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On survival mode

Exhibit A: She unexpectedly got pregnant and then married. They were living long distance, until he moved to Canada when the baby was born. But his business was in the US, so they went down south, only to get “invited to leave the country” a year later. They arrived back in Canada with a toddler and $200. They made things work but just months before they opened their restaurant, baby #2 showed up. Surprise! But still, she felt guilty that she hadn’t moved forward creatively. She hadn’t made anything in years. Was she still an artist?

Exhibit B: She spent four years in a depression, facing down suicide several times, surgery, weight gain, eviction. She moved in with her mom and only just got her own place and a job three months ago. She was a finalist in a comedy competition a few weeks back—her first time doing stand-up—but the thought of doing it again is exhausting and overwhelming. She wants to work on her one-woman-show, but can’t find the energy. Is she self-sabotaging?

Exhibit C: Within one calendar year, they went from a three-week hospital stay to coming out as transgender, ending their marriage, starting a new relationship, parenting two kids through major transition, and navigating their own transition. So…how’s the novel coming along?

It’s easy to see from the outside, or with hindsight, but when we’re deep in weeds of survival, we rarely understand—or give enough credit for—how much of ourselves that takes.

There’s a huge difference between survival mode and creation mode. How do you tell which is which?

But first, a word about ableism

Our cultural obsession with productivity and the expectation that we all adhere to a continuous robotic level of output is deeply messed up.

It causes serious damage.

No person can be—or should be expected to be—consistent or competent or functional all of the time.

We are human. Shit goes down.

All of us experience periods when we don’t have the room for a single goal or aspiration—we are working our asses off just to stay above water. Sometimes, no matter how hard we paddle for breath, we sink and struggle. These times can last weeks; they can last months or years. For folks experiencing structural oppression, they can last generations.

But somehow, we all feel the pressure to constantly lose weight and get raises and travel the world and create masterpieces.

Sometimes, the masterpiece is making a hundred bucks last until Friday. Sometimes, the weight loss we need is to drop the pressure of unreasonable goals.

And I say this as a person obsessed with dreams.

Accepting the fact of survival

The main reason I could make my Paris dream a reality—besides unbelievable amounts of privilege—was surrendering to survival mode…for six years.

Dreams and creative work couldn’t happen until my divorce, depression, and cripplingly low self-worth were addressed. That meant learning about self-care and, more essentially, self-love, doing a lot of work in therapy, and rebuilding my life from the ground up. It meant getting sidelined by a rage that lasted two years and finding a way through that. It meant figuring out a balance between income-earning work and the hours and hours of unpaid labor it takes to stay mentally, physically, and psychically healthy (an ongoing, lifelong project).

Once I’d come to a place of relative competency with all of that, I had the psychic room to dwell on What Might Be. And I had the spoons to spare to make a start at it.

(If you have not heard about Spoon Theory, drop everything right now and read up.)

And now: acknowledge yourself

So. If you are in survival mode or are coming to suspect that’s what’s going on, I urge you to be gentle with yourself.

Instead of beating yourself up for being 40 and not having your novel done, how about acknowledging yourself for surviving debilitating illness, loss, litigation, career transition, or, for God’s sake, gender transition? Instead of looking at all you haven’t done and haven’t accomplished, how about giving yourself some credit for what you’ve endured, what you’ve been through and breathed through? Instead of measuring yourself against other people’s performances of success—the photos of babies, the awards, the show dates, the weddings—how about giving yourself a trophy for the valiant effort of paying rent and making it through today.

I mean it. This is not a consolation prize or a participation award.

This is a real and deep acknowledgement of the improbable act of survival. The heroic effort of staying here with us on Planet Earth. The majestic display of human resilience in the face of adversity, change, illness, oppression, catastrophe, and a culture who believes you should be a smiling robot.

It is also an acknowledgement of what you’ve given up. The dreams you’ve sidelined. The goals you’ve put on the shelf. The selves you’ve stripped. The things you had to let go of so you could face the job at hand.

The labor of survival

If you are in survival mode, it’s usually not because you want to be. Most of us working to stay level would love to aspire to great and glorious adventures. And so, there’s resistance to deal with, too. Or rather: acceptance that needs to happen. Grieving. Some anger.

But, I have to say, there is beauty, too.

There’s a liberating and radical simplicity to saying ‘fuck you’ to fitness plans and watercolor classes in favor of early bedtimes and focused recovery. I got a secret thrill out of relentlessly and shamelessly clearing my calendar during my year of miscarriage. Nope, nope, nope. Nothing that steals my energy gets to stay.

I no longer had room for bullshit. And if you’re in survival, neither do you.

The work of survival is beautiful work.

You do what’s best for you, no matter what. You put what is essential first and you ruthlessly remove the rest. You pare down. You get lean. You get real about self-care. Really real. You surrender. And there, you find a power you didn’t know you had.

You see who is really there for you. The numbers are small, but the people are extraordinary.

If you can release the energy-thieves of resistance and anger quickly, you might have a whisper of creativity to spare. Not, maybe to write screenplays or plan expeditions, but to let your survival be artful and a little lovely.

To find pleasure the 20-ounce coffee you need to get through the night shift, instead of guilt or self-recrimination. To find relief in the sleepless overwhelm of new parenthood. Liberation in no longer trying so hard to appear perfect and together and in control. Compassion in the midst of hard loss.

Survival is human work. The work of flesh and blood and souls. It is not the realm of shiny, smiling robots, but a path of warriors who have faced the enormity of this human life and, somehow, kept breathing.

How are you navigating survival? Share your experiences in the comments below.

The edge of surrender

I call the year spanning from July 2014 to June 2015 My Lost Year. During that time, I had two miscarriages and two chemical pregnancies (miscarriages that happen so early, it’s like you weren’t even pregnant at all, but ah, you were, you were, you swear you were).

My body, mind, emotions, and spiritual sensibilities were chopped and churned. There was so much blood, so much confusion, so much pain. My memory of that year is shot—I cannot place anything in time, even now. The phrase ‘I’ve blocked it out’ is apropos, though that implies some kind of conscious choice in the blocking, which doesn’t feel like the case.

A year of my life was just gone.

I emerged from that time broken and enraged. I felt like a failure, and like I’d been robbed. After enduring all that suffering and loss, the world owed me a baby for God’s sake. I was a blood-soaked warrior, kneeling in the killing field, screaming pointlessly into the sky.

But I live in New York City. And pointless screaming, while common, doesn’t go over.

What I didn’t know then was that the very end of my rope was the perfect place to be: a potent moment of pure potential disguised as hopelessness, loss, and rage.

I was on the threshold of surrender.

Surrender gets a bad rap. Many of us were told early in life that a “quitter” wasn’t something you wanted to be. Failure was also terrible and to be avoided at all costs. Actually, any kind of poor judgment or lack of ability to predict the future was frowned upon. (You should have known better…) Really, what you wanted was to get everything right on the first try, stick with it, and succeed at all times.

But, we don’t always succeed in the conventional way. I’m stating the obvious, but is it, actually, that obvious? That we really don’t know, going in, what will happen or how things will turn out? That we’re often so obsessed with getting something right, we’re blind to the ways in which we’re getting it wrong?

And that the harder we struggle to reach our desired outcome, the further away that dangling carrot gets?

It’s like a boxer getting their ass kicked, but they keep staggering to their feet, only to get knocked down again. And again. And again. Why does she keep getting up? Why not stay down? Or more to the point, why not just get out of the ring altogether? Get some ice on that eye. Have a hot bath, maybe some tea. Crawl into flannel jammies and call it a day already, sheesh.

We try so hard for so long that we make ourselves suffer. We effort and persevere and strive ourselves to death. Why?

We forgot how powerful we are in surrender.

In surrendering, you set yourself free. The outcome that had you in chains, and the struggle that locked you up further is gone. The ego you built up around achieving this thing vanishes. The identity you constructed, I Am The Person Who…, disappears. You become, in that moment, your true, expansive, and unlimited self.

Just by letting go. Just by saying, with every cell of your being, Uncle.

When you truly and actually surrender, you shed your small self and step into the largest version of who you are. The self that is open and vulnerable. Majestic and unencumbered. The one who can see things afresh, and is willing to embrace change.

Because that’s all that’s being asked for here at the edge of surrender.

Only change.

Things aren’t working. It’s time to try another way.

It’s so simple, but we complicate it. We make ourselves bleed. We make ourselves feel bad and wrong. We followed the rules to a T, but the rules screwed us over so fuck them and fuck you and fuck everyone in your apartment building and on your knitting team, too.

Hey, it’s okay.

It just isn’t working.

I don’t know why. Probably none of us do. It’s not the right time for one reason or another, or for no reason at all. It might never be the right time. So let’s back ourselves out of this box canyon and find something else to do.

This? Might be called failure. (And don’t we have a lot of baggage around that whole scene?) But it might also be called embracing what’s real.

The key here, and the hardest part, is to actually surrender.

Not just a little. Not for the afternoon. Not by keeping one foot in the door because maaaaaybe if you tweak your approach slightly and re-write the copy and work nights for another couple of weeks…no. I mean honestly and courageously face the fact that you and this particular thing are not working out, and let it go wholly and completely. For real.

Let your ego feel that punch to the solar plexus, that full-body oooof, and also that moment of free-fall afterward where a lot of existential room opens up under your feet and you plummet for a good long minute or two. (You might need to cry a little at this point. I support that 100%. Go ahead and let some pressure out of the tires.)

And then feel what happens next.

It might be a little like: in breath, out breath, blink. It might sound like a bird chirping or a taxi driving by. You might notice, say, the way the light falls on the sofa or how the woman across the room shifts in her seat.

That’s what surrender feels like. Grounded and free and simple. Like the present moment just flashed its boobies at you and smiled as if to say, “See? It’s not so bad here. We’ve got birds. We’ve got snacks. What took you so long?”

And what, oh powerful, surrendered one, do you want to do next?