TRUST

I’m writing to you from the kitchen counter of a quiet house that isn’t mine. It’s a beautiful house, with gorgeous natural light, and the dog is sunning himself on the back patio. The only sound other than my typing is the steady static coming from the baby monitor next to me: my new boss enjoys white noise while he sleeps. You see, I started a new job this week, nannying for a twelve-week-old baby boy, and I cannot remember the last time I felt this resplendently content in my daily life and routine. 

Nothing about what I’m doing makes “sense” by conventional metrics; I’m overqualified for this job according to those measures, I’m deviating from (even sabotaging) my career path, and I don’t have a next logical step for what comes after this. And? I am so damn happy. 

Like all meaningful revelations, mine is so dead simple as to be almost laughable when written down. What I did to get here was learn to listen to myself again. And though that premise may sound straightforward enough, the internal pathway to this place took me through some pretty rough terrain. First, I had to realize that I had stopped listening to myself somewhere along the way; that I was ignoring my gut instinct, my still, small voice, and letting other voices crowd in and dominate my thinking, even down to my own opinion-formation about myself. This was not an easy revelation, to say the least, especially because along with it came the realization that my wife’s voice, which I had relied on for so many years, was no longer one I could trust. Birthing this truth took some time and came in stages. I am grateful (that seems a shallow word, really) to the people in my life who walked patiently and lovingly with me through my confusion as I worked to remember myself and untangle what had been from what still was.

There’s a lyric in a Fleet Foxes song, Helplessness Blues, that has always been meaningful to me: “And I know, I know you will keep me on the shelf / I’ll come back to you someday soon myself.”  This is what my closest orbit of friends and loved ones have done for me in these months – they have shown me to myself, insisted on their knowledge of me and coaxed me back into listening to and trusting my own voice. 

I started small, noticing when I would order a dish at a restaurant that I thought I “should” order versus what I wanted to order, and how it felt after I did that. Then I would give myself grace to try again next time and order what I actually wanted to eat. This may sound ridiculously simple, but the rush of gratification I got from giving myself permission to want what I want–game changing.

From there, I began to pay attention to the people around me who seemed to have what I wanted, a kind of freedom in inhabiting both their bodies and the choices they made for their bodies. Mind you, these were not people who had perfect circumstances or whose material situations I envied; when I looked closely (or as close as I could – some of these folks were friends, and others were people I followed at a distance), what they seemed to have in common were a couple of things: willingness to break with convention, a life intentionally centered around their values, and a clear sense of what they really wanted. Not what they had been trained or socialized or programmed to want, not what others wanted for them, but what they really and truly wanted. Also, they were willing to disappoint others – even those closest to them – to get there. If someone didn’t get where they were going or what they were up to, that was okay; but these people I admired were not going to let that stand in their way.

So I tried to learn from them; seek out the tools they used and study them. I did a lot of reading and learning and self-examination. Some of it was not fun! And, as I write this, I want to be clear; living more authentically is a practice I am engaged in ongoingly. Everyone I have tried to emulate in this regard has said the same thing—there’s no arriving. There’s just the work. Work that will continue and shift and change as our lives do. 

I’m glad I didn’t wait to start doing that work, or to pick it up from when I was younger (I honestly think my nineteen year old self was living pretty darn authentically, back in the day). I don’t care if it doesn’t make sense to anyone but me, because my relationship with myself is the one that I put first these days. And when I asked myself, before the move back to Houston, What is it that we want to do?, she answered back right away, Get paid to hold a babyBe of service. Make lots of art.

Thank goodness I listened to her. She is very wise, that self of mine. And I’ll bet yours is, too.

VALUES

Getting holiday cards in the mail this year was a tricky experience; it’s not that they didn’t bring me joy (they did), but I’d be lying if I said that the images of smiling families and the dispatches from regular old life didn’t sting. 

It’s complicated, the way we share our lives, image-saturated both literally (we are flooded with visuals to a historically unprecedented degree) and thematically (this has, you could argue, led to an obsession with public-facing appearance or “how things look” on the surface/for certain media platforms). I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, or that hadn’t already occurred to me, either, but the difference between a theoretical observation and felt-in-the-body-like-a-gut-punch is, well…it’ll leave you breathless.

– 

One of the practices that I adopted from Jill, my I-don’t-know-what-to-call-her, is a core values journaling exercise. She’s used it for years with participants in her American Leadership Forum classes, and I loved the exercise so much that I adapted it to use with middle and then high school students. My practice has always been to journal along with my classes, to write as they write, to engage with whatever it is I am asking them to engage with – or, if they are engaging with a prompt I’ve already engaged with, to write something of meaning for myself as they write. 

This exercise is designed to do what it sounds like: to help participants identify and reflect on their core values. Not the values that have been placed on them by society or their families of origin, not necessarily even the values that have gotten them where they are in that moment, but the values that they themselves wish to live by going forward. They get to choose. Which values do they wish to hold at the center? 

The last time I sat down with students (back in Arizona, back in 2021) to do this exercise, I was clear that the values that had long been my trademarks—love, generosity, and joy—still rang true but would not get me wherever it was that I needed to go next. It’s not that I planned to, or did, give up on love, generosity, or joy, but rather that I felt like I had really learned how to integrate those values and their lessons into my daily living. What I found myself craving were the edges that some new language could bring. And so, honesty, humility, authenticity became my touchstones.

If you’ve done any personal/spiritual/growth work ever, you know how this goes; the second you declare This is what I’d like to work on, and life/god/universe/spirit says Okay! Here are a half-a-dozen really intense places in your life to do that! 

So, that’s where I am right now. It’s all well and good to declare some core values on a piece of paper, and a whole other thing to truly actualize them when shit gets real. When the temptation to care about how things look, to wonder who may be invested in the she said/she said, to worry that my life seems like a disappointment or a failure or an embarrassment no longer worthy of a holiday card.

Only, how did I say I would measure? Honesty, humility, authenticity. If I make a fearless inventory according to those values, I have done the best I know how to do. I have told the truth as I know it; I have accepted both my limits and my capacities; I have chosen to live in the ways that make my heart sing. Am I faultless? Heck no. I’ve had, and will continue to have, forgivenesses to ask, and I will continue to ask for them. Growth is messy, and not at all linear, and it is difficult to express in a social media post, though I’m not above trying. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is this; living by your values may mean freaking out your parents, or shifting some of what you thought were your longest-standing relationships, or making big, fat changes to your life that are just not at all what you planned. You’ve got to hold tight to those values for all you’re worth; that’s why you choose them pre-crisis. You said, I plant my flag here. This is the hill I am willing to die on. Did you not mean that?

No one said it was gonna be easy, babe, but I have the feeling it’s going to be worth it.

LIMINAL

It’s a weird time of year, and it’s a weird time in my life. That’s just what there is.

Weird is not synonymous with bad; I don’t mind liminal spaces. I have some experience with them: death, illness, adoption, chronic pain all come to mind. But this one (cohabitating through the end of a marriage) is new to me, and I am new inside of it, so I find myself gazing about, examining the texture of the walls, the quality of the light, and my own reflection in the mirrors. 

One of my best tricks when I feel a bit unmoored is to take stock of what I know for sure. The Great Inbetween may not be so excellent at providing comfort, but growth opportunities? Plentiful. I know it would be a mistake to put my head down and barrel through the coming weeks without pausing to inventory what I’m learning along the way. 

So, in no particular order, and in the hopes that some of these might ring a bell with some of you, I present: 

Shit I Am Grateful to Have Learned, Some of It the Hard Way

  • Health is an integrated concept. There’s no separation between mental and physical well-being; it’s all one thing. Bodies carry so much wisdom, and we ignore that wisdom at our peril. For me, so much came into focus around these ideas in the past couple of months: my understanding of my journey with migraines and chronic pain, as well as an embodied knowing that I cannot be the person I want or truly feel I am meant to be if I do not take radical care of myself. I still have to fight against old messaging that to put myself first in this way is selfish and therefore wrong (hoo boy that stuff is cultural and also gendered), but I’m learning, with lots and lots of help.
  • Speaking of help, it feels good to ask for help when you need it. There’s just something radically honest about saying I cannot get through this alone. This period of life has found me at my most wildly vulnerable, both literally and metaphorically prone on my knees, and reaching out has been an incredibly natural impulse, the way Shiv used to lift up her arms and say “Hold you,” when what she meant was Hold me
  • Related truth: my friends are worth their freaking weight in gold. For real life (another Shiv-ism). I am so powerfully blessed and more thankful than I know how to put into words. I know some rock-solid humans, and they are walking with me so beautifully right now. It means everything.
  • I’m a lot tougher than I thought. In fact, I think maybe I had forgotten some things about myself, or come to believe some things about me that weren’t true. Feels good to remember myself, equal parts revelation and return. In so many aspects, I feel much like the person I was at nineteen, in essence. Sometimes it feels like the last twenty years have been about confirming the things I suspected were true back then but didn’t yet have the life experience to back up! In any case, I wish I could go back and tell that young woman what a badass she is. She had no idea, and I am so damn proud of her, of us. No regrets.
  • Yoga, man. That shit is so good! I mean, seriously, if that’s the only thing my ancestors had contributed to “civilization,” they could have just dropped the mic and peaced out right then and there. I have gone through periods of my life where it’s felt like yoga has saved my life, and this is one of them. Yoga forever. 
  • I need spiritual community, conversation, and stimulation. I neglected this part of me for the years we lived in Phoenix, and all parts of me (health, creativity, vitality, energy, etc.) suffered as a result. Sometimes I think that I have to solve a problem all on my own—this is a recovering overachiever issue—and then someone in my life will remind me that I can ask for help (see above), which can also include prayer. For me, prayer is often about asking for help to a force or forces that I cannot see, which some people call “speaking an intention out into the universe.” That may sound woo-woo as shit, but, in my experience, it works. What, I’m going to manifest a spiritual community by holding that desire tight inside my own brain? Probably not. Instead, by sharing that desire widely, I am much more likely to find places to match up to my need. I did, and I am grateful.
  • My impulse to judge how others move through life is so much more about me than them. You know, I knew this, but this lesson has been powerfully repeated of late. I used to be arrogant about what it meant to be in a long-term relationship, judgmental about what caused marriages to end. I really had no idea. You never do, right? Each human life is full of more pain and complication than we’ll ever know; when I am tempted to think “I could do better,” it’s because I’m afraid I could not. Ah, irony. Humility is such good water for me to swim in right now; it makes me a better-rounded omnivore of the human experience.
  • I’m a big dog person. My life is better with a big dog in it. I went too long without a big dog in my life; I won’t make that mistake again.

What did you learn (or re-learn) about yourself, or life, this year? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!