Monday, 31 March 2014

On Vulnerability

I discovered TED talks a while ago, and watch them from time to time when I want to feel inspired.  The other day I watched this one, on vulnerability, and it occured to me that this has been a theme of the past month - my lesson from the universe, if you like.

Some things were said to me recently by one of our residents (in quite an advanced state of inebriation) which made me quite angry.  I will do anything to avoid confrontation, so at the time I said nothing, and even managed to be mindful of my breathing to keep myself grounded.  Afterwards I was furious - all the things I wished I'd said rattled around in my head like poisonous snakes.  Even though I was angry - and the more I thought about it, the more angry I got - I realised that this was a powerful opportunity for learning.  I tried feeling gratitude to the person for this opportunity, but that didn't work.  I tried sitting with my anger, accepting it, but that didn't work either.  By "work", I mean make it go away.  I was uncomfortable.  I'm generally a happy person, and this anger was causing me to suffer.

I opened my Eckhart Tolle book, Stillness Speaks, at random, and here's what he said: if you can't accept your anger as it is, then accept that you can't accept it.  This at least calmed me down.  I went for a long walk and the anger subsided, but it was still there, waiting to be rekindled.  When I got home there was a message in my inbox from the person in question, apologising and asking for forgiveness, and the anger immediately dissolved.

There is so much learning in this.

First, I learned that I can't deal with anger.  I can't deal with other people's anger, and I can't deal with my own.  I just don't know what to do with it.

Second, what was it that made the anger go away?  It wasn't just the apology - because although it takes courage to apologise, it's not so hard to apologise for things you said when you were so drunk that you don't even remember saying them.  What dissolved the anger was that the other person made herself vulnerable by asking me to forgive her.  I know about empathy.  I know that if I'd lived her life then I would behave just the way she does.  I spent most of my long walk reminding myself of these things, trying hard to feel compassionate and feeling a bit miserable about failing.  All it took was an admission of vulnerability, and all my anger crumbled.  Why?  Because I know that I'm vulnerable too.  That's where the anger came from in the first place.

Third is the more difficult lesson to learn.  I became angry because what she said to me made me feel vulnerable.  It doesn't matter if I tell myself "she was drunk, she didn't know what she was saying".  When people are drunk they say what they really think.  She made me question my self.  Am I a good person?  Am I worthy?  Am I worthy of love?  Some people have an uncanny knack of seeing your weakest point and honing straight in on it.  I usually avoid these people.  I avoid the people who wear a spiky armour to keep others at a distance, whose energy prickles and crackles and threatens to sting if you get too close.  I'm drawn to people who don't mind admitting their vulnerability, who wear their hearts on their sleves - who show courage (from the latin route coer, meaning heart; telling the story of who you are with your full heart).  I'm drawn to these people because I want to be like them; I want to be courageous, and when I'm with them I can be.  When they show me their vulnerability, I feel able to show mine, and so we connect.

If I want to grow, and become the best possible version of myself (which I do), then my homework now is to be that courageous person.  To meet pricklyness with vulnerability.  To accept that I'm afraid of being stung, but to go ahead and try to connect anyway.   This is really scary.

Monday, 10 March 2014

It's all about the journey

February was a month of travel and discovery.  I love to travel, being on trains and having nothing to do but read, or think, or just look out of the window at the scenery sweeping by.  I read Ali Smith's lovely collection of essays, "Artful", which brought me to "Sleepless Nights" by Elizabeth Hardwick.  She writes "The first thing you have to understand when you travel is that you don't exist."  That sense of being outside of time, even outside my own life, is one of the things I love about travelling - and the thing that makes me uneasy these days if I travel for too long.  A curious thing also happens on Rum when people leave; its as though they cease to exist.  It works the other way too; the island ceases to exist for me when I'm no longer on it. 

My journey was a three act play: first stop Musselburgh ("the honest toun") to visit friends, look around Edinburgh's Portrait Gallery (filled mainly with portraits of rather pompous looking plump men), and see an installation of life-size Chinese warriors made from lit up paper lanterns. 

Act two: Kent, catching up with uncles and cousins and visiting my Gran, now in a nursing home but still with us - just.  She's 60 years older than me and it makes me dizzy to think about how much has changed in her lifetime.  She's so thin and frail and tired, can't see or hear very well, or eat properly.  She has to have thickening powder in her drink otherwise she chokes when she swallows, but complains that it tastes horrible so she can't even enjoy a cup of tea any more.  It breaks my heart to see her like this; old age is brutal.  The visit has got me thinking about my own death and how many more years I can feasibly expect to live.  Have I already passed half-way?  I can think about it in a relaxed way because I'm assuming I'll live to at least 80, in which case I have more than half my life still to go.  It's probably best not to know.

 The final act: happy times in Weymouth - a lot of water down south - an anti-valentine's dinner
with two of my single friends and a storm overnight to rival the ones I'm used to on Rum.  We talked about our relationships, their failure, and our general experience of incompetent men - all the competent ones were of course snapped up years ago by more sensible women than us, and are now married with children.  Are they all incompetent though, or do we just have unrealistic expectations of them?  We didn't manage to reach a consensus, despite the generous application of West Country cider.

On my last day in Dorset I set out to visit Bridport, home of the Bridport Short Story Prize.  My bus from Dorchester got caught in a huge long tailback caused by a fallen tree which was going to take at least two hours to clear, so I hopped off the bus and flagged down a motorist who'd turned round and was heading back the way.  Would she mind giving me a lift to Dorchester?  She would not mind at all.  She'd been visiting her boyfriend and was on her way home to Exeter where she was about to hand in her notice at work and embark on a qualification in nursery teaching.  On the way back into town we passed through Poundbury, the new town designed by Prince Charles, which has a creepy, unreal feel to it.  Like a movie set, or a town  evacuated following the outbreak of some horrible disease... I love the random things that happen on holiday.

Another train journey and a night in London, where it occured to me there that Rum is the exact opposite of London.  In the time it took to get from the British Museum to my friend's aunt's house, I was exhausted by the noise, the constant press of people, the signs, instructions, and notices, but most of all by the noise.  I strive for mindfulness in each moment, but in London there's so much noise and activity that it becomes overwhelming.  My friend assures me that for all the stress and hustle there are pockets of kindness shown by one stranger to another - indeed, a nice chap offered to carry my suitcase down the stairs to the underground - but I know for certain that I couldn't live there, not for anything.  It was a relief to get on the train and flee north again, to leave all that behind and return to my quiet island life.  

The other day one of my Rum friends pressed me for the reason why I'm still here.  I could have gone for a number of other jobs by now, but have chosen not to.  She said I'm not the kind of person who does things for no reason, and asked what it is that's keeping me here.  I told her I feel as though I'm waiting for one final thing to fall into place and then I'll know what I'm doing, where I'm going.  I don't know what that one thing is, but I sense that it's worth waiting for.  I'm also feeling really happy.  I like not working and being able to arrange my time exactly as I please.  It's spring; the birds are full of song, there are buds on trees and the floor of the wood is turning green as the bluebells push up out of the earth.  It's a time for planting seeds and setting down roots, not for moving on.  Not yet.