Delany and the City

Chris Smith, "Wabash Under the L"

I don’t remember when I first consciously realized it, but I am a devotee of The City.

And though of course I love my current home of Chicago, I don’t mean the Windy City exclusively.

I am devoted, and probably even addicted, to the energy of urban spaces. To the cityscape and all its people and possibilities. Any connection that I’ve felt with wild or sparsely populated areas—such as the deserts of New Mexico, the coastline of County Kerry, the mountain passes of the Cascades, and the hills of Southern Indiana—usually, ultimately, stems from the way that nature gives me the opportunity to disconnect from the things that do irritate me about city living. That cleansing then allows me to realign myself to that which truly matters to me about urban space when I finally return to it.

In my early years of living on my own in Chicago, I was always surprised by the very palpable sense of relief I would feel getting off the commuter train at the Randolph Street/Millennium Park station after spending an afternoon or weekend with my family in the suburbs of Northwest Indiana. More than just escaping poisonous and demoralizing family dynamics, my return to the city always felt like a return to a rhythm that my body intuitively understood.

Chicago Cultural Center

Emerging from the underground station to see the beautiful architecture soaring into the sky, to feel hundreds of people bustling past me without giving a damn about me one way or another, to hear the whoosh of cars and buses and the rumble of the elevated train—the embrace of all of it made me feel so comforted, so at home, so at peace. People often talk about the excitement of a city, of the sense of possibility that anything can happen here, and I’m sure that’s part of it for me. But there’s also an indefinable sense that I know how the city works.

My body understands, on some preverbal level, the way cities support, encourage, and even thrive on intensity, whether it’s the intensity of achievement, creativity, restlessness, high-stakes risks, or the ever-present opportunity to find love (be it the kind that lasts as long as a locked glance with an alluring stranger or the kind that lasts a lifetime). I resonate with the overlap of historical grandeur with of-the-minute invention, with the prosaic beauty of functional spaces like alleys and fire escapes, with the permission for hardship and breakdown to be enacted in full view of passersby, with the tenuous togetherness inspired by local sports, music, or political heroes.

Chris Smith,

My passion is mainly intuitive, so though I love reading about cities, too, I’m far from being any kind of amateur scholar of urban studies. I’ve picked my way through bits and pieces of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities without ever actually finishing it and am currently doing the same with Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found is one of the best damn things I’ve read in the past 10 years. But I’ve never so much as picked up a copy of Devil in the White City. Scott Martelle’s Detroit: A Biography has been on my to-read list since its release a few years back. I’ve likewise been meaning to read Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue since hearing artist and writer Edie Fake mention it last year as an important reference point for his incredibly moving gallery show Memory Palaces.

But, when I learned that Delany himself, currently Critical Inquiry‘s Winter 2014 Visiting Scholar at the University of Chicago, would be giving a public lecture on Friday, January 31, I thought I’d better at least dip into the book before heading down to Hyde Park. Though I’m not quite halfway through with it, it’s as wonderful as I’d hoped it would be. But the joy of seeing Delany speak live belongs in a category all its own.

The fact that I even had this opportunity to attend his lecture, with only about a week’s notice, is yet another testament to the endless opportunity and variety inherent to city living. But when the man himself is such a towering figure of erudition, compassion, and radical sexual politics, I found myself moving beyond the self-satisfaction of being at the right place at the right time and into the realm of “I needed to be here today.”

It wasn’t just that I found my brain stimulated by his reflections on what his literary legacy may or may not be. It’s that I felt both inspired and privileged to behold a person so at ease with himself, in mind, body, and spirit. And it wasn’t just me—I felt a shift in the room over the course of his talk, as the audience of intellectuals realized that it’s possible to strive not just to be smarter or more widely published, but to be a better person, living a more joyful, more connected, and thus more meaningful life.

He explains in his writer’s preface to Times Square Red, Times Square Blue:

I hope these two extended essays function as early steps (though by no means are they the first) in thinking through the problem of where people, male and female, gay and straight, old and young, working class and middle class, Asian and Hispanic, black and other, rural and urban, tourist and indigene, transient and permanent, with their bodily, material, sexual, and emotional needs, might discover (and even work to set up) varied and welcoming harbors for landing on our richly variegated urban shore. (p. xx)

And in the spaces between reading that, and hearing him speak, and driving home on Lake Shore Drive, with the exultation of Chicago’s skyline rising up in front of us, I was grateful to have my commitment to The City not only renewed but reinvigorated by seeing how much more there is for me to learn here.

Photo by jimkim_2000

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Zen, Solitude, and Seeking More

As mentioned previously, I went into traditional talk-therapy in the summer of 2004.

In keeping with the general trend toward serendipity in my life, I had my first session with my therapist one week before my father had a massive stroke.

My guardian angels, as it were, had clearly lined things up for me so that I would have a solid support system in place during that crucial, challenging time.

After a little while, knowing how lonely I was, my therapist encouraged me to look for a spiritual community to join. I knew it would be good for me but was nervous, as I always am, about throwing myself into a new system where I didn’t yet know the ropes.

I attended a Science of Mind service in a conference room in a chain hotel here in Chicago, and just . . . no. It was totally not the kind of place I needed to be.

Living northward on the brown line, I could see from the train a building that had a giant sign painted on the side advertising meditation classes. I couldn’t read all the text, but with some creative Googling, I eventually found the website for the place.

They were starting one of their five-week introduction to meditation courses that following week, so I signed myself up for the session. After the five weeks were up, I remember thinking to myself with almost a shrug, “well, I guess I’m just going to start going there on Sundays now.” And, I did.

Jizo, the Bodhisattva of the Earth Matrix

Slowly integrating myself into the membership of the temple, I started showing up regularly for Sunday services, and sometimes for their special Wednesday night meditation sittings as well. I even signed up for two days of my first-ever silent retreat later that winter, which was an exercise in fortitude like nothing I’d intentionally put myself through before.

Basically, a silent retreat is just hours and hours of meditation every day, with breaks here and there for food, stretching, walking meditation, and work practice—aka, chores—all done in complete silence with extremely minimal eye contact among the practitioners. My brain felt like it started to eat itself at some point, and I remember thinking, “well, it’s too bad I can never come back here ever again after this is all over.”

But, of course, I made it through the rest of the retreat, and of course I came back to the temple again. In fact, I felt more part of the community than ever after that.

Within the next year I was asked to be on the temple’s advisory council, which meant that I would help out with extra chores around the building, help with fundraising efforts, stand at the door as a greeter before Sunday services, and generally be closer to the heart of the regular goings-on of the community. As an editor, I was even pressed into service to help assemble their periodic newsletter.

As I bonded with my fellow advisory council members, it felt like I was Doing a Good Thing for myself spiritually, even though I also learned to swallow the anxiety that resulted from knowing I’d inevitably be corrected by the temple priest for doing something wrong—putting the dishes in the wrong place in the kitchen, arranging the meditation mats and cushions out of their proper order, calculating tax incorrectly on the haphazardly priced items available for sale in the bookstore.

I wanted so badly to prove to myself that, yes, it was good for me to be part of this community, that I assented to being on the advisory council for a second year in a row. But, about halfway through my second term, I started a yearlong training program to develop my clairvoyant reading abilities. I was able to juggle both the temple and psychic school for a while, but as my commitment to the advisory council started winding down, I found that I was getting crabbier and more lackadaisical about my remaining commitments there.

I just had too many things going on in my life—this was all in addition to a 40-hour-a-week job, band practice, and making time for my then-boyfriend—and something had to give. I needed at least one morning a week to sleep in and relax, and since I was usually scheduled for practice readings at psychic school on Saturday mornings, that meant Sundays at the temple got jettisoned.

I’d given so much to it and wasn’t sure what I’d gotten in return. I didn’t want to be mercenary about it, of course, but the more I felt sucked dry by their expectations for generous donations of time and attention, the more I was feeling myself sliding into a familiarity-breeds-contempt kind of attitude. I wasn’t too sorry to let it go.

I was also ready to take a break from the hovering cloud of judgment that always made me feel like I was doing something wrong (or worse, like I wasn’t doing enough). And, it was a relief to disengage myself from the subtle sense of competition that always seemed to arise among the other members—sly jockeying over who could sit longer or do more prostrations or who was having a more pure and transcendent feeling of oneness during meditation.

I attended a few more services here and there, but ultimately just stopped going altogether late in the spring of 2011.

I completed my year of clairvoyant training just a few months after that and then rolled into two more consecutive six-month-long programs at psychic school, which pulled me further and further away from not only the temple’s Sunday services but their whole philosophy as well.

In the summer of 2013, finished with all my clairvoyant schooling for the time being, I thought it might be a good time to dip my toes back in the waters of Zen meditation. I decided to visit a different community one Sunday morning and was startled by how viscerally I ended up hating it.

I wrote in my journal later that night:

I think I’m done with Zen-style meditation for a while. Aside from all the bullshit, California-macho male energy and my complete lack of interest in hearing anything an old white guy has to say about anything spiritual anymore, and aside from the total lack of joy in the way the discipline is being practiced, I think the thing that became most apparent to me is that I’m no longer interested in a spirituality that makes me smaller. I don’t need any help forbearing unpleasant circumstances. I am a maestro at sitting patiently and quietly until something that I hate finally comes to a conclusion. I’ve lost more than enough time to that kind of behavior, and I don’t need a spiritual discipline that’s telling me to do that on a regular basis.

That was several months ago at this point, and I’m nowhere near having any kind of answers or any better sense of where I want to go, spiritually, next. I’d like to be giving professional psychic readings on a more regular basis, and I’ve developed my sub-site here in order to start to attract more readees. But, that clearly will still be a solitary pursuit, even when I do get it up and running.

Psychic moon

I’m still, as I noted last week, looking for my sublime tribe.

I’ve been noticing more and more lately that the answer to so many problems in my life is that I just need more of me, of my own life force and energy back in the mix. So, I’m fully open to the idea that instead of looking for a tribe, I should instead be looking for ways that I can show up for myself more powerfully.

And maybe that’s the wisdom I was attracted to in the Zen center in the first place—having the time and space to sit quietly in the fullness of myself, surrounded by dozens of other people doing the same.

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Through the Lens of Love

Tiny Allison

Do you know what’s actually probably the single most detrimental thing to my self-esteem?

The fact that I think I’m actually pretty awesome.

Tiny Allison

It’s a classic case of opposing forces: my occasionally crushing self-doubt and self-loathing set off against the narcissistic self-regard that fancies I’m not only rather brilliant but dead sexy to boot. My self-consciousness about my self-regard then turns in on itself as I attempt to tone down its intensity, adjusting it too far in the other direction, finding myself suddenly dialed back to the point of utter lack of self-worth.

Nowhere does this conflict get played out more clearly than with my simultaneous attraction to and avoidance of selfies. (Not that the internet needs any more think pieces about selfies, but.)

My mom was a fairly talented amateur photographer, so, as the oldest child in the family, I’m lucky to have scores of beautiful photographs of myself as a baby and young child. My father was always obsessed with documentation, so he was hardly ever without a video camera of some sort in his hand (silent 8mm back in the ’70s, camcorders thereafter). So, from a very young age, there was no shortage of ways for me to get used to seeing my own image. As a natural born ham comfortable being the center of attention seemingly from birth, it’s not like I exactly shied away from the spotlight either.

Easter (1980?)

“Bitch, I am wearing a yellow coat!! I want some REEEESPECK.”

As I grew out of the adorable-for-the-sake-of-being-adorable phase, I grew into the awareness that achievement would get me attention. So, there came more photos of me at school plays, concerts, awards ceremonies, and the like. And on the heels of all that, there was the teenage exhilaration of just being alive, man, which garnered more photos taken by friends at odd hours, or in odd situations, all of us hugging and grinning and pulling faces full of equal parts glory and stupidity.

Allison, Mary, & Ruth

“Ice cream! No one has ever eaten ice cream like this before! We are young and we are eating ice cream!!”

In my early twenties, before a summer spent studying abroad in London, I made sure to buy a nice enough point-and-shoot camera to record my adventures there. Though totally untrained, I had a good enough eye for framing and detail (perhaps hereditary, perhaps due to many long hours watching movies as a film studies major) that my photos came out pretty well, and it wasn’t long before I found myself, even back in the States, incapable of leaving the house without a camera in my purse. After finally getting a digital camera some years later, I twice committed myself to photo-a-day projects (you can see the first year here, and the second year here).

Though my affection for the tableaux and the people that I captured in these many years of taking pictures was completely genuine, there was the sneaky, shadowy part of me that always wished I was in the frame too. Not because I needed to be reminded that I had participated in any specific event; I have a good enough memory not to need photographic evidence like that and was a dedicated journaler for many years besides. No, I reasoned that if I wanted to show people how much I loved them by photographing them looking beautiful, then, if someone loved me and thought I was beautiful, they would naturally want to return the favor.

Self-regard has never been a problem for me, but self-love is a different beast altogether, and it very rarely occurred to me to turn the camera on myself. It was inconceivable that I could photograph myself through the same kind of lens of love that I turned on my friends; it felt necessary, in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to articulate even just a few years ago, that someone should want to turn the camera in my direction and shoot me from his or her perspective. That would be the only way to get a valid photo of myself looking wonderful.

I have plenty of these kinds of photos, of course. I’m not exactly lacking for lovely photos taken of me by other people.

New Year's Eve, 2003.

Photo taken by my coworker David.

It’s the voraciousness, the desire for parity simmering not so quietly under the surface, that stands out for me now. In my loneliness, I wanted to see myself through someone else’s eyes so that I could have some sort of assurance that someone was looking at me with something like love, or perhaps even seeing something in me that I hadn’t previously been able to see myself.

Birthday, 2005

I definitely would not have been able to take this photo of myself. What an idiot.

I would quietly take photos of myself sometimes, in my bedroom or in the bathroom at a restaurant, but in the pre-Instagram, pre-Facebook days, these photos mostly quietly lived on Flickr, without my necessarily drawing much attention to them. They just felt like part of the fabric of the world that I enjoyed documenting, and I felt like I was getting away with something if I happened to come away with a photo that felt like an accurate representation of how I wanted other people to see me. As quirky or cute, or, more likely, cuter than I thought people gave me credit for being on a regular basis. (“Take that! I am cute! See!!”)

Trapper hat

“Soooo cute in mah fuzzy trapper hat!!”

As technology started to make it easier to both take self-portraits and to show them off online, I caught myself feeling judgmental of the people I knew who seemed to take a little too much advantage of this capability. Like, who gave them permission to just blast their faces all over the place? And, isn’t it somehow unseemly to basically admit that you want people to look at you? I mean, it’s an obvious bid for attention when you’re splashing photos of yourself into everybody’s line of sight.

I was afraid of betraying what felt like my own bottomless capacity for vacuuming up any little gift of affection or validation offered up to me, and ashamed that I felt that way in the first place—like, shouldn’t I have grown out of it by now? Shouldn’t I have left that in the past with the pink sunglasses and the yellow windbreaker? So, by way of self-protection, and something approaching self-denial, I think I must have decided that anyone brazen enough to just flaunt themselves like that must have been, in some way, taking something away from me.

So, I don’t often post photos of myself online, except for when they’re taken by someone else. There’s the reasonable part of me that fears the repercussions of simply being a woman visible on the internet with all its possibilities for vitriol and even abuse. But, more than that, I’m far too wary of seemingly like I’m begging for attention. (It’s like Louis CK says in his stand-up show Chewed Up: “Forty’s a weird age. . . . You’re not young enough for anybody to ever be proud of you or impressed. They’re just like, ‘yeah, do your job, asshole. Nobody cares.’”) Because, I think that fear of looking like I’m begging for attention is actually more a fear that, even if someone is looking, I’ll be dismissed as nothing worth paying attention to. I don’t think my own lens of love is clear enough yet for me to be OK with that.

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A Vegas Baby

The Sounds of '66

My first boyfriend skipped his senior year in high school to start early as a freshman in a fancypants program at the University of Southern California. He left for Los Angeles at the end of the summer we met.

Pastel Sky, Eric Lo Photography

In many ways, it was the perfect relationship for 16-year-old me.

I got all the romantic pining and pre-e-mail love letter writing with none of the daily negotiations of when we were going to hang out or any other reality-based buckets of cold water that would have quashed the highly romantic narrative I adored being the center of. We lasted about two years this way, and I have no regrets about any of it.

Love letters

Well, I guess except for the typical regrets that come with simply having once been a teenager and thus having lacked the emotional intelligence to handle highly charged situations that inevitably become a bit easier to manage when one gets older.

He came back home to visit his family often enough that first year, but going into the second year of our relationship, which coincided with the beginning of my own senior year in high school, I was feeling squirrely and ready to declare a bit of my independence. So, late that fall of ’96, I decided that I would fly to L.A. to visit.

Airplane

Looking back on that trip, I know I was an emotionally voracious wet blanket. I was especially pouty and sullen any time I was expected to interact with large groups of his friends. I wanted nothing more than to spend time with him and didn’t know how to communicate my crushing disappointment when it became clear that he wasn’t going to allow me to, you know, lock him in a quiet, dark room with me for two or three days straight. He welcomed me to join in his revelries with his friends and, rightly, felt no qualms about proceeding about his business when I feigned jet lag and went to bed early the night of my arrival.

I fared a bit better in the ensuing days in one-on-one interactions with his roommates and other closer friends. It being USC, at least one of them was studying filmmaking, and happened to mention how much he’d enjoyed a new indie film that had just come out, in limited release, from Miramax, called Swingers. The title went into my mental Rolodex for the next several months.

The Town Theatre (Jonathan Miano, The Times)

Fortuitously, that following spring of ’97, I saw that Swingers was scheduled to screen at the late, lamented Town Theater in Highland, Indiana, the place where I saw so many great things that year of my own burgeoning interest in film. I don’t remember much about that first viewing, only that I instantly loved it and knit the film into my personal pantheon of films that felt like they truly belonged to me without having first been passed through my father’s tastes. I’d felt the same way about Pulp Fiction when I first saw it two and a half years earlier and would feel the same again when I saw Rushmore two years later. And there were countless others, of course. But Swingers somehow felt special because I’d first heard about it from some college kid in Los Angeles, at a time when I was busy fashioning myself into the kind of person who knew cool people that knew cool things.

Swingers

I watched the film repeatedly in college and even had a poster of Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau hanging on my closet door for a period of time. I was fully in my “one of the boys” phase of life, and few things made me feel more IN than taking this film to heart. All the inside jokes and clever lingo and the revelation of how regular-seeming but impossibly witty guys related to and bonded with each other was irresistibly appealing. I couldn’t get enough. For from feeling like an outsider, like one of the unknowable girls these characters lusted after or found otherwise elusive, I felt like I was part of their clique, part of that group of tight-knit friends. (And clearly, so did many, many other people, as the recent delightful oral history of the film over at Grantland makes clear.)

Even though, in real life, it was challenging for me to, say, fly to L.A. and find a way not to be an awkward spazz around my boyfriend’s friends, Swingers nevertheless succeeded in seducing me into riding along to Vegas with these screen-friends on their us-against-the-world adventure.

*

Recently, my now-boyfriend brought home a copy of the Sammy Davis Jr. live album The Sounds of ’66.

The Sounds of '66

Even though I actually am a performer and have played in my fair share of late-night, high-energy, never-to-be-recaptured shows, I find myself resolutely not identifying with any of the musicians on this album. Least of all Davis himself. When I listen to this album, I am completely surrendered to his showmanship. His masterful command of the band, his voice, and the crowd delights me like few things have recently. At the slightest provocation, I will repeat his opening remarks, “Any noises that come from the audience or any of the people or any side noises you might hear, know that they are NOT canned—they are LIVE” like it’s a mantra.

I listened to the tracks during my morning commute on a particularly jam-packed train car last week and felt instantly completely immune to the stresses of the situation. It was like Davis was creating a magical, protective bubble that extended not just to his audience of showgirls and high rollers who’d come to let their hair down after hours at the Sands but to any of us, at any time, with any need to be elevated out of the mundane. Such is the force of his talent and charisma.

In this instance, though, it’s actually those invisible, unnamed showgirls populating the audience who I am most compelled to identify with. Hearing them clapping and cheering and just generally losing their minds (particularly whoever’s really going nuts at the end of “Once in Love with Amy”—a woman named Amy, perhaps?) touches me for the way it conveys that, yes, Vegas in the mid-60s really was as swinging as we’d like to imagine that it was. They were there to take full advantage of all its glamour in all the ways they could. But in many ways their pleasure is the actual aspirational part of the recording for me, a reminder to enjoy my own lived moment as a woman, without either hiding or persisting in my old belief that being one of the guys is the only game in town.

Looking for My Sublime Tribe

Via Ghost Reveries

It’s hard for me to be out about my psychic skills and spirituality in my everyday life.

The High Priestess

The High Priestess

Despite the current trend toward all things witchy and woo, it’s a trend that I mostly see and participate in online. With definite exceptions, it’s not especially reflected in my daily friendships and associations.

Though many of my oldest and closest friends are intensely spiritual, their spirituality is often centered around Christianity. And though there are many aspects of Christianity that I still resonate with—particularly when it comes to social justice—I personally have always felt more drawn to Eastern philosophies and mysticism. Which, living in Northwest Indiana until my early twenties, meant that I gained most of my information about these traditions through books.

Such as "The Tao of Pooh"!

Such as “The Tao of Pooh”!

After I moved to Chicago, I certainly had more and better access to all kinds of Buddhist temples and meditation centers, and eventually felt myself pulled toward expanding my psychic abilities, learning reiki healing, and working with crystals. Recently I’ve also been devouring Doreen Virtue’s books on angels, goddesses, and fairies; Sera Beak’s impassioned explorations of the (re)emerging Divine Feminine; Serge Kahili King’s wonderful writing on the Hawaiian Huna tradition; and the idea of “core shamanism” as defined by Tom Cowan in his excellent book Shamanism as a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life.

Even in a big city with so much to offer, though, why is it that so much of my knowledge is still mostly gleaned from the written word? My stereotypically Aquarian standoffishness is not particularly well served by the intense intellectualization that comes from so much reading without being able to integrate all that new information into my physical body in the context of any kind of long-term community.

Via Ghost Reveries

And even when I do attempt to engage with other like-minded folks, it either tends to be online (such as Drucilla Pettibone’s Faericology course) or extremely short-term (such as a weekend workshop at Chicago’s Equilibrium). These are better than nothing, of course, but don’t exactly do much to combat my brain-in-a-jar tendencies.

I supposed this furtive behavior is also somewhat compounded by my irrational fear of being judged by the handful of scientific brainiacs and atheist intellectuals I also count among my friends. Whether it’s the brilliant editors at my day job or casual acquaintances who work at science labs or as university professors, I often find myself in a mild panic when I consider what they might think of me if they ever found out I give aura readings, connect energetically with the faery realm, or occasionally communicate with spirits who have passed away from this physical plane.

SPIRIT

Part of my difficulty here stems from my inability to reconcile my intense spiritual longings with my equally intense curiosity about the hard sciences. As a middle schooler, I remember sitting through science classes and thinking, “why aren’t science teachers and scientists the most religious people in the world?” The extraordinary wonder of the natural world just seemed too beautiful to be approached with anything other than complete reverence. As an adult, I still do believe that privately, but often want to hang a gigantic asterisk over my head to inform all my techno-pals, “yes, I may give aura readings, and yes, I may be intensely in tune with the energy of people, places, and things, but I’m not some sort of floaty, brainless starchild. I stand by the scientific method, too!”

I know it’s not an all or nothing proposition, and I know that I should trust other people’s capacity to enjoy my company while disagreeing with me at the same time. But this is where I feel my lack of community most keenly. In wanting to be accepted by any sort of larger group, I’m essentially willing to hide or minimize the parts of myself that connect me with the largeness of the sublime.

The Femme Olympics

The Femme Olympics?

A woman I used to work with was using a jokey hasthtag on Twitter the other day: #femmeolympics.

With it, she was gathering female-identified people’s stories about putting on makeup in outrageous circumstances or walking in high heels in less than ideal conditions.

I know it was all meant in good fun, but my inner not-girly-enough sensitivity got a bit tweaked reading them. My panicked train of thought started spinning out: I can’t remember if I’ve ever gotten dressed or done my hair in exceptionally challenging circumstance. But, if I’ve never put on false eyelashes while driving in heavy traffic, does that mean I’m less femme than someone who has? Am I failing at something I never knew I was supposed to be aspiring to? Have I lost the Olympics without even playing?

Severe! Gorgeous!

While waiting to cross the street to get to my office Tuesday morning, a conventionally attractive woman stood a few feet in front and to the left of me. She was tall and thin and blonde and was dressed so impeccably she belonged, aesthetically, more in New York than Chicago. Even her winter gear was sleek—black serial killer gloves with a sexy peekaboo detail around the inner wrist, luxurious looking black knit legwarmers emerging from the tops of her fashionably severe knee-high black boots. It was like all of her beauty was further highlighted, heightened, caressed by her outerwear.

In my puffy lumberjack coat, with my hair sweaty and matted down under my trapper hat and earflaps, crisscrossed along the length of my torso by the straps of my oversized purse and tote bag containing my lunch, with my feet stuffed into clompy beige snowboots, I felt likewise highlighted by my outerwear. Just in the opposite direction. I was more awkward, more frumpy/dumpy/lumpy, more haphazard and mismatched.

I am obviously the only person responsible for buying my clothes and getting myself dressed in the morning. So, I suppose it’s theoretically possible for me to start buying outfits that would make me look like a German rocketship stewardess from the year 2150. I have no one to blame but myself if I’m unhappy with the state of my wardrobe. But obviously, even if I bought the exact same clothes she was wearing, I wouldn’t look anything like that woman. And not just because I’m shorter and more voluptuous. The whole effect of her tall-thin-blonde-elegant otherness stemmed from my response to it as an observer. I wouldn’t look that way to myself, inside myself, even if we were twins.

Partly, though, some of my perplexed fascination with her stemmed from the sense that she intended to look like that. Her self-presentation seemed too cohesive not to have been intentionally curated (god, I hate that word). Which means, she had the idea of what she wanted to look like—both in the morning when she was getting ready to leave the house and whenever she bought the individual items of clothing—and then found the pieces to match that mental image and merged herself with it.

This boggles my mind! To have so powerful a sense of oneself that one can not only articulate it internally, but then also actively go about purchasing and wearing the clothes that will accurately achieve the desired effect? As someone who has been known to casually throw around terms like “magic” and “witchcraft” and actually mean them, sartorial talent at that level seems less like voodoo to me and more like straight-up applied mathematics.

A look

A look

I find myself going through different looks, of course. There was the time I gave up pants altogether and started wearing skirts and dresses with leggings exclusively, the time I wore stripy knee-socks every day, the time I just kept putting my light leather jacket on over all my tops like a cardigan. But mostly these are accidental phases that I don’t realize I’m in until I’m well inside them. “Oh, I haven’t been wearing jeans as much as I used to. I guess that’s a thing that I’m doing now.”

I’m fascinated by fashion and have enough visual sense to be able to achieve basic effects with my clothing choices—but it’s all still ultimately a crapshoot. I’ll luck into finding functional pieces for my wardrobe at resale places and consignment shops and even Target and Old Navy. I don’t tend to go out in search of anything specific, though, for fear that if I did, I’d never be able to find it, never be able to afford it, never be able to pull it off.

I’m utterly enamored of the current raft of body-positivity bloggers who insist that we all have a right to wear what makes us feel good. There’s so much amazing creativity and resourcefulness being put into their “outfit of the day” posts—and that’s not even mentioning the niche bloggers who focus exclusively on underwear, hair, makeup, nail art, perfume, etc. It’s a varied, beautiful landscape of self-expression and self-presentation. I support it and endorse it and adore it.

But when I find myself feeling like I’m falling short of even this free-for-all, anything-goes spirit, I have to wonder where, why, and how I’m blocking myself. Is it the time, the effort, the money? Clearly not. Any of those things are surmountable. I think I’m most worried that I have no vision, because I know that means I’m avoiding looking at myself. Whatever it is I’m afraid to see (or not see) when I look certainly can’t be as horrible as convincing myself that I shouldn’t bother at all.

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My Cookbook Jamboree

Ani's Raw Food Kitchen

It’s no exaggeration to say that I learned to eat by reading cookbooks.

When, at age 27, my doctor told me I weighed too much and that my blood pressure was so high she was going to have to put me on medication, I figured, well, I guess it’s finally time to change my habits.

I tried Weight Watchers for about five minutes. Regardless of the calorie counting, I sensed that I was undernourished and nutrient deficient. In some dimly lit cavern in the back of my mind, I recalled having read an interview with actress Naomie Harris in which she talked about how Woody Harrelson introduced her to raw foods while they were filming the movie After the Sunset together. With this shadowy concept of raw foods in mind, I reasoned that I couldn’t possibly go wrong if I just started eating a ton of fruits and vegetables. So, my conversion to vegetarianism, and eventually to a raw vegan diet, began.

Raw Food Made Easy

Raw Food Made Easy

The first order of business was buying a cookbook. I searched Amazon and was happy to come across Jenny Cornbleet’s Raw Food Made Easy: For 1 or 2 People. The name was its obvious selling point. I was living with a roommate at the time, and we generally went our own separate ways food-wise, so the idea of making dishes in individual servings was appealing to me. Especially since I didn’t know what I was getting into with this dietary shift. But, since I was never much of a cook prior to that, there were no bad habits for me to unlearn or recipes to miss or ingredients to regret not being able to use. I was as blank a slate, culinarily, as it was possible to be.

Thinking back on it, I actually have no idea what I ate for those first four years I was living in Chicago! I think probably a lot of pasta and chicken breasts made on a George Foreman grill.

I eased my way into the raw food thing gently, by learning how to make desserts first—avocado-based chocolate puddings, apple crumbles, and such. Then, I added in raw vegan versions of familiar, identifiable entrees like spaghetti with tomato sauce (made with zucchini spiralized into noodle shape) and various nut-based pates. The other wonderful thing about Cornbleet’s cookbook was that it didn’t call for any exotic ingredients that I would have been afraid to try (with my then-limited palate) or that would have been hard to find outside Whole Foods (I don’t think I probably had ever stepped inside a Whole Foods prior to this new dietary era).

Ani's Raw Food Kitchen

Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen

Once I felt a certain level of proficiency using Cornbleet’s cookbook, I graduated to Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen by Ani Phyo. The recipes were slightly more complex, but the book was longer and had more to choose from and so I felt comfortable skipping over anything that was daunting. I gained confidence in the kitchen, and though I tried to never be an obnoxious proselytizer, I was always pleased to be able to share the food that I’d made with people and hear them say they genuinely enjoyed it.

Over the next few years, I did manage to get healthy enough that my doctor took me off my high blood pressure medication. This was a triumph in itself, and I’ll always be proud of that, but secretly, of course, I was dismayed that that accomplishment didn’t magically result in my suddenly having a brand new body. My skin cleared up and my eyes were blazing white and I did lose a pretty significant amount of weight, but it was never enough. I was never transformed. I was never not me.

Still Me

Still me

Not to mention, the vigilance to maintain the raw food way of life ultimately became too much of a time investment for me to sustain it long term, especially once I started getting busy in other areas of my life that left me with less time for experimenting in the kitchen. So, over the next several years, I stopped identifying myself as a raw foodist. I continued to drink green smoothies pretty much every day (thank you, Victoria Boutenko!) and remained vegetarian (for the most part), but my raw food recipe books languished on my shelf for longer than I’d like to admit.

But these days, I have a new cookbook love: jae steele’s Get It Ripe. My boyfriend remembered that it had a great recipe for peanut butter cookies, so we purchased a copy about a year ago just for that. Luckily, it’s been the source of a handful of terrific new recipes that we now make and eat regularly: Sesame Kale Soba, Coconut Cauliflower Chana, and Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins.

I will never be the kind of person who can just throw a dish together based on feeling. I don’t trust myself enough to improvise at that level. But, it’s gratifying to have a shelf full of cookbooks that I can rely on to fill in the blanks if the cupboard is less than well stocked and I need to make breakfast in a pinch. Knowing where to look for the answers, in this case, is enough.

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Where Does the Love Go?

Terry Felus

After Hours—Caribou
I’ve, historically, not been known among close friends as a crier. So, one of the most unexpected, and, in some ways, welcome, developments of ’08 was my transformation into, well, something of a basket case, frankly. Name an event, and chances are I’ve sobbed through it this year: movies, concerts, sex, meditation, and, in Caribou’s case, laundry. Yep, Caribou made me cry doing laundry. It was the morning after their transcendent springtime concert, and as I sat watching my clothes tumble dry, I got to mulling, and then tearing up, over the previous night’s events: the pastel wonderland the normally dark and scuzzy Empty Bottle became under the magical influence of the band’s psychedelic projected backdrop and what a warm, welcome, enveloping setting it was, if only for a few hours, after an exaggeratedly pain-in-the-ass winter in Chicago; the musicians’ genial ferocity as they tore through an inspired selection of songs from Andorra and The Milk of Human Kindness; and how thankful I was to be there to witness the phenomenal brilliance of the propulsive double drum attacks between sit-in drummer Ahmed Gallab and the polymusically gifted Dan Snaith. The exotic, weirdly circular drum pattern here always brings me back to that gray Saturday morning in April when I was overcome by the beauty of the remembrance of what had just passed and the sweet yet forlorn sadness that came with knowing I couldn’t share my enthusiasm about it with one of the few people who ever would have truly understood and appreciated it.

Best Music of 2008

Surprise! That paragraph is about my dad!

My dad had a stroke in July 2004, spent the better part of the next eight years in a nursing home in Indiana, and died on December 16, 2012.

Terry Felus

Terry Felus

I haven’t felt like I’ve done much mourning in this past year. Mostly because I did a lot of it circa 2007/2008.

Though I’d been in traditional therapy since mid-2004, it wasn’t until I started regularly attending the Sunday morning services at the Zen Buddhist Temple here in Chicago and recommitted myself to a daily meditation practice that so many of my hardened emotions began to thaw, and leak, out. In the paragraph from 2008 quoted at the top of this post, I write that I cried during movies, concerts, sex, meditation, and laundry, but it’s the crying while sitting on my meditation mat and cushion that I remember from that year most vividly now.

Zen Buddhist Temple--Chicago

Zen Buddhist Temple–Chicago

In the 20 minutes that I carved out for myself to sit and count my breaths before leaving for work every morning, I would sit there and sob and then scrape myself together to walk to the train. And though it all felt like an amorphous blob of emotion at the time, just letting out whatever needed to go, I think a large part of it was actually starting the process of saying goodbye to my father.

*

In my early 20s, recently arrived in Chicago after graduating from Indiana University, I remember talking to a friend of mine on the phone about all the wonderful film and music and theater and books and television I’d been getting into. We shared updates and recommendations about our new favorite stuff, and somewhere along the line I got philosophical and mused, “yeah, but where does that love go?”

It felt like a completely overpowering question. In many ways, I still am asking it, a little bit every day.

When I feel that excitement and esteem and affection for a piece of pop culture, what happens to that emotion? If I’ll never meet the actress who played the part, or the writer who wrote the words, or the singer who sang the song, and will never have a chance to tell any of them how much I loved the work they produced, where does that unexpressed feeling go? What does it turn into? What does it mean?

My friend, a devout Christian, tried to give me some kind of answer, though I barely remember what he said now. Something to the effect that that love contributes to some overall balance of Good in the universe. But, I think it really made him wonder too.

I don’t know if it’s a quirk of my character in general, or if it was just a characteristic of being in my early 20s, that the only way I could conceive of it at the time was as a turning outward: telling the artist, talking about the art, sending the love into the universe. That impulse to share, to spread, to give away was probably what started, and kept, me writing my old blog Wrestling Entropy in the first place—wanting to tell people about the stuff I enjoyed reading and watching, proselytizing for new converts to whatever hot shit I was obsessed with at the moment.

It’s only now, approaching my mid-30s, that I’m beginning to realize it’s possible, and even desirable, to use that love as a kind of internal nourishment. Keeping it, not out of a selfishness or a desire to hide things from anyone, but as a way of fueling my own creativity, of building up a positive energetic bank balance that will in turn help me create the kind of beautiful life I long to lead. To become the kind of beautiful person living it.

*

Despite my training as a psychic, despite having learned how to read past lives and access information energetically and see clairvoyantly with my inner vision, I still often feel baffled when I contemplate everything that is lost when a person dies. Everything that they knew, and remembered, and thought about—gone. When it comes to my father, a gifted piano player, it seems incomprehensible to me that all the musical knowledge and skill he’d amassed over his lifetime has disappeared. This is where I miss him most, and most uncomplicatedly.

I will never stop wanting to share new music with him, or ask him to help me parse a cool rhythmic pattern or chord structure. When I listen to a band like Caribou, or a singer/guitarist like Richard Hawley, or any number of other new artists that catch my fancy, that old instinct to turn outward with my appreciation is immediately caught short when I realize that I can’t offer it up to him, for his enjoyment, and for our ability to bond over it. It’s the time when keeping it really does feel more like losing it, like it’s disappearing.

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The Naming of Things

Elvis Costello, "Alison"

As best I can remember, the first time I met another girl named Allison was in the fourth grade.

And not only was her first name Allison, but her last name also began with the letter F. Just to make it even funnier, her middle initial was the same as mine too, an M.

So, we couldn’t be distinguished from one another in the way we could have if we’d been, say, “Allison B.” and “Allison K.” “Allison #1” and “Allison #2”—aside from the obvious scatological connotations—wouldn’t work, because, yikes, who would be #1? Who would be #2? Though we eventually became good friends, we barely knew each other at that point and there was no reason for us to attempt to compete for ranking like that. I don’t remember who suggested that we come up with our own designated nicknames, but she soon declared that she would be “Ali” (like Ali MacGraw, not Muhammad Ali). And I declared that I would be “Alf.”

Yes, the television show about the cat-eating alien was popular at that time.

ALF

And, yes, it was a neutered variation on my name, continuing my trend away from my own feminine energy that had started the year before with my mother’s death.

The name followed me for years, though with less and less frequency, until it phased itself out altogether by the time I graduated high school.

In the years since, I have been known by a variety of other names. And I have known a variety of other Allisons.

The Allison from fourth grade sticks out in my memory now as being sweet yet strong. She had a birdlike frame, yet, exotically, was an accomplished downhill skier.

Girl Skiing

We lived in Northwest Indiana, where hills in and of themselves, much less downhill skiing on them, were difficult to come by, so this speaks to her family’s ability to not only afford all the gear, but to fly her to the places where they actually had mountains to ski on. She had also been adopted, which therefore also made her the first adoptee I consciously knew.

There was another Allison a year ahead of us at the same elementary school. Physically and temperamentally, she couldn’t have been more different from the two of us. She was loud and blonde and brash, and I remember that she had enormous nostrils. I have a vague recollection that she was probably being raised by a single mother, a mildly eccentric hippie type, who marched to the beat of her own drummer and evidently taught her daughter to do the same.

In the lead-up to the presidential election of 1988, most of the kids on our school bus, following both the general tide of the country as well as Indiana’s conservative politics, were all rooting for George H.W. Bush. She, on the other hand, would respond by taunting the rest of us with her loud, solo chant of “Dukakis!!” Even as an adult, I still admire her for the strength of character it took to stand out like that.

Dukakis, 1988

In middle school, my best friend Mary introduced me to a girl named Allison she’d met in a local children’s choir, and we soon became a triad. She was a year younger than us, and went to a different school, but we participated in a lot of the same local community theater productions, so we had ample time together outside regular school hours.

In years past I’d of course encountered the beginnings of girl competition, but at least the social hierarchies had been clear-cut, with a huge gulf yawning between the pretty popular girls and the more awkward, bookish nerds like me. But this triad marked perhaps the first time that I began to see the machinations of competition among girls who were actually quite similar.

Since we all sang and acted and were good students, we struggled to figure out how to define ourselves against each other, to individuate. The unconscious method we arrived at was subtle jockeying for position. Who got the better parts, who could sing the higher or lower notes, who had been taken under wing by the more impressive adult actors. My memories of our time together remain tainted by this eternal quest to rank ourselves against each other. Those tween and early teen years felt utterly exhausting. Even then I had a sense that friendship probably wasn’t supposed to feel like that much work.

That Allison, now in her early 30s, very recently gave birth to a baby. She and her husband had struggled with fertility and decided to adopt, only to become pregnant soon thereafter. I guess I’m happy for her, though the knee-jerk impulse to emphasize our differences compels me, still, to secretly think, “ugh, I am SO GLAD I don’t have to take care of two little babies right now. I am living better.”

*

Throughout high school, I’d been known among my theater friends primarily by my last name, in a burlesque of the way that athletes call each other by their last names. It wasn’t until probably my junior year of college, though, that I remembered how much I actually like my first name.

A grad student who’d been the assistant instructor for a number of my favorite film studies classes was chatting with me about a paper assignment at the end of a class, and in the course of conversation, he casually said my name back at me. “You know, Allison, you should keep in mind that…” or something to that effect. I nearly swooned.

With the exception of the very occasional guy who will develop a crush on me and suddenly decide that he’s going to call me “Allie” (they all think they’re terribly original when they do this), I’ve been nothing but Allison ever since.

A few years ago, at the wedding of a former roommate I’d already started drifting away from, my place card on the table at the reception listed my first name with only one L. It was a minor misspelling, an easy error for someone to make, but it very definitely felt like the final nail in the coffin of our friendship.

One L

As I examined my pique, I found that I actively wanted both of my Ls. I wanted the All that had not so secretly been living in my name the whole time. I finally wanted the fullness my name had been offering me, a fullness that was never diminished, even while I attempted to disguise it by calling it anything but what it is.

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Tony Trigilio’s “The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1”

Tony Trigilio's "The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 1"

My favorite thing about Tony Trigilio’s The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood) is, honestly, probably the title.

And considering how much I absolutely loved this first installment of the multi-part project, that’s saying a hell of a lot.

On the surface, it couldn’t be a simpler and more accurate description of the poem’s content and scope—it’s a comprehensive overview, in verse, of every episode of the old soap opera Dark Shadows, which Trigilio watched with his mother, yes, while he was a child. But, by the time I finished reading Book 1, I found the phrase starting to run through my head at odd moments, like a scrap of melody—especially that catchy, parenthetical bum-bump “of my childhood” at the end. Beyond the pleasant rhythm of it, though, I found myself turning it over in my mind repeatedly as I began to more fully appreciate and take in its poignancy.

More than just the retold plot lines of an old TV show, the real dark shadows of this book are the excavated memories of childhood nightmares, family tensions, adult regrets and reckonings. As his memories of the episodes merge with his current reassessment of the show while he rewatches, in present time, the DVD box (coffin) set, these cheesy characters open all manner of vistas for him onto the places where ghosts of the past are finally ready to be dealt with. Just as the show itself jumps from the late 1960s back to 1795 and he must find a way to keep the narrative straight for us as readers, he likewise jumps from 2012 to 1967 (with various stops in between) to find the threads that keep it all straight inside himself, emotionally and spiritually.

Coincidence, arriving
at the 10/2/67 episode on 10/2/12,

as if reading about aliens traveling
hundreds of light years wasn’t enough

to imagine time is circular rather than linear,
that all moments in time exist at the same time

As I begin to embark on my own reassessment of the childhood incidents and influences that continue to affect me in adulthood, I was so deeply touched by, and grateful to, Tony’s willingness to divulge private moments with such fearlessness and clarity. (Full disclosure: Tony and I play in the same band!) Learning to strum Johnny Cash chords on guitar with his father, sitting with his dying cat not long after his divorce, and, perhaps most movingly, telling how his mother watched her deaf-mute brother finally speak in the hospital in the last moments before his death—these are the images that will haunt not my nightmares but my dreams for how truthful and resonant I too aspire to be on the page.

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Ambition, Competition, Failure, and Curiosity

Jyrki Salmi, "Jackdaw"

I’ve been known to say that I’m not terribly ambitious.

But what I just as often don’t admit is that I am actually terribly competitive.

In a weird twist on the expected manifestation of competitiveness, however, I tend not to redouble my efforts to get better at a thing in order to rise to the level of whoever I perceive as cramping my style; I usually just abandon the endeavor altogether. It’s all a very bitter “fuck you, I’m taking my toys and going home” kind of sad snottiness.

Via Pinterest

My perfectionism, delightfully, doesn’t just force me to want to be the best at a thing; it twists the knife even deeper so that I also kind of want to be the only person doing it. I want people to look at me and think, “aha, the singular Allison! She is just so incredible and unique, truly the source of inspiration for so many of us. We are all mere footnotes in her personal expression of excellence.” Or, as Carrie Fisher brilliantly put it a couple years ago: “I want to explode in the night sky of your approval.” When my explosion threatens to be dimmed by a nearby city skyline, a simultaneous fireworks display, or, heaven forbid, the very stars themselves, well . . . what’s the use in exploding anymore anyway?

Through the Clouds, Night by Jeddaka

The beloved Henry Van Dyke quote “Use whatever talents you possess; the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best” I know is meant to be encouraging, to inspire persistence and joy in the act of creation for the sake of itself, but my stupid, competitive brain always reads it and thinks, “but someone’s got to be the best bird; why not me?!” Ridiculous.

Jyrki Salmi,

The other complicating factor in this competitive streak is that I’m still in many ways living out my father’s failure narratives. As he got older and more depressed, he became increasingly mired in that stereotypical middle-class male regret of feeling like he wasn’t a good enough provider for his family. It’s interesting, though, that I don’t think I ever heard him express any self-doubt about his talents as a musician. That was one of the few aspects of his life he never seemed to question. In fact, his artistic standards were so high and exacting that he would become enraged when he could tell a person playing with him wasn’t giving a 100 percent effort. Multiple people told me at his funeral that, despite his temper tantrums and profanity-laced tirades, they were grateful to his prodding, that he turned them into better musicians.

Perhaps having lived with that attitude for so many years of my life contributes to my instinct to abandon a task when I can’t be the best at it. Perhaps it’s a way to dodge the possibility that I’ll be excoriated for a less than immediately stellar effort. Or perhaps the sense of failure in our family is like a heat-seeking missile, homing in on wherever our personal weaknesses may live: for him, his masculinity; for me, my sense of self-worth as an artist. Then again, one other possible way of interpreting my struggles in this area is, as one of my clairvoyant teachers once suggested, that I carry the burden of his failure inside myself in a way that prevents me from ever becoming “too much” for him to deal with.

When I graduated from Indiana University and was invited to give a student commencement speech to a small gathering of fellow graduates from the English department, he found a way to crush my high spirits afterward, when he bemoaned the fact that he didn’t get any of the poetic references the professors were making during their speeches. I remember feeling stunned, and then of course hurt. Wasn’t this what he’d always wanted of me? That I would excel in my field, that I would be the cream of the crop, that I would travel in a world of excellence? Why had my moment of triumph suddenly become about his intellectual insecurity? Clearly this was, if not my being too much for him, at the very least it was him expressing his feelings of not being enough for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.

But, I’ve also come to realize recently that my impulse to abandon projects, or entire communities, is connected to that very sense of feeling like an underdog. Though I am proud to align myself with all manner of freaks and dirtbags and losers, I am also beginning to recognize the place where this sensibility obviously, directly clashes with my perfectionism. How can I be an underdog while also being the star? And this isn’t the Hollywood-style “against all odds, the biggest loser comes from behind, through sheer persistence and pluck to score the winning point for the team” variety of underdog narrative. It’s my adoption of my father’s class inferiority. If I perceive people as getting too fancy or too big for their britches—or if I feel insufficiently esteemed in the context of any given group or organization—I’ll usually find a way to extricate myself and move on to something else.

And so, as in Van Dyke’s silent forest, I’ve found myriad ways over the years to silence parts of myself that weren’t the very best.

Luzon Bleeding-Heart

In college I silenced much of my natural inclination to perform, both as an actress and as a musician, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to hack it in IU’s world-class theater and music departments.

After being rejected for an internship at a well-known entertainment magazine in New York City, I eventually turned to the then relatively low-stakes world of blogging. But after about six years of that, when my readership was no larger than when I began, and as I seethed with jealousy over newcomers to the scene who were finding ways to make a living from their online writing, I closed up shop in order to devote myself to the development of my psychic abilities.

And now that websites like The Numinous are cropping up, and as more and more people are openly talking about their own paranormal experiences, I find myself thinking, “what’s the point? The fact that I do aura readings and can give healings on people’s astral bodies doesn’t make me special anymore. I should just give it up.” Why is this the first place my brain goes? Why am I not celebrating this mainstream resurgence of interest in all things mystical and feeling excited to be part of this growing movement? I’m not quite sure what would fix the problem for me—if suddenly everyone else abandoned their séances and guided meditation classes? Or if the world took a vote and unanimously decided, “yes, Allison, in fact you are terribly special. You can’t give this up. You are the very best of the best.”

Mount Olympus

But, on the other side of these fits of pique is usually the saving grace of my voracious curiosity. Now that I’ve achieved a certain level of proficiency in one school of psychic techniques, I’m hungry to learn more, to know more, to explore more. So, I’ve signed up for an entry-level reiki class. I’m tremendously excited to learn about this modality and am looking forward to adding the techniques to my spiritual toolkit. It would just be nice if my ego could give me a break for a while, so that I can allow the night sky to shine without my input.

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The Fog of Wrongness

Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

I’ve spent the past little while in a fog of wrongness.

Maybe it’s post-holiday malaise, or self-diagnosed seasonal affective disorder, or the stifling of an inner urge to do more, be more.

Regardless of the shape it takes, these days, when I find I’m most self-critical about the stuff I’m not doing as well as I’d like to be—like writing, managing my time, saving enough money, taking care of my body and health—I often hit a point where I make the connection, “Oh, that’s because I’m comparing myself to men, measuring my progress against men, or trying to adopt stereotypically masculine working methods.”

I was raised by a perfectionist father, and took a long time growing out of that “one of the boys” mentality. You know, that whole Wendy and the Lost Boys thing of being the only girl in a big, rowdy bunch of guys and feeling special because of it, but also, of course, super-protective of my status against other women who might encroach on it. I do have a good group of close female friends and find it way easier than I ever have to make new women friends at this stage of my life. But still—it’s a pernicious mindset that I find hard to shake. I work on it, but it crops up, many times before I’ve realized it.

It’s somewhat more acute these days in that, as my daily habits and schedule have been restructured quite a bit over the past two or three years, I find I don’t have nearly as many female friends as I would like to whom I can talk about creative pursuits. By and large, the people I have conversations with about my writing and my music and my other grand schemes are men. Men that I adore and respect and find endlessly fascinating and inspiring and who encourage me in so many ways that I appreciate so much, but . . . men nonetheless.

So, it’s terribly important for me to read so many wonderful blogs (and Twitter feeds and Tumblrs, etc.) kept by women. It’s especially important when these women write about their own struggles with insecurity and anxiety. More than just that typical rah-rah-internet cri de coeur of finding togetherness, globally, from behind our computer screens, it is an active reminder to me that sharing my thoughts and perspectives is truly valuable—even when the self-critical voices keep harassing me with putdowns along the lines of “what makes you so special?” and “who cares what you think anyway?” If these women can find a way to turn their own demons into words, and loudly talk about their experiences in order to make the stings feel less venomous, surely I have a responsibility, at some level, to uphold my end of the cosmic bargain to do the same.

I’ve been swatting away a lot of those internal putdowns of late. Here are some of the pieces I’ve read online that have helped keep my strength up while I’m at it.

Veronica Varlow, “Battling the Dark Weather in My Brain

The [negative brain] loop was murdered by thoughts of calling out to Big Foot and the Loch Ness and letting them know they could be safe if they lived on my mountain, that I wouldn’t report them being there to the papers, that I would bring them food if they wanted, I could just be there and leave notes or wave from the house and they would know that they weren’t hated or hunted and that
this crazy girl in this crazy house loved them
and they weren’t alone.

Lauren Percz, “Love Thy Self“:

My boyfriend is thin and athletic and I’m the complete opposite. When we first starting dating, I was in constant fear that he would be grossed out by my body and dump me. I dreaded the day when and if he would ever see me without clothes on. I figured he would really be disgusted by me then. But he wasn’t and he isn’t. I find that even now that we are an official couple, I still fear that he doesn’t like the way I look.

Mama Gena, “Results that defy logic“:

your resolution slowly begins to vaporize. And you are left with a shrug, an ‘oh well’ and an eerie sense of failure.
Why? Because there are circumstances which actually create creation, and allow for the fulfillment of any and all new year’s resolutions, but the culture we live in is not structured in a way to support a woman’s dreams coming true. We live inside this culture like round pegs trying to fit into a square hole.
It’s not through setting goals.
Not through logic.
Nor doing the right thing that cuts a woman’s imagination and creation loose.
It is her connection to her own pleasure.

Bri Emery, “Anxiety & Insecurity“:

even with this post, i am having this voice inside that wants me to have someone read it first so i can ask ‘should i post it? is it too much? do you think it’s okay?’

Heather Havrilesky, “Ask Polly: I Feel Bitter About All My Exes and I Can’t Get Over It!

At my lowest points, I was (unconsciously) committed to repressing all ME-ness and approximating what I saw as my current boyfriend’s ideal woman. Needless to say, I was not convincing at this charade. But I didn’t even know that I was acting! I thought I was just trying to be less WRONG, less BAD, less CRAZY.

Kat Kinsman, “Living with anxiety, searching for joy“:

Despite my best attempts at slow, deep breaths and all the rest of the therapeutic tricks I’ve been taught, I’m unable to slow my firecracker pulse or the explosion of toxic thoughts rotting me from brain to skin. ‘You’re so useless. You let down the people you love. Everyone who’s been stupid enough to love you will regret it when they realize how weak you are.’ It goes on and on until my body just shuts down for a couple of hours.

Elisabeth Geier, “Choice Horses and Basements I Have Known“:

The neighbors were young and in love. I learned to keep earplugs next to my bed because I could hear everything that went on in the room above mine. I sat for their baby a few times; when she cried, she shouted ‘water-eyes, water-eyes’ and shook her head, alarmed by her own tears. I did my own crying into pillows and missed Chicago every day until the day I still missed it but wasn’t crying anymore.

Chelsea G. Summers, “Unmentionables, the second

I told her how previous to purchasing this ridiculous expensive confection of a bra (and the subsequent four I bought online thereafter, drunk with the knowledge of my actual bra size and the pleasure of the feel of a well-fitting bra) I’d been wearing a friend’s hand-me-downs.

‘Chelsea,’ my therapist said in her Long Island accent, ‘you can’t wear second-hand underwear!’

They were nice, I said. Really expensive castoffs from a friend who’d had a breast reduction, I said. They were lovely, I said. Really, I said. Much nicer than I could afford, I said. I protested, perhaps too much.

My therapist tented her fingers and narrowed her eyes. ‘Have you considered how your X is like your hand-me-down underwear?’ she asked. No, I hadn’t.

And, though I am definitely not suffering from the kind of depression that Allie Brosh writes about in her much-celebrated post “Depression Part Two“, I have to link to it anyway, because she is amazing.

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