There’s a part of me that still so desperately wants to fit in. Fit in with everyone else’s expectations. What I should wear. What I should think. What I should be doing “at my age”. I have to be very gentle with this part of me for she’s borne out of the smallest most vulnerable part of my self. The part that was squashed into a corner and told not to make a fuss. The part that believes with every cell of her being that she will only be loved if she is deemed acceptable. If she plays the game the others play, the one where she doesn’t know the rules and screws up every which way she turns — if she can master that game then everything will work out. If she wears the right shoes, if she was more outgoing, if she could just be like everyone else, she wouldn’t feel so achingly different. . .
There’s this other part of me that covers herself in tattoos, wears tight jeans and all the lipstick and doesn’t give a fuck what anyone else thinks. Who would rather die a slow painful death than be thought to be like everyone else. Who strives to be original in all she does — the worst accusation you could ever level at this part of me is copycat. She’ll rip it up and start again if it starts to smell like someone else’s cooking. She’s the big sister going first to break new ground. She’s the pot-smoking, trip-taking, henna-haired part of me that always has something to say. That rarely shuts up. . .
Neither of these parts run the show these days. They each had a turn back when I first became them, back when I needed to be those selves. Now they’re integrated into the larger whole of who I am and every day I dance with the many selves of my past, wondering about the selves of my future. The longer we live the more selves we collect, yet at the very core there’s a silky thread connecting them all. Looking back I can see hints of Her in all my previous iterations, and can still recall those rare moments when I side-stepped the scared girl, the needy lover, the devastated woman, and remembered who I was. Infinite, endless, encased in flesh and blood. I’d love to live every day in that remembering, but bills and deadlines and insecurites budge in, tripping me up until the next time I create enough space to touch the thread again.
I’m so ready for more space.
In my teens I thought they were cool. I got a butterfly inked onto my shoulder blade and I still remember everything about that day.
In my 20s I decorated my skin with flowers, owning my skin with every line and flourish. I wore my ink with pride. My boyfriend wasn’t a fan, but that didn’t stop me.
In my 30s I fell in love with a man whose lifestyle was as far from tattoos as you could yet. I wished I didn’t have them. I wished to be someone else.
Here in my 40s I own and inhabit every cell in my body. I don’t want to be anybody else, only me, with all the choices and mistakes and epiphanies that brings. My tattoos are infused with meaning and magic, sacred spells written on my skin.
I often get emails that deserve a longer more considered response than I usually have time for — here’s one that I’ve been sitting on for a while. Today was the day to reply:
I’ve been really enjoying The Sacred Alone class. This is the second class I’ve taken with you. I am so happy I found your blog and read your story. Honestly, I’ve been needing to get to know the girl in the mirror for a long time. I identify with a lot of parallels in your story. My father, while he didn’t leave us, was painfully absent and I’ve been through a good many years of therapy to fill the hole. In the past month I wrote a letter to my father as homework for my therapy visits. I read this letter in our last session a few weeks ago. I feel freer. The anger I use to feel is at rest, but a part of me wonders if I will ever be done with the “daddy issues”. To fill the hole I’ve longed to have a man in my life that is to me what he never was. I am a serial monogamist, bouncing relationship to relationship. After nearly 28 years, I’m tired. I’m taking the Sacred Alone to rely on the only person who I feel like can truly fill the hole – me.
I’m afraid and I have a question. It’s a bit of a personal one, but from someone who has fought this battle 12 years longer than I have, how did you know or how did you get to the point where your own love – your own self – was enough to feel whole?
Through reading your blog and taking your classes, I’ve thought several times “I want the strength of this woman.” “I want to be able to take control of my life and career the way she has.” You’ve truly been an inspiration to me. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You’ve made the idea of a girl who didn’t have a good relationship with her father, and doesn’t have to remain broken and depleted a little more attainable. That she can become strong and successful.
In all honesty, I still have occasional daddy issues. Not with the man who left 30 years ago as I’ve worked through all that. And not with the man who lives on the other side of the world, as I don’t know him and don’t feel the need to be in touch with him. My issues, such as they are, are a lingering part of my blueprint, the stuff I learned in the first 18 years of my life. (I sometimes wonder if we’re just supposed to spend our lives untangling all the crap we learned as kids.) The old programming surfaces every so often, just to keep me on my toes.
I was in back-to-back romantic relationships from the age of 17 to 32, right up until the day my partner died. In my 20s I was self aware enough to know I needed time on my own to really get to know myself, but back then I wasn’t brave enough to do it. I relied on another to make me feel whole, although truthfully it wasn’t that effective. I still felt lost, still felt unsure — I just had someone else to blame for not making me happy (nice, eh?)
Because I was so caught up in the patterning of the past, and the dysfunctional idea that another person could fill the father-shaped hole in my life, it wasn’t until I was forced to be alone that I finally got the chance to heal. My bereavement wasn’t just about the loss of my love — I also had decades of scrambled thinking to unravel. I had to learn to be on my own, and give myself the chance to discover who I really was.
“how did you know or how did you get to the point where your own love – your own self – was enough to feel whole?”
It happened very gradually. Obviously there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but when I trace my journey backwards there are some key practices and milestones that stand out:
— I learned how to live on my own, in a home I created just for me. I learned to take pleasure in cooking for myself, in arranging my furniture the way I liked it, in being solely responsible for the bills. I figured out how I wanted to spend my weekends at home, without the comfortable distraction of another’s company. I learned to let go of the need to have others around me to feel okay. I learned how to go places without needing to check in with anyone else. I became independent for the first time in my life.
— I mapped the terrain of my heart through my creativity. I’ve always journaled but it reached prodigious new heights in those first years of my healing journey. It’s amazing how fast you can cut through the undergrowth when you truly open up to self enquiry. The journalling of my 20s was decidedly shallow compared to the places I went to years later. I asked the questions and finally excavated my insides for answers. I still do this today.
— I began figuring out what truly lit me up. Relationships take up a lot of time and energy (usually in a good way!) so being on my own gave me time to figure out what was important to me — not me as somebody’s girlfriend, who generally went along with what her boyfriend wanted to do. Starting a blog and picking up a camera again changed everything and paved the way for what I’m doing now.
— I befriended the woman I saw in the mirror. We don’t have a perfect relationship — far from it, in fact. I intimately know the less appealing sides of myself — the stuff I’d rather no one else ever sees — but rather than cover it up or run from it, I embrace it. I own my “bad” as well as my good. My shadows as well as my light. I don’t believe there’s ever a point where all the crappy parts are healed out of existence — there is no perfect state to be achieved. Instead, I believe the goal is simply to embrace all of who we are. To get to know all facets of your being, from your body and outward appearance, your age and experiences, to your secrets and desires, your broken bits and your brilliance.
I do feel whole. In my bones I know I am complete exactly as I am. I am my own best friend. I trust myself completely. But that doesn’t mean it’s all perfectly shiny days over here — again I say FAR FROM IT! Outwardly it may look like I have it all together, and in many aspects I’m doing pretty good, but there are parts of my life I’d like to make over. After nine years my single status is long past its sell-by date. I will always be a pessimistically-inclined lone she-wolf — that hasn’t changed. I love my family above everything, but I often let friendships fade out and that’s not a side of me I’m proud of.
But on the whole, yes, I am whole. I own the good in me and the shit in me, too. I do a fairly good job of loving myself — a realistic job is perhaps a better way of putting it. I love myself realistically. In this lifetime this is who I am and 99% of the time I am happy with that. There will always be days that I’m not, and that’s okay — I find I’m less stressed about it these days.
So in summary, dear M, give it time. Gift yourself with the space to get to know yourself. Trust that the desire to be whole is the beginning of the realisation of that goal. And that getting older is very often the making of us. It has been for me. Let it unfold. And take yourself out on dates — just you and you. xx
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
- from the poem Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
For most of my adult life I’ve felt like a detached head bobbing around on the hot air of my thoughts. I never considered my body to be the real me. I thought our bodies were merely our transportation on earth, the cumbersome things that housed the divine sparks of who we really were. Bodies are bloody inconvenient. They need fuel. They age. They can’t be trusted. Like most women in the western world I still wished parts of my body were bigger or smaller but the truth is I valued my thoughts and feelings so much more than anything that was happening below my neck. I lived in my head, full stop.
Thankfully, things have been changing since I got back to London. 2013 began with the realisation that the previous year had taken its toll and the black dog had come to stay. Determined to get the support I needed to heal I went back on antidepressants — which are not for everyone but with my history with depression they are lifesavers —, joined a gym, and found a new therapist. The tablets brought me back up to normal (whatever the hell that is), the exercise taught me to appreciate the mechanics of my body, and my sessions with Wendy have helped me continue unravelling my self, a process I find so incredibly rewarding.
When I got to the beginning of this year, I was in a pretty good place. I’d taken a break from dating to focus solely on my work for a while, and was doing okay emotionally, all things considered. It was while in this pulled together place I found the next piece of the puzzle. Flicking through The Lotus and the Lily one morning, I read:
“You are an embodied soul. That means what your soul experiences, your body experiences.”
Underlining it with my orange pen, I read it again. There was a bell ringing in my head. I copied the quote into my journal, and then carried on writing:
I spend so much time fretting about being a soul “trapped” in a body, when, actually, my soul permeates every part of my body. I am an embodied soul. My soul and my body are not separate! If I consider that every single cell in my body contains my soul — that it’s not just perched in my head or my heart, or floating around outside of me — but actually IN me, inside every part of me, it makes me look at my body differently. It’s not “just the car I drive around in.”
Maybe this sounds obvious to you, but, friends, it was the first time I really got it (cue the irony) deep in my bones. From the tips of my toes and the in-growing hairs on my shins, to the wobbly flesh on my hips and the freckles on my nose, every single part of me contains my soul. After a lifetime of dismissing my body that was the day the dam broke and my head and body got stitched back together. I honestly don’t know why it had never occurred to me before.
It’s important to note here that going to the gym didn’t magically get easier after this realisation — as if! — but I’ve definitely been experiencing my body in a much more holistic way. I’m taking more time over it: getting a leg wax instead of shaving, slathering on more lotion, drinking more smoothies, and eating far more consciously. I’ve been wearing dresses instead of jeans and painting my toe nails brighter colours. I find I’m more forgiving of my body and moving through the world with more awareness than usual. Where I’d usually be so quick to complain I’m finding more tenderness and gratitude. More patience for my fallible human form.
Most interesting of all, my meditation practice has been evolving, taking me from being in my head to naturally wanting to inhabit more of my body. I find the easiest way to get centred is to feel into the different parts of my body and then visualise breathing colour into each chakra in turn. Whether or not you believe these energy points actually exist, the idea of them helps me get inside my body fast. As an over-thinky person it helps to have something to focus my thoughts on, and visualising colour and energy is surprisingly effective.
I recorded a version of my body grounding meditation for Day One of The Sacred Alone, which you can try by clicking on the audio below. It’s a great way to get back into the moment without needing any bells or whistles. You just sit down, close your eyes and feel into each part of your body. I do this most mornings before I let my meditation take me where it wants to go.
I’m happy to report that my body and I feel like a team these days. I still have mornings when I look in the mirror exasperated at the changes in my face, but on the whole I’m inhabiting all parts of my being and learning to see my self as a whole: body, mind and spirit intertwined. At some point I may even stop referring to “my body” as separate and simply call it me.
Only took me 41 years to get here ;-)
The mid-summer session of The Sacred Alone starts on Monday! This gentle 14 day course definitely feels like the new direction for me and my work. It’s an invitation to take 20 minutes each day to connect to the quiet knowing space in your heart, the place that offers refuge, wisdom and calm. Registration is happening over here — come join us! x
“I absolutely loved the course. I think that is because of YOU as a person first and foremost. The content is secondary. As usual your gentle, loving, fun self shone through. I thought there was a perfect amount of journalling… enough prompts to get me writing but not too much that I felt I had to answer or do. I ended up really valuing the journalling. I didn’t actually write a lot but the content that came out of me was very meaningful. I LOVED your meditations…your voice is lovely. I love having the Facebook aspect of the course and can’t imagine the course without this piece. I so enjoy connecting and sharing with others. In summary the course rocked, you rock and I can’t wait to take another course with you. You are an inspiring, down-to-earth, lovely being. Thank you for being who you are!” ~ Stephanie (check out her blog posts here + here)