Awash with Wonder

madly involved

Shannon ButlerComment

In the opening verse of 'Crack Rock', Frank Ocean sings "cause she was and you are madly involved" and then immediately repeats "madly involved" incase the listener didn't realise the significance of the involvement. As this is a verse that starts with "you don't know how little you matter" and is about smoking crack, we can infer that the involvement is toxic. It is not an involvement anyone should aspire to, but there is something about madly involved that sounds like love. 

We are all looking for the comfort of being undeniably involved, lives so tangled together that separating them is unthinkable. There is a madness in the depth of our involvements with each other though, because they go unnoticed until it’s too late. You meet someone in a bar and a year later they’re named on your lease and three decades later you’re welcoming your first grandchild. All of this because you liked their smile. Madly is the linchpin to involvement, and it's only when the madness has dissipated that you realise how deeply involved you are. 

In White Teeth, Zadie Smith writes “involved is neither good, nor bad. It is just a consequence of living, a consequence of occupation and immigration, of empires and expansion, of living in each other’s pockets… one becomes involved and it is a long trek back to being uninvolved” and the romantic in me despairs at her replacement of love with proximity, but I can’t argue with her. Proximity is how I ended up in Hawaii, on Christmas day, with the entire extended family of a boy who smiled at me in class a month before.  I know the power of proximity and the heady intoxication of involvement, and it’s why I’m now more protective of my personal space than I’ve ever been before. 

That space is both protected and protective because I am finally experiencing the gift of aloneness unencumbered by loneliness. There is nothing that I will not do alone and every meal, every movie, every evening spent in my own company thrills me. When I wake and think, “I want to go to breakfast today”, my freedom to do so encourages me to think, “Perhaps I will move to New Zealand next month or start acting classes or develop a one woman burlesque show”. There is no end to the things I might do alone. 

Later in the same passage, Smith writes that involvement “is an enormous web you spin to catch yourself” and the imagery is dangerous. You are both the spider and the unsuspecting fly. Hers is a more subtle interpretation of Ocean’s mad involvement, looked at from a different angle, but the results are the same: a destruction of self that you don't see coming. 

Visiting my family a few weeks ago, I was immediately transported to a universe of attachment. It is difficult to love people and be so profoundly involved with each other's histories; there is no room to forget.  I looked at us, still bruising from ten year old hurts, and I wanted to tell all of them to un-involve themselves from each other, to buy a ticket for somewhere new, leave for a decade and come back unhinged from the past. It wouldn't work. We would all walk into the same room and resume the silk-spinning of a generations old web. And anyway, they can't, so deeply, importantly involved with each other and the new additions to the family. Still, I wanted solitude to be the solution. 

Returning to my selfish solitude on the train home, I thought a lot about this gift of aloneness and how few people truly get to experience it. Loneliness we get in spades, involvement, too, but contentment in our own company and the time to enjoy it often proves elusive. We're always getting accidentally involved. Whenever I ask a couple in my family how they met and why they stayed, their answers are so breathtakingly circumstantial, and now look at all of us, barely hanging on but irrevocably connected. 

I read the Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein on the journey home and she coincidentally echoes Smith's imagery but elaborates, describing the web as something "we depended on as much as we wanted out of it". There is no out; there is no leaving; there are no human islands. As soon as I step off the train, I am already heading towards new involvements, the gossamer threads of the old ones trailing behind me, unable to achieve the simplicity of an uninvolved life for longer than a single journey. But perhaps this is all any of us need. Just a brief moment of respite, time where we are infinite in our aloneness, where pasts cease to matter and futures are not dependant on someone else’s whims. Then we can return to our involvements, present and ready, and continue to support and survive each other.  

all the things we cannot have

Shannon ButlerComment

It is crazy-making how much I want these boots. 

I first spotted them two months ago, along with their insane price tag. At the time, I was able to convince myself that I didn't need them because I was looking for ankle boots and not ones that extend past my knee, even if they do lace up so appealingly and would look amazing with my coat. Months later and I still don't need them, will never need them -- but I want them. 

The store they live in is on my way to work, so I walk past it twice a day, and every time I do, I pause for a moment to look at them through the window. I haven't tried them on yet because the idea of something is always better than the reality; also, I don't really believe that when it comes to this boots so I'm trying to protect myself from the disappointment of leaving the store without owning them. 

This is a ridiculous amount of wanting to feel over a pair of boots. I know this, but I feel it anyway. Chalk it up to a consumer culture that's turned me into an insatiable well of wanting, never satisfied with what I already have and incapable of making good buying decisions, or that I simply adore clothing and the opportunities different pieces give me to reinvent myself. Either way, I have thought about these boots for months and planned on ways to afford them. 

And then I dropped and smashed my phone and bought an expensive train ticket and all my bills seemed to come in at once. I truly pay the bills of my everyday existence -- phone bill, electricity, rent, council tax -- with joy, grateful that I have the ability to pay them,  but it's the unexpected expenses that cut into my boot fund and these hurt. They intensified the wanting. 

Desire is such a funny thing: dangerous when perverted but also the pure guiding force of our lives. It is desire that shows us what we like and it is these experiences, people, and, yes, things, which make our lives worth it.

A popular tenet of Buddhist philosophy repeated often by people who only have cursory knowledge of Buddhism (like me) is the idea of non-attachment. It is attachment -- to people, to circumstances, to outcomes -- that causes all our suffering. I have always hated this idea. It is in attachment that I find all my joy. I want to be desperately attached; I want to belong to what I want as much as they belong to me. 

That approach works fine when I get to have the things I so desperately want and doesn't work at all when I don't. It seems that the Buddhists know that we rarely get everything we want and that the times that we don't are devastating enough to dull the shine of everything we do have, so it is better to practice non-attachment at all times. Safer that way. 

The worst part of wanting without the possibility of possessing is that it shines a light on all the intangible characteristics I do not have, the gaps I cannot close. With material things, I find that I am not smart enough to translate my talents into more money, that I am already using more hours of the day than I'd like to work and it is not enough. With people who do not want me back, my lack is illuminated, or rather, the lack of us not adding up to something singular and whole is revealed in sharp relief. With opportunities, with jobs, with lives I long for but do not live, I am reminded of all the ways I fall short. 

This feeling of lack is what transforms simple wants into all consuming monsters. Suddenly I must have everything I have ever even briefly wanted just to prove that I am worthy of them. It's why on my most recent walk past the shoe store, I noticed all the other boots and how much I suddenly wanted them, too. I wanted them ALL. I saw the parade of outfits and lives I could wear once they were all in my possession and it felt so much bigger than the boots: it felt like owning them would mean that I had finally arrived

It's not bigger than the boots, though. It's never bigger than the thing we desire. It's always just about the reason for that desire and the way that reason becomes something hideous when our desires go unfulfilled

As I was backing away slowly from the window of the store, which I was inches from pressing my nose up against, I could fully recognise the ridiculous dimensions my desire had grown into. I was briefly glad that I could not have what I wanted. The thing is if I had the resources or an attitude of wild abandon with credit cards, I would totally buy all those boots. And what would I be then? A very broke, very materialistic stranger (albeit a very well dressed one).

There was not much to be gained from possessing those boots and quite a lot to be learned in wanting them and not having them: how to sit with desire, how to be disappointed, how to not let the things I can't have illuminate the things I think I'm not. Which is an interpretation of unfulfilled desires that falls into the Sesame Street, after school special way of writing about events that most blog posts eventually succumb to, but the alternative is to become a bitter weirdo who spends her life obsessing over all the things she cannot have. 

There is always going to be so much that I simply cannot have. Some of them I can work hard for and eventually achieve, but for lots of them, I will have to somehow accept an existence without them and not see it as a lesser life. I'm looking to claim my own big life and on the way there I'm learning that the pursuit of more occasionally means desiring less. 


reluctant lessons in dealing with Terrible People

Shannon ButlerComment
Be about ten times more magnanimous than you believe yourself capable of being. Your life will be a hundred times better for it.”
— Cheryl Strayed

I can count the number of people I have truly despised on one hand, and with all of them, I had to spend concentrated time with them and, in some cases, take instructions from them. Someone more enlightened than me would make a case that these people were there to challenge me to become a better version of myself. Unenlightened me says that these people suck and my main goal in life is to always have the kind of freedom that allows me to leave as soon as I realise the depth of their awfulness. I will accept that suffering is a part of being human but only as an unfortunate byproduct of seeking adventure, joy and love. I will not accept the kind of suffering that is dealing with people who are consistently terrible. 

However, I will concede one small point to the enlightened among us: I did learn something new in my latest dealing with a Terrible Person.

After what is hopefully the last conversation I will ever have with them, I found myself practising what I would say to them if I ever did run into them again. These remarks would be cutting and emotionally devastating and hopefully there would be an audience. I would pour all the of the pity and dislike and frustration, built up over months, into one single shattering statement -- think Oscar Wilde at a dinner party with people he did not respect -- and I would be vindicated. 

Around the fifth mental editing of this statement, I started to think about the conversation I actually did have. In it, I didn't launch any personal attacks, defended myself without getting defensive, and left with my sense of self worth still fully intact. I think this is the reality for all of us who practice our revenge in our head; we were likely decidedly not vengeful when the event was still occurring; we might have even been kind. All of my cruelty has to be practised, thought of only after the fact. It is not my first instinct. 

This is not a weakness.

I do not know what makes someone become a Terrible Person. What I do know is that it is not my job to fix them or correct them or put them in their place. Whatever's making them move through the world so disastrously is probably enough for them to deal with in one lifetime. My only responsibility is to keep being a person I like and can live with. 

For me, that process looks a little like this: 1) Practice devastating and witty thing to say to Terrible Person and feel better about self, 2) Never, ever say those things out loud (except to friends in angry phone calls), 3) Take responsibility for my missteps, 4) Move the fuck on. 

It always, always just comes down to moving the fuck on, doesn't it? The desire to be petty can be overwhelming sometimes, but the (harder) path of magnanimity offers greater rewards. Mostly, I get to keep moving forward and eventually I will arrive somewhere entirely new, instead of constantly returning to the scene of the crime in a vain effort to undo what's already been done with a particularly smart insult. Also, I get to go to that place with me, a person I like and respect, and I get to leave the people who I do not like and respect and who do not like and respect me behind. 

So, there you go, I learned something. 

bad friends

PersonalShannon ButlerComment

I have lost years of my life to religion.

During one of those lost years, I went to coffee with a friend. My friend was beautiful, smart, funny and had her shit together in ways I could not even imagine -- and I had decided to save her. Earlier in the day I'd bought her a journal for her thoughts and filled the first three pages with mine. A long letter about the hope she could find in faith and how she need not worry about her most recent heartbreak -- a man she lived with and had to leave -- because God loved her. I can still see my friend trying to rearrange her expression into one of gratitude while she read this letter. Years and various moves have come between us and we are no longer friends, but with hindsight, I wouldn't have blamed her if she ended our friendship right then. Thinking about it sends waves of such acute shame through my body that I have to close my eyes, too embarrassed to bear witness to the naivety of my former self. 

Another lost year, another friend, but this time I am taking her to church because she is going through a hard time and this is where I bring my hard things. Halfway through the service, she leaves in tears. I cannot remember if I followed her. I might have let her sit in the car by herself while I stayed inside; I don't think this is something I will ever let myself remember because that failure of empathy would prevent me from ever sleeping again. I do remember sitting in the car with her afterwards and listening to her apologise, "I could not stay in there with all those good people when I am a bad person". My response was not "You are so good and so loved and fuck everything that makes you feel otherwise", as it should have been. Instead, I think I spoke about forgiveness. Through some miracle, we are still friends. I did the best I could with what I knew.  I did not know enough. 

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another’s dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
— Hanya Yanagihara

Religion is not bad, but it was bad for me. Instead of enlarging my capacity for empathy and willingness to meet people where they were, it turned me into a sanctimonious idiot and a bad friend. But this is life and this is friendship: you go through phases, dedicate yourself to short-lived saviours -- an idea, a person, a faith -- in a misguided attempt to find safety, and your friends cheer you on and pick you up and love you through it all. Well, some friends do and these people are the sum of your whole life.

I fail my friends in different ways now because it is impossible to be all good all the time. If that were the requirements for friendship, none of us would have friends. The whole point is that we get to come exactly as we are, but still, sometimes I am ashamed of how I come; I think it would be easier to not be seen.  When I say something casually cruel, which I do far more often than I like because my sparse supply of tenderness rarely survives the journey from brain to tongue, my first instinct is never to say sorry. Sorry is a foreign word I hate to say and I hate even more to hear. It is not enough, cannot undo, does not have sufficient syllables to carry the weight of all that sorrow. Instead, I think, "If you stick with me, I will try my best to never do that to you again". This, too, is not enough but it relies on that great covenant of friendship: that they will stay.  It is in this that I put all my faith.   

It is likely that there will come a time when I will look back at this version of myself with the same mixture of horror and embarrassment that I do my religious self. In fact, I write what is essentially a public diary, so I am sure of it. I'm okay with this, as long as I get to do the remembering with some of the same people whose previous, embarrassing selves I have also born witness to.  


forgiveness as a scenic route to closure

PersonalShannon ButlerComment

When I walked into the room, I immediately felt out of place. More so than when I’d first walked into the building, taken off my shoes, handed my money to the whispering receptionist, and sat in the lobby with a group of people radiating the kind of quiet calm that always makes me want start running or screaming. There was a giant buddha at the front of them room, and one semi circle of chairs surrounding ten mats, with two cushion stacked on each mat. Already, there were a few people sitting on chairs or kneeling with their legs either side of the cushions. 

I couldn’t figure out if the seats were assigned or why the people on the floor were kneeling. Didn't mediation always involve sitting cross legged, possibly in lotus, hands resting lightly, palms up, one on each knee? I had never actually seen anyone meditate but this image of a meditator is one of the reasons I’d always avoided it: it seemed uncomfortable. 

I circled the room nervously before exiting to get one of the blankets I spotted on the way in. I had no idea what I would do with a blanket, but I needed a way to stall for time. When I came back into the room, most of the chairs were taken. So it was a mat for me. Ignoring the people kneeling around me, I attempted to balance cross legged on top of the cushions. Immediately, the woman sitting at the front of the class — she, too, radiating that discomforting calm — came and knelt in front me. 

“Have you ever been to meditation class before?” 

“No,” I answered, voice quiet, hoping no one in the room would turn to look at me. 

“Well, it is typically more comfortable to kneel. Do you want to try it?” 

So I rearranged myself, self consciously mimicking the postures of the people around me. Surprisingly, it was more comfortable. 

Returning to the front of the room, she began the class by explaining that they practiced two different kinds of mediation at the Brighton Buddhist Centre: mindfulness and loving self and others. Today was the latter kind of class. 

We began by closing our eyes and breathing deeply for a few moments. Two deep breaths in and the tears were already rolling down my cheeks. Today was a fragile day; the kind where it felt as if my emotions were humming beneath my skin, making me a live-wire, one moment away from explosion. I had come to meditation in an effort to calm them, but I didn't realise how  confrontational meeting myself in silence would be. 

I wanted to leave, desperately. All my emotions were clamouring inside of me, buzzing in my ears now that I wasn’t drowning them with music or conversation. I did not want to have a breakdown in a room full of strangers. I also didn’t want to get up and leave in the middle of mediation with a room full of strangers. The fear of being rude outweighed my fear of being embarrassed, so I stayed. And I breathed. 

Ten minutes or ten years of breathing later, the teacher introduced a mantra: “May you be happy; may you be at ease; may you be free from suffering.” She instructed us to alternate them. Deep breath in, may you be happy. Deep breath in, may you be at ease. Deep breath in, may you be free from suffering. Then she said, “The you you are talking to is you.” 

So I spoke to myself. Said, may you be happy, may you be at ease, may you be free from suffering and really, really meant it. Wanted it for myself more than I have ever wanted anything. Halfway through, I felt my ribs expand and my emotions quiet their clamouring. Freedom is always physical. 

Unbidden, a different thought came into my head: “I love you, Shannon.” I thought it only once. Once was enough to be embarrassed and undone by it. Thinking it felt strange and somehow shameful; I had never said those words to myself before, never even called myself by a name. 

The teacher continued by telling us to repeat the mantra, but now to focus it on the people in the room…then people you knew…then everyone in the world. I put so much of my mental weight behind sending those thoughts to my friend a few doors down from where I was kneeling, my dad on the other side of the country, and other people in my life who I sensed were hurting. I can’t tell you what I believe in, but there is something about these practices that is expansive enough to transcend the human. Or maybe it is simply tapping into what it means to be deeply human; I’m just never quiet enough to notice it. 

One class was enough to give me peace for the rest of the day but not enough to heal me. Healing is not a singular event in the way that the things that devastate us are. Instead, I found a new walking meditation. Now when I am standing in a quiet moment at work, I breath and think, "may you be at ease", and when I am walking these streets that fill me with joy, I think, "may you be happy", and when I wake, the weight of the past already heavy on my chest, I think, "may you be free from suffering", and I really, really hope for it. 


I believe that there are some unforgivable sins, some transgressions that do not deserve absolution. I believe also that it is toxic to my spirit to carry hatred towards someone. I feel the weight of it. It’s possible to store both of these beliefs at the same time; I temper them with the hope that I will never have to survive an unforgivable act.

Some acts of betrayal by the people I have loved feel unforgivable but they really just demand more empathy and compassion than I thought possible. I tried unforgiveness for a while. Embarrassed by months of what I thought of as me being too forgiving, too accommodating, too desperate for love, I decided that it would show my strength. At the very least, I might be able to build some respect for myself again. Lack of forgiveness in the name of boundaries. 

And then I woke up one day, my heart so heavy, my body fatigued by grief, that I simply could not do it anymore. Deep breath in, I forgive you. Deep breath in, I forgive you. Deep breath in, I forgive you. Forgiveness ended up being a little like kneeling meditation: awkward but more comfortable than I expected.  It was not a practise that offered me expansion, not even one that offered me freedom. It simply allowed me one more day to exist in my body and have hope that a morning will come where I will wake without remembering. 

Closure is a story we tell ourselves, but it is mostly a story we hope to be told. We practice the conversation that will make everything bearable, so sure of each character’s lines. If we are lucky, we never have that conversation, never have to be disappointed by the other person’s refusal to stick to the script. If we are masochists, we spend whole lifetimes pining for that conversation that never was and was never going to be. 

There is nothing anyone can say to make it better; they cannot apologise enough, cannot love you enough, to undo what has already been done. So all that's left is to tell yourself whatever story you can survive. 

I have a story now, and when it fails me, I have this makeshift meditation. Deep breath in, may you be happy. Deep breath in, I forgive you. Deep breath in, may you be free from suffering. I don't know who I'm saying them for. Sometimes only for me, sometimes for you, sometimes for all of us. It is my most fervent desire -- one of those wants that I am scared to verbalise -- that the weeks of this waking mediation will lead to a day where I can say "I love you" again and call myself by name.