Avoidance

I’m supposed to be paying bills.

But there isn’t enough money.

So, I am doing this thing that I do.  Some like to call it procrastination, but I’ve started to use terms that are more honest wherever possible, so this thing is called “avoidance”.

When the thing cannot be done comfortably, efficiently, without stress, or with relative ease, I avoid doing the thing.  “Avoidance”.

Right now it is about the bills, because there is stress, discomfort, inefficiency, and a bit of struggle involved in trying to figure out how to make money multiply without a magic wand or the art of alchemy to assist in the task.  I don’t know what to pay and what to leave unpaid.  I don’t know who might be gracious and who might attack the credit score I have been working so hard to improve.  I know that all of the things need to be paid, eventually.  And I know that one way or another, through begging or borrowing or more high interest loans that bury me in even deeper debt, things will be paid, but that doesn’t make the job of maneuvering and managing a too small budget less uncomfortable or less stressful, so I still want to avoid it.

A long overdue blog post is better than an attempt at bill payment … even one that details the stress I feel over the bill payment attempt.

I think that part of this avoidance is built into our DNA.  We didn’t survive as a species by running headlong into danger with great stupidity and zero planning.  We avoid situations that seem like losing scenarios as a matter of survival.  Avoidance helps us stay alive, in many ways, so it can be an excellent mechanism for the continuance of the human race—which is likely a good thing.

But there may also be a negative side to this tendency toward avoidance.  That negative side is the part that I think frequently trips me up and leaves me face down on the proverbial pavement of life.  It is the tendency of our culture to avoid any sort of suffering, pain, or pretense of unease—or dis-ease—whatsoever.  It is the glossing over of the lament in favor of pretending that all is well and good and easy, all of the time.  It is the lie that we don’t just avoid the things that are uncomfortable, but that the things that are uncomfortable don’t exist—and if they do exist, that something is wrong and needs to be “fixed” and fixed immediately.

If you’ve read anything else that I have ever written, you already know that I suffer from chronic illness, both mental and physical in nature.  Something will always be “wrong” with me.  And the desire to either “fix” or deny the existence of the problem is, therefore, always with me.  I’ve found, through many therapy sessions and lots of searching of my own spirit, that this desire is based largely on cultural perceptions.  It is shameful not to “work”, “have a job”, “do something with your life”, “have a purpose”, and it is shameful to “beg”, “live off other’s hard-earned money”, “take what I didn’t earn”, “play the victim”, “act sick”, “sit on my ass all day”, “be lazy”, or not “suck it up”, “get over it”, “take some Tylenol and get off my butt”, “push through the pain”, or to be like “my friend”, “my husband’s cousin”, or any number of other people and “run 5k’s”, “go to work every day”, “take care of five kids”, even though they have [insert one of my illnesses here] “just like you”.

Not only do I cope with my illness every day, but I deal with the public perceptions and the cultural shame that goes along with being chronically ill.

A court has determined that I cannot work—that there are no jobs that I can do given my particular limitations, diagnoses, skills, educational background, work history, symptoms, and the way that those things intersect with the job market in my geographical location.  “There are no jobs.”  That is literally in the court transcript for you to read, if you were to read through the lengthy hours of Q and A that were required for us to get to the point where a judge determined that I am disabled.

But that transcript doesn’t matter to probably about 85% of the people who I come into contact with in my day to day interactions.  It doesn’t matter because of this negative sense of avoidance.  I’m supposed to avoid suffering and illness and flaws and bad shit.  I’m not supposed to acknowledge that, but fix it, and fix it fast.  I’m not supposed to admit that I can barely sit at this desk right now because of the pain in my back.  I’m not supposed to admit that I’m at this desk and not a “work” desk because I am disabled.  I’m not supposed to BE disabled.  I’m supposed to take some Tylenol and get off my ass and run a 5k like aunt Janet from West Virginia!

Because we avoid suffering.  We get over that shit, or we lie about it, or we become the kind of people who complain all the time but only a small, acceptable, mundane amount of complaining that is socially acceptable around the water cooler at our jobs.  Because we are allowed to be moderately miserable all the time if we are still productive.  But real, serious, deeply affecting problems are not socially accepted.  Those we avoid.

I sometimes wonder who decides which challenges are acceptable and which are not.

When all the women have ovaries that stop producing more eggs, we call it menopause and call it normal.  When all the men start having limp, less adept penises and lower sperm counts, we call it “erectile dysfunction” and make a billion-dollar industry out of making them hard again, instead of accepting that aging men can’t always perform sexually on command.  It’s normal for a woman’s sexual function to change, but it is a problem to avoid and be “fixed” for a man?  Who decided that?  The pharmaceutical companies?  The medical professionals?  The sex work industry?  Who made this a thing?

And who made being chronically ill unacceptable but being terminally ill perfectly fine?  That question makes me sound like an asshole all the time, I know.  But it only makes me sound like an asshole because of the perceptions already infused into those terms.  Chronically ill.  Terminally ill.  One is a drain on society.  One is a sainted state worthy of all the compassion.  We all know which one is which.  I’m not the sainted one worthy of all the compassion.  I’m the other.  And I am an asshole for pointing out that there is a bias.  I am an asshole for pointing out that dying faster somehow makes you worthier of care.  (At least in the eyes of many in our society, that is—it doesn’t actually make you worthier of care.)

Who decided that I need a “real job” to be treated like a “real person”?  Who decided that I am allowed to be treated poorly because I am in a state of poverty—or that I deserve to live in an impoverished state if I cannot work due to illness?  Who decided that $750 per month is the amount that a disabled person who has less than 40 work credits should be forced to live on, making this entire post even a thing that exists?  And why do I not get any credits for the early years of my work history when I was delivering papers and babysitting, or for the years when I was working two part time jobs and going to school and raising a daughter as a single parent.  That was more damn work than I have seen most anyone do—ever.  And that doesn’t “count” for anything.  Who decided that doesn’t count as work? Who decided I get $750 instead of $3000 because of those years?  Who decided that my life isn’t valuable enough to be offered what I need to not be sitting at this desk, in pain, avoiding my bills like the plague.

If I had the plague, I would get more benefits.  Because it would kill me.  If you are dying they let you have a better quality of life than if you will live.  Oh wait … not socially acceptable.  We already went over that.

So, this avoidance, this thing that was written into our DNA as a positive survival instinct has somehow become a thing that we use to cover up and shame and deny and harm whatever is connected to our socially unaccepted suffering.  And I don’t know that I will ever get a complete, straight answer about how that came to be, or who determined and decided what was or was not acceptable, but I do hope that I will someday begin to shape the conversation around why we do this, and why we need to stop doing this.

We need to stop avoiding suffering and pain and bad shit that happens, because it happens to all of us.  It is part of the human experience.  And it is an important part of that experience. While much of my suffering was regrettable, and I obviously would choose to go down another path if I could, the person I am today was forged in the flames of that suffering.  Those challenges shaped me.  And they made me a better person.

They didn’t make me a better person right away.  In fact, they led me down a dangerous road to some very dark places.  But that happened when I was trying to hide and avoid and stuff away all of the bad things.  If I had been able to and allowed to cope with what I had experienced as a child, or a teen, in positive ways—expressing the pain and the betrayal and the confusion and the suffering openly and in a safe space—I would have avoided that road and those places altogether.  I might have avoided mental illness and chronic pain altogether.  (Nobody knows what causes fibromyalgia, in distinct terms, so I cannot know that for certain, but it is linked with stress and often presents in tandem with post-traumatic stress, so it is possible that without the PTSD there would be no fibromyalgia.)  Our society’s insistence that pain be hidden likely caused me more pain.

But now that I am in a space where I am able to process and cope with and express all that I should have been allowed to express all those years ago, I am becoming strong and wise and good in ways I might not have were it not for the experience that I went through.

Lament shapes the spirit in beautiful ways.

Pain makes us compassionate, kind, understanding, gracious, loving, connected, and strong.  That is not something that we should hide.  And that is certainly not something we should avoid.

We still shouldn’t run, stupidly, toward danger without a plan.  But there isn’t a need for us to hide and avoid something that makes us compassionate, kind, understanding, gracious, loving, connected, and strong.  Frankly, hiding that seems like a stupid run toward danger … it probably is.  And that is probably why so many things about our society today seem so messed up, in the sense where one person refuses to lay down their “right” for the lives of, potentially, thousands of others.

We are in danger, and we are being stupid.  Because we have hidden so well and avoided so effectively the thing that makes us compassionate and kind and understanding and gracious and loving and connected and strong, that we have become the sort of society that breaks apart and leaves individuals to be slaughtered as “they”, somehow apart from us and without our compassion, rather than feel the pain of the truth—that we have become so unfeeling that we cannot mourn our own brokenness, so we deny it again and again.

We have put some imagined dessert to rights of the individual above the conscious collective of the society.  I now becomes more important than we.  And that is a grave error.

We, the people—that is how it begins.  Not, I the individual who wants a gun and an erection despite the compassion and the biological facts that are required for me to understand the world around me.

“I don’t suffer.  I don’t have pain.  I take a Tylenol and go to work.  I have rights.”

But that isn’t true.  We all suffer.  We all have pain.  We all have days when no painkiller will dull the ache we feel—be it physical or emotional.  And, most importantly, WE have rights—all of us together, in concert, and being accountable to one another.  The only way to accurately see that, is to start to uncover the pain and suffering and to acknowledge it, to express it, to cope with it, and to begin shaping yourself and your life into one that has compassion, kindness, understanding, grace, love, connection, and collaborative strength.

Stop the avoidance.  Embrace the lament.  Feel.  Suffer.  And come out the other side a better version of yourself.

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to suffer through paying my bills.

 

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Flow

I read an article today that posited that financial blocks are indicative of creative blocks.  So, I thought it probably wouldn’t hurt to try to write a bit—maybe suddenly money will arrive if I put my creative mind to some creative writing.

But moments later, I realized that where my creative blocks are might not be here on this page.  Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, more aptly expressed) has never been hard for me.  I’m pretty sure that I wanted to be a writer from around 2nd grade.  I didn’t fully know that writing was my passion just a few years after, and it took me about 35 more years to get back to that passion, but I did want it at a young age.  I won’t go into the upsetting details about why I lost that focus, because even I am tired of hearing about the wounds of my history.  What I will say, is that at some point in my development—or maybe many small, important moments in my development—I had that passion pushed out of my mind.  I lost that knowing.

Understand that some of that loss was due to trauma.  You forget who you were before the trauma, they say.  I suppose I believe them.  I formed very little of my personality before I forgot it, so I didn’t have all that much to grasp at and hold onto.  But I know that I loved to do things that were artistic and creative.

I remember dancing.  Always dancing.  I remember singing.  Always singing.  I remember writing stories and poems and making picture books.  I remember sitting in the art room during recess on any occasion I was allowed to do so, and working on a painting or some clay dish.

Unfortunately, I also remember being judged.  And I remember coming up short.

Competition is a thing I hate.  Ask my brother-in-law, the lover of board games, and he will tell you that I am no fun because I never want to play.  That isn’t entirely true.  There are cooperative games that I really like to play, and there are particular groups of people with whom I like to play such games.  What I don’t like, is the measuring stick and the terms “winner” and “loser”.  There are a lot of people who won’t understand that I hate these things.  They might say I am a sore loser, or that I am just not as good a player, or that I identify too closely with the millennials who all get trophies and don’t know how to lose.

None of those are true.

I don’t like the way that certain people judge others, and I don’t like the way the worst comes out in people when competition is put into play.  Hehe.  Pun.

Seriously though…

I remember not having the best picture book in whatever grade that competition took place.  I remember not having the best art piece on any of the occasions.  I remember that my words weren’t honored and placed on walls with gold stars or blue ribbons.  And it isn’t that I am upset that I didn’t win—although as a child that may have been partly the case.  What bothers me about this system of measurement that was constantly reinforced, is that I was really, exceptionally gifted in all sorts of creative arts, but I never won the contests, so I thought that I was bad at what I loved most in life—to paint, and to sing, and to dance, and to write.

Around my junior and senior year of high school, I finally started to understand that the games and the contests weren’t the true measure of skill.  And at that point, I wanted to invest my time and my energy into learning to hone those skills that I somehow, inherently, had in the creative arts.  I said that I wanted to take a photography course, but I wasn’t allowed, because I hadn’t taken Art I and Art II and whatever other requisite courses one needed to pursue an art course.  But I didn’t want to paint fruit on platters, or learn how to shade well in my pencil sketches.  I wanted to take photos.  I wanted to be a photographer.  I found beauty in spaces where many could not, and I feel that I would have been skilled at photographing that beauty, and showing it to the world.  I wasn’t allowed.

I started to dance when I made the dance team in my first year of college.  I don’t know why I believed during this period that I could do things I was never allowed the chance to do when I was younger.  But I tried out, and I made it.  I was ecstatic, and it was amazing.  But the following year, the team that danced at half-time wasn’t a thing, and instead there would be a series of showcases.  The ballet jumps and the spotting during turns wasn’t something that anyone ever taught me.  I never had access to lessons.  I fell in front of all the people trying out, and I felt like the previous year—when I did an amazing job dancing my heart out in front of people—didn’t even exist anymore.  I wasn’t a real dancer.  I didn’t make the cut.

All of these moments—these competitive moments, when I was meant to prove my salt and come out on top—instead turned into a huge lie and a core belief that I held for many, many years.  I wasn’t an artist.  I wasn’t good enough to be on stage acting.  I didn’t even make the annual theater performance program when my own father directed the show.  He said he couldn’t cast both his children, or it would seem like favoritism, and it was The Music Man, so he needed my brother more than me in the cast—boys who love to dance and sing on stage weren’t quite so popular and accepted thirty years ago in small-town, rural America, I suppose.  But, even if he did wish to cast me, he didn’t.  Which made me feel like all those other girls were the talented and pretty and deserving girls.  Which meant that I was not.

I don’t know why competition is a thing.  I don’t know where it started.  I don’t think it ever ends.  But I do know that constantly falling just short of the cut, and not winning the praise and validation, made me stop working in the fields that I loved.  I stopped singing.  I stopped dancing.  I stopped playing the piano.  I stopped drawing.  I stopped painting.

Or, at least, I stopped doing them in public, or anywhere that other people got to judge my work and my skill in any way.  I couldn’t stop doing them altogether.  They are part of who I was meant to be.  I was always, as my little girl self felt, a writer.  I was always an artist.

And shame on each and every person who made me believe that couldn’t be true.  I had a love of the arts.  That alone was enough to qualify me and to give me permission to pursue a life and a career in the arts.

The blocks—the places where my creative energy doesn’t flow—are the doors that I closed on the dancer, the painter, the photographer, the writer, the poet.  The blocks come each time I feel like dancing, but don’t.  The blocks come when I am passionately pounding out a deep and layered piece on the piano, and I hear the garage door next to the music room open, so I quickly stop, put things in order, and rush upstairs so that nobody will know that I was playing—usually weeping as I do, because the piano has a language that can express my despair, my pain, my joy, and there is no other language I know that can do the same.  The blocks come when I look at something I have created, and deem it unsatisfactory, honing in on every possible perceived flaw, even while others are gushing awe and praise for that creation.

The blocks are there because I stopped believing I could be an artist, somewhere between the 2nd grade and today.

I don’t know if letting my creative expression flow will make my bank account attract the funds to pay the electric bill and get me some groceries.  But I do know that letting it flow will do other things that are good and necessary for me now.  I need to trust in my abilities.  I need to believe that what I love matters.  I need to know that no matter what anyone else thinks of my expression, it is valid, and it deserves to have a space in my life and in the world.  My creative side isn’t here to make certain I have scrapbooking group opportunities where I can find respite from caring for the kids.  (Though that is totally a worthy cause, people!  Scrapbook away! No judgment.  I suck at scrapbooking.  Which is kinda ironic, since most of my art is collage work of some sort, so I should be awesome at layering paper.)  I digress.  The point is that we love things because we need them and they need us.  My creative side is here to flow—to pour out upon the earth and to exist there.  And maybe your creativity is in the solving of difficult equations or positing really awesome stuff to prove and disprove using science or setting an amazing buffet before a crowd of people.  It doesn’t need to mean “the arts” for all of us.  But it should be recognized and validated and praised for all of us.

It is hard to put your heart out into the world and have people step on it.  And I don’t think that needs to happen.  Maybe everybody doesn’t get a trophy every time, so the kids still learn that life has ups and downs, and we don’t always get what we want.  But maybe everybody can be recognized, encouraged, and praised for showing up and trying, or for improving, or even for quitting!  When my daughter quit basketball or piano or French class or school, I praised her for knowing what she loved and what she didn’t love, and I praised her for trying, even if it wasn’t the right fit and the thing she wanted to continue to pursue.  And I helped her find the right fit, whenever possible.  (I still owe her a violin, by the way, because that was the right fit, but I couldn’t afford that fit and promised she would get one “someday”.)

I think that letting what naturally flows out from our hearts is usually beautiful.  Even when it is messy and complicated and not perfect, I still think what flows naturally is beautiful.  I’m in the minority with this view, I know.  Most of the people I know consider humanity flawed or cursed or sinful, and we just keep striving to be not that or better than that for a lifetime.  I don’t see it that way.  I think that humanity is stifled and broken and cut off from the beauty that naturally flows by competitions and bigotries and selfish motives that we learn over time.

Think about what you wanted to be when you were a child.  A fireman?  Superman?  A doctor? A mom?  Not many of us would have said “a ruthless investment banker who works himself or herself to death”.  But some of us turn out to be just that.

So, what if our earliest notions of self are actually the purest, but society convinces us that they are not, by pitting us against one another, and telling us that some of us win and some of us lose?

That thinking is very evident in recent weeks.  I’ve literally had people say to me that I am the loser in the game of healthcare. And what I lose is my health and possibly my life.  (Can I at least get a fucking participation trophy before I die, asshole?!)  The idea that some of us win and some of us lose, and that we don’t need to change that because it is the natural order, is one that devastates many, and allows us to harm others without conscience.  That is a terrible idea to foster and encourage!

So why can’t we do that opposite?

What is the worst that could happen, if we encouraged all the kids to dance?  What is the worst that could happen if the world had 80 million firefighters?  What is the worst that could happen if all the 2nd graders were acknowledged for something they loved?

Today, I’m thinking that we should all just let our creativity flow—whatever that means for us.  I would love to see rivers of creating in the streets, and not rivers of blood caused by all sorts of violence.  I would also love money to be attracted to me, and have cash flow mimic that creative flow, but that is a secondary goal.

So, tonight, despite my aching joints and without having the results of my lumbar spine MRI to diagnose a reason not to, I am going to dance.  And should a piano find a way up my stairs, I might pound on that passionately, even if my family members could hear.  And I will likely put my newly cleaned studio to use one day soon and layer some non-scrapbook related paper together to create some art.

Because writing this has definitely helped—even if my bank balance stays the same.  It has helped me to see and understand those blocks, and to begin on a path that removes them.  It has helped me to once again claim the title.  I am an artist!