Chocolate or Vanilla?

When I underwent emotional intelligence training, my coach asked me the question, “Chocolate or vanilla?” over and over. Now, my partner and I use that phrase frequently as we live our life together. It always makes me smile.

Life is ridiculously complicated. At other times, it’s ridiculously simple. Our experience lies in the heart of this paradox.

Chocolate or vanilla is about choice, and the recognition and reclamation of our ability to choose is the core of emotional intelligence.

Choice is about power.

One of the many seeds that inspired this post was this article that appeared in my news feed from The Guardian: “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be a Writer if You Can Afford It.” It caught my attention because my reflex now is to question all these kinds of assertions, whether they are a result of my own beliefs or someone else’s.

Is that true? I asked myself.

Upon reading the article, I discover the author is making a point that earning a living by writing is difficult. Agreed. Does that mean one is not a writer if they don’t earn a living writing? That depends on how one defines what a writer is. This circles around to identity. What is a writer? What is a real writer?

Why does it matter? If a person is compelled to write, they do so. Debating what a “real” writer is, making rules about what “counts” as writing (Editing? Tech writing? Poetry? Published writing? Unpublished writing? Writing for money? Blogging for free?). Gathering statistics about the high costs of publishing, editing, hiring an agent, advertising, etc., seem to me distractions from writing, even if it’s only for twenty minutes a day.

Is the issue about choosing to live creatively or about managing our expectations about such a life and feeling disempowered by the attendant difficulties in earning a living via our creativity?

The tone of the article bothers me because it’s focused negatively. It’s about being creatively disempowered because the world is the way it is. It’s all the reasons why writers can’t be successful (whatever that means) unless they have a certain amount of money.

I don’t accept that.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

Why not think about what is possible? Where is our power? The author states that space and time cost money. Is that true? We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We make hundreds of choices about how we spend that time. Some of our choices are unconscious, and some are not. The minimalism movement speaks to this. If our lives are so busy, noisy and cluttered that we don’t give our creative longings (or whatever else matters most to us) time and space, we’re the only ones who can fix that. And make no mistake, we can fix it. We have the power to simplify our lives and identify what matters most to us. If we want to. If we consent to.

As I observe myself and others navigate through their lives, it’s easy to pick out those who feel powerless from those who acknowledge at least some power. Note that power does not mean control. Power is “the ability to do something or act in a particular way.” Control is “the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.” (Online Oxford Dictionary) Power is intrinsic. Control is extrinsic.

It strikes me that when we feel disempowered about one thing, we frequently expand that feeling to our whole lives. We feel victimized, stuck, fearful, hopeless and helpless. Often, we’re enraged by the unfairness of life. We desperately try to find a sense of control. Our default is to stay focused on all the places we have no power, no matter what the situation.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

That focus is a choice. It might be unconscious, but it’s still a choice.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I know we each have obligations, complicated lives, and most of us need to earn a living. As a single mother of two boys, I worked a full-time job, a part-time job, did volunteer work and took online courses to complete a college degree. Believe me, I know about being overwhelmed in life. During those years I also danced, told stories, wrote, and created visual art, because that’s who I am. I didn’t earn money with my creativity, but it was what kept me going in all the other areas of my life.

I understand that sometimes we are disempowered by addiction and/or other health issues, and we are unable to make choices because of it. In that case, we need help, and we can choose to get it. Or not.

Chocolate or vanilla?

As for space, writing can happen on a bed, on the floor, on a park bench, in a car, or in a Starbucks. In my life, I’m not at all sure where the boundary is between writing and living. I seem to always be doing both, whether or not I’m actually at the keyboard or with a pen in my hand.

Being creative is not the same as an ambition to get rich and famous via our work. If the goal is riches and fame, we’ve stepped out of our power. Then we’re going to need money, influence, professional support, and a lot of luck. Even if we do achieve fame, financial security and glory, however, let’s not kid ourselves. We’ll still need to manage our money and time, and we’ll still have exactly as much time as everyone else does.

We’ll still have to choose between chocolate and vanilla every minute, and if we refuse to choose, somebody else will choose for us.

We can’t reclaim or effectively hold onto our power unless we’re willing to question everything, and questioning everything is not supported in this culture. If we’re not living the life we want, there’s one important question to ask:

If we feel disempowered, do we want to feel differently? Do we consent to change?

Most of us will immediately say yes, of course we don’t want to feel disempowered! What a stupid question! BUT we can’t, because we have no money. We have no time. We have health limitations. We can’t find work, or we have work, but our boss hates us. Our commute is too long. We don’t have the space we need. Nobody loves us. Nobody cares. We’re alone. We’re too old. We’re too young. We’re too tired. We’re the wrong color or sex. Nothing and no one is the way we need them to be in order for us to live in our power.

The truth is that our personal power has nothing to do with the people around us or the way the world works. Only one person can fundamentally disempower us, and that person looks back at us out of the mirror.

Another unwelcome truth is that many people who feel chronically disempowered are getting some kind of a payoff for staying stuck in that place.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

This hidden payoff is a hard, hard thing to admit and excavate, take it from me. Our defenses rise, our feelings boil, our beliefs become more fanatical, all our old wounds bleed. Hidden payoffs are buried deeply in psychic war zones. Many of us never go there unless we’re forced to by some kind of a catastrophic, life-and-death situation.

I started this post on a Tuesday morning. I was sitting at my little workstation in my attic space next to an open window. The air was fresh and cool. It was misty out, and I could hear the spring song of birds. I opened my laptop and skimmed headlines about politics, COVID-19, and overnight killer tornados in Tennessee. There was the seductive content on my screen, manipulated by the media, Google, and advertising. Then there was the world outside my window, gentle, lovely, moist, and promising the new beginning of spring.

Chocolate or vanilla?

I shut the laptop, picked up a clipboard and pen, and began this post long hand, the old-fashioned way, in my chair in front of an open window.

Choice. Personal power. I am a writer. My daily crime.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

Losing It

On Monday, I drove my old Subaru to work and parked. It was unusually warm, so I decided to leave my insulated winter gloves and parka in the car. I got out, used the key fob (as always) to lock the car, put the key in my right-hand pants pocket, and walked into the building.

Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

I went down the stairs and entered the pool, met by the bright light and lovely (to me) smell of a clean and well-maintained indoor pool. I exchanged greetings with my coworkers, set my bag down on a chair (a bag with a couple of handy outside pockets the hospital gave to every employee), removed my jewelry and put it in a small pouch, and took off my boots and socks while chatting with my friends.

I went into our small “break room,” which consists of a towel rack, a handful of lockers, a sink, a fridge, and a microwave, and set my bag on the floor between a plastic chair and a crate in which we collect bottles for recycling. I fingered the key fob and key in my pocket. I usually keep that key in my coat pocket, but I hadn’t brought my coat in. We only have one key to the Subaru, so I’m careful with it. I could leave it in my pants pocket, but things frequently slide out of my pockets as I change in and out of my clothes at work, so that didn’t seem safe. I decided to put the key in an outside pocket of my bag. I tossed it into the pocket, stripped off my clothes, folded them hastily, and dropped them onto my bag. I put on my lifeguard shirt and shorts, got my gear out of my locker, and went to work.

During the following five hours, I taught a private lesson, contributed money towards buying flowers for a recently bereaved colleague, lesson planned for my group swim lesson later in the week, lifeguarded, worked at the desk, did some cleaning, and checked chemicals.

It was a good day.

We had a couple of late families come in, so closing was a little chaotic. We went through closing procedures, put on our street clothes, clocked out … and I couldn’t find my key.

I couldn’t find my key.

Where was my key?

I emptied everything out of my bag (not much). No key. It wasn’t in my pants. It wasn’t in my coat, because my coat was in the car. It wasn’t on the floor.

Where was my key?

I remembered tossing it into the outside pocket of my bag, which I hadn’t moved all shift. Nobody but staff had been in the break room. I know with absolute certainty none of my colleagues would ever deliberately take anything that didn’t belong to them. However, most of us do use the same bag, although we’ve personalized them in small ways with pins, colored carabiners, etc.

My colleague checked his bag, which hadn’t been near mine. No key.

It was late. I was tired. We wanted to go home. My coworker has a long commute and had worked a much longer shift than I had. He offered to take me home, but it would have added miles and time to his already lengthy drive, which I was unwilling to do.

There was nothing for it but to call my partner and ask him to come and get me.

What, you’re asking, is the point of this long, rambling, boring story? We’ve all lost keys.

The point is that losing the key sent me right over the edge so completely and so quickly that it wasn’t until hours later that I realized losing the key was a trigger for a much deeper upset.

Photo by Mar Newhall on Unsplash

For much of my life I’ve doubted my own perceptions and experience. I’ve internalized a lot of gaslighting and projection. I’ve accepted that I’m hypersensitive, dramatic, attention-seeking, too intense, too curious, too imaginative, too sensual and too passionate.

My second husband (not the father of my children) was abusive. During that marriage, when I was in my 30s and the kids were pre-teens, I reached a point of despair and desperation that led me to find a therapist, ostensibly for marriage counseling. My deeper, more honest agenda was that I wanted a professional assessment of my parenting.

My husband had me convinced that I was bad with money, I fantasized and made up stories about things that never happened (like being abused), I was frigid and/or a nymphomaniac (he could never make up his mind), and I was impossibly difficult to live with. I got a lot of the “you’re an unfit parent” routine from the boys’ father and his family, too.

My own experience of myself was quite different, but it didn’t matter, because I’d given up trusting my own experience in childhood.

In spite of being an “unfit parent,” I loved my children more than anyone or anything, and I was willing to give their father full custody if that was best for them.

I didn’t think that was best for them.

But I couldn’t trust what I thought, or felt, or remembered. I knew that.

So, I thought I would get an objective, professional evaluation.

We went to the therapist. We went. Once. My husband spent 50 minutes telling the therapist how difficult and crazy I was. I said I wanted an evaluation of my parenting and some guidance in healing our troubled marriage.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The therapist told my husband he need not return, (implying that I was clearly the problem), and rescheduled with me. I spent the week steeling myself, finding a lawyer to draw up paperwork to transfer custody, and otherwise trying to wrap my head around losing my boys and whether it was worth it to try to help myself. Could I be healed? Was I worth fixing? Did anything matter anymore? What would I say to the boys? How in God’s name could I go on without them?

When I walked into the second session, the therapist was angry. I deserved it. People were frequently angry with me. He pointed to a chair, sat knee-to-knee with me, and demanded to know why I was with a man who was destroying me.

I was blinded by the realization that he wasn’t angry with me. He was angry for me. He actually cared. About me!

“Do you want to live or die?” he asked brutally.

“I want to live,” I said without thinking, the warrior in me suddenly coming to life. I hadn’t known until then that it was true.

We spent the next six weeks planning an exit strategy from my marriage, and then he cut me loose. He told me I was fine; I didn’t need his services. What I needed was to get away from my abuser.

From the moment I lost that key at work, I went obsessively over every move I’d made from pulling into the parking lot to the realization the key was gone. I thought I knew exactly what I’d done. I could remember it, see it in my mind’s eye. I’m a creature of habit. There was nothing new or different about that day and my routine. I wasn’t tired, sick, or distressed.

Yet the key was gone.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

I was at once plunged back into that old feeling of madness, that I live in some kind of sick alternate reality that others don’t inhabit. I remembered every mocking or contemptuous comment I’d ever heard about my sensitivity, my intuition, my imagination, and my drama. I thought about how disconnected and isolated I’ve often felt; crazy people are, after all, impossibly difficult to deal with. I remembered the terrible confusion of having a clear memory but being told it never happened, I made it up. And what kind of a monster would make up such disloyal, ugly lies?

All the work I’ve done in the last decade; my creative life; the processing, healing, and reclaiming of myself and my power, were swept away as if they’d never happened. I was not to be trusted, and I couldn’t trust myself. In fairness to my coworkers, students, pool patrons and patients, and most of all my partner, I should crawl away, institutionalize myself, disappear.

Because I lost my car key.

While all this emotional chaos was going on, my partner and I made complicated plans to get a new key programmed for the Subaru (towing the car to the nearest dealership an hour away, dealing with the $100 cost for said programmed key, etc.), and my teammates scoured the office and break room at work looking for the key. Meanwhile, a major winter storm is looming on the horizon, adding more pressure around timing, scheduling, and the necessity for winter driving.

All the while I watched myself, wondering if my memory is to be trusted, if my intention is to be trusted, if any of my perceptions are to be trusted. How could I remember every step of what I did, and yet the key was not there? What did it mean? What had I done? Do I have black holes in my memory and don’t even know it? Did I make up a story about what I did that had nothing to do with reality? Was the key still in the car after all? Had I not locked it, though I remembered doing so?

Had all those voices in the past been right, and I’ve been living in a fantasy for the last few years, believing myself to be rational, sane, even well-balanced and intelligent?

Maybe I should have given up the kids, after all? Maybe I was (am?) an unfit mother. Perhaps I shouldn’t be working with children.

Yesterday afternoon, my partner drove me to work. I went to the Subaru and stood by the locked driver’s door. The key was not in the car. My partner verified it, as I no longer trusted the evidence of my own senses. The car was locked, just as I remembered. My parka and insulated gloves were on the passenger seat, just as I remembered. My partner and I walked across the parking lot, exactly as I’ve done hundreds of times before, with me reciting each action along the way. We went in the building, down the steps and into the pool.

No one had found the key. Everyone was concerned. Nobody seemed to understand that I was crazy; no longer to be trusted. We talked about where we’d looked. People asked questions. We looked in various places again. Wearily, I said that I’d thought I’d thrown the key into the outside pocket of my work bag. Everyone rummaged in the outside pockets of their work bags without much hope.

A shriek from one of my colleagues. Unbelievably, she held out the key on its fob in her palm.

For a moment, I had an intense sense of vertigo. It seemed unreal. What was real? Was that my key? Was I really seeing it? Or was I making this up, too? But every face around me was filled with relief. They were all smiling. They saw it, too. I took it, held its small, familiar weight in my hand. The key was there. It was found. It was real.

So, maybe, I thought dazedly, I’m not crazy? I’m okay?

We realized that my coworker’s bag had been sitting on a chair in the break room. I had tossed my bag onto the floor next to the chair. In a moment of non-crazy but very normal human inattention, I tossed the key into the outside pocket of her bag rather than mine. The bags, as I said before, are identical. I got in the pool for a private lesson, my coworker went home with her bag, and that was that.

The key wasn’t there because the key wasn’t, in fact, there. I didn’t make anything up. My memory was true. My reality was real. I simply tossed the key into the wrong bag.

Today I feel exhausted, vaguely embarrassed, and relieved beyond words. I’m not crazy. I can trust myself. My perceptions and experience are real. I’m rational (most of the time—but I recognize my own irrationality when it’s happening!). I know the difference between reality and fantasy.

I’m okay. Again. Still.

Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

On the other hand, it didn’t take much to knock me over—hard. It’s difficult to overestimate the power of our old wounds. My confidence is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be.

My partner was the first person who ever told me to trust myself. It sounded cruel the first time I heard it. Any number of people could have told him I’m not to be trusted. I certainly didn’t trust me. I could speak in detail about my perceptions and experience, but I didn’t, because to do so resulted in an emotional beating, and I believed the people around me could see ugliness and abnormalities that I was too (stupid? crazy? arrogant? confused? cowardly? mean? selfish? disloyal?) to identify. Yet my partner (fool that he is) stubbornly persists in trusting me, even after living with me for five years.

In his eyes, all I misplaced was a car key. I felt as though I’d permanently lost myself.

Lost and found. My daily crime.

Discernment

In the old tales, young women are sent on dangerous quests that involve learning to sort one thing from another. One such teacher is Baba Yaga, about whom I’ve written previously. Baba Yaga is a crone, and when she can be bothered, she teaches too-sweet maidens how to sort poppy seeds from dirt, how to cleanse, and how to cook.

Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash

This is to be understood metaphorically, rather than as a statement of appropriate gender roles. Take a deep breath, all you feminists!

The idea of discernment, or the ability to tell one thing from another, is essential to living effectively, and, much like restraint, we are losing touch with it in today’s world.

Sorting poppy seeds from dirt, or wheat from chaff, or mildewed kernels from wholesome corn, is not something technology can help us do. It doesn’t require equipment, money, strength, or a college education.

It’s a hopeless task, of course, to sort poppy seeds from a pile of dirt in one night with no light and no help, but in stories it’s a task that must be done if the maiden wants to live. Usually a magical animal or some other helper arrives; symbols of the maiden’s intuition, kindness or compassion. Interestingly, the maiden often sleeps while the helper(s) accomplish the task.

Metaphorically, this indicates that our civilized, rational, logical intellect must step out of the way and allow creativity, faith and intuition to guide us. Fairytales and oral tradition map our subconscious, our shadow, our deepest and oldest foundations, the places where our primal wisdom lies. Sorting one thing from another takes time and close examination. Discernment involves our senses and our feelings as well as our intellect. It demands our consent to peer closely, and accept what we see. It can’t be done in the presence of denial. Fear clouds discernment, as do distraction, an unwillingness to be wrong, ideology, and an inability to think critically. Gaslighting, projection, distortion and deflection all work actively against our ability to see things clearly. Those who are unwilling to venture into terra incognita are unable to practice discernment, which involves learning and adaptation.

Modern life doesn’t require us to sort poppy seeds from dirt, but here are some places in which discernment is vital:

  • Differentiating between truth and lies
  • Distinguishing between friends and not-friends
  • Recognizing the difference between power-with and power-over
  • Realizing the difference between our beliefs and needs and those of others
  • Differentiating between love and abuse, or love and control
  • Distinguishing between kindness and enabling
  • Realizing the difference between useless and useful
  • Knowing the difference between what makes life easier and what makes it harder (simplicity and complication)
  • Distinguishing between poisoned bait or toxic mimics and healthy choices
  • Understanding where our power is and where it is not
  • Noticing differences between words and actions (major red flag)
  • Differentiating between our own ghosts, struggles and wounds and those of others; in other words, do we take it all personally or blame it all on others?
  • Knowing the difference between our authentic selves and our pseudo selves
  • Recognizing the difference between what truly makes us happy and what the culture insists should make us happy

Discernment is not prejudice, hate or bigotry. The ability to tell one thing from another is a basic skill. I remember watching Sesame Street in the 60s when I was a child: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

In this era of “alternative facts” and postmodernism, our ability to discern is taking a beating, and those of us who persist in attempting to clearly see and understand our world, ourselves, and others are often targeted on social media. Interesting, that a skill four and five-year-olds can learn is becoming demonized.

Practicing discernment. My daily crime.

(Go to my Hanged Man page for a story about sorting poppy seeds from dirt. Scroll down to Baba Yaga and Vasilisa.)