I stopped by my post office box this morning after who-knows-how-long. I was expecting to have trouble turning the key on my box, the folded up magazines and edges of post cards shredded by all the successive stuffing and weeks of piling up. I was surprised to see an empty box, except for a single slip of paper saying, "Please claim your mail at the counter."
I stood in line as a young man with tight-fitting jeans, tortoise-shell glasses, a Members Only jacket, and a black Tumi laptop backpack (this was the downtown Palo Alto post office) put one envelope after another on the scale, each certified mail with return receipt, and then wanted to mail two packages overseas Priority Mail. He was taking forever.
And then it was my turn, finally. I extended my hand with the slip of paper and waited. A few minutes later, the woman behind the counter emerged with a white Postal Service carton (the kind the mailmen use in their trucks) between her two hands, resting against her belly. "Here you go," she said cheerily.
"Wow," I said out loud.
I had to look at the physical representation of several weeks (probably a month) of not attending to my previous ritual of checking my business mailbox. Mostly this ritual was about feeling important for having a business mailbox. None of the mail I receive there seems to be addressed to me personally, and all of the bills I receive online. The energy I spend on my P.O. box is primarily spent shredding and throwing things away. It's mostly crap.
I sighed as I tried to make a bundle out of the assorted items in the carton, then carried them, like an infant against my chest, over to another counter to sort through them. I picked a spot right next to the recycling bin. They were predictable things - all the junk mail and marketing solicitations of having a credit card and magazine subscriptions mailed to a P.O. Box. They were also vestiges of my previous life, which consisted of lots of time spent thinking about furniture, clothes, shoes, and travel destinations. So two Pottery Barn catalogs, two Crate and Barrel catalogs, a Restoration Hardware catalog. And of course, two Shar Music catalogs. Why always two? And then the mailings from Yoga Journal. At least four statements saying the same thing – “Your subscription expires a year from now. Will you pay us now? Thank you.”
I went through as much of it as I could at the post office, then brought the rest home. I opened my home mail box also to be greeted by a fully stuffed space.
Looking at it, having to look straight at it, reminded me that it was unequivocally time. It was time to clean up the crap. Not the pile of mail in front of me. But what the pile of mail represented in my life.
It reminded me of the central image in Iyanla Vanzant's memoir Yesterday, I Cried, and this quote:
"Some people don't know how, and others never think about going back and cleaning up their crap. Most people want to start today and feel better tomorrow. They want to take a yoga class, listen to a meditation tape, rub a crystal on their head, and believe they have fixed their lives and healed their souls. You cannot create a new way of being in one day. You must take your time remembering, cleaning up, and gaining strength."
It hit me that I have been feeling ready to do some remembering. I had built some strength and rather than running forward, it felt like time to clean up some crap.
The arrival of all that mail - the pile of crap on my counter - showed me that without a doubt.
Crap From The Past
In that pile was a 9 by 12 envelope from my brother's medical practice. I opened it, to find a reprint of an issue of MD News, with a full page cover photo of him. "International Leader in Cataract and Refractive Surgery", it said.
He is quoted inside with a several-page feature on his office, with nicely polished professional "candid" shots of him and his staff in various locations in his office.
I recognized all the symbols of success that were represented in that article - just one of many he has accumulated in his career, but for the first time I acknowledged that it doesn't really mean anything to me. You see, he has reached the Promised Land - the land of all the promises that were made during our childhoods about how to have a "better" life. I grew up in a household filled with fierce ambition, the challenge of cultural barriers, the intense desire for success, the pride of family lineage, and unwavering work ethic. All "good" things.
But I also grew up in a household with volatile emotional outbursts, occasional threats of physical violence, and constant angst about not doing, having, or being enough. The message from our parents was mixed: on the one hand - go and assimilate and become successful in American society, acquire friends (while miraculously never leaving the house), speak English with an American accent, blend in, be valued for the content of your mind and not the color of your skin. On the other - "be happy" somehow, even though we have no idea how to teach you to do this, since we never stopped to do that work for ourselves. And since we don't know how, we'll just project onto you all the ways we learned to survive in our culture - work hard, get the highest education possible, hold down a job, raise a family, hope for a better future for your children.
So the image of my brother on the cover of that magazine spoke to checking all those boxes. And of course I am proud of him. I am amazed by his ability to achieve what he has in his life. I am grateful for his presence as an influence to me.
But for the first time in my life, he is no longer a model for me. He is no longer the example of How Things Should Be for me. I see myself as on my own journey, and one that he may never be able to name. And that's OK.
It has taken me awhile to feel this way. And still sometimes I don't feel strong enough to stand in my own truth while in the overwhelmingly loud presence of everything my family purportedly valued. It's psychologically so precarious to be at the cusp of knowing two different ways of living, to have stepped out of a pattern enough to observe it, and to have peacefully chosen to let those ideas go. I'm an adult, I say to myself. Loving myself should be enough for me, I say to myself. And it is on most days, until I am faced with the actual prospect of standing there, in front of all the crap, some of it even flying into my face.
Crap Along The Path
I am on a path of recovering my true nature - which is joy. I am on a path of remembering all the ways that I have denied myself in the past, so that I may release those patterns and start choosing a different way of life.
I am on a path of observing the Self. I know that the truth in my heart is valid, and it holds the key to living a life that only I can. I know that things can only change when I truly accept everything as it is right now. "Acceptance" is a relatively unfamiliar term for me. In the past, I've rarely been able to "accept" things if it means surrender or defeat. I was raised to win, to be on top, not to roll over and play dead.
What I've come to realize about "acceptance" is that it actually requires a lot more courage than "needing to win and come out on top". Acceptance requires the willingness to stand tall and look directly into every aspect of a situation as it is, and to allow the process of naming it to occur.
You see, as Iyanla says, "you cannot create a new way of being in one day." So the process of acceptance, and eventually change, takes time.
Isn't it so much easier to put on a smile, start talking positive, and give people advice about how to be happier? Isn't it so much easier to have a project, have a business, and feel important?
Yes, it is. Until it isn't anymore.
The Truth Behind The Crap
What I'm beginning to realize about myself is that I am an artist and a teacher. These are the exact two things that no one in my family ever wanted me to be. In fact, I was instructed specifically not to dare consider these things as possibilities. Why? Too hard. Not enough respect. Not enough money. Not a good use of my brain. Not enough to justify my parents’ sacrifices of moving to this country, giving up everything they could have been.
Now I could go into a whole piece on where those reasons came from. But I'm really more interested in my own business. I can't really know what motivates another person, or how they have come to believe what they believe. What I can inquire into, however, is how I came to accept and believe those thoughts so deeply that it took me 26 years to muster the courage to take a step away, and another 8 years to realize that my life has been governed by a different version of those same beliefs, and another year to wake up to the fact that if I don't clean up some of the crap, I'll be buried in it.
How do I know that I am an artist and a teacher? Because when given total freedom and unlimited time, I create and I think of ways to share it. I don't think about "marketing" or "selling" or social media. I have learned those tools because along with being a teacher comes the task of being a great learner. I am not afraid of trying new things. I am not afraid of practice. I am not afraid of discipline. I am not afraid of starting over. I am learning to channel my practice and discipline into developing the skills of treating myself more kindly, honoring myself more fully, and allowing myself the space to be exactly who I am, complete in this moment.
"Exactly who I am in this moment". Now that's another hard one to swallow. I see now that my whole life was driven by the engine of this belief: "There's never enough." It applied to everything. There's not enough time. There's not enough money. There's not enough respect. There's not enough recognition. There's not enough sleep. This was my lens for viewing my purpose in life – No matter what it took, I was going to be, do, and have enough!
With that determination, I set out to achieve my dreams. What I didn't realize was that, since I hadn't sat down to really look at the crap and clean it up, my brain was still operating with the thought, "There's never enough." So every time I built something up to the point where I was able to say, "That's enough for me," and listened to the call to move in a different direction, an old part of my brain tried to save me by saying, "Remember, there's never enough."
This came in different forms. At first it was, "You're not enough." Meaning, just deciding for myself that I wanted to do something was not a good enough reason to do it. Someone else had to be involved. Someone else's approval had to be gained. Someone else had to sign off and say it was OK.
Then it was, "You don't know enough." I got over that one by throwing myself into the fire of improvisation. When you're there in a group and NOBODY KNOWS, it's very freeing. I started putting myself out there and improvising my life into being.
Then it was, "You're not doing enough." The constant undertow of these thoughts would still undermine any attempt I made to follow the quiet voice of intuition and creativity. Whenever I sat down at my computer to do one thing, my mind would trigger the thought, "You're not doing enough," and pull me to start another task, or write another item on my To Do list.
I was done reading tips and pointers on how to change behaviors. Tips on how to organize clutter, how to schedule the day for better productivity, how to set up systems to be successful at marketing...all of these were boring me to the core.
It occurred to me, after disengaging myself from the perpetual machine of marketing courses and self-proclaimed gurus trying to teach others what worked for them, that my deepest desire is simply to tell my story. And a true teacher - or true artist - tells stories in order to illuminate some new way of seeing, new way of experiencing, that leads the student in a new direction. A true teacher - or true artist - holds a light up, but does not presume to know what path the student needs to take. A true teacher rests in not knowing what's best for the student, and only knowing that this acknowledgment can empower the student to find their own true way.
Celebrate The Crap
We so want to see hope expressed as an answer.
We want that "start today, feel better tomorrow" promise.
If someone offers it, it feels so appealing, because it appears to get us "there" without our having to know or do or remember or clean up any of the crap.
But the crap doesn't just clean itself up. It stays, and it starts to smell, and it builds up, until one day you realize you can't even find the door to get out. It's blocked. But this is a day to celebrate, because on the day you can finally see the pile of crap, on the day you finally can't step around it anymore, on the day you just can't breathe because of the stench, it's a birth day. It's a day that you become aware. It's a day that you can finally choose to pick up the shovel, roll up your sleeves, and start cleaning up the crap.