Posts Tagged ‘self’

You know when you really can’t be perfect? When you’re recovering from a brain injury!

Eight weeks ago I was in the car accident that gave me this concussion. Three weeks ago I was back at the doctor’s office because my symptoms were still so bad. “You need to go back on brain rest,” the doctor said.

But, but, but, I had never really gone OFF brain rest. I was so upset with this advice, even though it was obvious. Yes, I needed to rest even more. Yes, even though it was interfering with everything in my life. I spent about twenty-four hours being really upset while simultaneously trying to set everything up for what I knew I had to do while, you know, my brain was refusing to cooperate with me.

Since then, I’ve kept everything as simple as possible. I couldn’t shut all stress away, but I could certainly avoid the majority of it. I couldn’t meet the high standards I’m used to setting for myself so I stopped aiming for them. I settled myself into my new reality of Healing from Brain Injury as comfortably as I could.

I’ve developed this mental shrug. It’s for all the times (and there have been so many) when I think of how I would normally do something or how I ought to do something. And then I mentally shrug and say to myself, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” Some of them will obviously have small consequences, like I can’t deal with going to a new dentist right now so there’s going to be more plaque on my teeth when I do finally go and that will probably suck. But it’s amazing how many of those things don’t actually seem to matter all that much.

In being forced to simplify my life so extremely, I’ve realized how hard I am on myself when I’m fully healthy. I am so hard on myself! Even now, I think to myself, why did you miss that gathering, you are such a flake, or why haven’t you texted or called this person, you need to try harder, and then I catch myself and am appalled. I have a brain injury, you ridiculous self! I don’t have to go to any events or talk to anybody and I get a pass because BRAIN INJURY. I don’t have to say everything perfectly because BRAIN INJURY. I can’t figure everything in my life out right now because–yeah, you guessed it–BRAIN INJURY. I doubt I’m only being this hard on myself because I’m convalescing. I feel like my little shrug is going to be useful for a long time to come.

I try to go outside every day and walk with Nala. Sometimes we walk for over an hour. We walk surrounded by lush greenery, and if we walk far enough down the path we can catch a glimpse of Lake Washington. Sometimes we cut through the fern forest and pretend the car sounds are the wind blowing through the fir trees. Sometimes Nala tries to convince me to walk in the mud.

We walk and I feel more and more like myself again. I may have to avoid most stress, I may struggle with headaches and mood swings and fatigue, I may be unable to do many things, but I can walk.


I’ve been asking myself who I am all these weeks. Who am I when I can’t write anymore? Who am I when I’m easily overwhelmed by stimulus and decisions and stress? Who am I when I must abandon my usual goals of perfection? Who am I in this new state, in this new apartment, surrounded by new people and places and things? Who am I when I can literally feel not like myself?

My life is stripped down to essentials, and I am too. I am relieved to find there is still someone there. Someone who is not defined by physical place or relationships to others or passions or hobbies or work. Someone who is not even necessarily defined by this moment’s particular thoughts.

I stare into space. I breathe. I shift to find a more comfortable position for this body I’m wearing. I breathe again. Time passes differently.

I’m still here.

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I was getting ready for bed on Monday night, flossing and brushing my teeth, when suddenly I looked in the mirror. I stared at my face, and I said, “Wait a second. Amy, what are you doing?”

And I blinked and looked myself in the eye, and several layers of exhaustion and doubt and fear and overwhelm sloughed off, and I said, “Oh yeah. Right, then. Back on track.”

Because in that moment, I remembered who I am.



I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently: what is essential to identity, of what layers it is comprised, how malleable it is, why some people are able to hold onto some core of who they are throughout their lives while others are not.

And I realized that an essential part of change, for me, is re-crafting personal identity. External circumstances can and do change, sometimes because of a deliberate decision we’ve made and sometimes not. Sometimes our lives change because of other people’s decisions, or because of the accumulation of lots of tiny decisions we’ve made mostly unawares, or because of pure happenstance.

But I think the change that matters most, or certainly that is the most interesting to me personally, is the change of self. And while identity can change based on external events, it certainly doesn’t always do so. And sometimes external circumstances can change from the inside out, based on changes of the self.

And then there’s the common temporary changes, such as most New Year’s resolutions, that end in backslides and no long-term change whatsoever.

One of the ways to hold onto change, then, is to craft that change into your personal identity, into how you see yourself, into who you are. For example, I am a person who is confident in her abilities. Or, I am person who cares about eating healthily. Or, I am a person who is kind to others. Or, I am a person who goes out of his way to be generous.

We can incorporate these beliefs into our identities through repeatedly engaging in thought patterns and behaviors that support them. If I go dancing one to three times a week for six months, then it is easy enough to include “I am a dancer” in my self-identity. If I am steadily working on writing projects, then “I am a writer” comes easily as well.

And the same holds true of traits. For example, I decided I wanted to be more confident. So I told myself over and over again that I loved myself, even though it felt like one of the stupidest things ever. And I gave myself pep talks. And I encouraged myself to stand with my hands behind my back in a confident pose, especially when I felt the most nervous. And I made the deliberate choice to surround myself with people who boosted my confidence. And I experimented with acting confidently even when I didn’t feel that way to see what happened. And I did all these things for years. Literally.


The test comes in times of stress. Now, invariably when I am faced with a challenge, I think to myself, “Wait. What would I do now in this situation? I have been practicing for this!”

So I’ve been tested these last few stressful weeks. And because I’ve practiced so much, I was pretty pleased with how I was doing. But even so, that much deliberate action during stress was taking its toll, in that I was getting more. and. more. tired. And as I got more tired, my confidence was decreasing. And doing the things I wanted to do and reacting the way I wanted to react was getting more and more difficult. And I was feeling more and more pull from my old identity and from old ways of thinking.

Until that moment at the mirror. Because what I felt wasn’t disappointment or anger or fear. It was confusion.

Wait a second, I thought. This isn’t who I am. I am perfectly capable of coming up with good plans and following through on them. I don’t have to feel threatened; I know I’m enough. I don’t have to feel frightened because I know I can see this through for myself. I can write this fucking book. I can take this fucking risk. I can live this fucking life.

Once you’ve built your personal identity to be strong and true, sometimes all it takes is one moment to remember who you’ve become.

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I hung up pictures in my apartment this weekend, the last step of turning it into a home.


A friend told me that what made my place into a home was not merely the items it contains, but the deliberation with which the items have been placed.

The items, of course, are important as well, but I’m the only one who knows the complete story they tell.


The tapestry from Thailand hangs over the couch. I bargained for it in the Night Market in Chiang Mai, deeply uncomfortable with the idea of having to haggle. But I wanted this tapestry for my apartment, and I was alone, and I launched into the fray, emerging with this beautiful piece of art.


Part of home.

Part of home.


The hand-woven red rug from Egypt lies untidily on the carpet in front of the TV.  Egypt, my first and so far only foray into Africa. I wrote much of The Academy of Forgetting on this rug.


The dragons pose on either side of the TV. I brought one home from Cornwall when I was in college, a symbol of my new-found resolve and courage.


A stuffed elephant holding a big heart, having improbably survived a host of purges, has made a new home for itself among my travel books. I thought it was cheesy when I received it years and years ago as a Valentine’s Day present, and I still think it’s ridiculous, and yet there it sits.


A framed photo of Nala. Books and more books and sheet music. A warm soft blanket in a welcoming heap on the couch. A painting from my childhood hung over the console: if you look closely, you can see where the artist painted in my dog Muffin, waiting under the tree for the picture me to get out of the picture schoolhouse. Sparkly coasters from last summer in France scattered across two tables. The board game bookshelf, almost completely filled. Aprons in an untidy heap on top of the refrigerator, along with the cookbook filled with cookie recipes and an empty cookie tin from Christmastime, red and green and yellow.


I could walk you around my house, and I could touch each item, and I could tell you what it means to me. Souvenir means to remember. It’s not the items that matter; it’s the memories they allow me to keep. It’s the stories they whisper almost inaudibly about who I am and where I’ve come from.

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I went to my city’s New Age bookstore today because I wanted to buy a calendar. (And I did! It has cool pictures of fractals.) I ended up buying myself a card because the text made me so happy. It says:

Be who you really are and go the whole way. -Lao Tzu”

I wanted to share a photo of my card, but then I started worrying about copyright issues, so instead I used the new Google+ photo tools (well, new to me, anyway) and made this photo to share.

Amy and Lao Tzu wisdom

I love this saying. It’s so fierce. Telling someone to be who they are isn’t enough. (And it’s also incredibly vague advice, especially if you don’t exactly know who you are.) But telling someone to go the whole way implies that there will be that moment of decision, when you could back down or mute yourself or hold yourself back or pretend to be someone you really just aren’t. And then, THEN, MY FRIEND, that’s when you have to go the whole way. That’s when you have to commit to who you are, who you’ve worked to become, who you want to be, and how this moment will be woven into your own personal narrative of self.

This is the essential truth of how to be a badass.

Going the whole way means stripping yourself of the things that don’t matter. It means being unwilling to apologize for who you are. It means celebrating the awesomeness that is you. It means letting yourself shine, and if you shine so bright some people have to look away, so be it.

Be passionate. Be silly. Be provocative. Be serious. Be warm. Be witty. Be quiet. Be no fun. Be the life of the party. Be honest. Tell lies to strangers about your adventurous past. Love what you love, whether that be writing or fly fishing or crafting or singing or traveling or golfing or playing board games or teaching or making or building or boating or gardening or talking or spinning around in the middle of a big field until you’re so dizzy you can’t stay standing.

Relish the freedom of being you. Try to avoid relinquishing that freedom, and if you lose it by accident, channel your inner fierceness to gain it back again.

Think about what going all the way might look like. Try it on for size.

Revel in it.


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Here’s a new word I learned recently. I found it on Jonathan Carroll’s Facebook page, and he found it on this neat Tumblr. As is often the case for me, I’m not completely sure how to pronounce it. But I love it all the same.

Metanoia – the journey of changing one’s mind, heart, self, or way of life

At a party this weekend, someone asked me what I’d been thinking about lately. I was momentarily flummoxed because I’ve been so busy and preoccupied, I don’t feel like I’ve been thinking as much as I normally do. But now, a few days later, I realize the best answer would have been, “I’ve been thinking about metanoia.” Because really, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about self change over the past few years.

At its heart, metanoia involves crystallizing priorities and learning to know yourself as well as possible. It’s hard to change something when you don’t understand what’s there to begin with. Strangely, it sometimes feels more like remembering than anything else. Remembering who you are, and remembering who you’ve always been. That knowledge becomes the starting point for whatever change you wish to create.

Surrounded by three of my dearest friends, I am very much myself.

Surrounded by three of my dearest friends, I am very much myself.

“Remember who you are.” That was my advice to a friend of mine this weekend, the only words I had to offer. It’s so important, isn’t it? Because without that, we can become so very lost or muddled or distracted. And we worry about what happened before and what is going to happen later and we compare ourselves to other people and measure ourselves against other people’s visions of who we are, instead of remembering that other people have nothing to do with our essential knowledge of ourselves. Good people can help support us while we take the journey, but it’s a discovery we must make on our own.

So metanoia is essentially taking yourself by the hand and saying, “Hello, you. Let’s take a walk down by the stream and lay down on the mossy bank and talk for hours and hours. And I will do my very best to listen carefully to what you have to say. I will listen to the good parts, the parts that make your heart soar and your body sing and your mind dance. And I will listen to the dark parts, the parts that are difficult and scary and secret and that you maybe wish weren’t true. And I will love you for all those parts, even the parts that I want to change, and then together we can decide where we want to go next.”

Remember who you are, my friends. Treat that knowledge like the precious thing it is.

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