Tension of the Opposites

I often forget that my life is somewhat unconventional– That it requires further explanation to obvious meet-and-greet questions. I forget that answering the typical questions that arise with meeting someone new or catching up with someone old will often start a domino conversation effect that can go any number of ways. Sometimes it’s unintentionally critical questions, sometimes it’s the strangest of medical advice, and other times it’s this awful but easy-to-spot look that no matter what words they’re saying, it’s only the word doubt that’s written all over their face. Of course they’re not all this way, and sometimes when I let down my guard and am honest about my circumstances, it opens the door to friendships and closeness I would never have expected. There’s something about sharing a hardship (without being overly needy) and being heard openly, that evokes a certain trust between two people. It says I have seen the darkness too, and the space between them lessens.

There’s a whole spectrum of reactions, and even though I forget temporarily, for the most part I’ve grown used to and so prepare myself for the array of conversational tones and and twists and turns our exchange may take. It took a while but by now I can usually see where things are going fairly quickly and attempt to steer a conversation going nowhere either back to the other persons life or to an entirely new subject altogether. It’s for the best. Outside of the new and complicated, sometimes awkward anecdotes that come with simply talking to a person, my life feels very normal. On a personal, day-to-day level, I’ve grown used to the terms by which I live, and it’s usually when I share these terms with someone else, my large set of footnotes, that I remember how not normal my situation is. I long for the day when I can complain about my jerk boss, commiserate about the insane landlord of my apartment, (which in my fantasy always has big windows) and when my roommates are no longer my parents. No offense to them–they no doubt long for that day, too.

Living life with a chronic illness means a few things for me: It means being 32 and not working a real job. It means taking 25ish pills a day and still living under my parents wing. It means a lot of solitude and a lot of talking to the dog–probably more than to humans. It means I typically smell like BenGay or peppermint oil, and wear an ice pack on my head almost always. These things have aligned themselves under my own heading of conventional. They are my normal. But I forget that they’re not and require an often long, boring story that explains “my normal” that I’ve grown to cringe whenever I have to tell it. Reciting how and why you arrived at here and now, over and over and over out loud, you almost start to feel like a phony. I don’t know what it is, except that maybe after so long of recounting a story, one that could easily be labeled as unfortunate, in such a casual tone of voice that’s inarguably bored with itself, you begin to question how it is that you’re happy. How it is that you consider such ridiculous conditions as if they were commonplace and acceptable. You start to wonder why you aren’t more up in arms about the whole thing.

I don’t know when it became such a frequent place to end up, but lately I always find myself hanging in the tension between two opposites, struggling to find the fragile balance in the middle. Feeling bide between two of anything is usually unsettling at best, but can often (for me) be exhaustive torture. The two forces aren’t necessarily always polar opposites. Sometimes they’re merely dissimilar, but operate on the same plane. Think surrender and giving up. Gone unchecked, one can quietly ooze into the other, and suddenly you’re nowhere you ever meant to be. Sometimes they’re contradictory forces: maybe your heart wants something that the head doesn’t like. Other times it’s reconciling two truths at odds, choosing between two options and stuck in the messy mud of the middle. Since I consider myself pathologically plagued by indecisiveness, I seem to find myself living in this “tension between two” all the time. It’s trickled its way down from me flailing between two important choices, to agonizing over things as inconsequential as toothpaste. I’ve spent way too many hours of my life struggling in that aisle.

Currently, I find myself in the center of multiple conundrums, questions, opportunities, examinations.. Not all of them are quantifiable, and many of them seem to be ongoing or recurring. I lay in bed at night and the questions fly around the room like some kind of adult mobile made of cosmic curiosities and pitiful choices. Here’s an example of the things my brain has been tangled up with lately:

*How do I surrender to my circumstances and accept my reality without giving up on trying to make things better?

*How do I talk about being sick without getting caught up in my story?

*How do I write bearing the reader in mind without compromising authenticity?

*How do I maintain a sense of autonomy and identity knowing full well I am reliant on the help of others.

*How do I engage in advocacy that is proactive and realistic without losing myself and my worth in every day outcomes?

How do I satisfy this sweet craving without overdosing on gummy vitamins?

Welcome to what Carl Jung called “The Tension Between the Opposites.”

Jung taught that if you can withstand the tension between two opposites, if you can sustain the angst of being suspended in the middle for longer than what is typically comfortable, often possibilities and solutions will arise you wouldn’t have considered before. It can be an enlightening experience, but not easy, and often painful while in the thick of it. The waiting is tough. But if you can hold that tension, you’ll usually encounter what he referred to as ‘The Transcendent Third’. This new ‘third’ solution can involve both or neither of the two pieces you’re between, but in the wait, you can reach deeper into consciousness, and often that’s where the wisest answers can be found. “There will be two opposite approaches for solving it. Neither solution will be correct, but must undergo the tension that will result in a third approach.”

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“There will be two opposite approaches to solving a problem. Neither will be correct, but must undergo the tension that will result in a third approach.”

The world is so fast now. We rarely take the time to be still, to even allow a silence, mistaking it for boredom, or a space that must be filled. If you’d like to experience the discovery of the Transcendent Third, you have to answer the question that Lao Tzu posed on the matter: Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles? I’d say most of us don’t. Or we do but fail to realize it, living among a pace that’s fast and noisy and nearly impossible to keep up with.

Lately I’ve given a lot of thought to the concept of surrender; something I continue to learn and accept almost every day it seems. Among everything that being sick has taught me, surrender seems to stand out the most. Difficult beyond words, but once allowed in, it can feel like you’ve been given a glimpse of the divine. It can be a beautiful thing, but for me, learning it didn’t come easily. Or all at once.

For years before 2011, my body spoke to me in a language called pain. Fatigue. It said slow down, stop, you’re not getting any better. And for years I downplayed, dismissed, and sometimes outright denied to myself that there was a real problem. As things were falling apart inside, I strived to hang on to all the attachments that the illness slowly started to take.  I thought as long as I could keep my job, it lessened somehow the reality of having a disease. It diminished it to an anecdote. I had it, but it didn’t have me. As such, surrender came in pieces. Determined as I was, I couldn’t bare the tension of working, being sick and trying to get better. Convincing myself I could multi-task, I was actually just failing at three at once. Hah. Something had to give. I

will never forget that conversation in Andrews office, me holding back the tears as best as I could, saying I didn’t want to go. I had done my best, but my body just couldn’t take it anymore. Neither of us wanted me to worsen. We hugged and said that thing people say even when they know it’s not true. “I’ll see you again soon!”  Don’t worry, I told him. But he did look worried, something in his eyes. I punched my time card for the last time–yes the 100-year-old gallery still used time cards. On that drive home across the bridge to my parents house, I cried the whole way. I felt more lost and afraid than I ever had.

That was the end and the beginning. The next two years would be the hardest–the most brutal on every level. I resisted. Lied to myself. Conceived of ways I could return to the path I was on before getting sick. It felt like someone had sat on the remote control of my life and accidentally pressed the pause button. There was an incessant feeling that wherever I was, there was somewhere else I should be. Not this. Not here. I was sick when I should be well. In California when I should be home. At home on a weekday when I should be at work. I never had an inkling that Yep, this is right where I’m supposed to be. I thought if only I could survive this “wrinkle in time” I could resume the life I’d had before. Just like that. As if time moved in any direction but forward.

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Bye Old Life

I’ve had six years to adapt to the life I would feel proud to call my own again, but it certainly wasn’t  the one designed by my hand. I think the final straw that led to surrender was simply a matter of being too tired to fight. Somewhere after year 2, I let go of the last of my life plans–fed them into a shredder and watched as little paper ribbons emerged. Surrender. One part complete fear, one part total release. In hindsight it’s clear that the fear was mostly ego-driven. If I wasn’t designing my own outcomes, who or what was? And by the way, who could know the path I should take better than me? (Laughable now)  But the release had one up on the fear. It meant making room for the life that was waiting for me to finally begin. In fact I was the hindrance. I was the one sitting on the remote.

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My Life: Mid Rise Skinnies

After six years in the game, my life doesn’t feel foreign or as though it should be another way. It feels more like a perfectly worn-in pair of jeans. The ones where the denim is at that awesome level of soft and is tight and skinny in all the right places. I think jeans are one of the most personable clothing items. Have you ever tried someone else’s jeans on before? It feels like trying on clown pants. In the beginning, that’s what being home on a Tuesday at 2 pm felt like. Now that’s just business as usual.

I now struggle with the idea that if I surrender too much, if the circumstances of my life simply feel normal, I’ll become complacent. I’ll forget that it shouldn’t be this way. I’m not supposed to be sick all the time and spend vacations half conscious on the couch. But it’s become the norm. I don’t want to become so desensitized that a bookshelf filled entirely of my prescription bottles doesn’t shock me at all. And I don’t want to lose the fire in me to change the things we need to change, as a community that fought long and hard before I ever came around. I want to embrace and be happy where I am, but I want to be proactive. And so I’m trying to find the balance between enjoying the present while also remembering that there’s an injustice at play here, something that needs fixing. And I know that I have to try and help fix it.

I could easily be the one too sick to fight, just like millions of others with MECFS are, but I’d have no doubt that the warriors in the community would continue to work until it’s done. The baton might change hands but the balance remains. And just because I’ve tapped into joy and surrender and gratitude where I am, doesn’t change the fact that I am part of a community, one that has fought for this cause for decades. I owe it to them to do what I can. I am constantly seeking a way to advocate for what I know is right, but remain distant enough that my ego doesn’t get drawn in to the wrong efforts. It happens all too easily.

A very strange thing that might be hard to believe– I don’t actually love talking about being sick. Gasp. And I feel that I’m kind of terrible at the whole advocacy thing. Luckily online my awkwardness doesn’t shine through as much, but it’s still a struggle for me to solicit people to help, even though I believe 101% in the cause and am certain I’ll continue petitioning and fighting for it until the deed is done. But how can that be?How can it be true that I don’t like talking about being sick and yet I have an entire blog devoted to very subject: “Life through the sick lens”?

I’ve toyed a lot with these opposing truths and tried to understand how I could want both. And I think the answer is somewhere near this: By speaking honestly about the experience, particularly the chronic illness experience, which I found to be largely misunderstood, and by foregoing the typical polite response or social etiquette and supplementing it instead with what is true, I open up a space for us to move closer together instead of further apart. By writing about a topic that can be very isolating, I’m attempting to give people a chance to understand, instead of blindsiding them with “Well I live in mismatched pjs and I haven’t showered for a week because I’m too weak to shampoo my own hair and oh, you’ll never understand!” (Runs out of coffee shop. Trips. Continues running.)

Contrary to what I hear people say all the time, the world is actually full of good people, and most of them aren’t trying to hurt you. 99% of the ones I know are exceptional, and they are sympathetic and helpful about my situation when given the chance to be. But you have to be willing to reach out, which means you have to expose a need, and sometimes that’s the hardest part of all. I only know if I keep too tight a lid on my own unusual experience, hellbent that the world will just never get it, I will most likely be right, but it won’t be the worlds fault.

So, life continues, seeking out the peace in the middle. Waiting patiently for the right answer to arise in so many scenarios. And holding the tension between opposites long enough to tap into something deeper and wiser than I ever could be. It’s not the easiest thing, but it sure beats pulling my hair out between Crest Multi Care and Colgate Total at midnight in Walgreens. The point is to be still and patient, wait for the mud to settle, and allow enough time for my own transcendent third to arise.

Health, Happiness, Settling Mud

The Opposite of Boredom

A few noteworthy things of late.

I’m completely lost in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I began reading it Sunday and now I find myself attempting to read only small bits at a time because I’m already dreading it being over. It’s such a good read. The protagonist Jack really resonates with me but also Percy is such a creative and dead-on writer of things large and small. I admit reading his words make me feel like I could never write anything of worth if I tried for it my entire life. But on other pages his complex ideas play out so simply, his writing so accessible that it gives the assuring impression that anyone could do it. The story takes place in New Orleans mostly, among other Louisiana Parishes and the Mississippi coast. I love stories set here, not for reasons of pride but for how perfectly the landscape plays into the story, picking up where plot leaves off. Something huge would inevitably be lost were it to be told from Ohio…or Michigan. All parts of it from the dress, to the houses, to the unnerving racial tension are all intrinsically Southern, and you find yourself loving it whether you hate it or not. Also of note, Percy lived in Covington. He used to drive the bridge to New Orleans. I guess it’s encouraging to know something so inspiring came out of this little town that for so long I hated. Speaking of the bridge..

I had another moment of coherence. This time around mile marker 11. Monty and I were driving home once again, New Orleans to the Northshore, last Monday evening. It was a pretty nondescript Monday, cloudless with little traffic. But my thoughts were floating through me with the rhythm of the bumps per usual. Then I did this thing which I do a lot. A small amount of congested traffic formed from some kind of road repair, and as I slowed my car to a near-halt, I felt myself bracing for impact. Not from me but from a car behind. (No car in particular, I do this no matter who’s behind me) Then I imagined the loud crashing sound it would make and my airbags inflating. Then the last part which is usually the most unnerving for me, I saw my car crashing through the concrete barrier to my right,  and my feeble Toyota corolla with Monty and me inside it, falling slow motion into the water. Down, down we’d go.

like this. but less black and whiteness.
Like this. But less black and whiteness.

And usually the thought doesn’t end with a rescue. Usually it ends with me shuttering at the idea of the lights going out on my life so fast, and then me being jerked back to reality, convincing myself someway that death is nothing to think about. As though I’ll never die! But last Monday was different. I had the thought, I braced for impact, I saw the vision of my falling car. And then out of nowhere…tranquility. My mind felt placid. I may have even smiled. I thought how weightless that moment must be when you finally let go. The grand transition. Finally releasing something you’ve held so tightly onto, whether it was good to you or not. The surrender. The relief! It finally occurred to me that only being lost so deeply in the world garners that sort of fear about death. If we could interview those who have “passed on” (as I hear older religious folk say) I think they’d say it wasn’t that scary. Nothing compared to the rest of their life on earth scared to death imagining it! I’d love to get just one interview. It’s like I know all these dead people and none of them will give me the dirt.

Anyway, I can’t explain how reassuring that moment was on the bridge. I remember in California over a year ago, I was sicker than I’d ever been to the point I actually thought I might be dying. And I hated the idea. I was so overwhelmed by that possibility that often it brought me to tears and I’d have to excuse myself and physically catch my breath. In theory it should have been almost a relief to think about–an end to suffering. But I didn’t want to die. And I certainly didn’t want my last days on earth to be like the ones I was having there. Closed up indoors, lifeless, feeling very alone. It’s just interesting to me that now that I’ve really been living these last few months, and dare I say it, even–happy–my fear of death has lessened. I’ve enjoyed the park and the pool with Monty in the sun. I’ve gone to dinner parties. I’ve said yes to things that in my sick past were a big fat no. I’ve spent quality time with people I love, not doing a whole lot of anything at all but talking about life and people and laughing really, really hard. And there on the bridge, for maybe no more than a second, I didn’t fear death. I felt curious and interested. But I wasn’t tense bracing for impact. I was smiling at how much fun I’ve been having and how at ease with life I feel. You’d think that would make the idea of death more unnerving than ever, because it means an end to happy times. But the opposite occurred. From my perspective over the water, death was just another thing that happens. Maybe after all, it’s not that big a deal? Hah. That moment was the first I’ve had that it didn’t feel like this overwhelming weight baring that comes with the knowledge that one day we’re all going to die. And even though my normal angst about it has at least half returned, that moment has really stuck and it feels readily accessible still. There was something very casual about it, which made me trust it even more. Sometimes I find myself looking for grand answers, spectacles, formal explanations of life and existence..and this was not really that. It was a simple and tranquil instant of acceptance, and those are the moments that persist. I pet Monty’s velvet ears, turned up the music and into the distance we drove. That indistinct Monday turned out to be quite the evening as it were.

Besides my newfound excitement for death! (jk)… the Day Lily’s are back in bloom. I looked at all the colors sprouting up yesterday, noting that by nature’s calendar I’ve officially been in this house for one year. I remember writing about these flowers last year, excited for how life in the pool house might unfold. Funny I hardly remember what’s happened in the time since then. In some way the fact that nothing terrible stands out makes it safe to say it’s been a pretty decent year. I only know that being given the gift of “relative health” the last few months has truly been remarkable for me. I’ve been enjoying the hell out of so many moments– of friends and boys and late nights immensely–and I feel gratefulness overflowing in me. I don’t remember the last time I was bored. I’ve read and written and played Taylor Swift on my guitar ridiculously loud. When I’m sick I rest. When I have energy I go. But most notably is this gratitude and the awareness of this gratitude. It occurred to me recently that this is the opposite of boredom. When I feel gratitude I feel like I’m living with my eyes open. I’m often noticing things that were already there that I’d simply skipped over before. I like this feeling of being in touch with my aliveness, seeing the realm of possibility beyond personal limits, recognizing the awe-inspiring nature of everything alive. Maybe it’s why I love saving the frogs from the pool, or why I don’t get rid of the spider living in the corner of my bathroom. I don’t think you can be in tune to these truths and be also bored. Boredom uses a narrow vision, it sees life as something to happen for us and not from us. Even yesterday, which turned out to be a crash day spent in bed, I lost myself in the enjoyment of a book, completely grateful for the existence of novels and good authors. Then completely grateful for a nice house to read them in. I never got out of my pajamas or brushed my teeth. I didn’t exactly contribute to the world. And all the same, it was really a wonderful day. I know there was a recent time in my life when I wouldn’t have thought that to be so.

Health, Happiness, Opposites.