Saturday, February 27, 2016

Cleaning house: reflections on love, partnership, and loss.

This post started with wanting to write about being single on Valentine’s Day. Over the past couple weeks of reflecting and writing, it has evolved into something much more.

When I departed for Australia, it felt like pretty much everything in my world was falling apart. Professional life abounded with stressors, I was still devastated from a breakup from a couple months ago, and then the day before I departed I went through redefining a (different) partnership to be a friendship. The only thing I had left for stability was an amazing community: all else was changing out from under me. The situation contrasted sharply with the past summer, when it felt like everything was on the up and up: amazing job with flexibility for remote work and a budding partnership to which I quickly assigned dreams of marriage and family. Now, I found myself irrevocably, painfully single. Part of the reason I embarked for Australia so ill-prepared was that I'd been preoccupied with all these other events. In many ways, going on a grand adventure to Australia was the *last* thing I wanted -- my chief desire being to crawl into a hole. 

On my trip over, I set an intention for my journey Down Under: to maintain an open heart. I, of course, wanted to turtle, to withdraw and never again expose myself to the abject dangers of falling in love the way I did last summer. Following through on such reactive impulses would, of course, only further hurt me, trapping the pain inside by putting up a wall between the world and me. So I promised myself to be wholehearted and honest with myself and others. That’s a tricky position to maintain, particularly when your heart is laden with grief and you sound like a broken record from a bad Country artist (it was so good back then, it was all my fault, now I’ve lost everything, yadda yadda); it’s hard to not think that being in my company would begin to pall. It’s not something you want to ever show to another living person, lest they judge you for being feeble, for appearing vulnerable, for indulging in self-destructive thought patterns. In a world where we are trained to always and only present a well-rounded, carefully put together persona, being wholehearted like that can be downright terrifying. Of course, as my past two years of growing in the learning from Daring Greatly has taught me, leaning into the discomfort and allowing myself to be vulnerable is the best course of action.

In practice, it feels forced, this process of putting myself out there; in my moments of insecurity, all I want to do is feel sorry for myself, all I long for is to be with her. The connection we shared was all-encompassing, a soul mate connection, giving way to moments that would leave me breathless, exhilarated, and deeply grateful to be with this person. The loss of this bond makes all else feel dull by comparison, dimming the brightness of the world: no one else will be her, and forming new life experiences reminds me she’s not a part of them. When I mentioned in a previous post about being withdrawn on the Friday of a dance weekend, it’s because I was in the throes of missing her and couldn’t be bothered to find interest in anything else about life. This mindset is so unproductive and equally impossible to escape, impervious as it is to reasoning.

When a relationship comes to an end, you lose more than the other person: you lose the dream of what a future would be with them. Part of what has made this breakup so particularly overwhelming — despite lasting for a relatively brief duration — was how vividly I could imagine that future with her. I easily envisioned all the aspects of life that I wish for one day: adventures around the world shared in the company of another, building a home and community, raising a family. The future has been a hazy and far-off concept for the majority of my relationships, but for this one it felt like it was right around the corner. Losing a dream that ties into deep-set beliefs about fulfillment in life has brought on such emotional anguish. It has brought me to the uncomfortable realization of how strongly I tie self-actualization in life to finding a mate.

One sagacious friend pointed out that I may have lost the possibility to fulfill the dream with that person, but the dream in the abstract (marriage, family, community, etc.) still belongs to me. Excellent advice to be sure, but it’s hard to be comforted by it right now. The mind latches on to the details, it likes concreteness. An insubstantial notion that one day I might find a mate and have an enriching life-long partnership pales in comparison to the evocative imagery I built up surrounding a future with this person. I endeavor to redefine my dream to not include her, but my mind refuses to let go. It is exceptionally difficult to replace a broken dream that involves a specific person with a complete dream that involves no one in particular. 

In lamenting to friends that I'd never meet someone else quite so amazing and that I was sure to die alone (a classic siren song of my internal gremlins), some joked that I'd probably meet that person in Australia. I replied that I surely hope not, because Australia is simply too long distance. But more seriously, I’m not ready to find someone else, as I have work to do: I need to learn from my previous experiences and discover how to be a better person, both in a partnership and solo. 

I’ve been thinking a great deal reflecting upon what I actually want in my life, what lifestyle I believe will be most enriching, and where my priorities lie. I’ve begun to question whether perhaps, like many other parts of my life, the relationship model is an aspect on which I’m flexible; that I have leanings, but am happy to go with what fits in the relationship for the right person. I’ve realized how easily I fall into a pattern in a partnership and stop being fully present, no longer offering the same level of love and attention that person deserves. My time here in Australia has helped me find clarity around where I want my life to head in the next five years: finding a long-term partner, beginning to settle down, and laying the groundwork for raising a family.

I’m grateful for these realizations, because it means I’m learning more about myself, but it’s also a direct trigger to a downward spiral starting with the thought, “This sure would’ve been good to figure out BEFORE that relationship ended.” I can’t blame myself too much, I suppose: these questions are deep, complex, and impossible to answer solely through reasoning. We have no choice but to live into the answer, and in my case the timing on this evolution of understanding meant I still lost a profoundly important relationship. The predominantly nomadic lifestyle I’ve adopted, necessitated by my path in teaching dance professionally, has been unquestionably rewarding, but it did allow me to fall into a holding pattern of never setting down roots anywhere.

While I have spent a lot of energy deconstructing my relationship dynamic, I have also spent time aimed inwardly. If we went with a metaphor of a house representing each one of us, I have an unfortunate tendency when in a partnership to focus solely upon building a new, shared home. I stop going back to my own house so often to perform regular upkeep. It’s been two years since I was last single, and now the kitchen of my house is a complete mess and there’s some science experiment growing in my fridge. I have to remember that my house is still my life force and I need to care for it, so it’s time to start cleaning. To that end, I’ve spent time and energy being with myself, being at peace with the world around me, being comfortable with being alone. I need to remember what brings me inspiration, what fills me with joy (aside from the obvious, which I can’t have), what helps me grow as a person. Essentially, I’m learning once again how to date myself, something I haven’t done for far too long. Clearly, I have a long way to go, but at least it’s progress.

I’ve done my best to allow other people into my proverbial home to visit, even while I’m cleaning house. This occurred once while in Melbourne, when I connected with someone on a romantic level. We met at Cider House Blues and then proceeded to spend several days and evenings together during my week in the city. We were both in a place to be able to appreciate the casual but sincere connection without attachment, and parted ways (on V-day, naturally) on excellent terms with much gratitude in our hearts for the brief time we shared.

The path to being open-hearted while brokenhearted is fraught with jarring juxtapositions of joy and sorrow. Take, for instance, the way I actually spent our final day together, wandering around St. Kilda Festival, a huge music festival that transforms much of the St. Kilda suburb. We enjoyed good food, gorgeous weather, and sharing playful, creative dances at a Salsa music stage and, later, at a bar playing classic soul tunes. I was swimming with delirious happiness, drunk on dancing and warm summer weather. Then I began to get hit by these sharp pangs of remorse as a memory would surface: one of meandering an arts festival on a beautiful day with my former partner, dancing in public, perusing the wares of vendors (predominantly of charming home furnishings) and daring to imagine crafting a home together and populating it with such accoutrements. It’s like my brain is determined to feel sad, and despite my best efforts to the contrary, will repeatedly bring to my attention evidence of why I should be the saddest person ever.

It is natural that my brain would offer these reminders. We identify strongly with painful situations; our brains are trained to make extensive notes about circumstances that lead to pain and then raise the alarm for future events that bear any resemblance. As a species, we are served well by an aversion to pain. The pain even becomes part of our identity, in a way. In those moments of downward spiral, I am impervious to any uplifting words, for my identity then is: I am Failure, I am A Lost Cause, and so on. It’s so hard to let go of that all-consuming identity, to let it coexist with more positive self-identities: I am Wholehearted, I am Loving, I am Talented, etc. It’s a perverse inclination, to self-flagellate in this way and be defined wholly by the negative, and yet it’s bizarrely satisfying because it feels so real. It leads to unproductive inner dialogues: “I’ll never find anyone like her again,” “I’m not worthy of someone like her,” “It’s your fault the relationship ended,” or “What if I had done this thing differently, maybe it would’ve worked out.” These internal dialogues perpetuate the cycle and keep us dissociated from the present, as we wallow in this toxic environment of self-abuse. The anguish of believing you’re unworthy is so intoxicatingly present; in the face of these dark forces, the forces of light dwindle and plead for a space to shine.

Much of my life feels like an endless struggle of forces, an uncomfortable coexistence of opposing emotions. My adventures in Australia have been exceedingly wonderful, filled with sunny days and warm weather, adventures in nature, entertaining times with friends new and familiar, and dancing to other dance styles (Kizomba, WCS, Salsa). Through all of these heady times, I carry a black hole of grief in my heart, one that can activate at any moment to absorb all positive energy that comes near me. Repeatedly, I encounter moments of staggering beauty and all I can think about it how desperately I wish to share it with that person. Sure, such is the Human Condition: to have complex emotions, to be both happy and sad, but I guess my point is that I never feel it so acutely as now when grieving over a terrible loss. The contrast can be so severe that the practice of going out and deliberately making the best of my time here in Australia feels disingenuous when given the context of my deep sadness.

The dream world offers me little reprieve. At least a couple times a week, I will wake up with a vague sense of missing something; occasionally, I am less fortunate and the dreams are more vivid, only to be filled with loss as those ephemeral details fade to nothing and I realize it was entirely a fabrication. It's only through force of will and habit that I drag myself out of bed to take on the day. I press through the thick, dull feelings of sadness — so non-specific and inarticulate in the mornings, as if my inner dialogue is still waking up and figuring out how to berate me — with a cup of tea and some treatment in the sun, or writing in my Morning Pages, or diving into my work. As long as I hit the day with a running start, I can usually get on top of my emotional state for the majority of daylight hours.

It is quite challenging, in those moments, to find the wherewithal to go on adventures. For all of my globe-trotting, I'm quite the homebody and it can require a lot of energy to motivate myself to go outside. But I do it anyway, I force myself to head out the door and off to visit a friend for a walk in a park, or to explore a museum on my own, or exercise, or to head down a street in search of food and await what moments will come. I do it because I know it's the right thing to do — exactly the opposite of what I want to do, which is to lie in bed and drown my sorrows in mind-numbing activities. It helps that I’ve systematically eliminated said escapist activities, such as watching TV or playing video games, so that if I want to feel sorry for myself I have little choice but to be present with my emotions, which can offer rather poor company when feeling down. Once I get over the inertia, it's relatively easy to keep on rolling along, but boy it is a battle to get the process started.

While on my adventures, I'm still prone to being completely sidelined by some thought that sucks dry the joy from the present moment, when all I can do is keep walking and trusting that one day it will get better. I remind myself of the sage advice from Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece Meets the Big O (I’ve never been so emotionally moved by a triangle and a circle), that I must be complete in myself. I focus on journaling, adventuring, learning, spending time with friends, exercising, being alone, dancing, teaching, speaking with friends about my sorrows, and sitting quietly with my thoughts. It's a hard path to walk and right now I still can’t shake the loss; I’m still tormented by uncertainties about the future, and still get blindsided by grief. I don’t yet truly believe in a bright future for myself, but I keep progressing one day at a time, because it’s the only way forward through life.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A scene from Melbourne.

Begin scene: a taxi cab in Melbourne. Andrew Smith enters the cab and provides the destination address. The driver strikes up a conversation. 

Driver: what country are you from?

Andrew: America. 

Driver: What's your favorite car?

Andrew: Um... The Prius.

Driver: (without pausing to consider the answer) My favorite car is Mustang. Do you know Mustang? Very good car. The best. 

Andrew: Oh. Well, what do you like about it?

Driver: To go fast! It's a strong *muscle* car. (flexes his arm to emphasize the point)

Andrew: I see. 

Driver: Where in America do you live?

Andrew: Washington. 

Driver: Do they have Mustang there?

Andrew: Sure, a few. 

Driver: It must be very good to live where they make Mustang. 

(The rest of the drive proceeds in silence, until at the end of the trip Andrew is exiting the vehicle.)

Driver: When you get back to America, you know what you should do?

Andrew: What?

Driver: Buy a Mustang!

End scene. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Into the Land Down Under.

Oh, hello there, Blog. Seems we haven’t spoken in quite some time. Sorry about that. It turns out that I don’t usually write about relationships or professional endeavors; because that’s pretty much been my entire life over the fall, I’ve not had much space to write about anything.

But times are changing (for good and for bad). I’m now in Australia for the whole month of February, partially for dance events but primarily for vacationing and recovering from the heartbreak that has been the past several months. My tour of Australia was booked over a year in advance — the first time any event had booked me so far into the future — and would be my first trip to the land Down Under. In preparation for my trip, I managed to have the presence of mind to purchase a Lonely Planet book and order In A Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson, as a way of introducing me to this peculiar continent. Aside from these two actions, I departed from the US decidedly unprepared and having spent very little time planning, I’ve just been so busy. 

The day after my arrival in Melbourne, I was whisked away to the magical setting for Cider House Blues, at which I taught this past weekend. Before departing, I came across this delightful little road sign, which I wanted to share as a brief aside before diving into the weekend festivities...


Belonging to the parents of one of the organizers, CHB takes place on a farm outside of Melbourne, about an hour’s drive away. The trip out there was quite pleasant, and featured interesting road art along the way. Evidently, there’s been a big push by the Australian government to beautify the country highways with large-scale art projects. My favorite is the de-scaled hotel that’s not a hotel


Aside from the pleasing road art and conversations in the car, we were treated to an decidedly beautiful sunset. Coming from Seattle, where it was recently 40ºF recently, I appreciated this resplendent display of Summer.


The farm is stunningly beautiful. The pictures don’t quite capture the serenity that is this place, but they offer a starting point. This panorama was taken from their porch that doubles as an outdoor dining room.





After a leisurely morning spent sunning myself and sipping tea, I got to work tying up some loose ends for work and eventually around to lesson planning for the weekend. At some point, I took a break to exercise (Insanity all the way!), which elicited bemused commentary from others. I find it interesting how people often feel driven to comment when observing others exercising outside the context of a gym. 

The day passed quickly in the way productive days so often do -- i.e. quickly -- leaving me unprepared mentally and emotionally for the arrival of CHB participants by the evening. As the crowd grew, I found myself increasingly shy and overwhelmed by the prospect of being social with a huge group of people whom I’ve never met. It made me appreciate the long-growing friendships I’ve developed with scenes throughout North America and Europe, that I can find familiar faces almost anywhere, but here I found myself in a completely new spot and only familiar with the organizing team. Making matters worse, my internal monologue took a turn for the worse and began to dwell on depressing events of the past couple months, further stripping me of my usual confidence summoned by being a dance teacher at a dance weekend. I felt utterly incapable of putting on my amiable teacher hat, of bringing the party, of opening my heart chakra and sharing joy and love of dance with everyone. While I couldn’t do it authentically, I forced myself to go out and dance and put on a happy face because it was the right thing to do — not only in a professional sense, but also to drag myself (begrudgingly) out of my blues. Those psychological studies that show that facial expressions can influence your mood can’t all be wrong. I had some pleasant dances and people were categorically kind and friendly, but it still felt like a slog and I was incapable of genuinely connecting. 

Friday was challenging, but Saturday and Sunday saw a marked improvement for me. The classes went splendidly, for one. I love teaching abroad, particularly because the students are so often more keen to learn. I was able to teach one of my classes outside in the sunshine on their outdoor dance floor, which delighted me to be out in the sun (with sunscreen, of course). I find that classes are a great way for me to connect with large groups of people, it’s effective at breaking the ice. Where I couldn’t find the right spirit to interact with them on Friday, by Saturday afternoon I felt relaxed and confident and able to make small talk with people. People saw in me the goofy, slightly awkward person that I actually am, not some scary intimidating teacher who looks down my nose at people, and I think that let them open up more as well. Throughout the rest of the weekend I had the pleasure of connecting with a number of kind-hearted, engaging locals, either in receiving earnest compliments about a class or over sharing a scrumptious meal, all of which were communal. 

I want to give huge props to the kitchen team, for their hard efforts to fit a diverse range of dietary restrictions and still have everyone feel nourished. I ate super well this weekend, always with an excellent balance of greens, grains, and protein. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind to photograph any of the spreads — probably because I was in such a ravenous state that I could think of nothing else than to stuff my face with delicious food. 

Shortly after Saturday dinner, we convened for a Blues dancing competition, but with a special twist: it took place on a bouncy castle. It was Australia’s — nay, I daresay the World’s — inaugural Bouncy Castle Blues competition. And oh, what a glorious sight it was to behold. I had the special honor of judging said competition, which I can assure you put a lot of pressure upon me to carefully weigh the balance if Blues aesthetic with bouncy castle awesomeness -- not a feat suitable for an inexperienced judge. Being able to say that I professionally judged a bouncy castle Blues competition is perhaps one of my greatest achievements in my career to date.


I captured one of the preliminary rounds on video. I did a terrible job maintaining the dancers in the frame, because I was scribbling down notes at the same time (I was judging, remember, and that’s a very serious business). 

Saturday night was particularly magical. It began with dancing outside under a crystal-clear starry night sky. Here’s the dance floor (I couldn’t get a good photo during the night):


Being so far away from civilization and with the porch lights dimmed, one could easily see the Milky Way while dancing. Another reminder of us being quite remote was the wonderful background din of crickets, frogs, and who knows what else that provided a gentle hum to the entire night.


The live band that played that night rocked my socks off. The duo, Wilson & White, play a fine pre-war Blues set, I was transported to an era when Delta Blues was alive and well. I danced so hard that night, never missing a single song from the band. I was grateful for the band breaks, because it meant I could take a break as well to water and feed myself. During those breaks, I had the pleasure of chatting with locals and getting to know them better. After their second-to-last set, the entire party was given makeshift lanterns and we made a little procession off to a shack about a hundred yards away, where the band was set up for their final set. I returned the next morning to take pictures, so just imagine it being dark and lit with tea lights. Someone was set up inside the shack handing out cocktails.


Here’s where the band played.


I haven’t danced this hard in a long time, it was a real gift to receive. The musicians had a great time interacting with the dancers, and the dancers were clearly eating up everything they were being offered. The whole night was filled with so much win. Once the live band wrapped up, I took a wonderfully long break from dancing to recover my energy, then headed back out for dancing until 5:30am. Along the way, I enjoyed some hilarious conversations that probably wouldn’t make much sense when not deliriously tired and riding high on dance.

Sunday glided along in the usual fashion of days that follow staying up all night dancing and then teaching the following morning: filled with a lot of tea and stumbling over my words. Students were still keen to learn, though. I taught a two-part series on turning technique, which was astonishingly popular. People here clearly want to dive into the nitty-gritty details of dance mechanics, and I’m very happy to oblige. While they’re all business sometimes when working on their dancing, they also appreciate the importance of community and having a good time. We wrapped up the weekend classes with a heart-warming, community-focused class that involved a lot of student discussions and massage circles. 

The event formally concluded on Sunday evening, with no party that night, primarily because we were reasonably far from the city and people had to work the next day. I was perfectly happy with this arrangement, because it meant I could go to bed at a reasonable hour. After dinner among a smaller core group of people (primarily organizers), we went out to meet and feed the alpacas and pony on the farm.


The alpacas had been freshly shorn a week ago.


Monday was a perfect recuperation day, primarily spent lazing about in the sun. I wandered about the farm, taking photos, sipping tea, and chatting with people. By midday, we departed to briefly visit a winery (so delicious) and then stopped by a nearby beach for a couple hours. After the intensely packed weekend, I was all too happy to let the hours slip by without my eventfulness.

With the increased peacefulness, I did find myself returning to more somber thoughts of life back in the US, of current struggles, losses, and sorrows. The contrast between the beauty and joy of the weekend and the emotions I was presently feeling was stark and uncomfortable. I’ve come to expect these sort of post-event depressions, even if they’re brief, it’s a natural way of my body balancing for all the endorphins I’d been creating through the weekend. Not to discount the reality of my thoughts, but at least I could acknowledge the context of them feeling particularly painful in the moment, because of me recovering from the weekend. Still, I appreciated the wonderful company shared with a few friends whom I trust. Walking along the beach, I tried to open my heart to the world in some hopes the sun’s summery rays would penetrate all the way through and light me from the inside. It helped, just a little.