It’s been 18 months since I last posted, yet Living the Mess has been on my mind every day. While I haven’t been writing posts for this site, as a friend pointed out, I have been living the mess and so experiencing source material for future posts. It didn’t seem right to jump back into posting without something of a “bridge” to explain where I’ve been.
Although I swore off the word “busy” years ago, it has indeed been a busy time, with so much change that, without practices to keep me grounded, my head would be spinning. (And honestly, sometimes it still does spin.)
One of the foundations of good writing is “show, don’t tell.” But to show you what’s happened over the last year would require 20,000 words or more. And nobody is that patient a reader!
A (Sorta) Quick Recap
To go back a bit: 2017 was a year of substantial change. In December of 2016, I made the painful decision to euthanize my beloved cat, Hedda. That was a huge change and loss in my life, after 20 years of companionship. When I felt like I was ready to adopt again, I began volunteering with a local cat rescue, and suddenly, I had more interaction with humans in a month than I’d had in the previous seven years combined (I’m not exaggerating).
At the end of May, I found out that I’d have to move by the beginning of autumn. My last post discussed the lessons I learned while making a major move. I felt sad yet was certain it was the opening to a new chapter, though as I told people, “I don’t yet know what the plot will be.”
Opening a New Chapter
On July 31, I moved into a retreat center in a gorgeous, serene setting, with the intention of turning this blog into a book.
Instead, I found myself working split shifts seven days in a row (with the following seven off). I worked from 6:30am to 9:30am and 4pm to 10pm. I had no privacy, except in my room; there was no way of entering or exiting the building without running into people. In the entire six months I lived there, there was only one 24-hour period when I didn’t have any human contact. For an introvert accustomed to living in solitude and silence, and listening to my body’s rhythms, this was a massive shock.
It wasn’t a retreat center in the way Kripalu or Omega is. It’s a place where organizations and healers can bring their retreats, and it exists for that purpose, but the staff were there for a paycheck, not their own practice. Some of them openly mocked the guests and healing modalities represented on each retreat. (I adored the guests, though. They were the best part of the experience, along with the teenagers who worked in the kitchen.) I decided I was there to serve Awakening. Without a sense of purpose, I would have left there quickly.
Some part of me realized it was also an opportunity to deepen practice—after all, there’s nothing like being on fire to make us search for water!
Finding Inner Sanity
In the first week, I re-read Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, and Pema Chödron’s The Wisdom of No Escape. Katie’s work centers around four questions (The Work) that can be used in any situation to dissolve resistance. Pema Chödron’s book is about using constraints to deepen practice. Those reminded me that I was there for a reason, and I had the toolkit to manage whatever came up.
Within a month, I realized all the things that bothered me about different people were traits I hadn’t dealt with in myself (in large part because I’d had so little contact with people over the previous seven years). The retreat center was a funhouse mirror of my ego. “Ego” is a word that has multiple definitions; when I use it, I mean the edges of my personality that keep me feeling separate and my heart closed. For years, I’d been begging to see my own ego—I was aware that’s what was causing pain—yet seeing it in ourselves is kind of like smelling our own body odor. It’s so familiar that it’s almost impossible to identify.
You know the phrase “Be careful what you wish for?” The residency was like having a spotlight shined into every unhealed nook and cranny, pushing me and testing me. Early on, I had an insight that while I was there, every single unresolved issue would come up…and pretty much, that’s what happened. I learned (through many cringeworthy moments) to see how I can come across to other people, when I hold onto certain ideas or identities.
Although the hours were long, the daily tasks were simple enough that I was able to turn them into a presence practice (most of the time). My favorite task was folding the green kitchen rags (of which there were more than a hundred). There was something Zen about it. As the saying goes, “Chop wood, carry water”—and that’s what I was doing. Nearly every day, too, I was able to get out into the surrounding nature, and that helped immensely. I also continued my daily gratitude lists and many of the other practices I’ve written about.
By the end of 2017, my life looked very different than it had 12 months earlier. Many of those changes were not by my choice, and some were uncomfortable. But my guiding word for that year—ALLOW—helped me to accept those changes.
Which is a good thing, because there was much more change to come.
The Plot Unfolds
Once I realized I wouldn’t be able to focus on Living the Mess at the retreat center, I decided to work on a gift book I’d written after Hedda died (P.S. I Love You More Than Tuna), for adults grieving the loss of their cat. Although the book itself is only 500 words, I wrote a full book proposal. To my delight, in November, I signed with a literary agent in New York.
I’d honestly just intended to write something that would help people heal, and I didn’t think I’d need to increase my visibility to do that. As it turned out, I was wrong.
The next step was to begin “building a platform” (i.e., becoming more visible and engaged). As an extreme introvert, I’d deliberately avoided the whole “platform” thing for years, yet once I stopped resisting it, I actually began enjoying the process. It’s been frustrating at times (when I don’t hear back after pitching articles, for example), but it’s actually kind of fun.
One of my mantras is “My opinion of what Life wants from me is irrelevant.” I can either resist what’s happening, or I can go with it. And day-to-day life is so much easier when I just go with it. (Of course…easier said than done, right?)
Around the same time, a long-term client and friend hired me to work on a large contract. Ultimately, that contract allowed me to move out of the retreat center and into a new place, to work towards stabilizing my income, and to usher in this new chapter.
For three months, though, I was juggling three jobs: the residency, Tuna, and my client work. It was…a lot.
Stepping Back Into the World
It took a while to figure out how my various projects—Tuna, Living the Mess, my own creative writing, and my editing work—fit together. In building a platform for Tuna, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as someone who only writes about cats, or only about grief. That meant building a strategy.
Living the Mess is the foundation of everything I do. It informed the Tuna manuscript, and it has informed how I interact with people on the Tuna Facebook page. I wrote several Facebook posts based on things I’ve written here, focusing on bringing self-compassion and mindfulness to the grieving process. I call it “Living the Mess through a paw-shaped lens.” I also began writing longform essays that would simultaneously build the Tuna platform, incorporate aspects of LTM, and showcase my writing strengths to build credibility for my editing business. As an editor and writing coach, I already recommend practices I’ve written about here to authors, so that’s another intersection.
After subletting for two months last winter, I finally found a new home in April. Unlike my old place, this one is an apartment in a relatively urban setting, with lots of traffic and people-noise, and neon lights at night. It’s also 40% more expensive than my old place—the rental market here has skyrocketed. I resisted the location and cost quite a bit for a long time—and, as I’ve written about, and I know from experience, resistance doesn’t change anything. It just makes me feel crappy. It took a good six months (and adopting a kitten) before I really felt like this was “home.”
For the first seven months, my apartment overlooked a homeless encampment. That was a daily reminder to be so, so grateful that I even had a place to call home. When I moved to the retreat center, I had $300 to my name. There have been a few times when I could have wound up living in a tent, and I’m (again) so grateful that a different timeline unfolded.
If you’d told me 18 months ago that I’d be managing a Facebook page with 22,000 followers and a highly engaged group with more than a thousand members, I probably would have run screaming (or at least whimpering). And yet, here I am, and it’s so rewarding. The platform allows me to transform some of what I’ve written about on here into concrete practices for people grieving the loss of their pet. I’ve learned that spiritual practices are most useful when they’re helping people deal with real-world challenges—and so many people have told me that my writing has helped them, not only with the loss of a companion animal, but with other life challenges, too. (That’s the idea!) As much as I love being alone in nature, this gives me an opportunity to feel like I’m really making a difference in people’s lives on a larger scale.
I’ve been able to work with business coaches, with the intention of creating stable income through editing when my client contract ended. In turn, that opened up opportunities I’d never imagined for myself (it turns out that to have more clients, it helps to have more visibility). As I’ve worked on building the Tuna platform, income has flowed in a kind of magical way (which has led me to observe that Life is not quid pro quo; capitalism is). LTM is on my mind every day. I have a long list of posts that I want to write in 2019; this is still my passion project, and the core of everything I do. Those posts may have to wait a few months, though, while I get the other branches of my “business” in order.
I now have many, many more things on my plate each day than I can reasonably accomplish. For someone who has, in the not-too-distant past, had to live on lentils and goodwill, this is a huge pivot and a really great “problem” to have. It’s also been overwhelming at times, best illustrated by this video of my kitten trying to catch a hidden toy. (I actually have an idea for a post based around that one video and toy—What a Cat Toy Taught Me About Presence.)
I am so immensely grateful for everything that has fallen into place for me to be in this new chapter and new role. And, had I not experienced many of the challenges I faced over the past seven years, I wouldn’t be able to appreciate this shift quite so much.
Although the changes have been dramatic from 2017 to now, they’ve also been gradual enough that I’m not completely freaked out. Each progression has been the next logical step: From building the social media platforms for Tuna to becoming comfortable increasing my visibility as a nonfiction writer and editor, to engaging with the world I left behind a decade ago (and especially, writing essays and stories without identifying as the story). Every piece just keeps unfolding, and my job is to keep showing up.
“The Mark is Love”
One final note, because I don’t know where else to put this: The retreat center was originally founded by an order of Benedictine nuns. Although it’s now a private nonprofit, two of the nuns still spend time there. One day, I was arranging chairs for a service in the chapel, and one of the nuns asked me if I was Christian. I replied that I didn’t identify as Christian, that the language of Buddhism resonated more for me, but that I saw all religions as emanating from the same spiritual truth. I forget how the concept of “sin” came up, but I said (hoping to impress her—hello, ego!) “My understanding is that the etymology of the word ‘sin’ is ‘to miss the mark.’ In a lovely Southern drawl, she replied, “That’s right. And the mark is love.”
“The mark is love.”
Happy 2019, everyone! And here’s to hitting the mark as much as possible.