Riffs in the Flow

mom and childA couple months ago, I was working on a piece in acting class where I played a woman whose child has died. As is often the case, the circumstances in that play are foreign to my real life experience; I have never had children, nor have I lost someone close to me in the same manner as the woman I was portraying. So, I did my acting homework in order to sharpen the relationship with my child and bring reality to the scene.

Around the same time, a friend of mine posted pictures on Facebook of her child’s birthday party. She talked about how lucky she was to be a mother, as parents often do when sharing photos of their children. I’m not sure if it was because of the scene work I was doing, or the unrequited love I was moving through, or my own physical inability to give birth (or bits of all of the above), but I found myself for the first time thinking, “I will never have that experience,” and started to cry. This emotional response caught me by surprise, as I believed I had made peace a long time ago with not being a mother. I have also been fortunate to have cousins and friends with kids who have adopted me as their Fun Auntie, a role which I quite enjoy. Still, I had to wonder if I had not been fully aware of my desires around the subject of motherhood.

Upon reflection, I was able to determine that this reaction was not about missing out. Oh, no, it was shaping up to be something entirely different – a darker, deeper, bogus yet long-held belief which I had identified long ago: the notion that my circumstances and experiences somehow define and confirm my worth. Gone unchecked, this devil on my shoulder might have convinced me sexy inexplicable melancholythat I was somehow less of a person because I hadn’t given birth or raised a child.

The little bugger has reared its gnarly head in several forms throughout my life, popping up relentlessly like a traveling garden gnome, donning a fancy array of costumes in order to inflate and distort topics such as doomed romantic interests, jealousy, body issues, long-term unemployment, and financial instability. Fortunately, however, I have become more adept at nipping this little guy in the bud, putting the brakes on what could easily transform into a fast-moving train set for derailment. The mask has once again been ripped away, exposing this thing for what it is – an outmoded way of thinking that is going to it’s final resting place in the cemetery of sweeping generalizations, misguided causes, and blindly defective scenarios.

The birds outside my French doors have serenaded me throughout the writing of this post, filling the void with a sweet and gentle song. In spite of everything, my life remains on an upright, even keel. I’m content with resting here for awhile, garnering resolve in order to move with grace through whatever is heading my way.

Posted in acting, awareness, beliefs, self worth | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Emancipate | Assimilate | Rededicate

It was early August, and I had finally had enough. I was feeling tired, overwhelmed, and dissatisfied, struggling to find a way to fix a slow leak which was rapidly morphing into Niagra Falls and allowing significant amounts of life force to pour out and away. I took stock to see where all of these valuable resources were going, and it wasn’t a pretty picture – the bottom line was, far too much was leaving compared to what was coming back in. It was a massive imbalance, and something had to be done. And so, the culling began.

The first decision I made was to leave Twitter and Facebook. While Twitter was just a little distracting and annoying, Facebook had become, for me, like a refrigerator with nothing in it that I wanted, yet I kept opening the door and standing in front of it. Most people got why I was leaving. Some were a bit jealous, as they perceived this as something they would do if they felt they could. Some responded that they felt Facebook was manageable and leaving seemed like an unnecessary move. However, I don’t have a 9-5 job that provides structure to my day. No matter how many times I tried self-imposed limitations and scheduled segments, most of my waking hours would eventually disappear into the Facebook Vortex.  I realized that if I was going to regain focus and productivity in my life, I would need to go cold turkey. The fact that I felt massive relief at the mere thought of doing this said it was the right move at the right time for me.

Another major move I made was to condense and combine the social media and creative outlets that I wished to keep using. I started posting on my Google + wall – mostly YouTube music, poems with artwork, and stuff about my theater company, subjects that inspire me and allow me to express who I am and what matters to me. The cool bonus of Google + is that I periodically get connections and feedback from strangers who have the same interests, as many posts are hash-tagged. This has kept me from re-developing that Facebook behavior of posting in order to get responses; I’m just putting what I like out into the world without obligation or agenda. I use Instagram now instead of Tumblr for my Adventures of Princess Leia, Action Figure pictures and archive them in a section of this blog, rather than having to maintain an entirely separate WordPress site.

Before leaving Facebook, I posted a notice on my wall about my plan, and encouraged people to send me their info if they wanted to stay in touch. Of the almost 800 “friends” I had amassed over the seven years I’d had a profile, only a handful of people responded. I’d like to say this was due to Facebook’s news feed filter (the one that decides for you – without consulting you first – which people will see your post, based on some random and ridiculous formula that has nothing to do with how significant these people are to you…but I digress). However, it is far more likely that for most of those people who didn’t respond, their connection with me was merely peripheral and largely unimportant.

Truth be told, many of them were that way for me, too; I saw the bulk of those “friendships” as necessary networking connections. Facebook, while a nice way to enhance business relationships or stay in touch with what others are up to, is a poor substitute for developing and maintaining deep and abiding friendships. Even so, some of those non-responders meant more to me than just acquaintances, and I felt sadness and disappointment at the lack of reciprocity. So how did I get here? What was the unifying element in all of these situations, scenarios, and relationships? That would be me.

Crap.

By removing the veil of distraction created by social media, I quickly got to the crux of the matter – I was once again investing heavily in lopsided relationships at the expense of my own peace of mind. The only thing worse than not being taken seriously is realizing you are the one who taught others to treat you that way. Every time I continue to put the lion’s share of effort into the fostering of a relationship with another person, I teach them that it’s ok to take me for granted or (at worst) to take advantage of me. Man, I hate having to admit that, but it’s true. I’ve done it more times than I can count, too, which I believe qualifies as a chronic habit. The good news is, I feel like I’m making a little headway in breaking that habit – I’m less and less inclined to be caught by surprise or stuck in a funk because of this disparity, because it is lessening with each wave of effort on my part.

So enough about the unwanted stuff – what is it that I do want? Here’s the short list:

  • less stress and outside commitments
  • more intimacy in my relationships
  • more time with a quiet mind

Anywho (as my Grandpa used to say), now that I have some clarity and a list of intentions, it is my desire to be like a relief-seeking missile, dedicated to my own well-being. And with that, I’m off to enjoy as much of my day as I can away from the computer, the iPhone, and any other electronic device.

Posted in awareness, change, priorities, relationships, social media | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Living And Creating By Deliberate Design

I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.

― Rumi

When I look back over my life since embarking on adulthood, I see clearly how it has only been a more recent practice for me to choose what I really wanted. This was not the case in my 20s, when I studied voice and worked as a paid musician. I eventually burned out and stopped signing altogether because I allowed others the power to define who I was and what I had to offer as an artist. After several years of being absent from the world of professional music, I realized I’ve been moving away from the definitions and values of others – what they collectively tend to label aesthetically pleasing and worthwhile. I have instead been regularly asking myself, “What do I like? What do I want to sound like? What do I have to say, if anything?” The answers continue to surprise and delight me.

It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.

— E.E. Cummings

When I was a younger, I spent so much energy attempting to please others (as well as comparing myself to my peers) that I completely overlooked the importance – both literally and figuratively – of fostering the development of my own unique voice. I was a Type A, color-inside-the-lines kind of artist. Unfortunately, this behavior was often praised by my instructors as desirable, an ethic to be modeled; as a result, I was terrified of making a mistake in front of others, of not doing things the “right” way (aka the way established by others before me). In John Hockenberry’s TED Talk, he recounts how, during his childhood, his father had a Dixieland band that would cover Louis Armstrong tunes. John asked his Dad if he wanted to make his covers sound like the record. “No! Never, John, never,” he replied. “The song is just a given, that’s how you have to think about it. It’s how you cover it that matters. You gotta make it your own…show everyone what you intend. Acting by design…is what we all should be doing.”

I have to agree. I’ve found that the most effective way to act by design is to live with deliberate intent. The older I get, the more I realize that trying to “fit in” requires the abandonment of this intention. Conformity is deceptive; it is often confused with connection in that it gives people a false sense of belonging to something greater. That’s a steep price to pay, exchanging the uniqueness and spectrum of human character for one person or group’s (intrinsically limited) vision. It’s right there in the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:

The main problem I see with conforming is that it very often requires people to operate from a unquestioning place of fear, not the best foundation for self expression. It is scary for most people to consciously choose a different way, path, thought – to flirt with being on the outskirts, inviting the threat of being misunderstood, or at worst, ostracized completely. I believe, however, that it is this very act of compliance which is the fodder for conditions such as apathy, dissatisfaction, boredom, and a victim mentality. It’s a small step from there to powerlessness.

When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else … you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

~ Eleanor Roosevelt

When I live with deliberate intent and remember that my individuality and uniqueness are things to be appreciated, that powerlessness goes away. The ‘If Onlys’ are replaced with the relief of these two realizations: 1) Only I need to define what is a worthwhile way to spend my time;  and 2) Only I get to say what is interesting, creative, or meaningful to me. The rest – what other people think, feel, say, do – is none of my business.

Granted, I still have to work at not comparing myself and my choices to those of other people when things in my life aren’t where I’d like them to be; for many reasons, my career does not look like that of several of my peers, and it’s not always easy to trust that this is okay, that everything is unfolding just right. But the difficulty of existing outside the norm has helped me gain self awareness and inner strength, all of which has informed my art. It’s beginning to pay off, too – the work I do now as an actor, writer, and photographer continues to deepen and broaden, reflecting more and more who I am as an individual. Nothing has been more edifying for me as an artist and a person than to take – and trust – this road less traveled.

Posted in allowing, appreciation, beliefs, creative expression, creative process, creativity, difference, focus, inspiration, mindfulness, performance anxiety, personal philosophy, perspective, positivity, releasing fear, self-acceptance, self-care, singing, transformation, variety, wellbeing, deliberate focus | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

My Beautiful Dreamer

My Dad is a groovy, funny guy. He turned 70 years old last year, and is as full of life as ever. He makes me laugh and he has a lot of heart and zest for life. He has been a soldier, a painter, a photographer, a builder, a traveler, and a singer of love songs. His favorite song on the radio when I was growing up was Funkytown. He used to travel around in a van, and in my pre-teen years we would drive around in it and talk about everything from philosophy to self-hypnosis. The title of this post is from one of his favorite tunes which he asked me to learn on the piano when I was a little girl – he would sing along whenever I would sit down and try to play it. He lives off the Coast of Southern Oregon and I see him as often as I can.

When I was just over a year old, my Father, a Marine, entered what would become not one but two tours of Viet Nam. This experience was traumatic, having a tremendous impact on both his own health and our family, foreshadowing the turbulent years to come as far as our relationship with one another. When I was not quite four years old, my parents’ divorce became official. My Mother, sister, and I then moved away from Los Angeles back to Portland, Oregon where my Mom had grown up and met Dad in high school. Dad stayed in Los Angeles and made a life for himself there, trying a couple of times to join us in the Pacific Northwest to be closer and a part of our lives. It proved difficult for many reasons, and it’s only more recently that we have had the relationship that both of us desired over the years. Time has healed things for us, and it is a wonderful gift that I have deep appreciation for, especially now that my Mother has passed away.

Dad is social, easygoing, and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a fellow artist – a sensitive, unique soul that marches to his own drum. I always enjoy the time I get to spend with him – we talk for hours, enjoying each others’ company and sharing various interests we have both developed over the years. I tell him about my acting experiences, and he sings songs for me. He is holding me to the promise that he will get to attend the Oscars with me when I am finally nominated – and that’s a life-long dream (him in the audience included) that I intend to fulfill. We swap favorite songs and YouTube videos. My favorite was this past fall when we were hanging out on his patio and he sang along with Alicia Keys to This Girl is On Fire. He reads my blog and always checks in with me to talk about what I had to say. My Dad has taken the role of Principle Champion of my life without hesitation, and I feel so lucky to have his love and support.

He recently told me that the Joan Baez version of the Bob Dylan song, Forever Young, was a song that always made him think of my sister and I, the lyrics being his wish for both of us. I wanted to share them, as the sentiment is lovely and speaks to his heart:

 

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
And may you stay forever young

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you
May you always be courageous
Stand upright and be strong
And may you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
May your heart always be joyful
May your song always be sung
And may you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young
May you stay forever young

I love you very much, Dad, and have cherished every memory and moment with you. I wish the same for you, that you will remain as you are, forever young in heart and spirit. I look forward to making many more wonderful memories with you.

 

Posted in family, father's day, fathers, marines, viet nam | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

New Page: Poems That I Love

Hello, my loyal readership! :)

In case you hadn’t seen it yet, I’ve recently created a page of poems – paired with images which evoke the feeling of the poem for me – to my blog. I update it from time to time, so feel free to check it out once in awhile.

http://jlmshishkablog.wordpress.com/pages/poems-that-i-love/

Enjoy!

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Sharon of 25,394 Days

Mom had hazel brown eyes, soft and sad, which betrayed the smile that usually greeted others around her. I always assumed I knew her, the woman who had known me longer than anyone else. Looking through old photos, however, I caught glimpses of a person much broader and varied in mood and experience than I had remembered or even realized. These images portrayed a woman with a life full of dreams and desires which existed long before I entered the world, one of gatherings, fond friendships, and miscellaneous adventures.

Mom loved to embellish her stories, especially ones that portrayed her as mysterious or a trend setter. She befriended gypsies and sketchy characters, and was drawn to people who seemed to live on the fringes of mainstream society. It was not uncommon for her, during the course of conversation, to emphasize just how edgy and different she could be by beginning statements with, “People think I’m crazy because…” or “People just can’t believe that…” followed by some fact from her past. I sometimes felt that her insistence on dramatizing daily interactions was prompted by her lack of ability to pursue the life she really wanted to live; she had mentioned on more than one occasion that she made career choices based on what her father would approve of, and had participated in major life events because of money that would be forfeited if she decided not to follow through, rather than listening to her instincts. I also believe that this behavior was a subconscious reaction to the myriad of physical conditions she endured toward the end of her life which were slowly diminishing her independence.

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Her hair was thicker than mine, and (with the exception of a wig-wearing phase in the ’70s) she had let it gray naturally. Her natural salt and pepper coloring was something she was quite proud of; she loved to recount how all the women at the office assumed she had it done professionally. She had longer legs and fingers than me, and there was an ever-present kindness that emanated from her regardless of her mood. She wanted to be a private investigator and a psychic. She was drawn to Native American culture and spiritualism. She loved cop procedural programs. I used to discount these leanings as being ingrained in her generation of women, predilections adopted by her and others her age via the influence of marketing and bingo parlor conversation. As I mature and grow kinder toward myself, this softer perspective extends out toward her and others; I see now that I was not giving my mother credit for being the unique person that she was, someone with a vivid imagination and desires just as great – and valid – as my own.

Images from earlier years showed Mom to be quite beautiful, even though she never acknowledged or realized this quality in herself. I have found that belief holds tremendous power and influence over the shape of our reality; the more Mom had denied her own beauty, the more her appearance shifted away from her natural femininity. She became less curvy and defined, gained weight, and dressed without the care of someone who feels attractive. My sister recalled a time when Mom solemnly gazed at her reflection in the mirror and said, “I look like a man.” While that was a bit of an exaggeration, neither my sister nor I could deny that Mom’s appearance was far from where it had been.

She remained single after I entered my teens. There was a palpable longing in her, a desire to be loved and cherished which had long been subdued by a sense of unworthiness. Only a few years before she died, she was pursued by a man who lived in the same Assisted Living complex. He proposed to her, making broad, sweeping, romantic plans for them to run away to Las Vegas, where he had lived in his prime. She refused to get romantically involved with him, however, even though she cared for him deeply. She would talk about his attempts to woo her in the same way she recounted other events in her life, as though it was almost too fantastic to believe; such a venture should remain a story to be retold with flair, suspended in a state of possibility.

Her ability to sublimate her own dreams in order to uplift those of others was almost epic. She had played the roles of wife, mother, friend, neighbor, coworker, and caregiver – but the woman, the lover, the individual…those parts were muted once she divorced my father, not long after my sister and I arrived on the scene. Until more recently, I followed her lead, shouldering this lonely way of being like it was my inheritance. It was difficult for me to watch her remain alone when I knew what a tremendous capacity for love she had, as well as a great desire to share that love. I am, however, determined to veer from her example in this regard; I have decided to lay down that burden, that legacy of loneliness which she never intended to pass on to me. I think she would be greatly relieved to see that, as she just wanted both my sister and I to be happy.

Mother’s Day lunch, 2012

That said, the process of grieving, reflecting, and pondering my Mom’s life has revealed a boldness and depth in her which existed in contradiction to and defiance of mournful recollection. As I review old photos and talk with my father about the years when they were together, I am able to piece together a bigger picture which gives me peace of mind. In her life, there ultimately was a balance between sadness and joy, regret and satisfaction, desire and belief. In spite of the unfinished business and unrealized dreams, there is much evidence that Mom had a spectrum of wonderful experiences in her life. I find this to be a hopeful and soothing reminder that we are always expanding, never done, and that no time on this earth is wasted.

She would love that I am writing about this, working at unearthing those hidden aspects and events which made her a beautiful, unique woman. But more than this, she would be thrilled to know that she managed to get her wish after all; in the 265 days I have lived since her passing, I’ve come to understand that there are parts of my mother which will always, to some extent, remain a mystery. I think I can make peace with that – it suits her and makes me smile.

Mother’s Day means more to me now than it ever did, marking the existence of the dear and complex woman named Sharon McMahon. It was an honor to be her daughter; it is an even greater one to be entrusted with her memory.

 

Posted in Mom, mother daughter relationships, Mother's Day, mourning | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

To Whom it May Concern

Recently, a friend of mine invited me to participate in a project started by a male friend of hers. It is called “Letters to Men,” and the title pretty much says it all – open letters to men from women, the subject and specific audience to be determined by each participant.

I initially thought I would be writing my letter to all average-sized white males, as they represent the majority of the demographic who have demonstrated unsavory behavior toward me as a plus size woman. However, since I do believe there is such a thing as preference, and I’m not one for sweeping generalizations, I find it more honest to only address those Caucasian men who hold their preference for plus size women in secret.

When I started to write things down, I was surprised to discover that my first reaction of, “Oh, I have plenty to say” was fueled by the residue of an old story I used to tell concerning my experience of the dynamic between men and women who are fat like me. I was ready to recount the numerous examples of men who would flirt with me, then either call me their buddy or – if I should be so bold as to respond to their behavior – openly deny that they meant anything by it, that they never intended anything beyond friendship (sometimes even less personal than that).

I had experienced an active dating life up until my early 20s when I began to gain weight, so I knew what flirting was and that I hadn’t been imagining things. I used to think this behavior was mostly reserved for men in Southern California, and assumed it was because of the tremendous pressure to be thin and youthful here. However, I have observed this behavior pretty much throughout the US, as well as in most Westernized cultures around the world. Not long ago, I found myself smarting from a rebuff which had picked at the scabs on some old wounds around this topic. I realized the interest that had been activated within me by this letter project had more to do with that than with a sincere desire to say something useful, something that really resonates with where I am now. I had to stop writing and put the project on the back burner for several days, as I no longer knew what I really wanted to say.

My current self is much less inclined to admonish these men for what I would have labeled cowardice in my younger years. In general, I feel better when I am not so quick to cast judgment on others. The only word I feel the need to use (which appropriately describes their behavior) is fearful, and it is one that I would have to apply to my younger self as well. The more I move away from a victim mentality and choose to own my experience in this life, the more I find commonality with those I used to feel had victimized and/or betrayed me.

Now I know what I want to say to them. I wish for them to discover the peace and strength that only comes from living a deliberate life, one with intention to honor self and others, rather than cow-tow to societal pressures. Fear begets fear. I believe their inability to openly declare preference shows a level of shame and denial that can only keep them from wholeness; it does just as much damage to them internally as it does to the women they deny. But rather than censure them or make them responsible for my struggle to openly love those who choose not to love me, I have instead decided to take the first step in modeling a better way.

This is an inside job for all of us. Whether I end up with one of these men or not isn’t my point of focus anymore. I have decided not to look to them – or anyone else – for my happiness, worthiness, or status as a beautiful, desirable woman. Instead of asking them to change, I choose to be my own agent of change, a model of boldness and self love that doesn’t wait for the world to give me a seal of approval. And if I can break out of the cycle of shame and devaluing of those of us who fall outside conventionally defined norms, maybe some of them can follow suit. Regardless, it’s far more important for me to know that even if they never move out of fear, I still know my own worth.

(If you are interested in learning more about and/or participating in the Letters to Men project, let me know and I will forward the information to you.)
Posted in allowing, attraction, boldness, compassion, deliberate focus, fat, fear, releasing fear, shame | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments