Just One More Achievement, Accomplishment, Stretch or Pirouette to Perform
(A tale written in 1986, when I was 46, about the journey 15 years before.)
She was 31, a financially successful therapist in private practice in her home on analysts' row in New York City. She worked only with people she enjoyed, all of them referred to her by people who knew or worked with her. She was married to a gentle, feminist man with whom she shared life, housework and expenses as an equal partner. She worked in the Women's Movement, doing low-cost therapy, training peer counselors for indigent women and helping found the first New York City Feminist Psychotherapy Referral Service. She even baked the exquisite pastries served at the Coffee Hours during which endless streams of New York therapists were interviewed for inclusion in the Referral Directory. She volunteered hours to match clients calling the service with appropriate therapists. She was interviewed for several television talk shows, public broadcasting programs and newspaper features both about feminist therapy and feminist marriage arrangements.
She designed and crocheted most of her own clothing (often while standing in line at banks and supermarkets), cooked and baked most things from scratch (as did her feminist husband), took time to develop warm connections with the shopkeepers she traded with in her neighborhood and even developed a small business (featured in New York Magazine) crocheting custom-made bikinis. She bicycled 18-24 miles around Central Park by herself three days a week and then again on the weekends with her partner. She was slender and shapely (though she never felt it). She did lotion massages, bubble baths, yoga and a little meditation every morning. She and her partner had come to considered decisions to have an open relationship and not to have children. In the course of non-monogamous relating, she became lovers with a woman friend who was also in a non-monogamous relationship. The partners of both women struggled consciously and feministly with accepting the sharing.
Despite all of her current achievements and constantly growing list of accomplishments (she also had received her PhD at twenty-five, summa cum laude, while her dissertation had received honorable mention in a national competition), she was continually beset with a deep sense of not being or doing enough. She was never quite at ease with herself, always plagued with an inner voice (the Hatchet Lady she called her in therapy) that ceaselessly picked at and found fault with each thing she did, no matter how perfectly it seemed she had done it.
One morning she woke up with a severe backache that made it impossible for her to sit through the length of an ordinary therapy session. Undaunted, she worked for several weeks standing up or lying down. Her morning ablutions and preparations began to require that she wake three hours before her partner so that she could soak her aching back and weave herself together before facing her very perfect life. Then she started waking each day with the strong sense that she would die if she couldn't get away from the city's dirt and noise into a place where she would be surrounded by green growing things.
It took a week of searching rental ads to find a beach house in the woods that she rented for the winter season. She began doing all her work on three days and spending four days in the country-quiet, resting herself. Her partner took over most of the chores in the city and did the weekly two-hour drives to and from the beach. She did fewer of the perfectly done things that had filled her life. Yet, she got more and more exhausted. Her partner began having an identity crisis. He didn't trust therapists, so she began spending her four rest-days being-there for him. One week she decided to stay at the beach while he went back to the city for the workweek. She thought for long hours about moving to the beach and working there. Then, she understood she would only do it all over again in this new place: creating the perfectness and suffocating from the relentless self-criticism in the midst of it.
Walking down by the ocean she realized that something was radically wrong in her life: that no matter how many pirouettes (as she called them in therapy) she continued to find to perform, she was never going to be able to quiet the critical voice that consistently made shit from her gold. She was filled with an overwhelming impulse just to stop: to stop all the doing and all the doing for, to hand in all her union cards and to give up holding up the superstructure of her life, the superstructure that was weighing so heavily on her aching back.
It took almost nine months to do just that: bit by bit, figuring out the way she needed to arrange things, selling off her possessions, letting go of her relationships, her work, her marriage, her ideas about who she was or would be and buying herself a van to live in while she went searching for the self she could feel was needing to emerge. Four months after her thirty-second birthday she left the City and headed west to California. The van and her freedom were funded by the financial legacy (as she called it in therapy) of her former life.
For the first three months she rarely spoke with anyone, except for long-distance calls to her husband, her lover and her sister. No one ever knew where she was. She had no phone and no address. She was erasing her past and becoming invisible. She lived from day to day, hour to hour. She woke only when she felt ready, ate what and when and as often as she was hungry, did whatever it was that came to her to do with her days and went to sleep when she felt tired (night or day). She moved from place to place along the coast of California and Oregon, spent her days hiking, bicycling and, once she discovered it, lying naked in the sun getting tanned. She had many adventures, alone and also with people. She felt giddy and pleased with herself for no good reason. She spent hours exploring the inside of herself, in between or during the hours she spent exploring the outside-of-herself places that were filled with green growing things.
And she discovered something remarkable. She was doing nothing out in the world and nothing for anyone else and she was feeling more okay about herself than she had ever felt in all her thirty-two years of being accomplished, caring and perfect. She began to feel like a revolutionary, never telling anyone she met anything about who and how she had once been, watching people move from drop-dead shock to intense curiosity when she responded to their "What do you do?" questions with a laughingly mischievous, "Nothing, absolutely nothing but work on my tan!" She felt excited (even when her inward explorations led her to painful and upsetting awarenesses about her undeveloped parts), alive, full of herself, and more self-accepting than she had ever felt in her life – just being in the middle of herself, in the middle of nature, discovering the depth and richness of her own being. She continued doing mostly nothing for over three years, almost two of them while living in her van. Sometimes then and later she tried on other lives: baking in an organic bakery for some months, selling her crocheted bikinis and clothes, cleaning houses, being a doorperson cum bouncer at a women's bar, working as a health educator at a community clinic, doing a women's radio show. Occasionally she would almost forget what she had learned and make the mistake of doing or giving more rather than less when she was feeling uneasy with herself. Still, her back or shoulder aches would usually come to remind her to stop, to go inward at such times to find where she wasn't loving herself exactly as she was at the moment – unfinished, imperfect and all.
Along the way (especially during the times when she found herself being seduced by circumstances into forgetting what she had learned, into going back to the old ways of doing), she came to a very power-filled knowing. She came to know very deeply in her being that she had lived in a world that stole what was her birthright: self-acceptance, unconditional self-love and inner peace; a world that then constantly dangled that prize package like the carrot-on-a-stick forever just out of reach so that there was always just one more achievement, accomplishment, stretch or pirouette to perform in the world or for someone else's benefit before she could be set free.
What did at last set her free was giving up the whole ride, ending the journey of incessantly trying to prove to herself (and anyone else) that while she was as (or more) competent and successful as any man, she was equally as (or more) sensitive, caring and nurturing as any woman. She practiced saying no to everyone and everything until she could be sure that no would come as easily to her as yes. Daily she practiced just being in the middle of herself in the middle of life, not doing anything to be worthwhile, except growing herself, her awareness and her consciousness and sharing her truth with anyone who was interested.
Now, fifteen [in 2012 actually 40] years later, she is a financially successful therapist (who describes herself as a spiritual guardian) in private practice in her home. This time it is in the middle of the chaparral, orange, and avocado groves of Ojai, California. She still works only with people she enjoys, mostly referred to her by people who know or work with her (but often they arrive in her life by more varied and magical means). She is married to her Self, living in a deep and meaningful sharing with her various selves (among them those she calls the Ancient One, the Mommy-Inside, and the Little One) and a very small number of both near and geographically distant women friends. She no longer works in any Movements, but she is always in growthful movement and always committed to helping women heal and whole themselves as a way to heal the planet. She does not volunteer these days, but recently she was interviewed for the first time in many years.
She does not cook or bake much either. She does make artistic arrangements of food for herself and for an occasional guest or two. She does not do much of anything on a regular basis except for an hour of Reiki upon waking, followed by yoga and meditation, at least on the two days a week [in 2012 two days every other week] that she does work. Other days, yoga comes and goes according to the flow of the day. She still does lotion massages every morning and is more likely to feel them as she gives them to herself. She floats in her hot tub or in her bathtub every day. She has at least one two-hour massage each week, often either the day after or the day before she does her two-day work week.
On her five-day [in 2012, 12-day] weekends she putters a lot amidst the plants, flowers, and rocks near her house, still lies naked in the sun, walks a lot in the Ojai canyons, sings and tones with the mountain streams and trees, plays with colored pens, paints and sometimes fiber or clay and a variety of percussion instruments. She likes being with her close friends because they, like she, are committed to and fascinated with the luscious process of discovering themselves and their connection with the Universe. She loves to talk (and to listen, too) about what's happening in the moments they are together, as well as to just be in those moments as they unfold. With her friends she practices always saying the whole truth of what she feels, even when it seems embarrassing or awful. She loves the comfort and security of knowing her friends are also practicing to do just that. She finds that the more she practices telling the whole truth, even out in the real world, the safer she feels. She never does anything for anyone these days, but she is always delighted when sharing what she is doing to grow herself is helpful to anyone else. She rages and stomps when she is angry, cries when she is sad or upset, leaves when it does not feel good or safe to be wherever she is and, most important of all, she always listens to the little voice inside and she never scolds, shouts at or talks harshly to herself, no matter what!