After all the dreaming I come home again

Pacific

David and I have been in Maui for two months. Some days it seems longer. I keep laughing and thinking of Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective”: Time is a flat circle. That’s how this feels.

Our move in late February coincided with what was then considered to be the first U.S. death from COVID-19, in the Seattle area. For a short time, the city became the epicenter of the country’s outbreak. Our first week or two here, I noticed folks subtly, understandably, shying away from me when I told them where I had moved from, so I stopped mentioning Seattle altogether.

Sean and Penny
Having fun at Polipoli before the state issued its shelter-in-place order.

Those first couple weeks were otherwise glorious, a reminder of why we had disassembled our lives in Washington and moved them to the island. Suddenly we were on porches sharing meals and funny stories with beautiful friends, hiking with them and their dogs, dancing together, planning overnight trips in the crater (Haleakalā). I was preparing for a job interview at a local mental healthcare organization. Then Mayor Victorino instated a shelter-in-place order through the end of April and we’ve been at home ever since, and likely will be through May. In many ways, this has been a less stressful transition for us than others because of our ability to work remotely, and we are grateful for that.

My days are amorphous now, which suits me. Some are easier than others. Most mornings I get outside and exercise, because otherwise I spend the afternoon vibrating with angsty, unspent energy. Last week I was taking a walk by the coast when I ran into a kind couple my age. We got to talking (at a distance). The woman asked how I was doing with everything. I assumed she was as concerned as I am and shared how surreal it is to be on Maui—this tropical paradise that can, depending on your circumstances, lull you into thinking nothing’s really wrong in the world—while my family and friends are on the mainland.

She nodded, then explained that she and her partner are staying sane by not watching the news, because they know COVID-19 isn’t really real, just a tactic of the 1% to get us all vaccinated.

Don’t, I told myself.

It was hot and I was sweating and tired, not in the mood to discuss beliefs. But I have heard this theory from others on Maui and each time am reminded of what a privilege it can be to live on an island, to be healthy and well. Standing with that couple, we turned to face the Pacific, palm trees swaying, the trade winds blowing. I imagined what they might think of COVID-19 were they living in a cramped New York City apartment with their extended family, their elderly aunt, their grandfather, their out-of-work mother.

Before I could say anything else, their little dog trotted up to sniff me. They sweetly pointed out a whale in the distance, then wished me well and walked off, the man pulling out a flute to play a song. Frustration had reared its head for a moment, then was gently washed away.

Kai Huki

The truth is, I sometimes pull Maui over me like a warm blanket, too. I turn off my phone and sit in the yard watching wild hens and chicks scratch around in the dirt, waves chopping the ocean in the distance. I may not believe in conspiracy theories, but I have my own methods of dissociation and denial, my own ways of making meaning out of awful, unknowable forces and fates.

This pandemic has left me with a lot of time for observation, in general. Here are a few other things I’ve noticed in the past couple months:

I am changing.

There are many assumptions I’ve made about myself over the years, and one of the biggest is that I am an introvert, hard stop. But you know that saying, before you assume you’re depressed, make sure you’re not just surrounded by assholes? I’d add, before you assume you’re an across-the-board introvert, make sure you’re not just in a really draining environment. In Seattle, I was so exhausted by the emotional and logistical demands of school and city life, I rarely wanted to make plans. But since moving to Maui, I have found myself increasingly longing for communion. Rather than cozily sinking into this time at home, I have struggled with it. I miss seeing friends, miss meeting strangers who might become friends, I miss hugging them, I miss dancing with them, I miss sharing meals with them, I miss their presence.

Winter stuffAnother change I’ve noticed is my happiness at being back in a warm, sunny climate. This might sound odd, but anyone who knows me knows I love the cold, I love the dark. I have spent nearly every year since I turned 18 living in frigid climates, including one winter I paid to work in northern Iceland. I am an introvert who loves cold-ass weather, y’all! This assumption about myself is one of the only things that made me nervous about moving to Maui. I cried when I boxed up my winter gear, as if I was burying the deepest, truest thing about me. I kept asking David, “Surely I’ll need down jacket at some point, right?”

And so I have a down jacket hanging in our closet. But being here, in this tropical environment, has brought out a childlike joy I haven’t experienced since I lived at the North Carolina coast. Living up north, in Vermont, Maine, Minnesota, and even Washington, felt in some ways like a reaction to my beautiful but swampy upbringing in Florida. In the heat, there are no boundaries—everything melts, everything melds into everything else. The cold is contained and containing, and for a long time I needed that.

Reilly and Flora winter
A rare snowstorm in North Carolina, ten years ago.

I’m listening to Untamed by Glennon Doyle and early in the book she talks about meeting Abby Wambach, now her wife. At the time, Abby explains that she’s living in Portland, OR, but will probably move, and Glennon—who lives in Florida—blurts out, “Oh, people like us can’t live in Portland. We’re Portland on the inside. We need sunshine on the outside.” She feels embarrassed by this statement, but I understood.

I’m Seattle on the inside; right now, I need sunshine on the outside.

I am regressing.

In the past month, I have seen myself (and others) regress—to old behaviors, old habits, to our most childlike sense of selves. When I feel stressed and overwhelmed, a very young part of me cries out, I want to go home! I want the comfort of my family, my dogs, our little town and all my bike rides through it.

Biking Oriental

The other week, I was daydreaming with David about eventually moving back to North Carolina, how I’d love to live at the coast again. Would you ever be into that? I asked.

This was 100% a setup, because I know well and good that he is not a fan of the coast’s dogged heat and endless flat terrain. But sometimes I am an ungrateful quarantine monster who needs an excuse to get angry. I needed a reason to release some energy. I not only missed my home, but needed something, someone to push up against. When David casually said, “Yeah, that’s not ideally where I’d want to live in North Carolina, but if you were passionate about it, I could give it a try,” all my ego heard was DEFEAT THIS VILLAIN and low-key accused him of not wanting me to be happy.

Oof.

Be gentle with yourself (and others), friends. If ever there was a time for the more shadowy aspects of your personality to float to the surface, it’s now. I see this in the stories of people having physical altercations over toilet paper, in the hoarding, in the bullying way some of us tell others what to do and how to operate in this new world. We are being called to sit with these darker parts of ourselves which cannot be erased but can, perhaps, exert less control over our lives once acknowledged.

I am lucky that David and I know when the other is triggered and are skilled at making space for whatever is being worked through. (Sometimes a gentle “hey, I’m feeling pretty cranky this morning, I need some space” goes a long way.) Not everyone has that safe container though, and some old habits are more damaging and don’t pass as quickly. Loved ones have shared stories with me about their “bad” behavior during this time, and all I can say is, please have compassion for little you. We are in a pressure cooker.

As Araya Baker, a therapist and activist, suggests in these 15 affirmations for hope amidst COVID-19, relapsing into maladaptive coping mechanisms is OK, as long as you consult your own accountability plan and/or buddy. If you need more than self-compassion right now, enlist the help of a trusted other.

I am trying to be present.

Duck's CottageLast week, I bought a coffee mug from one of my favorite shops in my favorite place on earth—Duck’s Cottage in the Outer Banks. We are currently staying at a friend’s house on Maui, with most of our belongings packed away. Mornings and coffee are such a sacred combination to me, I wanted my own mug and I wanted it to remind me of a place I love. I also wanted to support a beloved small business.

“Let’s get you a mug of your own, too!” I suggested to David. “Is there somewhere you love? A thing or place that would bring you comfort to be reminded of each morning?” I had a few ideas, all things and places thousands of miles from where we are now.

He paused for a long time, then said, “Maybe Hawaii. A Maui mug?”

Hm, I thought. I don’t think he gets it.

… did I?

See, I have been dreaming all my life. I am always dreaming of different paths, different places, different ways our lives might unfold—one foot fully in the present, the other floating off into the future. When I am in one place, I am already dreaming up life in another. Though I try to live life to the fullest wherever I am, a part of me is always picturing what could come next. This is why I love meeting strangers, why I love travel; I want to know what it’s like to be everyone, live everywhere, do everything.

Olympic Peninsula

This privileged existence, the ability to dream and then do, has enriched my life. But it often veers into escapism, blinding me to what I really have: this moment, in this place we upended our lives to live. While I am busy building other realities, I am missing out on fully existing inside this one, once “the dream the dreamers dreamed,” to quote James Baldwin. It’s here, now.

So as much as I miss home, and as uncomfortable and painful and triggering as isolation can be, as growth can be, as much as it makes my Piscean personality want to escape into imagined worlds, I am committing to being present in this one.

This is less a commitment to Hawaii—that’s easy—and more a commitment to being in my body, in my feelings, wherever I am, without running away. I literally can’t, after all. I’m on an island, during a pandemic.

Lucky me. Staying is the lesson I’ve avoided learning all my life.

“Just where you are,” as Pema Chödrön once instructed, “that’s the place to start.”

Complexes, chronic pain, and change

Clouds and moon

Recently I found myself caught in a complex—one I didn’t realize I have, or didn’t understand the full extent of—about control. Or a lack thereof.

Carl Jung’s definition of complex was one of his biggest contributions to depth psychology, so central to his work he almost named his collection of theories “complex psychology.” Complexes are generally described as emotionally-charged memories, ideas, and images around a core theme. Essentially: from a very early age, we start to associate certain feelings, attitudes, and experiences with archetypes like mother, father, sister, brother, power, creativity, etc. The more associations attached to a particular theme, the stronger its influence on the psyche. Complexes are not inherently negative, but our reactions to them can be.

If, for example, you were often criticized as a child and made to feel less-than, you might develop an inferiority complex, which could manifest in any number of ways. You might overcompensate by being very dominant and competitive, or struggle with self-esteem, with seeing tasks through to completion. If it is a mostly unconscious complex, you might project it onto others, criticizing weakness and dependency in those around you. (See: Trump.) Should someone or something trigger those old, uncomfortable feelings, causing you to want to act out, you might find yourself “caught in your complex.”

(Side note: I am not a professional, so please take my interpretations with a grain of salt.)

Is it over?Anytime you have a disproportionate reaction to a situation, you can almost guarantee you’re in the midst of a complex. And anyone who’s ever been caught in the riptide of one knows that shit will fuck you up. You’ll swell with emotion, might want to jump to all kinds of action, but in general the best response—thank you, This Jungian Life—is to sit on your hands, shut up, and wait it out. As Jung said, we have complexes, but complexes can have us. And apparently I have a complex around control.

Last month, we had some issues with our heating. First the boiler was acting up, then maintenance suspected there might be air bubbles in our pipes. Multiple days we didn’t have any heat, but not for more than 12-24 hours at a time.

On the surface, this is not a big deal. Our apartment has never been toasty, and anyway I love cold weather. I’ve lived in many cold climates. In the grand scheme of things, I am blessed to have heat at all. Just put on some more layers, right?

But my reaction any time we’ve lost heat in the winter has been… very disproportionate to the situation. Distress. Anxiety. Rumination. Intellectually, I know it will eventually be fixed, but my heart goes straight to low-grade panic.

I’ve tried to figure out why this is so triggering. When I lived in Maine, filling the oil tank in our apartment was so expensive, we usually kept it pretty low. Throughout the winter, I always had this fear of that moment when the heat would turn off, when we’d have to scrape together hundreds to turn it back on. Blizzards would blow through and knock out power as well, and then too I had that same fear: the house growing colder and colder, the heat never coming back on. I know family and friends in coastal areas who have similar fears after living through hurricanes. But is that what this is about? Mother Nature?

Mississippi
If winter in Minnesota didn’t bother me, then surely a briefly broken heater in Seattle won’t… right?

A little bit, for sure. But David pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: because I suffer from migraines, and because they can be debilitating, I am extra mindful about my surroundings. I don’t eat food that makes me feel like shit, I generally don’t drink because it makes me feel like shit, and I am particular about everything from lighting, temperature, and the amount of sleep I get each night, to exercise and how I spend my energy. I go to a chiropractor to keep my body aligned, and I go to therapy mostly because it’s awesome, but partly because I know how sensitive I am to unprocessed emotions: they literally make me sick. So this complex I fell into is not just one about control, but about pain, even safety.

Access to healing modalities and the ability to regulate my surroundings is a privilege. I am not a controlling person in general, but I guess I am controlling of my environment. I feel I have to be, because I know what will happen if I am not. When the heat shuts off unexpectedly, it’s like someone’s pulled an errant thread and I can sense already the ways in which the whole thing will be undone.

This might sound extreme to anyone who hasn’t wrestled with chronic pain. I’ve gotten migraines since I was a child, so bad they’d make me puke, but I literally didn’t learn the word “migraine” until I was 21. No one in family gets them—a fact that prompted my most recent neurologist to order an MRI “to be safe”—and growing up I didn’t know anyone who got them, either; it wasn’t in our vocabulary. It was just assumed I had a headache, the kind everyone gets. But one day at work, shortly after college graduation, I was describing the pulsating, unbearable nature of these headaches—which, at the time, I had been getting daily for months—when a coworker said, “Those are migraines. I get them too.” It was the first day of the rest of my life. After more than a decade of visits with neurologists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, osteopaths, allergists, therapists, and chiropractors, I have a pretty solid understanding of my body and my pain, what makes it better and what makes it worse, and I live in mindful awareness of these boundaries.

Santa Cruz
Post-migraine during a trip to California with my sister some years ago. See: water, painkillers, woozy posture, the way my hair looks because I’d been shoving my hands against my head for hours.

Sometimes a mindful existence doesn’t matter, though. I go through periods in which I get migraines daily and others in which they are a rare visitor. Four years ago, I got a migraine so bad I asked to be taken to the hospital. In that moment, I had lost the thread; I felt a total lack of control, a total inability to help myself.

This is the crux of chronic pain: it isolates you—and much of the time you are OK with this—but healing is often hastened by the care of others. I remember laying in the hospital and the nurse standing next to me saying, “it’s OK, you’re OK,” and it making all the difference, like all those times a loved one helped me to bed, laid silently beside me, and/or rubbed my back while I fought off searing pain and nausea.

I have not always received this care in reaction to my migraines. Many people have underestimated them. But we must take people’s pain seriously. We must take them at their word.

David shared a perfect metaphor for complexes: they are like the sun, blazing and blotting out everything. But beneath it is a sky of stars, all the countless times we got what we needed, received care and attention when we were hurting, felt the steady warmth of heat in winter, lived outside the boundaries of our lives and thrived not in spite of but because of it.

We must remind ourselves of all the times things went right.

Screen Shot 2020-02-12 at 9.53.07 AM
Taking the advice of this piece by dancer and writer Marlee Grace (@marleegrace, & marleegrace.space).

When I told my therapist about the heat, about the undone feeling of it all, she nodded slowly and said, “You’re moving to an island, Lynn, 3,000 more miles away from everything you know.”

Oh, yeah. 

On the surface, I have been over-the-moon excited about this move, about living on Maui and everything I will learn, all the good people we will be around and all the good good things we will do. But I’ve had trouble sleeping deeply the past couple weeks and a few times now I’ve dreamt about losing my teeth. What will come of our time there? How will it go? What I want to feel is control, assuredness, because control is what makes me feel safe. But it’s not really possible right now—it never really has been. I suppose I will keep trusting and leaping until I learn this lesson, I will keep reminding myself of the stars on days when all I can see is the sun.