End of the peace process

Last year I entered a writing contest.

It was a flash fiction competition. The deal for the first round was you were assigned a genre and a few things to include in your story, and then two weeks later you had to submit your piece. Since I have been ruining my chance at a literary career by not writing my own things for about a decade — to illustrate this specifically, I did not finish a book while a Canadian literary giant who was championing it was still alive — I thought a two week timeframe was about right so that I didn’t collapse in a pile of goo.

The genre I got was fairy tale and I wrote a story that wasn’t very good about a young woman who learns she’s a fairy princess and kicks ass. But I wrote it.

I got the feedback from the reviewer, and had it focused on my lack of detail or somewhat stilted prose or that two of the characters’ dialogue sounded the same, I’d’ve agreed. But the feedback I got instead was that the story was unbelievable because in one day the fairy princess was able to complete three tasks and save the kingdom, the last being that she had a duel.

I had opened the story with her sword and martial arts achievements visible on her wall. Also, in the fairy tales I read growing up, it seems like the prince was able to complete his three tasks fairly expeditiously without it being a character flaw.

I was enraged and started working on My Own Stuff again for about three entire days, and then fizzled out.

Since then I have been working to make peace with the idea that I am not really a writer. Not because I got bad feedback — as a editor and a writer I know that is a necessary part of the process, even though I still am bad at the emotional part of it. But because the rage didn’t motivate me for very long. Because I don’t write. Because I have defined myself as “someday-a-writer-but-it-never-works-out” for 30 years and so obviously I just…am not.

I have said many more times in the last year that I am a martial artist than I have said anything about being a writer, not just out loud, but deep down. In the continued mental construction of my self, I had taken writer out of the building plans. I even told my writing partner I am not a writer any more, several times. (I think I was ignored.)

But right now I feel like I was building a nice modern restaurant, and I was about to launch it when the pipes burst. And when I took a sledgehammer to the wall to get a better look, I found a venerable old pub back there, with all my old drinking buddies at the bar…Anne Lamott, Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, Stephen King, John Gardner, Ralph Keyes. I’m not sure yet whether I’m having one drink for old times or creating a practice but…it’s so there.

I also feel like I can’t hold my liquor any more — well that’s torturing this metaphor. It’s stiff, writing these posts, and I feel like I’m hobbling around a dance competition. But here I am writing them.

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Falling on the Floor

I attended a PIAC conference this fall. The keynote speaker was Dr. Stuart Shanker, who outlined some of the differences between misbehaviour and stress behaviour. He also pointed the audience towards Dr. Mel Levine’s The Myth of Laziness. It was eye-opening as a parent to recognize how easy it’s been for me to forget my original parenting position which basically comes down to “kids will do good if they can and have the right support and guidance.” I’d fallen into some patterns of assuming laziness in my children for sure.

And myself.

The premise shared by both Dr. Shanker and Dr. Levine’s books are that if a child isn’t succeeding, there’s probably something in their way. Dr. Shanker looks at stress and anxiety in particular, and how that kicks children into “red brain” — a stressed, anxious response as if a tiger were chasing them through the woods. And people who are trapped in their red brains can’t access the parts of their brain that help them to learn and perform at a higher level.

Ding, ding, ding. I know allll about the red brain, trust me. As a person with PTSD, I’ve spent a lot of time learning to (somewhat) manage my broad-strokes fight-or-flight response, sometimes better, and sometimes not so well.

I often (not always) do some of the right things for the “big” PTSD-related issues- deep breaths, calm down, get centred, “fake it ’til you make it,” etc. Five years of therapy helped. And in some ways I feel like I’ve mastered some of that to the point that I can turn around in my journey and start to more openly share some successes with other people to see if that helps.

My martial arts journey has been a big part of that, since learning to get grounded in my body and be in a place where I can learn skills, physically, that are completely foreign to me, and work through any triggers and upset, physically, has been huge.  I spent decades of my life becoming an expert at not being in my body, so the idea of being expert at using my body is…ridiculous.

When I start a class, I’m always ready to be at the bottom of it. But I go anyway.

And because it’s martial arts, and that was just brand new to me when I started, I come to it without expectation. If this were a movie maybe that would make me really skilled at the martial arts part of it, but unfortunately, it doesn’t – I mean I even broke my leg doing it! But I am willing to fail 99 times out of 100, because I don’t confuse my beginner status with my own value as a human being. I don’t have a sense that I should do this better or that better. I identify as a martial artist not by my achievements but by my effort. (Technically, I guess, I have a growth mindset.)

And what’s more, I recognize that some weeks, my capacity to risk myself on the floor is more limited. And I’m okay with protecting myself that way and seeing it as part of the journey.

But…here’s the realization as I grapple with having a broken leg while starting a new job in a new field, which involves a lot of walking around and I can’t walk yet…I don’t always apply the same principles to other ares of my life.

I let my critical inner voice mistake inexperience for incompetence. I let the frustration of those around me impact me. I judge myself as not enough.

And to some degree, what I am always going for is what I’ll label supreme competence. I like to be good at my job, to be the expert, to be the one who can be relied on to think things through and do things right. I don’t think these are bad goals.  I don’t want to be a lousy martial artist, and I don’t want to be lousy at other things that I do. I want to excel.

The problem is that in one case, I let myself really experience my incompetence, and work to get better, and it adds to my day immeasurably. In the second case, I experience my incompetence, and work to get better, while beating myself up and feeling like shit about myself, and stressing out and eating chips and being cranky about chores, and it eats away at my days. And it makes it harder because that tiger of anxiety that says “you suck, you’re ruining things, you need to be better” is actually contributing to lack of success.

I learn and perform way better when I am not generating a field of anxiety. Like…really.

So simple, and so not.

 

 

Giddy up

20171204_225355It’s been a while! Quick summary: I loved my job at The Royal Conservatory for two years, but with Noah growing up sooo fast and Liam fast on his heels, as well as having fallen in love with martial arts, I took a job at what I will now refer to as The Academy as their operations manager in September. Anyone who thinks small business is calmer is crazy but being close to home and in the middle of the action has been really great. I still miss the RCM crew a lot.

Everyone asks, so I will say: I have a green belt which is not very close to black belt. 🙂

However in great irony, I broke my leg about two weeks ago!

Blessings of a broken leg
I have only been injured doing martial arts twice. Both times, I was pretending to be someone else. The first time, I was learning zero kicks (where you go right down on the ground as you kick) and I was imagining myself being Wonder Woman and ended up on my elbow. Later I realized the scene I was picturing was not a zero kick. Also, I am not Wonder Woman.

The second time was two weeks ago. I was learning jumping side kick, which looks like this although…lower, less spectacular. One of my fellow students, who is a young man, was inspiring me and so as I took my steps towards the target I was picturing the way he had done it. It was a perfectly decent kick from all accounts, but the landing was a little rough. I heard a snap, went down, and sure enough, I broke my fibula in two places and have new hardware.

My brain seeks patterns in all things, and so here’s lesson #1: Stop trying to do martial arts as someone else.

Or, you know, life.

I’ve been on a quiet path of renewed self-discovery over the past few years, but one part of my identity I haven’t plugged back into at all is storyteller. And so I’ve been stumbling around a bit. So here we go, back on the horse.

Here’s a moment. Everyone is out of the house on various errands this morning and I got myself coffee. I got a bag, filled a Contigo travel mug with coffee at the pot, put the mug in the bag and hobbled to the fridge, put milk in the mug, put the mug back in my back and hobbled back to bed with it. (My leg is still stuck on elevation, having it down even for 10 minutes makes it swell.)

This felt a bit like getting the keys to the car. It’s nice to know you’re never too old to take adolescent joy in independence.

Getting to okay: The foot feels the foot when it feels the ground

In March 2004, I went into labour after a very healthy, textbook pregnancy. 89 hours after her birth, my daughter Emily passed away due to damage to her body because of a lack of oxygen during delivery.
Bridge with water and trees Scarborough ON
That experience cast a oversized shadow. We live in an era of antibiotics and ultrasound. Carseats save lives. The kids, generally, are okay. But I have a hard-coded understanding that really bad things do not just happen to other children, out there. They actually can happen to mine.

One of the questions I’ve gotten from women who have experienced similar losses, especially when it’s new and fresh and raw and awful, is how will I ever be okay again?

When my eldest son came home from the hospital I was so completely freaked out that he was alive, because I had to keep him that way. I sat on the floor with him in my arms, receiving blankets stacked in the underneath of the change table, cold air from the air conditioning on my thigh, feeling him breathe. Please breathe, please breathe, please breathe is a tough postpartum mantra. But we made it. We were okay, enough anyway. Okay had moved. Two years earlier, okay would have been counting diapers. That year, it was getting up off the floor.

Point awarded: Life.
Butterfly at Colonel Danforth Park
On Monday, my youngest, Liam, age four, is having eye surgery at Sick Kids to remove a cataract. It’s a day surgery and as far as surgeries go, not a big deal. But he will have general anesthetic. It would be nice if he had a good shot at seeing things afterwards. And now I have to make that leap of faith over the gorge that was losing Emily that I can trust the medical team to look after him properly, because the last thing he needs is a parent who is a mess.

And it’s been all right. I have not asked the pre-anesthesia screening nurse to let the surgical team know I have filled my quota of coping with medical nastiness, so please would they keep in mind that the balance of good and evil for the entire universe depends on whether they do their jobs correctly. I haven’t even spent more than…well too many hours on Google.

But then this morning.

Grief rarely drops you a line saying Tuesday at camp drop off, you are going to watch your child launch himself at the stairs and then The Fear will arrive. That’s how I think of it, The Fear. There’s normal parenting fear. There’s the fear you feel the moment before the test results come back negative. And then there’s The Fear felt in that eternal second spent realizing the med tech was looking at your baby’s brain activity, and wiping a tear from his eye at the same time.
Bridge freezes sign at Colonel Danforth Park
Once it knows your address, The Fear can be an over-persistent caller. It lodges in the reptilian brain: Fire is hot, don’t put your toes over the edge of the cliff, your child might die. Might die this week. 

The Fear can be held at the threshold by logic, but logic won’t get it off the porch. It will wreck sleep, and concentration, and relationships. And I think, when people want to know if they will be okay, that’s one big part of it. How do we get The Fear to move on?

Here’s today’s answer out of a million possibilities.

photo 2 (1)I didn’t try to argue myself out my feelings. I didn’t head to emerg for a heart workup. I didn’t make a mimosa. Instead, I grabbed my camera and went for a walk, because it seemed like a better idea than even that protestant work ethic standard, Being Productive. And as I took the time to look at what was right there in front of me, everything behind me slowly shifted back into a manageable size. It was okay.

The pictures in this post are from that walk.