Awash with Wonder

note to self: don't mistake loneliness for love

PersonalShannon ButlerComment

I am greedy for people now in a way that I was not before, and it feels like a weakness. 

I have always thought of myself as a loner, comfortable in my own company. More comfortable in my company than anyone else's. It's why I survived for so long in Germany, living in the kind of isolation that horrified my friends and family when I described it beyond my short Instagram captions. It was not that I thought my adrift-in-a-foreign-land state was a necessary sacrifice, although that was true, too; it also felt like that was the kind of life I was always supposed to live. 

After all, I was surrounded by beauty, I had my thoughts and my (constantly shifting) sense of self, and a love that still made my heart feel like it may burst...what did I need from other people? 

Apparently a lot, or I wouldn't be in England, trying to rebuild a life

***

I am not a control freak nor a particularly disciplined person. I've never found a diet or exercise regime that lasted for more than a few weeks. I have no routines. I do not need people to do things my way or no way (well...that's only half true). What I do demand though is a meticulous cataloguing of my own emotions. 

I want to know if I'm experiencing melancholy or longing or simple boredom. This knowledge helps me to know when I'm treating my emotions with respect (read: not eating my feelings) or giving them more attention than they deserve (read: obsessively thinking about something until I'm crying for no reason). I like to order myself, to know myself, so that when I'm alone, I'm in company I can stand. 

This was a little easier when I was spending a lot of time alone, because I had to be my favorite person out of necessity or drive myself insane. I only half managed it, but I still took some pride in being the kind of person who didn't have an existential breakdown every time they were alone in a quiet room.  

So it is odd to find myself on the other end of the spectrum here in England. I spend so much time surrounded by people, especially working in service, that whenever I find myself with hours of solitary time stretching before me, I reach for the phone, desperate to call someone, even though I have no one to call. 

This happened to me the other day, and as has become my habit, my brain offered up a short mantra: "Don't mistake loneliness for love". Both admonishment and warning, I repeated this until I slept and morning came, bringing with it more hope and less longing. 

***

One of my biggest fears is waking up many decades from now and realizing that I was a woman who was incapable of living without the love of a man. In some ways, this is good. It means that I do not want to define myself solely by who is loving or not loving me; it means that I don't want to spend my entire life jumping from relationship to relationship, never having a true encounter with myself. But there's also a different fear there: the fear of being vulnerable, of needing love. 

When that mantra first came to me -- don't mistake loneliness for love -- I thought it meant that I shouldn't throw myself at whoever was willing and think that the rush of emotions was anything other than relief at not having to face my own shit.  It sounded like yet another reminder to be an independent woman -- the only clearly defined goal in my all-over-the-place life. 

But then I thought about it a little more. 

Mostly I thought about the months I spent in Germany, and how I tried to convince myself that my sadness was some perverse form of self-love; a necessary lesson in resilience and self-reliance. All I learned, really, is that there is a depth of loneliness that could not only break me but also a relationship I treasured. 

And, I don't know, all of a sudden, there were worse things than not wanting to be lonely, than needing to be loved. Of course, there's a balance. There has to be some middle point between finding all your self-worth in the affection of someone else and turning yourself into a loveless, self-sufficient island...but on the way to finding that point, it seems like a safer bet to err on the side of being too needy, too attached, too everything. It, paradoxically, feels safer to be vulnerable. 

So, when I think of that mantra now, I think, 'yeah, don't make the call; learn how to sit with yourself'. But I also think, 'reach out; don't be afraid of needing someone'. The trick is learning to discern what choice is right for the day, in the same we have to discern the people who are worthy of our devotion. Because the wanting, the needing of other people? It's not weakness. It's life. And when I lean into that, it's a much happier life than any I can imagine as a completely independent woman. 

i am my own kingdom

Shannon ButlerComment
"If you want to stake a claim to your life, it begins with shouting, 'I am my own kingdom."  - Saeed Jones

I love the idea of not only being the queen of myself but of thinking of my body as a kingdom in need of ruling. The word evokes opulence and abundance: sprawling, golden fields; rivers, thatched-roofed homes and mountains; and, of course, a castle. I like to think of myself as lush and overflowing. 

When I read that quote from Saeed Jones, I saw Simba and Mufasa, standing on the mountaintop – “everything the light touches is our kingdom” – and myself bathed in light. In the past, kings and queens used to claim that their right to the throne was sovereign; their leadership bestowed upon them by God. They were mistaken, as is anyone who thinks they have the right to rule others. But when it comes to the dominion of our private selves, is that not all of our inheritances?  What is religion – what is life – if not the quest to become better rulers of ourselves? 

I have ideas about the kind of ruler I’m becoming. I imagine that the doors to my kingdom are always flung wide open, the bridge always lowered, but I am not dangerously generous with myself. The message is,  “You are welcome, but you do not own me; I am unconquerable” or in the words of Danielle Laporte, “Open, gentle heart. Big fucking fence”. I have not always been able to look upon my own valleys and plains in admiration, but with each passing year, I am growing into an appreciation of myself that isn't dependent on compliments or comparison with neighboring kingdoms.  I imagine, too, that I am not a removed ruler; I do not spend all my time observing from my throne, expecting my territories to govern themselves. Instead, I am willing to toil the fields, to do the work, in order to enjoy the harvest. I imagine all sorts of things, and none of them or all of them could be true. What matters most is that I do not give anyone else permission to assume a dictatorship over my body, my life or my self. 

This is easy to accept in almost every area of my life, except for love. Love is surrender, and in loving someone, it can feel as if I should share the throne. Even though he was King, Mufasa did not say "my kingdom"; he said "our". Committed relationship is always a dance of how much of ourselves to give away and how much to keep protected. Vulnerability calls for total surrender but self-preservation asks that we do not become careless -- not even for love. Because people leave or they die or they wake up one day loving their freedom more than they do you.

But there is no love -- no real kingdom, either -- without some sharing, without saying, "Here, what is mine is now yours, too". So what happens when everything breaks and you have to ask how much of you they get to keep? 

It seems insincere to try and reclaim it all. If you came alive under their touch, bloomed beneath their gaze, do those parts of you belong to you alone? That choice does not feel generous or benevolent; it feels a lot like trying to rewrite the past while ignoring the implications it has on my future. Great rulers have fallen for less. 

And that's where I find comfort in being the Queen of my own kingdom, even if I did give myself the crown. Now I can say, "Take it all" and mean it as a gift, because I know I have the freedom to rebuild. And that is the purest form of freedom, isn't it? Especially if I don't think of the areas of myself that need regrowth as barren, and instead see them as soil that's been sown with love. Corny, yes, but this is my kingdom. So, I'm rebuilding. Some things haven't changed though. Same open, gentle heart. Same big fucking fence.

Advice: Should I End My On Again/Off Again Relationship?

Love, AdviceShannon ButlerComment

My heart is breaking slowly into a million pieces and it hurts and it is destroying me. To give you the run down and to cut a long story short I am completely in love with someone who I know really likes me too but he cant give me what I want for whatever reason, he cant commit, he is hot and cold, I'm certain I'm just his fallback girl but I just cant get over him. Its hard to explain but despite the crappy things he has done to me in the past and over our two year on again off again casual relationship in which we've broken up over half a dozen times I still hold him close to my heart and I guess I just hope he will suddenly change his ways and give me what I want.

That’s a committed, stable relationship where we respect, trust, love and live our lives together as a couple. Why if he says he really likes me can he not just try and be committed and love me? I know deep down that its so far from a normal and emotionally sound relationship that has been so destructive in a way that I too find it hard to work out how exactly we could make it work. We get along so well majority of the time and we have an amazing connection I've never ever felt with anyone else and this is why I'm finding it so hard to let go when I know I should. Its making me unhappy and always wondering when he'll call or if he'll for once make plans with me and its destroying me and I don’t know what to do. Is there any advice you have for me? 


There’s this idea that once you fall in love, everything else in your relationship will just magically unfold. Never mind that you’re two people who were, up until a few months or a year ago, complete strangers. Never mind that most of us don’t know how to communicate in healthy ways, or how to keep up that healthy communication over years in a relationship that’s more intimate than 99% of any of our other ones.

Here’s the truth: love is the entry point.

Exchanging “I love you”'s is only the beginning; it’s what allows you to then say, “Okay, I can be vulnerable with this person, because there’s this safety net of love that’s going to catch and protect me”.

So, if you do not have that safety net, if you do not have that love, why would you risk anything to be with this person? And as your experience has shown, it is a risk to pursue a relationship – it’s always a risk, but it’s even more so when the person your pursuing isn’t willing to give you what you need and want.

Their refusal to give what you need causes you to magnify all the little, good things they do (which, great, but there has to be a higher bar, you know?) and to put their lack of love or commitment as a sign of your own personal failing.

It. Is. Not. Worth. It.

It’s not worth it for what it will do to your self-esteem. It’s not worth it for how desperate and needy and unhappy it will make you. It’s not worth it because continuing to pursue this relationship that you know is unhealthy will affect how you approach all future relationships.

It’s not worth it because it’s not love. 

I don’t doubt that you have a special connection with this guy; I don’t even doubt that he is, on the whole, a good guy. But he is not the guy for you. Not yet, maybe not ever.

I understand that some people (lots of people!) have reservations when it comes to committing to someone for a lifetime, but committing to love someone, to be as good as you possibly can be while you’re sharing life together? That’s the BARE MINIMUM of relationships, and it is not too much to ask for. Love is not a finite resource, and you shouldn’t have to feel like you need to wait and wait and wait until he’s ready to give it. He’s probably never going to be ready, and do you want to love someone who is so selfish with his love?

The problem, too, is that you don’t get to love in the way you want to. You don’t get to be free and generous with that love. You have to constantly hold yourself back, so that you don’t tip the precarious balance of your relationship and risk him not calling for a few days.

I don’t know what’s in your future. I can’t promise that you’ll meet someone who you love and who is willing to commit to you, but I do know that that is the hope for most of us, and it’s a hope worth holding on to. What’s not worth holding on to is a relationship that hasn’t in the two years you’ve been together proved itself to be what you’re looking for.

Some of the greatest joy we’ll ever have in this life is being able to really, deeply love someone and have that love returned; don’t rob yourself of that because you’re scared of letting go.

Finally, I want to tell you something that has helped me whenever I had to end a relationship – especially the one’s I was not quite ready to end. Ending this relationship does not mean that you have to suddenly hate this person; it does not mean that you have to kill your love for them. Instead, you might find that you a lot more freedom in your love now, when you’re not expecting so much from them. Does this mean that you have to continue to talk or see this person? No, but it does mean that you’re allowed to keep thinking positively about them, to look back fondly on the good things that you shared, and to hope to find some of those same things in a future relationship – just better.

I’ve found taking this approach has helped me allow my relationship to end and change, without feeling like I’ve suffered an unbearable loss. I get to keep the love – and it’s your own capacity to love that you have to be most protective of. Keep that well of love deep and generous, but realize when you’re giving away too much of it to someone who isn’t willing or ready to receive it.

Hope or delusion, either way, I'll take it.

Shannon ButlerComment
hopefuldelusion

I have never worked in service before, never been a waitress, never actually worked a minimum wage job. My lack of a working visa for most of my time in America meant that I skipped over the teenage right of passage that is a series of summer jobs in retail or restaurants. In college, I worked as a nanny but I was very fortunate to not have to pay for my tuition or rent, so any money I earned just paid for more freedom in an already incredibly responsibility-free life. 

That is no longer my situation, and at twenty-four, I have adult bills and my first waitressing job that doesn't quite pay them. 

Still, I like waitressing. I like the rhythms and routines. I like the challenge of injecting enthusiasm into the repeated conversation about my circuitous route to England. I like that I have a very specific role, with very specific responsibilities, and that they're always tangible. It's easy to see whether I've done my job well or not. I like that my mind is always engaged. I like that I'm on my feet for hours, after years of spending 90% of my waking hours in front of a computer. I like feeling useful. I like that when I go home, I do not think about waitressing anymore. 

However, 'waitress' does not carry the same weight as 'writer'. It is not a longterm plan; it's an answer that requires a "because" or a "but" to indicate that it is a stop on the journey and not the final destination. 

So, I apply for the full-time writing gigs. I prepare for the interviews, when I'm lucky enough to get them. I buy pretty green skirts and listen to Beyonce's 'Grown Woman' and 'Flawless' on the way to remind myself of my worth. And when the emails inevitably come to tell me that my interview was great but they went with someone with more experience, I forget about them almost instantly, tie on my apron, and return to asking strangers, "What can I get you today?" 

At the first restaurant I worked at, all the other waitresses asked me what I did. I was confused; here I am, doing it. But it turns out, they're all studying or writing their dissertation or saving to go traveling. I wish sometimes that the conversation starter "What do you do?" was instead "Who would you like to be?", but, to be honest, right now, my answer to both questions is a variation of the same thing: surviving. I'm trying to be someone who survives. 

This is not something you say in casual conversation though, so instead, I say that I've worked as a writer, that I got sick of being home by myself all the time, and I'm looking for a writing job with a company. I tell this to everyone because "writer" is more impressive than "waitress," and for a long time, it's been a part of my identity. It tells people that I have some kind of talent, some kind of longterm plan -- even though both of those things are debatable. 

***

In my last few weeks in Germany, I started running again, and I listened to Nina Simone's 'Blackbird' on repeat during my runs. It is quite possibly the saddest song in the world, and at the time, discovering it felt like discovering the song of my soul. Especially the first verse: 

Why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain't ever gonna fly
No place big enough for holding all the tears you're gonna cry
Cause your mama's name was "Lonely" and your daddy's name was "Pain"
And they call you little sorrow cause you'll never love again

Once, a friend told me that I was the only person she'd ever met who was unaffected by their upbringing. This was not true, of course, but I wanted it to be because my parent's always seemed to have so many of their own problems and there were so many of us kids, it didn't feel like I could lay claim to anything from my childhood. Even the things that happened to me feel as if they were only really happening around me. Then, in Germany, running to Nina Simone, I thought, "Here, finally, I have inherited my parent's sorrow". This was not true either. I believed my parent's had passed on a legacy of sadness but it is actually a legacy of survival: this is how you work; this is how you spend your days praying for an afterlife. 

There is no afterlife for me. This life is all I've got. And on some days, I think, "My god, what a life it is!" and I am awed by the opportunities. And on other days, I think, "My god, what a life it is!" and I am overwhelmed by the responsibility. 

I am straddling the gap between opportunity and responsibility right now, and it is this cavernous gap that will most likely always be my home, that I suspect is most people's home. Today, I am on that wild upswing that feels an awful lot like hope, but could also be its cousin, delusion. Whatever, I'll take either, as long as I keep feeling like I am capable of rising into resilience. 

***

Working as a waitress has taught me a lot in a short time. First, how hard some people have to work and how much their feet hurt just to survive. Also, how feeling useful can give life so much simple joy and purpose. But mostly, how to ask "What can I get for you today?" of myself and know that I am capable of fulfilling my own requests. 

 

Loyalty

OpinionShannon ButlerComment
loyalty.jpeg

I'm currently living with my best friend, Emma, in Brighton, and if there's one word I'd use to describe her, it's loyal. Make a passing comment with a slightly negative tone about something she cares about -- whether it's a place, person, or TV show -- and she'll immediately defend it as if you're insulting something integral to her being. I find this curious and a little baffling because I don't have that kind of attachment to anything. 

It's pretty obvious that I don't have any allegiance to a country, as I've lived in so many of them (this is making the question "Where are you from?" more stressful than it should be right now). Because of all that moving, there's only a handful of people that I deeply love and most of them are family. I don't have a favorite author, director, or band; I'm not part of any fan sub cultures. There are things I like, sure, but there are not many things that I love -- at least not enough that I derive some understanding of myself from them. 

The buddhists may encourage this kind of non-attachment, but I'm finding it...boring. The things we identify with and are loyal to give us a sense of belonging, and they help us connect with other likeminded people. And that's what it's all about, really: connecting with other people. 

Have you ever noticed that the way you feel about other people is defined almost entirely by how you feel about yourself?

A couple of years ago, I was in a really good place. I'd been laid off from my job and broken up with my boyfriend -- I know, I know, it doesn't sound like I was in a good place, but I was! I experienced a rebirth in that period where I decided to become someone. I immediately re-started my yoga practice, which I'd abandoned after starting full time work, and adopted an Ayurvedic approach to eating. I read a lot of nonfiction that gave me new, hopeful perspectives of the world. I started freelancing and discovered how fun it was to work for myself, with no limitations on my time or location. I decided to move to California. I booked a ticket to meet a German stranger in New York just for the sake of adventure. I was happy. 

During that time, I really liked most of the people I met. I was so open to them and I expected the best from them. In particular, I met one person who I thought was funny and open and warm. Flash to a year later, where I was basically the opposite of all the things I just described, and I ran into this person again. I HATED them. They weren't funny; they were trying too hard. They weren't open; they were invading my personal space. The thing was, that person was exactly the same; I was the one who changed...and obviously I hadn't changed for the better. 

Now that I'm in Brighton and definitely happier but not quite at my most fulfilled, I've found that my default in meeting new people is not expecting them to be great. Instead, I'm more judgmental, convinced that because of some surface differences, we won't have anything in common. Yuck, right? 

I know on an intellectual level that this attitude is a reflection of me and how I feel about myself rather than anyone I meet. Because I am not actively pursuing things that make me feel like a more realized person and like someone who has lots to offer, I don't expect much from other people. Still, knowing things on an intellectual level does exactly zero to change my behavior. 

I don't know if I'll ever understand loyalty to places; loyalty to a country because you happen to be born there often means that you overlook the problems and don't try to enact any change. Actually, loyalty to just about anything can cause that. But loyalty to people? Well, that seems like the kind of loyalty I'd like to possess....but that means first meeting people I'd like to commit to...which means become the kind of person who I'd like to meet. 

It's always just journey of becoming, isn't it? Right now, I'm trying to establish some sense of purpose in my life. Not capital P Purpose that online entrepreneurs would convince you to quit your job to pursue, but a small, personal purpose that makes my days feel worth it. I have a sneaking suspicion that that purpose will lie in becoming loyal to some things and ultimately becoming loyal to some people. Fingers crossed Brighton is the place where I'm going to learn how to do that.   

Would you describe yourself as loyal? What are you loyal to?