mental health

Taking the toxic out of masculinity and femininity

I heard that term toxic masculinity the other day, which of course I’ve heard before, but this time for the first time ever, I thought to myself, Ouch!

It could be that I felt that pang of emotion because I spend most of my weekdays with guys who seem to have more feminine qualities in many instances than the females they work with and I include myself in that assessment.

They’re quiet. They’re thoughtful. They’re intelligent. They read a lot. They have excellent manners. I feel like they barely take up any psychological space at all which is a rare and precious quality even though it sometimes leaves me wondering how all that restraint impacts them. Do they go home at night and beat the hell out of their childhood stuffed animals after biting their tongues all day long?

If there was a toxic masculinity scale, I’m sure they’d fall within the under 5 percentile. They’ve all probably even been victims of the reality behind the term.

On the other hand, our leader, a female, while very feminine in appearance has no trouble pulling out the yang when she needs to. She often yells out between walls when she wants to talk to someone like she’s some old grizzled print editor from a 1940s newsroom. She does have a really good sense of humour but in order to be funny, it does help to not be overly concerned about political correctness, so she isn’t.

And then there’s me. Let’s just say, should toxic masculinity raise its entitled head anywhere within the vicinity of our cubicles, it would be smacked down faster than unevenly matched opponents during a wrestling match in a high school gymnasium!

Toxic masculinity is all about power and entitlement to that power and then blindness to each of those things and the impact of those qualities on all those around who are being impacted by it.

It’s always confused me that men still have all the power in the formal world when it seems like women have almost all the power in interpersonal relationships. Or maybe that’s just true of the people I know. Or maybe it just looks like that observing people’s intimate relationships from the outside. 

It made me wonder what toxic femininity looks like. Helplessness. Pretending to be less intelligent than you really are. Talking about nails to an extreme. Expecting dates to pick up the tab even when you make more money than they do. Using sexuality as a manipulation tool. I wonder what else might fit into the category.

There are those who argue that there is no such thing as toxic femininity because all femininity is a response to toxic masculinity and the imbalance of power that has resulted from it.  This assumes that everyone in the world is cis-gendered.

As you can imagine, I’m not here to defend men, but it would still hurt to have a term that trashes an entire gender applied to oneself as an individual, especially if you’ve been a victim of that reality yourself. 

Here is a way more assertive, insightful and sometimes humorous reflection on toxic femininity in a feminist magazine I’d never read before called Bust.

And here’s a history of the term toxic masculinity in a sometimes hard to understand article in the Atlantic.  

You’ll never get this time back so don’t blame me if you click the links.

I liked thinking about this topic through these articles even though there are way TOO MANY ADS getting in the way.

Whatever you do don’t stand still

Lately, and I guess it’s totally related to aging, its becoming a little too clear to me that we really are all just lined up like airplanes on a runway waiting for take-off, except we have these invisible expiry dates stamped onto each one of us and we don’t find out our own Best Before date until it’s game over. Thank you ma’am. Boom. Done. Next.

I know what you’re thinking. Oh oh. This is a tad morbid. 

Lately too many people I have known are flying off into the big airport waiting room in the sky. They’re like missing luggage from United Airlines. It’s never coming back. And that is causing me an existential crisis that’s actually a little more disturbing than all the other crises I’ve already overcome in the past 20 years.  

Clawing my way back from depressions? Been there. Done that. Overcoming heartbreak as a result of bad choices in men? Ack. Whatever! Unemployment? But would you look at all that free time I had?

Now that I’m older and wiser, I actually find it amusing when people refer to a mid-life crisis, as if there is just a single crisis and once you get that baby under your belt you’re home free. Not true.

The mid-life crisis is like the beginning of the Bible. One crisis begets another crisis begets another crisis and so on and so forth until the ultimate end of life crisis. That’s how it feels to me these days.

My crises right now, at least, are a little less drama filled than in the past. No sex, drugs or rock and roll. In this phase of the crises, which is a total drag for sure because it’s so boring, albeit easier on the mental health and the blood pressure.

Maybe because of my birth order as youngest in a family of people who were a lot older, or because I’ve always befriended people that are older than me, aging is constantly on my mind these days. It’s like a third character shadowing my monologue.

I can no longer make any decisions without thinking about the fact that I have X number of years, barring early onset dementia, to work at a “real” job, before I have to give up that real job and become a greeter at Walmart for which I’d surely last maybe half a day before being fired.

I try to think of the kinds of jobs I might do, when I have to give up my “real” job, and it’s as if I have no useful skills at all. I’m like one of those people who can’t use common sense to get around the corner to the 7-Eleven because their GPS has led them astray even though they’ve lived in the same neighborhood for 35 years.

I used to quit jobs I didn’t like on a dime and worry about it later. And in a blink of an eye, over the last 10 years, later IS now. So, even if I don’t like the job, I could quit, like my younger self surely would right this second,  except experience has taught me that impulsivity can lead to even bigger crises.

As a result, the ugly reality of aging is beginning to turn me into the kind of person I used to disdain. That is, the kind of person, who at 30 years old is factoring pension into any equation. In my former world, if you were thinking about your pension at 30, you were leading the kind of life that surely must have made it feel as if you’d already died before you were dead. I had nothing to say to you.

Trying to make decisions along the time versus longevity continuum is like one of those mathematical word problems in Grade 3 I could never solve correctly and would now  have a totally different twist. 

My new mathematical word problem would go something like… If you get to be 60 years old and you don’t have cancer and you quit your job to go to the Ashram in India where you could theoretically live out your days working harder than you’ve ever worked doing some form of selfless service, how many fewer regrets might you have? Answer _____!

If you sold everything you owned and bought an RV and just drove in the direction of a hot beach, stopping on a whim, would you really be happier? Freedom being just another word and all that…  Wherever you go, there you be.

Except, that statement isn’t totally accurate because sometimes wherever you go, if it’s the right place, really shakes things up and changes life for the better. Of course, leaving can do the exact opposite as well. 

We’re supposed to live in the moment. Be present. Breathe. And that sounds good except when you begin to wonder what happens if your choices based on living in the moment mean you’ll be lining up at the food bank in 10 years? What then?

Does life really work that way? You might not even be here in 10 months. And then all the decisions you never made, the adventure you opted not to take, means you didn’t meet the love of your life or end up, through a detour, doing the best thing you’ll ever do, meeting your tribe or having experiences that create the kinds of memories that will overflow from your heart and fill it up until your very last sentient breath.

When I worked in Computer Science at UBC, I recall interviewing a prof whose research revolved around something called game theory or decision theory or something like that. I remember I couldn’t believe such a thing existed. I still can’t. It was like having a fortune teller in a machine except smarter.

You mean I can put all my questions into a computer with a special fairy godmother algorithm and have it spit out my next course of action knowing that something way more logical than me has done a risk assessment for me and then it has decided I should head that way? Over there. Keep going. A little to the left. Don’t look back. Don’t look too far ahead. And whatever you do, read my lips, definitely don’t stand still.

Making time for the benefits of doing nothing

This will sound strange to anyone who is currently raising children but when I reflect back on my childhood, in spite of being surrounded by adults, very few of those people consistently intersected in my daily reality in a way that felt as instructive or as memorable in the same positive way as the kids I interacted with back then.

Now that might be directly related to my own personal experience or it might actually be related to all children’s degree of freedom back in the 1960s.

Because of my birth order, later than the rest of my siblings, by more than a decade, what I recall most about my childhood has to do with my own time: how I spent that time, the time I spent with other kids and especially the time I spent with my best friend then. We were like a world unto ourselves, the most important humans in each others lives. That realization surprises me as I write it down and I question myself. Is my memory accurate? I think a little harder about important people: my parents, my twin brother, my older sisters, and yes, I think my memory is painting the hierarchy of their priority accurately.  

I remember having a lot of time to myself, especially in the summer, to do whatever I wanted. We made our own decisions when to come and go, when to play tennis across the street or go to the playground at the other end of the park, or to peer into our empty classroom windows across the park. We would go to Woodward’s a few blocks away, to the library a few blocks over, to the vacant lot where big kids would tease us about the mythical spotting of Big Foot. Our circumference of exploring in a city the size of New Westminster was relatively small but still allowed for ample freedom.

Other than eating meals with my family, the occasional special outing, and camping in Osoyoos for a few weeks in August, I was a free agent. I could and was expected to amuse myself. To read. To play the piano away from the rest of the family in our basement “rumpus room.” It felt in some way like there was an understanding that adults were not to be bothered because they were too busy with their own lives and had no time to waste, or at least that’s how it seemed to me as a child.

As a result, I seemed, like all kids then, to spend a lot of time in my own company or the company of other kids.  We’d explore their basements. We’d climb backyard willow trees. We’d play tag with all the neighborhood kids spreading out like the enemy across yards. We often played board games or sat and did nothing on the couch, to daydream, to negotiate what to do next, to think of ways to amuse ourselves in those endless stretches of summer days.

When we took off from the house in the morning there was no consideration of adult interventions due to cellphones or any of the compelling feelings of urgency we now have around checking e-mail. Technology’s advancement had been paused in our lives and was stuck then at the good old rotary dial phone or the Walkie Talkies we got for Christmas that only really worked between very short distances.

I’ve been reading this book, Solitude, In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World, by Michael Harris. The author refers to UBC researcher, Kalina Christoff, Ph.D., who studies spontaneous thought and mind wandering.

“Given enough solitude and enough time, the mind shifts into default mode and begins to pan through connections that at first seem wholly random,” she says, adding that the “randomness is crucial.” “The power lies in the fact that in this state the brain censors nothing. And it then makes connections that it would never otherwise make. Mind wandering is managing much more than personal memories and a sense of self. The wandering mind is also solving problems in the real world.”

Think of how little time, if any, most of now spend just sitting and staring out the window or being without our cell phones in hand or very nearby. We have no time in our day for mind wandering as a health conscious, creativity-boosting decision.

And certainly, it seems that most children have almost no down time. Every minute is filled with video games, scheduled activities, organized playdates, parents checking in on their whereabouts or directly by their sides.

When I compare my childhood experience to that new reality, it brings me such feelings of absolute claustrophobia on behalf of today’s children. Luckily, they don’t know what they’re missing.

On my recent trip to Quebec, I sat on the plane, a seat apart from a little girl from Salt Spring Island who was traveling on her own. Her relatives would be waiting for her in Toronto.

She was such a self-assured child. Calm. Confident. Able to meet a stranger and engage. Able to use her time and remain okay. In chatting with her, I learned she is a young student at a special school on Salt Spring called Wolfkids an outdoor education school. At her young age, she said she’d even participated in an overnight in the woods, as part of the school’s experiential learning.

I wondered if that is what made the difference in her maturity levels and independence or if it was just related to her own family? I was sure she had spent time daydreaming for extended periods of time even though she was mostly glued to her IPad during the flight.

Christoff speaks to daydreaming as an inherently creative process because the daydreamer is then open to bizarre new thoughts and options. The book refers to some of the greatest inventors: Einstein, Isaac Newton and how retreat and solitude can and have led to intellectual advancement.

It made me wonder how such lack of downtime might be impacting the creative thinking of today’s children. Or has the advancement of technologies merely shaped it in more sophisticated ways? More importantly, how has the lack of solitude, away from the influence of adults, impacted their ability to shape a truly unique self, to create boundaries that prevent some pathological merging of parent and child to such a degree that the child might take even longer to define a unique sense of self.

When was the last time you allowed yourself to just sit and observe, to notice the scents in the air, to pay attention to your random thoughts, cumulus cloud ideas, that inevitably drift by, the occasional one stopping you in your mental tracks with that feeling of an epiphany found?

And then I wondered, would it be philosophically wrong to add such unproductive time use to a weekly To-Do list?

Right moves and the universe moves too

Moving to new places is so weird. Like relationships, each experience, and how it comes to be, is completely unique.

When, in my mid 20s, I finally moved out of my parent’s house into Vancouver, I lived in a bachelor suite full of suites directly across from Vancouver City Hall. Amazingly, that house is still there, I think. One morning, I opened my door to leave and a dead mouse was perfectly positioned right in front of my door. I thought someone had put it there as a joke. I was indignant. I knocked on my neighbour’s door, who, at the time, I’d never seen nor heard nor met. I quizzed her on the dead specimen on the ground between our feet. Her name was Kelly. We became fast friends. She was at BCIT doing radio broadcasting. That’s how friendship happens. She’s in Edmonton now where she has lived for a long time and has been married forever, which, at the time, I would not have predicted.

When I moved to Salmon Arm all those year ago for a community newspaper reporting job, I moved there in a whirlwind, tears streaming down my face, because I didn’t really want to leave my former Journalism instructor who I was in the throes of the honeymoon phase of a relationship with. And we all know how that ended. Well, those of you who need to know, know. If that was SO LONG AGO, why is it still so completely vivid in my mind, like maybe it just happened ten years ago or something?

When I moved to the West End around 1999 or thereabouts, I moved into an old Art Deco building on Haro Street. It was so hot, every single window in the building was flung open 365 days a year. My landlord was a former youth care worker but a designer/artist at heart. He was in his mid-fifties at the time, I think, and he had a long grey beard and long scraggly grey hair always topped off with one of those square hats. When I walked into his apartment I was completely shocked. It was like walking back in time into some 16th century castle, all dark wood and iron, as if some Benedictine father might emerge from the galley kitchen.

In the West End, I became good friends with a woman named Heather. We met at work. Her husband, whom she’d been married to from the time she was 20, (she was about 40) had just passed away in six months from Multiple Myeloma. I can still recall us sitting in Delaneys coffee shop on Denman, surrounded by mostly gay men, tears streaming down her face, which I could usually turn into that hugely relieving crying-laughing emotion. We had a good friendship for a reason and a season.

When I moved to Salt Spring, I can still go immediately to that time in my mind and be filled with the most overwhelmingly joyous feelings. That little cottage had a little hot tub under the evergreens and a delicate feathering of wisteria climbing up the deck. Heaven! I would be in my car and I’d just be letting out sounds of happiness. I can say without a doubt, I’ve never been happier than when I first moved to Salt Spring.

I tried so many different things in the past five years. I mean, honestly, I don’t know too many people who put things “out there” as much as I did in the past five years trying to make SOMETHING happen. The Writer’s Studio. All those psychology and counselling psych courses trying to gather pre-requisites to apply to a Masters in Counselling Psych. Oxford Seminars, ESL course. Temping. I have the resume of a writer even if I’ve never written a book.

You want to talk to me about your shit. Go for it!  I won’t be taking it on but I’ll listen, with compassion because I. Have. Been. There. At least in my own unique way. Mine all mine. Get your own!

You know you’re really getting on when you’re suddenly proud of all you’ve overcome instead of being ashamed of it. THAT only took 50 years.

The last few years have been job interview after interview and so many stupid questions as if nobody has a brain left in their judging little heads and can’t use their intuition, references, and best of all, me, right in front of them as a good enough reason to say, “Okay, get your ass in here five days a week and we’ll pay you.” I’m still pissed about it but I just have to let it go.

Just a little while before this latest move, I was seriously preparing, mentally, to pack up and just move to Thailand. It’s why I took some ESL training in December even though teaching kids how to speak English, mansplaining in a female way, has never been all that high on things I’ve ever really wanted to do. Still, I was ready to do it.

I even got offered a job working in a place called Buriram or City of Happiness in the North of Thailand. I accepted the job, sent them a copy of my passport and never heard from them again. It just wasn’t MY happiness, I guess. Although I do think it would have been such an adventure. Thailand for the winter or a government job. Which would you take? I accept that if it was meant to be it would have happened. Besides, I’ve already been to Thailand.

I now have a very intimate understanding in a hugely positive way, (Salt Spring), and a not so positive way, (New West), that when The Universe thinks something isn’t quite right, it just won’t budge. And when it thinks it is right, you can practically just ly down, have a nap, forgetaboutallofit and things just fall into place, handed back to you on a silver platter.

I’m now here in Victoria, employed, within walking distance of my workplace which is in a brand new Leeds Platinum complex, which I can actually see from my balcony. Walking to work ETA: 10 minutes or less.

It’s as if your thoughts really do create your reality or something. Go figure?

Not getting on any kind of transportation to get to work was probably my number one criteria for a job, and yes, I realize that doesn’t actually have ANYTHING to do with work but that was my criteria. Now, done!

I’m feeling very positive about this move. I’m feeling like all that stuck nothingness leading up to this is going to be a distant memory very soon.

Hallelujah and gratitude!

A tried and true solution for retreating from the world: fiction

“Buddies” by gayle mavor

I’m sure I’m not the only person feeling overwhelmed by the ugly events in the world this week, this month, this year. It occurred to me that not since 9/11 have I felt so overwhelmed by circumstances out of my control. Today feels especially bad. I was wondering how to rid myself of these feelings of anxiety and angst and worry.

You could meditate, I told myself. I closed my eyes. Breathed in. Breathed out. Breathed in. Breathed out.  But I couldn’t stay with it. Not for more than a few times. I couldn’t stay with the breath. Not today, a day that most certainly is the kind of day that would benefit from such a practice, even though, my day, my safety, at this moment, unlike others, has not been threatened or decimated.

I opened my eyes and looked around.

I noticed a book on my coffee table. I’d checked it out of the library earlier this week. Flash Fiction International. Very Short Stories from Around the World.  I began flipping through it at random. I inhaled the one to three page stories and then I came across a story that seemed so perfect in its irony and in its sad truth that even though I shouldn’t feel better, I did. The act of reading, going somewhere else, words delivering an unexpected journey, beckoning through sentences, an escape from social media, was comforting. It reminded me that retreating into books, enduring monuments to the best of civilization, can help.

The book, Flash Fiction International, was published in 2015 and edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill., director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

The story I’m referring to above is called My Brother at the Canadian Border by Sholeh Wolpe (for Omid). On the story, the author, a woman, is identified as Iran/United States. I hope you’ll click on her website  and read this short piece of flash fiction.

Understanding trauma through storytelling

photo by gayle mavor. Art by Suzanne Fulbrook.

I went to a panel at the Growing Room Festival on Saturday called “No Way out but Through: Writing about Trauma.” The panelists were: Evelyn Lau, Christine Lowther and Sonnet L’Abbe with Elee Kraljii Gardener as the moderator. 

I was invited to be one of the active listeners. I’m not sure who suggested me. Someone, I suppose, who knows that I’ve taken quite a few counselling and related courses (eight to be exact) as pre-requisites to a Masters in the past few years. Poet Jonina Kirtan was the other active listener.  Fortunately, or unfortunately, nobody needed to talk to us.

Let me rephrase that. Some women may have benefited from sharing their feelings. There were no outward signs (except coughing) to indicate that. The thing about coughing is maybe you have a cold or maybe your emotion is being manifested through coughing.  Who’s to say.

How strangely serendipitous it should be that I would find myself being invited to that event because what some of the panelists had to say set off a bit of a light bulb moment for me in understanding that some of what I’m writing about is, of course, trauma-related. And if I re-examine some of the things I’ve been writing about from that perspective, it’s much clearer to me how to focus the stories and perhaps my entire manuscript with that in the background as the “golden thread” of explanation.

Evelyn Lau spoke to how she needed to be completely in her own space, in silence, in order to have the psychological space to work through her stuff.  She spoke about forming her commitment to writing long before a commitment to people.  “When talking hasn’t worked, writing is all that’s left.” And she also reminded us that trauma can also translate, eventually, into strength.” That, I believe, for me, has absolutely been true.

As a writer, a storyteller, you have to decide who you serve. Do you serve the writing or do you serve the people around you? Christine Lowther recalled hearing that (from Evelyn Lau) and as a result, (and she’s not alone in this experience based on what I’ve heard from other writers), she’s had relatives not speak to her for periods of time because of some of the things she’s written.

I think it was Elee Kraljii who said “the closer you are to a trauma, the more catharsis feels like the impetus for the writing. Years later, however, if you are still writing about it, it can feel psychologically damaging.”  Interesting insight to mull over.

Christine Lowther has been writing/re-writing about one specific image left over from a childhood experience, approaching that trauma and having new memories surface to add new layers and different ways into the story.  

She recalled having some student say to her 20 years ago, “Well, I hope you’re not going to be writing about this 20 years from now!” And she still is.  And maybe that’s what every writer is doing. Writing about the things that were the impetus for writing in the first place, in only slightly revised ways, but with layer upon layer of new insights impacting the words on the page.

Sonnet has this incredible project where she’s using Shakespeare’s sonnets to write around and interject her own writing over top of them, layering her experience as a woman of a Guyanese, South Asian and African mixed descent over some of the most seminal works in British colonialism.  I hope I understood that correctly.

I don’t know when trauma became a commonly referred to word but it didn’t exist when I was growing up. Or if it did, the depth of understanding related to it is greater now. At least that’s how it seems to me.  After a lot of therapy, some education and my own insights, I can’t help but see how that term – trauma – gets loaded with so much misinformation and misunderstanding.

Our stories, after all, are just our stories. They don’t come with labels alerting us to the clinical box they might fit inside. We can so easily forget to recognize how the scenes we’ve been a part of in life can be defined clinically in ways that we can so easily overlook. Sometimes that acknowledgement, not just in life, but on the page, can not only lead us to be kinder to ourselves, but to a more cohesive narrative.

Finding love and finding meaning, the human reasons to keep going

buddhaWhen we entered the temple last week we were told that we couldn’t go into the Hondo because a family was grieving and we’d have to enter in a little while.

Later we learned that it was actually the family of that young woman , Natsumi Kogawa, from Japan who had gone missing in September. Her body was found on the grounds of that mansion on Davie Street in Vancouver’s West End. They had come from Japan to plan her memorial service. It’s impossible to comprehend the sad reality that her family is now facing.

All I could think of was the excitement this young woman surely felt in coming to Vancouver, in improving her English. In thinking about all the new friends and experiences she imagined having before stepping onto the plane from Japan, and how unlikely it was that something like whatever transpired and that led to her death would happen to her here. 

As my attention focused back on the room, I wondered what had motivated all my fellow students to take an introduction to Buddhism course. I wanted to know their real motivation, deep inside, not the sanitized reason they shared about being interested in Buddhism and wanting to learn more.

For myself the past few years have all been about seeking, some people might say to my detriment. They would say that I just need to find a way to accept my life where I’m at. But I think I’ve finally recognized that it goes against my temperament to ever be satisfied for lengthy periods of time if things just stay the same and if I know I could be doing so much more, and I can’t seem to make that work where I’m at.  Isn’t that what “life” is about – experiences and moving through change?

Some things haven’t worked out, in fact, sometimes it feels like nothing has worked out very well in the past few years, and with  Salt Spring as the contrast where everything just felt like it was seamless and worked out with ease and little effort, the opposite has been a shock, another disappointment, an ongoing frustration and endless questioning about what I’m missing that surely must be right in front of me. 

On the other hand, the trying to make things work have led to the meeting of many people I wouldn’t have otherwise met and learning, and yet, I’m missing the key ingredients it seems: love in the way I feel I need it or would like to share it (which may be the problem and I’m smart enough to recognize that)  and meaning.

Zen Buddhism was the topic on our last week given by Reverend Michael Newton of Mountain Rain Zen Community at 2016 Wall Street and a professor in religious studies at SFU.

There were two things that really stood out for me from his words. The first was about how when we wake up from the stories we’ve been telling ourselves, stories that others have told about us since we were children that may or may not reflect who we really are, and we let go of those stories from the past, we can begin to step into the beautiful, clear presence, that’s the essence of Zen.

Each person according to their past and their uniqueness finds unique truths and that is why the truth cannot be told. Someone else cannot tell you your truth. You must find it within. Truth comes from your own experiences, your own practice.

That really resonated with me in the moment because I feel that looking around, looking at others isn’t giving me the answers I need, isn’t showing me my own very personal path. Their answers, their way of living, is not mine. So it requires that I get to the heart of what matters as my own very personal truth about my own life.

Yesterday as I was driving to a friend’s place to hear about her recent trip to Morocco, I was lucky to catch a radio show, Meaningful Man, on CBC Sunday Morning. It was about Viktor Frankl, the former Holocaust survivor, a brilliant man, and the author of  the book, Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that apparently poured out of him in nine days, and one that he had to dictate into a recorder to capture the manic stream of thoughts.

Today on Twitter, I’ve learned that Oct. 10th is World Mental Health Day, and I think some of the ideas spoken within the above documentary have the potential to bring comfort, or at least food for thought, to anyone who is struggling.  Please set aside about 50 minutes to listen to it.