There's this photo of me on Facebook. My friend Peter, who's playing congas with me here, is playing with me. My guess is that the photo was taken in 2001, but it could have been taken a little earlier.
The thing is that I don't remember what I was singing about. I think I was playing at Felicita's at UVic, but I don't remember why. I have no idea what songs might have showed-up on that setlist hanging from the microphone—printed characteristically on a used piece of paper, a photocopied article. It was 2001 and I thought myself a musician of sorts... but what did I have to say? I have no fucking idea.
This is a problem as I try to find my way through all this separation stuff. In the vernacular, a psychological assessor said my "values are all over the place." And it seems like, as I listen to podcasts and read self-help and leadership books, it's highly encouraged to follow your vision. It seems as if happiness lies in one's ability to live out their singular purpose, to live out their message in such a way that lets them live a life where message and life are blurred and beautiful.
I have no idea what my message is, what I'd like to say to the world. I feel utterly lost in this. I don't think it's a matter of religious apostasy, but over the last few years my ability to access my "voice" has diminished until I don't know what to do with it.
And I don't have to go back to 2001 to figure it out. I wrote a personal weblog on a near-daily basis between 2001-2005; I made a CD of original songs in 2006; I wrote a CD's worth of as-yet-unreleased material over the few years that followed—but by 2013, my writing essentially stopped. I no longer played riffs and thought "I should use that" and built something around it. I had nothing to say.
And I could feel it happening. I tried a few things to fight it: I worked with a drummer and tried to write some songs using riffs; I would record mini-moments of inspiration on my phone and hope to make sense of them when I came back to them; I sat down and wrote journals; I tried to write semi-creative blog posts; I tried to attend open-mic nights and pub jams; I tried to record videos of cover songs, secretly hoping that they'd turn into something of my own. I'd sit down and try to learn proper riffs, hoping they'd lead to new flashes of inspiration. But they never did. And I still feel like I have nothing to say.
There are ironies here: I know people want to hear what I have to say; I know people care about me and think I have worthwhile ideas; I know people can see that I have a vision for things. And I'm anxious to get it out, myself.
I imagine a good portion of it is separation-based. This whole marriage-falling-apart thing has been a pretty enormous blow to my ego, and it's been a long process that continues to take up an inordinate amount of brainspace in any given moment. So perhaps, as I learn how to be myself again, maybe I'll find a way to articulate my vision again, whatever it is.
But it's not there yet. My vision simmers at best.
But I could sure use some of that overflowing confidence to express myself again.
And using "simmers" reminded me of this special moment from last summer:
I can think of a few times over the last few years when I've felt uncomfortable with the ways people "call out" each other. My impression is that the person who "calls out" injustice feels their explanation is witty and useful, but it can often come-off as a conversation-closer. Despite this, I usually try to give the call-out a serious listen, even if I can't do it on the day of confrontation. If I'm uncomfortable with an idea, I like to try to get to the core of my discomfort.
A few weeks ago, I came across this article, "A Note on Call-Out Culture," by Asam Ahmad after somebody posted it to their Twitter feed. I didn't read it for a few days, but when I did I found a couple touching passages.
Here's the article:
I think the article brings up some valid concerns, namely that "Calling-Out" is a performative act. When we call-out, the calling-out itself becomes the issue of importance. It's hard to keep one's aim straight on the content when the calling-out is so attractive in and of itself.
Most importantly to me, Ahmad writes,
There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit. Paying attention to these other contexts will mean refusing to unleash all of our very real trauma onto the psyches of those we imagine to only represent the systems that oppress us.
I believe in calling-out injustice, but I also believe that there are ways to do so that decrease damage and increase relationship. When we can confront people in ways that don't jade them or shift the focus of their concern, people have a chance to feel legitimized, even if their in the wrong camp. A successful call-out should allow the receiver of the call-out to feel as human as the person who performs the call-out themselves.
On October 24, The School of Life published this video, "Is It Better To Be Polite Or Frank?" which seemed to address some of my call-out concerns that day. The video compares "frank: and "polite" behaviours and evaluates their efficacy in different contexts. If you have 10 minutes, I highly recommend viewing it.
In relation to the video above, I would argue that "calling out" is almost always an act of frankness: the person wants to bring something to the surface and "tell it as it is." However, the combination of performance and frankness shuts down nuance. Once the performance of calling-out begins, once somebody highlights somebody's apparent indiscretion. Calling out creates opposition and debate where nuance might fit better.
When I was searching for the first article in this blog entry, I came across a second article with a different focus. Kitty Striker wrote this article for The Walrus: "The Problem with Callout Culture."
For my purposes, the most pertinent part of this article reads,
For some critics, it feels safer, and more cut and dried, to call out an individual for saying something racist, for example, than to dig into the root of why they felt it was okay to say it in the first place. It’s less overwhelming to yell at one person than to, say, go after institutional oppression.
Calling out is fine if you want to frankly bring something to the surface, but terrible at identifying the root problems that maintain injustice. If anything, I would think that effective call-outs would immediately be followed by some empathic conversation between both parties. Call-outs draw attention to a problem, but may be a bad method for changing the systems they confront.
I'm all for changing the system; I'm all for calling out injustice. However, I'm more interested in workable ways to change the system than I am in forcing myself into a position where my frankness and performance force me to try to be "right" when I could very well be wrong, or missing the target altogether.
I'm spending the next week or so in my hometown of sorts, Victoria BC.
I say "hometown of sorts" because I don't know many people here anymore. Beyond my immediate family, most of my friends have moved to other locales. Despite my many years at UVic for my undergrad, and a few summers at UVic for my graduate degree, I haven't really built up many regularly-maintained friendships here. It's hard to see a city as my hometown when I can so easily wander the streets with such anonymity.
So I'm trying to find some other ways to enjoy the town. Yesterday, I attended a MeetUp with Victoria Verse, a little poetry group here in town that weekly meets at a coffee shop to write some poetry. This week's goal was to write some sonnets. I felt this might be useful for me because I'm teaching Writing 12 this year, and meeting with some writers might help me get my own creative juices flowing a little.
Which it did. Here's the sonnet I wrote:
The poem describes the terrifying moment last summer when I dragged our dog, Rosita, underneath our pickup after she jumped out of the box. Fortunately, she's in good shape now, despite many scars on her legs and belly. I'm happy that I will likely get to live with her when I move to Agassiz on the 1st.
I haven't had a hometown, really, since I moved from Victoria. When I move to Agassiz, I will have lived in most of the small communities in the Upper Fraser Valley: 6 years in Hope, 1½ in Harrison Hot Springs, 1½ in Chilliwack, and now Agassiz for a few. However, I don't think any of these have gotten to constitute as a "hometown." In my last few locales, I haven't really gotten to know the people who live around me. I've isolated myself from my communities for this reason or that reason.
Self-isolation isn't necessarily a problem on its own. However, I feel like I need to do a far better job at "getting out there" in the community, even if I don't know if I'm going to live there for very long. I'm glad to have things like MeetUp for learning about different groups because I spent so many years in organizations that arranged my friend groups for me: churches, schools, and universities gather semi-likeminded people together so your friend pool is significantly smaller. I'm going to have to learn how to extrovert as I step out on my own. Again.
A few months ago, while I was reading Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, I came across his summary of John Gottman's marriage studies. In response, I posted the following to Twitter:
I believe I was referring to this general section of Emotional Intelligence:
This was a rather frustrating section of the book to read. I saw my own experience written so clearly that it really hit home how predictable the pattern was in my own marital breakdown. Although I had originally thought I was experiencing something unique, in reality I was experiencing what millions of couples have experienced over the years. I didn't have the energy to do much more with it at the time, but I felt a little less alone.
Two days ago, I had a meeting with a Family Justice Counsellor. It was a good meeting that helped give me a little more direction in this separation process. The counsellor recommended John Gottman's work, saying that it might be useful to read it even though my marriage itself is over. She said, "You're still a family, even if you're living in different places. The ideas in Gottman's work might be useful for communication even when you're separated."
So I meandered down to Nugget's Used Books and bought a copy of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: and how you can make yours last.
It's got 231 pages. I'm currently at 119.
And blammity-blammity, wowee-zowee, this is some convicting shit.
I have often been accused of being defensive and been very frustrated with feeling like I can't defend myself without digging myself into a hole. Although I'd recently seen a clear explanation of defensiveness's destruction a few weeks ago, this section from Gottman hit hard about just how my I-think-I'm-doing-the-right-thing behaviour was actually something that dug me deeper and deeper into a hole. Gottman writes,
And then, a few pages later, there was this description of "stonewalling." And my heart sank.
Because I did it. I flooded, I stonewalled. I chose to stonewall and decided that I was doing the right thing, trying to be "neutral," trying to put off the discussion until things had calmed down, until I could think clearly. Instead, it was the final nail in my marriage, the act that shut it down more than anything else, the act that solidified the negative thoughts that bounced back and forth for the months that followed.
I'm still amazed that I can pick up a published book and read my own experiences in it. It seems so... petty. I feel, I should be better than that, or I should have known better. It's humbling to see just how normal it is because it means that if I'd made different decisions, different choices, and maintained things better, there's a good chance that I could have cut a lot of this off a long time ago and maybe continued to have a positive relationship with my ex-wife. But I didn't. And we're done.
I'm a really average, normal guy.
Normalcy is the stepping-off point for my new life.
While my partner and I go through our separate separation processes, we're both travelling parallel paths to self-knowledge a little. We're both learning about re-establishing our boundaries; we've both recognised some of our recurring relationship patterns that don't work in our favour; we've both tried to come to terms with our baggage. Simply put, we're following the classic long-term relationship breakup process:
The heartbreaking thing about all self-improvement is that it couldn't have happened earlier. A few weeks ago, she asked me if there was some moment in the past that I would go back to, some singular, particular moment where I could have made a different choice and had everything go differently, something that could have saved us from our current mutual heartbreaks.
But I couldn't think of one. I've made a lot of mistakes, and I can think of some ways that I could have set up better boundaries, but I can't think of anything I'd change. Life doesn't give us the option to just go back and fix the past, so I do my best not to dwell on those types of hypotheticals. Perhaps that's one of the reasons I've avoided science fiction over the years; I'd rather deal with those sorts of hypotheticals outside of narrative.
As I've said before, I'm doing my best to avoid the act of blame in my life. Right now, blame is growth's nemesis. I have no interest in blaming my partner, my upbringing, or myself for the way my marriage and relationship have gone. I will take responsibility for the careless words I've said and the ways I've given in to self-created pressures, but I need to keep blame out of it. It's been a difficult tension to maintain, but a good one to practice. I find it much easier to sympathize with people and see their hearts clearly when I try to frame their behaviour without blaming them for my own pain.
Over the last few weeks, I've tried to think about how I would go back and change things, to make it all better, to fix things, but there's no way to go back, no matter what Jay Gatsby (embedded above) thinks. I tried to contort my brain to imagine such a moment, but my efforts fell short. Instead, I have to admit to myself that our personalities smashed up against one another and over the years we grew apart, little choice by little choice. It's heartbreaking, of course, to lose a friend this way, but that's just how it's gone. And I can't blame anybody for it.
Because that's the nature of personal growth, of the experiences that make us who we are. We learn where our boundaries are and move them around over time; we discover needs we never knew; we learn that our upbringings can only take us so far.
And there's no one to blame for that.
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