“I’m just worried,” said my friend, “because you seem really sad.”
She sat cross-legged, facing me with the same easy intimacy we had always had, even though I hadn’t seen her in a few years.
“I’m just figuring things out,” I said, at a loss for words to express what was happening in my life, but desperately wanting to convey something, anything, that would articulate that I was good, but in the midst of a deeply personal transformation. “Everything’s good. I’m not sad. Not really. I’m just – I guess I’m just processing a lot, I’m sort of straightening it all out.”
“Okay,” she said, “I believe you. I know you’re in the middle of it right now – I can’t wait to see what it’s like when you get to the other side of this.”
“I’m doing a lot of feelings,” I said. “I pretty much always figured there were about four: happy, sad, sleepy, hungry. Those are my go-to.”
“I have a friend who teaches first grade,” she said. “She has a wheel with a lot of emotions on it, and she has the kids point to the feeling they’re having. Maybe you should get one.”
“It’s really not a bad idea,” I said.
* * *
For the first twenty-eight years of my life, I was all about school. (Much like I am all about that bass.) I was a highly dedicated student, I pursued undergraduate and postgraduate education and a career in academia, and I was trained at some of the best universities in the world. My mental training was extremely rigorous. Sometimes it sucked and sometimes it was awesome, but it left me with the ability to walk into pretty much any setting, anywhere in the world, and be cool with whatever was happening. I was good to go, whether I was in a third-grade classroom, a gender studies conference, a snarky dinner party with currently fashionable literati, or a summit on nuclear policy. Not to say that I was equally expert in every single subject, but I knew how to learn, I knew how to research, and I had amazing credentials that would get me through pretty much any door until I could figure out what was happening.
When I became a professional dancer, I switched gears completely and pursued physical training with the same zealous single-mindedness. (Some would say “bloodless fanatacism”.) I was strict in my attention to nutrition, to strength and endurance and high-intensity training, to flexibility and stamina, to dance technique both within my own discipline and in other traditional disciplines. I was a disciple of the Kale Method, my own personal approach to transforming my body into what I believed it needed to be. Sometimes it sucked and sometimes it was awesome, and in the process I discovered how much control and agency I had in my own body – a realization that fundamentally changed the way I walked through the world. Naturally it met with a lot of congratulation from the body-conscious world around me, which left me feeling deeply ambivalent. I enjoyed the validation, but suspected that there was something pretty fundamentally screwed up about it.
And now? Well, for the last year and a half, I’ve switched gears again. I’m deep into my emotional training – I’ve found the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, and I’m exploring what it means to be a partner in every sense of the word. That’s no joke, my friends! It’s a training just as demanding as graduate school or trying to get oversplits or run a marathon, except that there’s often very little outward evidence of what you’re doing. Nobody hands you a degree at the end, and you don’t get to go buy cute hot-pink lycra clothes for it (although, obviously, you totally CAN and in retrospect that would have been a pretty solid idea.) Sometimes it sucks and sometimes it’s awesome, but let me tell you – the hardest thing? Is that there’s no framework.
It literally took me until last week to realize that this was what I was doing. I wish I’d been able to tell my friend what I was doing when I saw her, but I hadn’t figured it out yet. And she was right – there was a lot of sadness, and a lot of other emotions too, feelings that I’d pretty much just locked down during Training Phases 1 and 2, and that were only now getting recognized and reconciled. I am grateful to be thinking about my life this way, because I no longer feel like I’m losing ground all the time. Like I’m a big slacker who isn’t Actually Doing Anything.
Am I currently up and ready to go on my Latin? Could I drop right into the archives and pick up my historical research where I left off and finally publish that book I’ve been fooling around with for years? No. But given a week or two to get back in the groove, I absolutely could.
Am I as devoted to the Kale Method as I was? Am I hitting the gym six days a week? Am I training to the point of physical exhaustion and seeing huge improvements? No. But given a week or two to get back into the groove, I absolutely could.
Instead, what I’m actually doing is being mindful of my emotional responses to people, to situations, to stimuli. I’m striving to be as open as I can to new experiences and different ways of living, with way less judgement and way more appreciation. I’m finally accepting some deep pain and loss that I’ve avoided for a long time because, hello, it’s incredibly painful. But I no longer feel at the mercy of my feelings, as if my emotions were weather that I had no option but to endure until it passed. I’m facing a lot of fears and actually talking about what I feel instead of locking it down so that I can get back to business. Because right now? This IS my business.
So watch out! Because I’m still working towards being able to pound out a bunch of unassisted pull ups, to (finally) learn some Greek, to being able to run a 5K without wanting to die a horrible death, to re-engaging with the world of academic thought that I left for awhile. I know that the successes and accomplishments I gained in my mental and physical training are still there, waiting for me to roll back into the library or the gym, and that soon I’ll be able to integrate all of them together and make choices about which particular part of myself to improve on any given day, but for now, there’s some emotional work that is way overdue.
[Ed. Note: Two dudes next to me in the coffee shop are chatting their heads off about bench presses. I feel you, bros. Talk about being on topic!]