Friday, October 22, 2010

beauty and the brain

As much as I am absorbed in graduate school, my exciting thesis research and a wonderful internship experience, I miss my life lived in Spanish. The life I lived for one precious month in Puebla, Mexico last summer. It's only been two months since my return and the season in Portland has just now fully changed into fall. But that time seems far away and long ago...

Was it a dream?

It feels dreamy, that much is certain. And I've been pondering why I miss it so very much. Not just the pace and texture of my days in Mexico, but the actually learning and speaking Spanish. One of the most magical discoveries was that my brain loves learning Spanish! I had never studied another language, so this came as a surprise. I would never have guessed that I had a flair for language learning, but I guess my fluency and over-sized vocabulary in English is a great asset in learning a second language! Finally, the fruits of all my reading in the classics as a teen has paid off. I certainly didn't progress in the social domain in those years, but I obviously laid down some rich layers of knowledge that is finally being put to use.

But why? Why does it feel so good to learn a new language? Why does it bring such delight?

These are questions I have been turning over in the back of my mind, as I go through my day, listening to music in Spanish on my ipod and teasing out the words I know. Like adjusting the lens of a manual camera, slowly a phrase comes into focus and I realize...oh, wow. I know what that means! It is a endlessly fascinating puzzle. And my brain loves puzzles, it keeps the busy mind occupied and engaged. New cells grow, new pathways are forged and new connections stitched together, one syllable at a time.

I finally figured it out the other day, when I realized there is another part to the story of my happiness in Mexico. I felt extraordinarily beautiful there, in ways I rarely feel here in Portland or anywhere in the US. In Portland, I have felt very invisible, especially the past few years. For most of my life since puberty, I've felt not attractive enough, less than others around me, too chubby to be worthy of notice and absolutely not beautiful. Call me irrational, I know it's silly...but that doesn't make it less true. I've certainly written plenty here on self-image and my struggles with this at different points of my life.

But here is the thing. My busy, heckling brain just is wild and hard to tame. I tell it to shut the hell up and stop speaking so very rudely to me, stop cutting me down and nitpicking. But the negative chatter is endless, a fluid stream of self-abuse with precious little space for breaks. How does one quiet a critical left brain, exactly?


Yes, a puzzle so vast and challenging that there is not one single twitch of energy left for criticizing. During my intensive study, the learning of Spanish and the daily task of living in a new language took over my brain completely. The chatter dropped away and what was left was freedom. Freedom and spaciousness. Call it a month-long meditation in Spanish. For what is meditation than focused mindfulness? And let me tell you, living life in another language, one in which I am not anywhere near fluent? That takes some careful, fully present listening to accomplish. It's mindfulness, all day long.

In that space, my sweet, soft right brain...the intuitive, soulful part of my intelligence finally had a chance to be heard. Not only heard, but believed. I relaxed into my body, I bloomed inside and out. Worry lines disappeared from my face. And everywhere I went in Mexico, I felt beautiful. In fact, I was an exotic beauty there and I felt seen, more than seen...appreciated. People looked, noticed and approved. I began to believe other people's opinion on the subject of beauty might have more merit than my own. After all, my one vote against so many! 

Throughout my life, I have invested alot of energy into being smart, often to compensate for perceived deficiencies in my looks. Having people think I am smart has driven me, because early on, I decided I was not pretty enough. In Spanish, I sound like a small child, which probably makes me seem dumb as an adult. After all, I am a beginner in this new language. So before I went to study in Mexico, I decided I would have to let go of my ego attachment to being viewed as smart. To learn well, I would have to allow myself to make mistakes, to try to speak as much as possible and to sound pretty dumb in the process. What was so surprising was once there, I didn't care! Who cares if people think I am dumb, here they see me as beautiful. I spent my life proving I was smart because I felt ugly and suddenly, I was delighted to be thought dumb, but pretty!

I crave Spanish because within a new language, I can escape fully from my self-critical chatter. I have no words to degrade in Spanish...I have no bad habits of thought to fight against. In Spanish, my left brain is busy and happy, my right brain is contented and open.

And I don't worry about beautiful or not beautiful. Good enough or not enough. I just am.

In Spanish, I have a clean slate upon which to write this life-long conversation with myself. A new menu of words with phrases of my choosing. It is a deep, profound fresh start and I never could have predicted this in a million years.

Friday, September 24, 2010

restless heart in the rain

The past few weeks, persistent clouds and daily raindrops have returned to Portland. Fall seems to be here and for me, it feels much too soon. I had pictured a lovely, golden evening for my birthday last Friday and hosting a cocktail party on my pretty patio in my new apartment. It was not to be, the weather insisted on delivering a cold, wet weekend. It is silly to complain about weather, something I can do nothing to change. Anytime I can catch a bit of sun in my day, it feels like a surprise gift - and like a cat, I want to stop everything, stretch out and soak up the warmth.

It's fair to say I am hungry for sunshine. And I've been restless, so very restless.

After the month in Mexico, it has been a bit of a struggle setting back into my life in Portland since the weather turned and school began again. Yesterday I was reflecting on this and asked myself why? Why is this so hard for me now, when in the past I relished the coming of cool temperatures and rain?

Who was that girl that loved the cloudy skies and the drama of what most people consider "bad weather"?

When I was 19 I went to Europe for a year and ended up, (by design) working in Scotland. I adored the dreary climate, the sky full of clouds, sometimes dynamic, but often like a soft, solid gray blanket. Wearing layers of wool, rain boots and carrying an umbrella made me feel happy and comforted. And even as recently as eight years ago, when I chose to relocate here in the Pacific Northwest, I relished the often gloomy weather. I was attracted to cloudy skies!

That girl, my friends, was depressed. For years of my adult life, I was depressed. Was that true at 19? Maybe, I might have been depressed then. But more likely the whole truth is that I also used to romanticize darkness and struggle and yes, even depression. At 19, I felt sure one couldn't make great art if one was happy. Only Pollyannas were happy. And everyone knows that Pollyannas aren't making great important art, right?

When I get really honest with myself, I can see that even eight years ago, when I moved here, I still held on to some of those childish notions about happiness and the relationship between darkness and creativity, too. Slowly, I have shed those sad skins I carried for so long. Life has surprised me with joy and I've changed into someone who loves living in the light. I'm not afraid of having my dark and messy parts exposed by bright sunshine. I crave it, in fact. I can't ever remember a time I was this happy and even though I am talking about feeling restless, I am also solidly content within myself. This is new, it is extraordinary!

And so I don't find dark days, cloudy skies and wet weather comforting. The gray blanket just feels oppressive now...

I used to need weather that matched my mood. Correction: I still need weather that matches my mood, but the inner climate has changed. I feel sunny on the inside and I crave the support that warm sunshine brings to my spirit. These gray days have me feeling very restless and I am thinking hard about moving south, towards more sun, more warmth...

Could I uproot my life again at this stage? What would it mean to replant myself in warm soil, in a sunny climate? This restless heart wants to find out...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The flood

What happens when ice melts quickly? A flood of water usually follows a rapid thaw. Imagine a woman with a heart frozen against love. Bitterly disappointed with romance, she had retreated into indifference, independence and yes, even disdain for the messy emotions of falling in love. She kept very busy making a life that was full, too full for another. A home that couldn't possibly welcome another person living there as well. She made half-hearted attempts at dating because she thought she should. She became comfortable with the notion that true love and partnership just isn't in the cards for everyone. She believed that love was not in the cards for her, not in this lifetime. She planned a future centered around work and friends. She said "it's enough".

I've already told you the ice melts, so you know what's coming, don't you?

Yes. In a wildly beautiful place in the tropics, something changed. She softened. There was a long, agonizing moment of sincere hesitation, of weighing the options. Stay as I am, stuck? Or risk...and change my life. She wanted change, she wanted a different perspective on love and life. A lovely opportunity stood before her, beckoning...

It was the last night of the old year. It was a full moon, better yet, a blue moon. There was a sailboat and a sunset. She decided to trust. She said yes. The ice melted, her heart cracked open. It's a new year, a new self. She is content and happy in her body like never before.

Anything and everything feels possible. A seed is planted.

And later, there is a pregnancy that doesn't get far before it fades away on it's own. But before it ends, she looks into her future and is surprised to be delighted to have to change plans, to make space. She wants nothing more than to make space for her lover and a child. Her heart cracks open wide, then wider. There is only a flood of emotion for a while.

Eventually the lover fades away as well, but the space in her life, in her heart remains open. She looks at the world with new eyes. Her intuitive self has grown strong and sure. Her self-critical voice has grown quieter.

Falling in love takes on new meaning: growth, expansion, beauty. The flood shifted the very ground beneath her feet and she now finds herself in a new place.

A very good place...

Monday, July 12, 2010

R & R in my own nest

After a very long, arduous month of packing and moving (layered on top of full time summer classes -replete with piles of reading, paper writing and the like) I am finally, fully and most of all, happily living in my new home.

That it was an epic struggle to get here should have come as no surprise. Like a limpet wedged into a crack in a rock being pounded by the sea, I was entrenched in my old place, body, soul and possessions. Holy crap, what a massive amount of possessions I own. It's easy to fall into self-disgust and tempting to just make a bonfire to purge the excess. Much harder to actually sort, sift, pack and label.

I took the harder path, dear readers. Everyone says "moving sucks". And so it does. So some folks never budge from their spot on the planet and that's ok. Others, like me, feel the need for change at regular intervals. I was restless and unhappy in my old situation at year three, but being in the middle of cancer treatment and such was a suitable distraction. As year five rolled around, I knew in the back of my mind that something had to break. My trip to Mexico in late December clarified that tension so much that I formulated a plan.

The whole situation was driven by financial issues. Namely, too much debt and too little income for too long. Crawling out of the hole created in my financial picture by the cancer experience has taken time and careful planning.

At this moment, in the sanctuary that is my new home, I am flooded with gratitude.

For the first time in seven years, I am experiencing a sense of total peace and relaxation in my home. I cannot stress enough what a profound shift this is in my life. Even with boxes still to unpack here and there, I have been able to expand and sink down into deep relaxation. My new back porch is a dreamy space, with a view of the mountain and valley below that continually opens my perspective. I can literally see the bigger picture! A beautiful Mayan hammock, brought back from my trip to Tulum, Mexico, many years ago is now hanging on the porch. And even better, I have been spending time enfolded in this hammock - just lounging.

Typically, I have to travel far away from home to find this type of relaxing.

Another key change in my life-style which directly affects my level of happiness or depression took some bold decision making as well. In May, I cut off my cable plan and gave away my TV. Pretty radical stuff for anyone living in US culture! As my spiritual fog began to clear at the start of the year, I remembered that the last period in my life where I felt fully happy, engaged, physically in shape and often found time to make art...was when I got rid of my TV. When I realized this, the choice to get TV out of my life was easy. But just like quitting anything addictive, the first few weeks are jumpy and restless. It took time to settle my anxious energy down in other, more meditative ways. I planned this for a time when I was very busy packing to move and taking classes, which helped tremendously. Now, I don't have any urge to watch. I feel free!

This new chapter seems to have and emerging theme: seeing beyond. Seeing bigger and further, outside the four walls of home and outside the TV box as well. I have been pretty self-absorbed and inner-focused for a long while now. Entering this graduate school program has begun to draw me out into the bigger world again, the world full of people to help and important work to do. Finally leaving my apartment managing job and the living situation attached to it has opened up a door to a place where I am more comfortable being in the world because I have a serene sanctuary to recharge my batteries at the end of each day. With a retreat of my own, I can expand and experience more of the world.

Experiencing this sense of opening is truly beautiful. I've been waking up smiling.
I've effortlessly become more social and excited to spend time with others. My friendships are more joyful.

p.s. I'm about to embark on a big adventure next week. A whole month in Puebla, Mexico, studying Spanish in an immersion program. I'll even be doing a home-stay so all my waking hours will be lived in Spanish. It is exciting and something I have dreamed about doing for years. While I am away, I will be blogging on Found Object, so if you are inclined, you can follow my journey.

Friday, May 28, 2010

change: a room with a view

in my last post i wrote about changes of the heart. today i am here to share changes in the concrete realm. i'm moving house, to be exact! this is really big news, actually. and not simply because it's an exciting, refreshing change of locale, but also because i am quitting my post as a property manager and leaping out into the world focused solely on graduate school. this means giving up a piece of financial security that i have clung to through good times and bad the past 5 1/2 years. i'll be paying rent again and for the next year, living entirely on student loans ~plus whatever bits and pieces of employment come my way in the education field.

i believe strongly that you must sometimes close one door for another to open. i am making space in my life for a different livelihood. and i couldn't be more relieved, it's a heavy weight left behind, leaving the demands of this job. already, i have been getting some work here and there in may as a teaching substitute at the alternative high school where i interned this year.

i am flinging the door wide open for the universe to step in with something new.

so as you can imagine, i'll be spending the month of june moving and settling. at the moment, i am up to my neck in packing, sorting, sifting, tossing, donating...with a bit of hand-wringing thrown in the mix!

geographically, it's not a huge distance i am moving, but the shift in perspective is significant. i found a darling 1910 up-down duplex on the other side of the massive river that splits portland in two. it's a culture shift, moving to the westside...closer to downtown. my new neighborhood is really nice, with similar amenities to my current residence, sans a great grocery store i can walk to in nice weather. but this is a minor price to pay for an adorable apartment bursting with everything on my wish list, plus more!

an amazing view of the whole river valley and mount hood from a large, covered back porch, all my own ~ that tops the list. then there is the original wood floors and high ceilings, charming rooms painted lovely colors. light and space and a gas range! after years of suffering with an electric stove, i am thrilled to have a gas range again. also, half of the basement is mine for storage and i share laundry with only one other person. to many of you, this might not seem like a big deal, but after all these years of going outside, down stairs, in the rain to do laundry on coin machines...this feature has me giddy.

in portland, simply finding an affordable rental that will take a dog is a trial, and on a grad student's budget, i was combing the ads for months before this place popped up. the whole thing came together seamlessly and easily...i feel so blessed.

next week, i will get the keys and as i am in full time summer classes, the move will take place in smallish chunks throughout the month of june. by july first, i will be sitting with a well-deserved cocktail in a pretty glass on my back porch, gazing out at a new vista.

i've never had a room with a view, except on vacation.

when i got home from mexico on january 11, after nearly two weeks spent gazing at a beautiful view, i knew something must change. something had already changed, in fact. i had changed on that trip. i came home knowing, but not quite ready to even say to myself, that it was time to leave my job. my life and workload combining both grad school and apartment managing was not sustainable. and i was newly in touch with the conviction that everything i do needs to be moving me forward. i broke through something at the new year. no more holding patterns. i was ready to abandon safety and take more risks. ready to trust in new ways.

so here i am, stepping out of the financial safety and employment holding pattern. here i am, closing that door behind me, knowing it is exactly the right time to leave. here i am, ready and open for what is next. employment that is sustainable and growth-oriented, not just something holding me in place.

stay tuned for photos of the new place. it's so exciting to be moving into a gorgeous space again. i can't wait to hang my art and arrange my rooms...

Monday, May 17, 2010

alive with change

oh goodness, here i am again, just when you all have most likely given up hope! it may well be impossible to communicate how absorbing graduate school and life has been, or how each day is full to bursting...

i am sorry for dropping out of your lives for so long. faithful readers of this blog, you deserve better treatment!

so today, i am back in blogging mode, with the head space to write. this conversational style of writing almost feels wrong, after my complete switch to academic writing. and what a large volume of writing it has been this year! and reading, piles and piles of reading and research! i am learning things that make me excited to be alive, inspired to be entering a field with so much potential for growth and change.

i figured out recently that as much as i crave peace and stillness...i love change.

progress. change. pushing limits. these are the things that occupy my thoughts. after what seems like a lifetime of viewing the glass half-empty, i have stepped fully into optimism! what a dramatic shift in thinking and feeling i've experienced in the last nine months or so. reflecting on how and why, i can only conclude that my energy has become centered on helping others - which automatically pulls me out of self-absorption. the difference in my outlook and happiness level is dramatic, to say the least.

you all know how many months i spent all my energy on healing my body and how difficult that journey was on every level. the process demanded self-absorption and this blog is a record of exactly that. i am so grateful for you, dear sweet readers, who took a friendly interest in my story and my struggles. your support held me in just the ways i needed! thank you, a thousand times, thank you!

the story of my past few months is a good one, with bits too juicy to tell the world, frankly. i've had my heart cracked open in the most surprising ways, the best possible ways. i am full of joy and for the first time in many years, i believe in love again. truth be told, my heart has been shut tight against romantic love for a very long while. i had experienced so much hurt and betrayal, i just couldn't see the benefit of a partner. i viewed the glass as half-empty. all i could see was the risk, compromise and sacrifice required to be with someone.

this has all changed. i have been struck with some powerful magic in this area. my heart is wide open. and even though i now have allowed myself to feel the space beside me that i want to be filled by someone very special, somehow even that empty space is ok. it's not always comfortable, but i have realized that i must hold that space open in my heart for anyone to enter my life. in the past, i have viewed that "holding space" thing as caving in to society's expectations, or somehow admitting that i was incomplete, that my life was missing something important.

now, i know that i am complete, but also open to expansion and to the kind of growth, change and balance that a partner can bring. being whole as i am and also wanting to be partnered aren't mutually exclusive states of being. now, i just don't see matters of the heart as black and white. love isn't a equation, easy to understand and explain. in fact, love is full of mystery, it's sometimes messy and words can only make feeble attempts to describe it. but when love enters your life and you're listening, it is clear.

so all i will say on love is that my heart has changed.
i'm trusting my heart more these days. i'm listening differently and that is a welcome change...

Friday, February 5, 2010

a tiny update: all is well in my world

oh, my friends the stories i have to tell you! but no time to write here, grad school and work and closing the jewelry studio has consumed every waking moment. some stories are even so good and spicy, i won't be telling them here, for the world to read. but i know you, my most faithful readers, still want news!! thank-you for asking for news, i am sorry to have neglected this blog for so long.

i am happy. i am well. i am better than good.

more news soon, soon. within the month of february, how about that?