give up being a Christ-figure in order to be a mechanic again:

“I command that you be happy in the world, as long as you live…. In the path of our happiness shall we find the learning for which we have chosen this lifetime”

Imagine that!  That all we have to do to realise our purpose is to gravitate towards what truly makes us happy.  Of course, filtering out what we think will make us happy from what actually does make us happy is the life work!

I fall asleep, with my son, warm on my chest.

The sun is out.  First day of spring.  And as I enter a half awake half asleep state, I feel it very warm on my body.  It reminds me what a powerful source of life the sun is, how much we are a part of it.  as i dream, I am repeating the intentions I have crafted out that day, trying out new formations and orderings of the words.  Always inserting into the intention this line about happiness… a path based on joy… realising my purpose not through the hardship and pain which brought me on this, and other, Initiation journeys, but the joy at the core of me that will be what ultimately enables the transformation to live more authentically.  I wake refreshed, with my son.  he immediately rolls off the mattress and gets busy with his purpose, which right now is practicing how to crawl.  I splash my face, pull on trainers and a jacket.  Time for the school run…. taking the warmth of the sun with me… contemplating intentions and a path of happiness.