Sitting in a dead car on a country road in Colorado, I don’t know if I shiver from the cold or some deeper sense of awareness. I am not alone in the car. I sit with the only self-proclaimed neo-pagan I’ve ever met. This is the first moment I encounter the notion of “Liminal Space.”
As she describes the Celtic and Pagan traditions, she speaks of the sanctity of spaces between. Cliffs as meeting spaces between earth, water, and sky. Pregnancy as the time when a woman is no longer a child but not yet a mother. Dawn and Twilight. Solstice and equinox. These moments perch at the precipice before we leave behind what was and step into what will be next.
Life at the threshold.
Yesterday I spent one of my spring break days on a pilgrimage with my dear friend Cara. An Episcopal priest on Capitol Hill, we first met at bible study in college. She knew early on that her’s would be the life of a religious. She continues to anchor me in the faith of my roots…even as I am tempted by Pagan fruit.
On yesterday’s journey she led me down into the metro and up again to the Renwick Gallery. This diminutive museum tucked away from the rest of the National Mall was a small marvel. Their installation right now one of Wonder. Quite literally. Each room has been transformed into a transcendent space. The effect is visual, but also behavioral.
We tilt our heads, puzzled.
We crouch down.
We get closer.
We step back.
We prostrate ourselves, gaze and giggle.
String becomes light.
Wings become wallpaper.
Cards become pillars of salt.
Afterwards, on our long walk home, back the way we came, I am once again thinking about Space. How we shape it. How it shapes us. How often neglected this essential idea has become in a modern world where architecture is so often utterly utilitarian.
I ask Cara her thoughts on liminal space.
“Thin Space,” she calls it. I seize on this term.
As a priest, she is invited into these sanctified spaces, lives in them. Creates and consecrates them.
But in her experience, passing through liminal space is as likely to be distressing as enlightening for those who experience it. After all, she says, the most common time she has experienced this “thinness” is just before or just after death.
Liminal space might be literal places we can plot on a map. Retreat to or create. They might be occurrences we can plot on a timeline and revisit annually in traditions and memorials. Or, they may be states of being we can generate in ourselves and, perhaps, share with others.
I’m so fiercely proud to love you. So confident in our capacity to shape our world.
I love loving you. Love that I’m free to do it without recrimination. Love that every time I love you I feel stronger for doing it.
I have scaled cliffs with you.
I have braved Javelina with you.
I have watched “Girls Just Want to have fun” with you and tried to lift you over my head.
Knitted, strummed, and floated.
Conspired and colluded.
In this month that is ours (and which month isn’t, really?) I want to celebrate the women who I care for and who have cared for me.
Our love is our gift. To remind all of humanity how deeply we can love each other. That we can spoon and snuggle into one another at the cellular level. That we humans are all capable of this robust embrace.
I can be a handful.
So can you.
But hand in hand we scamper and scavenge and salvage and suffrage.
I’m so fiercely proud to love you. So confident in our capacity to shape our world.
How to change workplace culture with your therapy unicorn.
Workplace meetings are not renowned for their magic or mythical creatures.
Two months ago I sat in a bi-monthly meeting with my colleagues. This is one of those long standing scheduled meetings that has unfortunately developed an atmosphere of smothering cynicism. I’m one of the newest and youngest members to this team. On this particular day, there was a problem on the table. How do we get business partners, administrators, counselors, and students to buy into a new online platform where they can register to host or have an internship? I suggested brining all the stakeholders together at each school so they could learn and get excited about the platform in proximity to each other.
One of my colleagues responded to this idea with…
“Really, Barbara? And then will there be unicorns?”
Yep. She did. In front of all my peers she called me a unicorn lover.
This day will live in infamy for TWO reasons.
Because I’ve told this story indignantly countless times and I’m now blogging about it.
Because I never realized before this moment that I was out of touch with my inner unicorn love.
My rage and disbelief makes the memory of my rejoinder a LITTLE fuzzy, but I believe I said something along the lines of:
“Yes. I will be riding my rainbow haired unicorn, and you best get out of its way!”
Implied in her critique, of course, are other labels and accusations. A dreamer. A naïve optimist out of touch with the pragmatic constraints of the world. Here was a person who, for whatever reason, wanted to quickly dismiss and shut-down a possible solution. Many of you reading this will undoubtedly be able to share similar encounters with colleagues or cultures characterized by “can’t”. But in her defense…a confession.
I am a person who moves through life with a lot of…exuberance. (For a more detailed account, consider reading “Turn Down For What?”) I’m kind of like a puppy. I might jump and lick your face when I first see you, but I swear, I calm down after like a minute. And it’s all totally genuine. I really do think you’re just that great! I really do think there are a ton of solutions to intractable problems! I really do believe that if you build the right relationships you can harness the power of the people around you and innovate your way out of or into almost anything!
Are you exhausted by my exclamation points yet?
This can be a lot for the people around me to handle. Particularly if we’ve only just met. Folks are like, “She can’t possibly maintain this outlook or energy over time.”
Oh. But I can.
Before this moment, though, I didn’t even really LIKE unicorns.
Well…not in my adult life. I DID in fact grow up with “My Little Ponies” because my dad wouldn’t let me have Barbie’s because he didn’t want me to have a bad self-image. (And, yes I still have the pink castle. Yes you can come over and play with it.)
Being an ADULT PROFESSIONAL, though, who STILL likes unicorns, seems a little…infantile. But the more I told this story about a colleague threatened by my enthusiasm for creative solutions (which, by the way, I did in fact follow through on and all the stakeholders were TOTALLY excited in proximity to each other, thank you very much) the less it became about her, and the more it became about defending my right to carry my therapy unicorn anywhere I damn please.
That’s about the time I grudgingly began to wonder if unicorns might in fact be my spirit animal. I was not initially thrilled about this prospect.
I get it. Not everyone’s a unicorn person. They shed their rainbow hair everywhere and some people are allergic to glitter. If you need the effusive affection and affirmation of your place in the universe, don’t get a unicorn. They’re very independent, particular, and can be moody.
What’s more, there are indeed BAD unicorn owners out there. They’re all “believe in my unicorn” but they won’t let you ride it, pet it, or share joint custody. There are the unicorn lovers, too, that don’t pick up after their pet. They promise big things with their inspirational demos, but they don’t stay around long enough to follow through on the practicalities. Their unicorn is knocking shit over because they didn’t take it to obedience school or think about all the responsibilities that accompany unicorn ownership.
But if I’m going to own my unicorn, I’m going to feed, groom and board it, too. Its mane will be braided, its coat will be shiny, and we’re going to win some dressage blue ribbons together. So, don’t confuse my optimism with naïveté. If I tell you I’m planning a trip over the rainbow, you best believe I’ve booked the tickets, found a cloud to sleep on via “airbnb”, and filled up my tank on lucky-fucking-charms.
I am a pragmatic optimist. I see opportunities everywhere not because I’m making them up but because I’m looking for them AND because I’m already a regular member of a Unicorn playgroup with like-minded unicorn owners who believe in magic and will show up when I call. I have a smattering of “little orphan Annie” and “Pollyanna” in me. I will sneak out my upstairs window to go to the carnival. I will rescue strays and hide them under piles of laundry. I will decorate the ailing curmudgeon’s room in prisms. I will persuade Daddy Warbucks to adopt the world. I may be whimsical, but I’m also scrappy, self-aware, and “charmingly subversive.” Just. Like. My. Pet. Unicorn.
Once I crossed that rainbow, stopped talking bad about my colleague and unicorn hater behind her back, something (dare I say it) magical happened. People started saving a seat at gatherings for me to bring my unicorn.
It started small. At a meeting in a school library a “Book of Fantastical Creatures” appeared on my table. This same meeting my boss brought glitter and covered my work space with it. People started texting me pictures of t-shirts at Target, sardonic Memes, and screen shots of unicorn slippers.
And then, the penultimate miracle moment. The colleague who had started it all…who had made manifest my mythical affinities. What did she bring to the notorious bi-monthly meeting of doom?
A Solar. Powered. Unicorn.
It bobbed gently in front of me throughout the day. Reminded me that even cynics can soften. Emboldened me when our Assistant Superintendent joined us to raise my hand and say…
“I want to know if something is possible.”
Instead of groans from my colleagues? Laughter. “Here come the unicorns!” These comments were no longer accusatory or dismissive. They were intrigued and bemused.
I can live with that.
This conversion from unicorn doubter to believer will forever serve as a testimonial that if we believe in unicorns…they suddenly appear. If we believe in unicorns, others do too. And they start to make room for them. They start to book meetings in proximity to verdant meadows where there is room for unicorns to frolic and room for humans to twirl. Evolve. Learn to fly. Breathe Fire.
Because…who DOESN’T want to believe in the possibility of unicorns?
So, Yes. My name is Barbara (not Annie or Pollyanna), and I believe in unicorns.
Since I’ve established a certain level of comfort with making broad-sweeping generalizations about days of the week, today was EITHER:
“Mind yo’ business” Monday.
Either way, the day ended with the purchase of a box of wine.
Let’s play 10 truths and a lie, shall we? Which of these is NOT true. Yep. Only one is not true.
I yelled (like screaming yelled) at my children in the car.
I told my children my boss yells at me when they make me late. This is blatantly false.
I took their toys and made them cry.
I took my husband’s toys and made him cry.
I bad mouthed a guidance counselor.
I passive aggressively BCCed a librarian.
I put in an email “I am…frustrated.” When what I MEANT was, “I am…muttering obscenities under my breath and have torn up your memo into tiny little pieces because we’re too underfunded for me to have a shredder.”
I said, “It doesn’t matter if they’re mad if they do what we want.”
I mimed stabbing myself in the eye with a dry-erase marker.
A student said (while I was miming stabbing myself in the eye with a dry erase marker) “I think she’s going psycho.”
You think, kid?
And if you’re WONDERING whether that became a F@#!ing “teachable moment” where I discussed with the class why it’s a bad idea to alienate an angry authority figure (particularly one who is trying to HELP them and who is at least self aware enough to have WARNED them beforehand)…then yes. We had a little teachable “Mind-yo-business” moment.
And all of that happened before noon. Except for the thing about Zach’s toys…but only because his toys are stupid and I don’t want to play with them anyway.
I have written previously about my “inner mean girl.” My friend Matt told me recently that my inner mean girl is not always so “inner.” And Matt’s a lawyer. Probably makes people cry daily, so…burn.
My MOM put it more simply. “You’re scary when you’re angry.”
Mom!! I KNOW THIS!!! (And why would you SAY that to someone who is scary when they’re angry?! Have you no sense of self-preservation?)
I wish I was only a mean girl on Mondays. But I am very aware of my capacity to make others suffer when I’m grumpy, tired, disappointed, overwhelmed, stressed, hungry, etc. Insert negative emoji face here ______ .
In my defense (because you know I got’em, Mr. Fancy prosecuting attorney) I’m way better than I used to be. I remember pulling out a full-on crying fest because my boyfriend forgot to get eggs for the home-made vanilla icecream we were going to make. This is not what we call a critical issue. I very truly no longer resort to emotional extortion as a matter of course.
And even though I was grouchy, there were definitely moments when I was able to get myself together and:
Have a productive meeting with my principal about a mentorship program.
Encourage a student NOT to fight another student in the office.
Hug Kip and Ivy and say “I love you even when I’m mad.”
The truth is, though…I’m not willing to give her up. Regina. I…kinda like her.
This is not a Lenten apology.
I need my inner mean girl. The world can be MEAN and it’s most often mean to folks that can’t fight back.
Come to think of it…I feel some more justification coming on. Today, much of my anger stemmed from someone trying to either take advantage of or not fulfill their obligations to another human being. And yep, that makes me MAD and it’s not going to STOP making me mad and just because I’m a woman and an enlightened human being who wants to become the best version of herself EVENTUALLY, that DOESN’T MEAN I HAVE TO DO IT RIGHT THIS SECOND, THIS LENT, OR THIS MONDAY.
(Breathe, Regina, Breathe.)
If you’re still there and you made it past the CAPS LOCK YELLING…I know I need my anger. My mean-ness even. I plan to lead a life where I’m plunging into spaces where people are swinging, hoarding, or just plain looking the other way from folks who are struggling. I don’t think anger and “mean-ness” is always the answer to get people to pay attention…but it’s not NEVER the answer.
I’m not claiming that’s what happened every moment today. Today I was mad at a box of wine because it was too big to fit in my refrigerator. Ain’t no moral justification for that.
So maybe…alternating Monday themes.
Today? “Mean girl Monday.”
Next week? Making amends Monday.
Let’s try to make THAT happen Gretchen. #Fetch #SayCrackAgain
No need to remind me which day we’re on, though. It’ll just piss me off.
It jumps from one idea to the next. Knocks things over. This is true if I’m reading. Writing. Teaching. Walking. Eating… You get the picture…the fragmented, sparkly, frenetic picture.
Yoga, I wrote, was one of the only things that could calm my rushing psyche. The faster the flow of my body, the slower my mind becomes. When I began my practice, I gravitated to the hardest teachers. Barely keeping pace with my breath, dripping in sweat, my feet squeaking and slipping, this was the soggy path to my Zen moments. I would catch glimpses of silence and stillness in my mind before they slipped away around a corner of my frontal cortex.
Lately, though, I find I don’t have to chase down stillness. It has begun to come to me.
This week my friend Libbie invited me down to Annapolis to meet and practice with her favorite Yoga instructor. Tina.
Her class was without heat. Without sweat. Without mirrors. Without haste.
We began with seated meditation. We ended with seated meditation.
There was movement between, but all I remember, all I craved was the stillness.
Afterwards, I sat with her for a moment and marveled aloud how much I had reveled in the methodic, meditative slowness of the class. How did this happen? When did I change? How did I slip into someone at ease with silence and stillness?
I applied to a Teacher Fellowship at the Department of Education.
I didn’t get it.
I lead with this not because I’m asking for your sympathy or condolences, but because a good friend recently helped me (re)realize that I’m awfully good at making myself appear invulnerable and (over)confident.
Maybe just for good measure (if we’re friends like that) text it to me.
You probably feel better. I probably don’t. I don’t make it easy for folks to say no to me. I should probably take ownership of that, but I’m going to share a little ownership with my mother.
We do our best as parents. We often spend a tremendous amount of our time trying to course correct in our own children for some instance we perceive when our parents either allowed us to go off the rails (or kept us too firmly on the tracks). My parents did a spectacular job in all the ways that deeply matter….with a couple of minor exceptions. Perhaps most notably…my mother didn’t say “No” nearly enough.
Because my mother didn’t want my first word to be “no” (understandably for anyone with a 2 or 3 year old you’re trying not to throttle right now) instead of curbing my naughty behaviors with this two letter negative, she would give me other choices instead. “We can’t do that, Barbara, but we could do this or that….” Best of intentions. Worst of consequences. I expect everyone (deities included) to extend me the same courtesy.
I am fully aware that I can make it very uncomfortable for people to stand in the way of the thing that I want or the thing I believe. I can remember vividly the significant moments in my life where people (or the universe) said “no” to me either implicitly or explicitly. Some of these moments came in pursuit of ambitions that I was not ready for or deserving of. Some of these moments came in intimate landscapes when men (whose lives and loves were entangled in my own) tried to keep me or let me go.
By far, the most successful and transformative “no’s” came from the women I love who are, indeed, “strong enough to be my man.” Annie, with her “stop trying to make me believe what you want me to believe!” Cara with her, “Oh, Barbara.” Megan with her straight up, “No” back.
And, in case you’re curious, Zach has no problem saying no to me…though his technique and timing have improved significantly over the past 13 years.
What does any of this have to do with vulnerability or confessions of imperfections?
Because by far, the hardest person it is for me to hear no from and say no to…is myself. Standing up to myself, the things that I want, desire, crave, obsess over….it’s exhausting. Truly. I’m constantly leaning back against myself.
“No”tice, for example, I can’t even give-up, things for Lent. I add things (like writing) instead.
My greatest fear is that without a constant cultivation of my soul, I will not be strong enough to resist my own darkest desires for power and praise.
I have always found myself drawn (and invited) to spaces of performance where the promise of accolades and adoration are cloying. The stage. The classroom. This blog.
See me. Marvel. Applaud.
But just because I’m good at something, doesn’t mean it’s good for me (or that I’m good for it). It will surprise many of you to know that my own deepest “Melancholy Hours” come immediately after moments of high visibility. I am never more self-conscious than after I’m behind the podium or have just hit “publish” on this blog. I feel anxious. Vulnerable. On the verge of tears. Convinced I have revealed myself for the self-aggrandizing narcissist I most fear myself to be.
I’ve had to lean back against my desire to be in these spaces of high visibility for the supposed rewards they offer. I’m only able to be in them without regret if I share the stage with an ensemble of other people I can celebrate or issues I can advocate.
The truth is, over the last decade I have begun surrounding myself with people who are brave and bold enough to say no to me. And I have begun to respond differently to the moments when a no emerges. Instead of spaces of righteous indignation, these have become spaces of reflection.
It may be, in part, because I’ve changed the way I’m phrasing the question.
Instead of “Can I?” it has become “Should I?”
The “no” consequently feels…gentler?
What’s more, every time my community tells me no I breathe a little sigh of relief. If they can do it, so can I.
No, Barbara. No.
So, thank you Department of Education for this latest, “no.” Thank you, friends, for your knowing and your no-ing.
Something happens late at night. Everyone has gone to bed…but you. You’re still up. You feel the quiet around you. Feel the absence of others. Feel alone.
I only have myself as a basis for judgment, but I suspect that this experience of being human in the dark is a universal one.
It is powerful.
It is terrifying.
If you’re sad already, the weight of the darkness can be crushing. Smothering. It’s hard to breathe. Hard to believe it will ever end. You are buried leagues under grief or anger or confusion and you don’t know how you’ll emerge.
If you’re content, balanced, at peace when you reach this state of darkness and quiet, it can be profoundly beautiful. You feel in the quiet as if everything is there. All of your thoughts are louder. They echo across this vast cavern of possibility. In the quiet you feel the universe and…