Cabin in the Woods

autumn autumn leaves beautiful color
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Since high school I’ve been telling people that some day I will retreat to a cabin in the woods. The fantasy has gone on over the years, with various accomplices who are interested in the idea of escaping (and others who joke about me becoming a hobbit), but it’s been my life’s ambition to have a private retreat in nature.

There are a lot of factors contributing to this dream but mostly it has to do with my personality makeup. I generally like people, but recharge alone. In other words, it takes a lot out of me to be “on” but I’m generally happy doing it in small stretches. As I’ve said, I’m uncomfortable with vulnerability and as a result struggle with emotional intimacy, so long stretches of intense socialization can be exhausting for me.

Perhaps you will appreciate the irony then that my current job is working in branch of financial sales which requires me to maintain long standing business relationships with key customers. My assigned book includes some of the highest maintenance characters in the region and I get consistent feedback from my managers that I appear unflappable, engaging, and well liked. Before this, I worked in private investigations and was often chosen for assignments that included an undercover component; walking into a place (or calling) pretending to be something I’m not in order to extract information from people.

It may surprise you to know that I have no trouble talking to strangers. To quote Chuck Palahniuk, I often make “single serving” friends when I am travelling or waiting in line at the grocery store. I suspect the reason being is that no real vulnerability is required in business or with strangers.  The parameters of those interactions are defined and I can be relaxed and appropriately open without any real fear of rejection, or care if that happens. However, it is also one of the few times socially I don’t overthink things and can just be present without expectations.

I used to think the cabin in the woods idea was just about escapism. Over the last year, I’ve started doing more weekends and hikes alone in the wilderness. I’ve realized that the real attraction is that I can just let my guard down and life is simple. There is something fundamentally healing about being in nature. If you are still and quiet it engulfs you and absorbs you, wildlife stops avoiding you and it feels like you are connected to something bigger.

No dialog, no expectations, no explaining, no judgement. Just present moment magic.

As I’m getting better at accepting myself and all that self-love voodoo it has been getting slowly less exhausting to be around people. I’ve been working at letting my guard down more often and taking more social risks. The reward has been slowly developing new and stronger connections and less need to withdraw. That said, I’ve also started to make peace with the fact that I do require some time in nature to reconnect and ground myself and have been working to try and make regular opportunities for that to happen.

Considering the cabin under the lens of recovery has lead me to really examine my motives. In this case, I think it’s important to understand the difference between isolation and quality time alone. Isolation is about avoidance and escapism, while time alone is about healing, recharging and reconnecting.

While I continue to work towards the dream, I’m becoming more creative and adept at giving myself the opportunities to get what I need with what I have available and appreciating those moments I created.

Because we haven’t had a musical interlude in a while, the Rolling Stones:

Bill Murray (& Showing Up)

I’ve been a fan of Bill Murray since I was a kid. Growing up, he was a standout in Ghostbusters, What About Bob?, and my all-time favourite Groundhog Day. On screen there was always something compelling about him.  He doesn’t fit the mould and there is something magnetic about him. He is genuine, which seems like a strange thing to say about some who makes a living pretending to be other people.

One of my favourite Bill Murray movie quotables is from Ghostbusters:

Why worry? Each of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.

Even in advance of his current popularity that moment captured a little bit of Bill’s approach to living: in the moment, available, doing what he has to do, tongue in cheek, and never-mind the consequences.

Recently I watched The Bill Murray Stories on Netflix. The documentary by Tommy Avallone chronicles stories of the actor making incredible cameos in people’s lives: appearing in a couple’s engagement photos, showing up at a house party and doing the host’s dishes, serving drinks at local watering hole for the evening after befriending the bartender, or putting his hands over men’s eyes in a public restroom whispering in their ears “no one will ever believe you”. In the absence of proof it would be unbelievable that a celebrity of this caliber would just show up and be present, silly and playful, without security or worry, just to be in the moment with non-celebs.

I’ve since read articles speculating on the actor’s motives, not limited to: commentary on how technology has impaired our ability to connect, keeping his improv skills sharp, or a way for him to feel “normal” and momentarily escape his celebrity status.

Regardless of the legend’s motives, I find his actions inspiring. To me, Bill’s antics represent truly being open and available to experience life. As a chronic over-thinker I envy, idolize, and aspire to this state of being. I desire more than anything to just show up and participate without crippling myself with the details.

I think that’s what true freedom and success is about: showing up and making the most of it. Not how many dollars in your bank account, the size of your house, the number of countries you’ve visited, how many offspring you’ve produced, or how successful you are in your chosen profession. I don’t think it’s about grabbing every opportunity that is presented, but being open and available to experiences that enrich your life in the moment, in the present.

While I shuffle forward into my new life I keep Bill in the back of my mind as inspiration to not get so invested in the details and try to enjoy the moments as they come.

His Tao, in his own words:

I live a little bit on the seat of my pants, I try to be alert and available … for life to happen to me. We’re in this life, and if you’re not available, the sort of ordinary time goes past and you didn’t live it. But if you’re available, life gets huge. You’re really living it. – Bill Murray, From an Interview with Charlie Rose via Flavourwire

Our Love Affair with Substance Use

I grew up in a very small town.

My hometown consists of a graveyard, a community centre, a couple of convenience stores, a church and about 100 houses. It’s also a 15 minute car ride to the closest more substantial small town. It is part of a large but underpopulated county in southern Ontario, Canada. My high school had about 500 students, grades 8 -12, many of whom were bussed close to an hour to get there.

Admittedly, I was an odd kid. I was teased in elementary school for being quiet, shy, a bit too liberal for that small farming community, and well… we’ve chatted previously about my home life, I didn’t think I belonged there either.  By the time I made it to high school I had cultivated a tougher persona. I lacked confidence in my appearance and my self and I tried to disguise that by being disruptive, argumentative, opinionated, and a general pain in the butt.

It’s safer to be feared than loved.

– Machiavelli, the Prince

I remember the first time I drank excessively, I was about 15. A girlfriend, that had an equally complicated opinion of herself and desperate need for approval, flirted with an older boy to get us a bottle of pear liquor. It went about as well as you’d expect. I still associate pears with hangovers. However, I persisted.

By the end of my high school career I could out drink most of my classmates (male or female), snuck into bars, experimented with several gateway drugs, was a chain smoker, a master of several drinking games, and spent most of my time in a perpetual state of party. Through those actions, I had the illusion that I gained acceptance. People seemed to find me more approachable or maybe, like many drunks, I just had an inflated sense of self-importance.

At university, in my final year, my party life ended. I was 23 and developed a blood disorder. As a result of this, I have to maintain a moderate lifestyle. Drinking in excess and drug use carry the very real threat of death. It was a lot earlier than I wanted to accept my mortality but, looking at the trajectory of my life, I could have easily graduated to full addiction so I am somewhat grateful.

Following my medical crises, my ability to fit in got worse. While I’d been partying for years, many of my conservative small town friends were just getting started and there were very few social events that didn’t involve excessive use of something mind altering. I found people who were intoxicated hard to be around. It no longer seemed fun to me; there was always drama, someone crying, fights, and conversation that can only seem interesting to people in a similar state.

I kept getting polite invites but I noticed I made people uncomfortable. They would question why I wasn’t drinking and pressure me to join them. When I politely refused, they would appear uncomfortable, like I was judging them. I eventually mostly stopped going to bars and gatherings where the intent was to party and it started to feel like my presence was requested mostly to avoid cab fare.

Later, as my friends started settling down and having kids, I started going to more events. I noticed that the drinking and the drugs didn’t stop. Name the occasion and I was offered alcohol and/or a joint was being passed: children’s birthday party, christening, baby shower. Again, with the questions about why I wasn’t drinking more or why I didn’t want to get high.

Substances are widely accepted to punctuate many life events and are a common theme in popular media.

Bad day at work? Have a drink.

Broke up with your boyfriend? Let’s get stoned.

Got that promotion? Cocktails!

Engaged? Vegas binge till we blackout, y’all!

Over time I developed the ability to nurse a drink or two for an entire evening, but generally still find it easier to leave before people get too sloppy and start asking questions about my relative sobriety.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make here is that I feel like we need to seriously look at our relationship with substance use. Especially following recent changes in legislation in Canada that make it easier and easier to obtain various legalized substances. Notably, recent changes to provincial liquor law providing more retail options for purchase of alcohol and allowing drinking in public, which was previously regulated. This nips at the heels of federal legislation reform on cannabis.

While I don’t necessarily think that regulation is the answer to reducing addiction, I think that increasing the availability of these substances without more discussion on how Canadians relate to them is a mistake.

Getting drunk or stoned is not romantic, it doesn’t make you cool, it’s not for everyone, and ultimately it should just be for recreation. Substances do not solve your problems, they are not a valid way to cope, they don’t make you more attractive or desirable, and are they really how we want to punctuate our happiest events — by potentially not being present for them?

Everyone is entitled to occasional escape, being a human is at times complicated and challenging but I wish we would do more to remind ourselves that substance use is a privilege, a personal choice, and should be approached with in a healthy state of mind.

Andrea Owen (& Empathy)

I’ve always avoided the self help section of the bookstore. This was due to a lack of self-awareness, unwillingness to admit my vulnerabilities, and my natural jaded inclination to think that if people are happy or spewing rosy life advice they are probably full of garbage.

How fortuitous that the opening of my mind to the possibility of self-improvement came at a time when there is a plethora of self-help books full of curse words to comfort me, cushion my landing, and introduce me to healthy thinking.

Thanks to these foul-mouthed authors I’m getting a remedial education in basic human communication and connection. This week I’d like to talk about what I’ve learned about empathy.

In her book, How to Stop Feeling like Sh*t, Andrea Owen identifies some of the common ways that we react to people’s stories. In this case, romantic relationship issues:

  • The One-Upper: “OMG, That’s nothing! I’m almost positive my husband is cheating on me with his office manager.”
  • The Pooh-pooh-er: “It’s probably not that bad. I just saw you two last week, you seemed fine”
  • The At Least-er: “Well, at least you’re married. I’ve been single for ten freakin’ years!”
  • The Fixer: “Have you gone to counseling? Or read that book on relationships? What about date nights?”
  • The Gasper: “WHAT?! I thought your marriage was perfect! You HAVE to make this work!” (bursts into tears)
  • I’m gonna make this about me: “Ah, bummer. Yeah, so me and my husband got in this huge argument this weekend. He got drunk at a BBQ our neighbours hosted and I…”

I can admit I’ve reacted at one point or another in each of these ways, and also had people react in these way to me. In my experience, all of these reactions cause me to feel isolated, hopeless, and no better than I was before I opened my mouth and shared. The reason being that none of these are true empathy.

Empathy is about sitting in that mess. It’s about looking within, finding that feeling and sinking into it… with someone else! It’s really incredibly uncomfortable but boils down to being no more or less than a compassionate witness.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that those of us who have trouble bearing compassionate witness to our own feelings are really ineffective at doing it for others. However, like most skills, practice and persistence pay off.

It may not surprise you that I’ve been very selective in sharing this blog with people I know. I’m fearful of people’s reactions having not a lot of experience with giving or receiving empathy.

However, recently I did take a chance on a new friend. Having gone through a different, but not dissimilar life event, and after sharing some of that experience with me I decided to go against my normal instinct and gave her the URL. She surprised me, read all the entries and responded with the sincere and perfectly empathic response of thanking me for sharing with her and validating that I was justified in feeling pain.

Such a little thing, but so significant.

Unfortunately, it’s not always “safe” to be vulnerable. Like me, many people have a misguided idea of what being there for someone really means. Not all problems have solutions that others can help you find, sometimes the best gift you can get is someone that’s willing to sit there in the ditch with you and remind you that you can trust yourself to get out again.

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If you would like to learn more about Andrea Owen’s coaching, books, blog, podcast, or general awesome swing by her website, here.