Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mountains Out of Molehills

I have recently befriended some of my neighbors that live down the hill. Amongst their defining characteristics, they are all expats like me – although they hail from various parts of the world – they’re all men about my age, and they have fantastic potluck/dinner parties.

One in particular is a great cook, but the rest of them are great at asking if they can help with something: the first time I went over there for a Mexican cooking night, the dishes were scooped off the counter and washed as they were dirtied; the tasks I needed done were done without complaint and even with some enthusiasm, and the conversation – covering everything from living abroad to podcasts on NPR – was so enthralling that soon six hours had passed before I even noticed. I don’t think I’m totally off base at this point to say that these men are STRAIGHT. Sorry guy friends, but this sort of helpful, multi-tasking behavior is not necessarily something that I expect from you; considering that these men calmly discussed how other people in Boquete had assumed they were gay, too, I don’t think my astonishment is that out of hand.

Here’s the thing: every time I go to this house and my contribution is a dish I’m asked to make while I’m there, I bring a recipe. I bring a recipe because, despite the fact that I consider myself a “concoctionist” and therefore make things up as I go along for the most part, there is something about being surrounded by people good at what they do and comfortable with who they are that makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. On my first date with my ex-boyfriend, we decided to make dinner at my house. He took on fish tacos, and I made a recipe out of my book, because I was too nervous to just throw things in a bowl and trust my ability to have it turn out for someone I was trying to impress. That night, Isaac asked me for my opinion on the pico de gallo he’d just made. It was delicious. I told him it might need more lime, because suddenly I had panicked, and couldn’t figure out if the right answer was to say it was great or to try and improve it. He very respectfully disagreed with me, and we ate it as is – truth be told, it was already perfect.

I remember telling someone about this first date later; about how insecure I had felt cooking with the host of a cooking show, even if that’s how we’d originally first met: because I had just published my SECOND cookbook, for crying out loud, and he had interviewed me for his show.

“Morgan, you’re one of the best cooks I know,” this friend said when I told her the story. “How could you possibly be intimidated by someone else’s cooking?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because of how I’ve found myself feeling in the presence of my neighbors. It helped that that first night we started discussing how one of them – the really fantastic cook, actually – had healthy enough self esteem that anyone could tell him pretty much anything about himself, good or bad, and he would simply register the information without tying it to how he felt about himself, for better or for worse. Tell him he had just made the best batch of carnitas ever, and he’d probably agree with you. Tell him that you thought he’d overcooked the steak, and he’d shrug his shoulders and move on.

 I am not like that. In fact, I have found the reason that I often feel so uncomfortable in the company of these men is because they expect nothing from me but my friendship: I do not have to be the best cook there – and to be honest, I’m not – I do not need to wow anyone with all my travels abroad, because they’re just as well-traveled as I am, and I’m not even the only one fluent in Spanish.
And you know what? This is really scary for me. If I’m not impressive to someone, then what am I? If I can’t offer something to them that they don’t already have, how could I possibly be worth anything at all?

I know how ridiculous this sounds on a very basic level. I am not totally devoid of awareness of what I can offer to a new group of friends in terms of my personality or my characteristics. However, it’s brought up a very important issue that I had already been working on: if you take away or minimize my accomplishments, I struggle to believe I’m worth anything.

The second summer I lived in Mexico, I had a conversation with a woman who pointed out to me that even lazy people deserved love. My immediate, visceral response says everything: “NO,” I thought, “No, they don’t.” That means that somewhere in there, somewhere not quite hidden anymore, I don’t feel like I’m worth love if I’m not accomplishing something. If I’m just there to enjoy myself, if my only role is to be me, to know that I am worthwhile regardless of what I have or haven’t accomplished, I feel adrift and unable to find my footing. If I’m not something to someone else, I often feel like I am not anything at all.

Thankfully, aside from eating delicious food and having fun interesting company, my time with my neighbors has become good practice. I feel uncomfortable, but not necessarily in a bad way: I feel uncomfortable because I’m trying on a new skin in their presence. It doesn’t quite fit yet, but like some of the best shoes I’ve ever owned, I have to break it in before it will truly feel comfortable. As I said last week, if I want my life to be different than it’s always been, I have to do something different than what I’ve always done.

So here’s to different; to growing pains, and to new friends who need nothing more from me than me. Most importantly, here’s to being comfortable with that.

Love and still uncomfortable kisses,

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Pattern Part 2

Author's note: I wrote this whole post without having realized that I already wrote a post about my pattern this month. They are radically different, come to different conclusions about why I do what I do, and yet ultimately both are important parts of my pattern and have led me to make the same decision. Understanding them and how they fit together is slowly leading me to a better understanding of myself. Yes, to some extent they may be arguing opposite sides of the same point, and yet that is the beauty of being human: not always hanging on the logical, and instead reacting to and living with emotional responses.

Anybody who knows me knows my pattern; I’ve written about it, talked about it, and lived it for a really long time. Save up a bunch of money. Often, sell a car or the promise of a first-born child for extra cash. Pack everything into a ridiculously small (for the amount of time I’ll be gone) or ridiculously large (since I have to schlep it myself) backpack, depending on how you look at it. Go. Adventure. Peruse. Find the beauty and excitement in each new day in a new place. Be wowed by simple differences, by people with different cultures and practices; eat new foods and stand on the tops of new vistas or swim in new lakes, rivers and oceans.
One of the new rivers I've found nearby to swim in.

Often on purpose, I then take this to an extreme, in an attempt to suck every last endorphin, pleasure and moment of joy out of it. I call myself a travel addict, and this is why: I go seeking the hit, overload on the hit the way you would a meal that’s just too good to stop eating, and wind up comatose and lamenting your inability to know when to say when. I do this on purpose so that when I go home, the everyday will be welcome; the lack of new and exciting will come with a sense of peace, and I’ll be able to work on settling in without having to listen to the small voice in the back of my head that says, “But, I like it out there in the world.”

This is perhaps not really that big of a confession to make anymore, but my pattern was all about going to get what I needed and hoping, desperately, that this time it will be enough: that the 3 months backpacking through Australia would exhaust me enough that I would never need to do this again; that diving in the underwater caves on the Yucatán was something so amazing that it would tide me over for the rest of my life; that a summer in a hiker’s hut in the Alps working for a quickly degenerating alcoholic and beautiful views above the clouds from the summit would help me to realize that what I really wanted and needed was what was waiting for me at home: the chance to live a normal life, where these adventures are only part of the package, not the whole shebang.

I know, it sounds ridiculous to even say it. It sounds ridiculous to think that I could saturate my need for the unknown and the new adventure once, and never have to do it again. It sounds ridiculous, and yet somewhere in there, I thought it was the only way to do it, based on one small assumption: that I could not support my travel habit if I didn’t live in the States and have a job that would pay for it.
I kept coming back because I thought I had to; that that’s where the money was made. I kept coming back because I believed what everyone kept saying and what was implied: that there’s no way to make a living outside the States, that there’s no way to make a living without benefits, 401K’s, that life is not worth living without the creature comforts that are wanted and expected in the States. Ok, no one said that last one to me, but it’s apparent in the everyday there. In Boquete, I have seen perhaps one stroller; most women carry their children on their hips, without diaper bags. Most Panamanians don’t have cars, and therefore the public transportation – while fun, colorful and entertaining – is much more advanced than in a town of the same size in the States. It’s true that you can live on a lot less down here, but you also need less: there are fewer smartphones, two-car households, new fancy anything, multiple heavy bags of vegetables for sale at the local markets for more than $6. It is a relief to me because I live better here on less money, with fewer gadgets and a simpler way of life, and, despite what I’d always heard and always said, I’ve found work: more than I can do, and more than enough to sustain me while also giving me my time to write and continue to explore; jobs that could go with me if I left.

I was always looking at my pattern the wrong way, invisible audience. I thought the answer would come in figuring out how to fit into an American society; in getting a job that didn’t eat the life out of me, despite the fact that anything revolving around working for someone else outside of my own hours always has. I thought that my travels were a way to recharge, and yet I could never understand how people thought they could rejuvenate in the two-week window they would get a year at a corporate job. I had it all wrong not just because I was trying to work for someone else, but because I was trying to live a life I had never really wanted.

I am blessed, however, with an inability to stay in any single situation for a long amount of time if I am unhappy, and therefore I would escape again – even as I berated myself – almost every year, searching once again for the joy that I always found with little more than a backpack, a pair of tennis shoes and something to write in. I had my pattern wrong because I always believed people when they told me I was escaping, when in reality I kept running TOWARD my future, my joy, and my happiness, only to find it, get a hit and decide that I now had the strength of character to go back and try again: try to fit into a culture and a way of life that had never spoken to me, that I found confining and chain-like.

Even though I decided it awhile ago, and, in fact, on some level knew it before I left, I have realized that breaking out of my pattern has nothing to do with ending my desire to be abroad. Instead, it has to do with finally letting go of the idea that I am supposed to fit in the American box. Breaking my pattern has nothing to do with going back to a life that I ultimately always want to escape from. It has everything to do with running toward the life I have always wanted without apology, regret, or looking back. It has to do with closing the door once and for all on all the ideas I’ve had on the way I’m supposed to live, and finally wholeheartedly embracing who I’ve always been, and the truth that most people probably knew about me before I did. That’s right, invisible audience: breaking the pattern has little to do with going back, and everything to do with embracing the new adventures.

This morning as I sat outside in the yard, drinking local organic coffee and writing in my journal, a line came to me that I can't get out of my head:

If I want something different from what I've always had, I have to do something different than what I've always done.

You guessed it: I’m staying.

Love and new life kisses,

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Word for What I Struggle With: Codependency

Anyone who has been reading my blog for any amount of time knows the demons I wrestle with: my continuing need to validate my actions and choices to others; my fight to validate my own decisions that are made purely for my own good; the need I have to explain, over and over again, why I’m doing what I’m doing, in the hopes that eventually I will be able to explain away the fear I feel, and, often, the judgment.
It’s not a new term for me, but it is only this week that it has become apparent how well it fits me. There is a word, a term and a condition that describes what I have: it’s called codependency.
This is not my need to do what I need to do; it’s my struggle with trying to make others understand why I do it. Codependency is not the “selfishness” I have spoken of that I am trying to embrace; it is the thinking that makes putting myself first is a bad thing. Codependency is not the part of me that craves the adventure of traveling abroad, but it IS the part of me that makes those decisions partially so that I can escape the opinions of others about what my life should be.
Basically, codependency is trying to control people, situations or even impressions so that I look good; so that I look perfect; so that I look like I have it all under control. It is also the thinking that the whole world would topple if I weren’t there to hold it up: that if I am not there to help someone take care of themselves, they couldn’t do it for themselves. It is the idea that if I don’t do it myself, it will never get done…or done as well as I want it to be done.
I recently looked up the definition of codependency, and I found several versions, all of which  apply to what now looks like insanity in my own past: a need for others to tell me that I am worthwhile, because I don’t have the ability to know this myself. A need to show a perfect front, even as I am crumbling inside. A need to give and give until there is nothing left. Blaming others for not understanding, even as I refuse to take responsibility for my own actions, my own lack of boundaries, for my own life. It is the part of me that has said in relationships in the past, “I will show him that I am worthy of his time and attention by putting up with all the bullshit he gives me, because that’s how you prove that you really love someone.”
Codependency and empathy are closely related. Both have to do with being incredibly sensitive to other peoples’ needs. With empathy, you pick up on the feelings of others. With codependency, you take it one step further: you try to fix whatever the problem is, regardless of whether it’s your problem to fix or not (and usually, it’s not your problem at all.)
I first heard the term codependency years ago. Since then, the term, the idea and the steps to reverse its effects have been an important part of my life, even if I wasn’t always able to label them for what they are. Even if it’s taken me until now to write about it, I am so much better than I have been, and it’s only through the healing process that I have come to where I am today: the point where I realize that there’s a word for what I have been struggling with, and a way out. The way out is doing what I’ve already been doing: purposely making decisions every day that have nothing to do with anyone else but me; realizing that the scope of my life should not be about other people, their problems or solutions, but about me, and MY problems and solutions.
Now, I realize that the reason I do this – pick up other people and their opinions – is because I am hiding from myself. What I call emotional sobriety has nothing to do with others; it has to do with recognizing that I am trying to focus on another person and how I could help them or be of use to them because there’s something uncomfortable in my own life that I want nothing to do with. It feels like the pain will be so great that facing it will kill me. Instead, I focus on someone else, and find myself to be temporarily reprieved, much like someone who will drink away their sorrow, just for a moment of peace.
Now, I realize what this is, and I purposely turn my attention back to myself. I recognize many of my codependent tendencies, and when I see them coming – see myself casting about for someone to fix, or somewhere else to look – I look at myself instead. Often, dealing with whatever I’m avoiding is painful, but every time, it’s short-lived. It turns out that dealing with the pain is easier than burying it. It turns out that getting to know myself is infinitely better than psycho-analyzing others, over and over again; it’s more rewarding, fulfilling. It leads to important discoveries, and changes to my thinking that are leading me toward my own happiness. Most importantly, getting to know myself is about no one else but me

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Pattern

I have a pattern. I’ve had it for years – probably since I was in Spain in 2001, and I found that I had to escape on a regular basis in order to feel normal, or, better yet, to feel anything but overwhelmed in the process of a year abroad that started right after 9/11, where I was trying to learn Spanish in Andalucía, where Spanish is not spoken, but chewed.

The pattern is recognizable and firmly entrenched, to the point that it was the introduction to my yet-unpublished book, Confessions of a Travel Addict, and also the introduction to this blog, which I created long ago with the idea that it would be the marketing arm of the book when it was published.
Over the years I have questioned the pattern, I have denied the pattern, and I have grown angry with those who asked me about it. “What are you running from, Morgan?” people would ask me. “Will it really help if you leave?”

Yes, god dammit. Even if I didn’t say it aloud, I would think it, angry that they even asked, and yet unsure as to why: why I felt I had to escape, what exactly I was escaping from, and how on earth to break the pattern at all, even as I saw myself play it out, over and over again.

The pattern is simple: go travel, rejuvenate, remember why I am so in love with life, remember the miracles, the joy of being in a new place, experiencing new things, meeting new people. Get to a point where I become comfortable with the idea of going home, and go. Take all that newly-minted enthusiasm and joie de vivre and try to apply it to my life; try to slide back into something that tells me what I am supposed to do and who I am supposed to be based on someone else’s standards, and slowly but surely begin to hate it. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Here are the subtle parts of the pattern that I did not realize were there: the need to put physical distance between myself and anyone who needed anything from me. Travel gave me the opportunity to reinvent myself, only socializing as much as I wanted to, spending as much time as I wanted alone, far away from anyone who might miss me, love me, or want me near them. It gave me the opportunity to simply walk away from people that were pulling the very life out of me, whether I wanted them to or not.

This is not to say that I am constantly surrounded by soul-sucking humans. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I am surrounded by people who want to be near me, who appreciate me and love me, and I have not been able to separate that genuine human interaction from the people who would take from me until I had absolutely nothing left to give. The part of my pattern that I did not recognize until now is that the answer is not in finding those who don’t need or want me in their lives, it is learning to stop giving when my quota has been reached.

It is rarely one person. Instead, it is a multitude of pinpricks in my life vest: each one is small and insignificant, until I realize that I am no longer buoyed. Instead, I am using all my energy to stay afloat, even as more and more come to me for the smallest measure of help; surely, I think, I have just a little bit more to give.

I have found something in Boquete that I have not had as far back as I remember. It is a desire to stay. As usual, I have found myself connected with people who pull pinpricks of my energy away from me; who do not understand that they can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and that the camel is old beyond its years and worn from taking on all those tiny straws. For once, however, I don’t want to leave. Instead, I want to gently move those people out of pinprick range; I want to say no, gently and firmly, realigning my life with what I want and need instead of realigning my surroundings again, again and again, in search of the perfect situation, where I am not required to give, and I do not have to take.

That situation will never come. There are people everywhere. Everywhere, people give and receive; give and take. The part of my pattern that was unsustainable was not in the leaving to rejuvenate, but in the thinking behind it, that my life would always be a chore, and that the only way to survive it would be to escape, regroup and come back. I thought the weakness was in needing to leave in the first place. Now, I see that the real strength lies in realizing when a life I have created is unsustainable; that the answer lies in carving out my space wherever I am instead of needing to extract myself and exist on the fringes, where I am safe, unnoticed, unneeded. Not only is that not actually a possibility, but it's a lonely place to be. By distancing myself from everyone, the ones who genuinely love me as well as those that would use me up, I am distancing myself not only from the unhealthy interactions, but also from the healthy ones, that would not be about taking from me, but that could literally feed me, my energy, my person, and yes, even my joie de vivre.

I am not sure if this seems like a huge discovery to you, invisible audience, but it has quite literally changed my world. It’s a little scary to think that I have created this pattern, and that the way out is to change not my location, but my situation. It means that I will no longer be able to blame others if I can’t say no; it means that I am responsible for me, and contrary to what I’ve done most of my life, I have to say no to others and yes to me.

You would think that, the way I’ve been treating it, “no” is a word much larger than it is; you would think that it has the ability to stop or start the universe. You would think that I somehow thought that my saying no when others wanted me to say yes was something that could bring the world to a screeching halt. The truth is, as egotistical and ridiculous as it sounds, that is always how it’s felt. In the past, the only time that it felt ok to say no was when I was completely at the end of my rope; when the only choices were no, or my own insanity. Even then, I couldn’t always choose myself.

It sounds ridiculous, unless you’ve done it. It sounds crazy, unless you’ve ever managed to catch yourself giving everything you have, everything you are, until you are shaking and exhausted, dizzy and spent, all because someone else wanted something, and surely, that one little thing wasn’t too much to ask of you. And perhaps that one little thing isn’t too much to ask, but on top of the rest of the requests, the needs and seemingly small pieces of straw that others want you to carry, there is enough to be too much. The answer for me, now, in these cases, in no longer to run, to fall back on the pattern that to this point has kept me alive, but to say loudly, emphatically and with no amount of kindness, speaking as much to myself as to anyone else, “Fuck you. That’s enough.”

Love and hell no kisses,