...on Belonging & Memories: the Summer of '09

One of my best friends is currently travelling in Israel, something he does every year. He texted me the other day saying “Something about this place just makes me so at ease”. And even though I’ve never been to Israel, I knew exactly what he meant. And this got me thinking about places that make me at ease, places that give me a sense of belonging. To be honest, I don’t have any answers about belonging, or feeling at home. I’m someone who left my place of birth at 17 years old and never looked back, always searching for some kind of sense of being, of belonging, of deep understanding. I’ve spent long periods of time in the US, Scotland, and England. Through the years, I’ve experienced both deep belonging and deep disconnection in each of those places. I’ve felt both at home and displaced in each of those places. For me, the concept of home, is often attached to people and experiences, rather than places. Even now, as I ponder about my future in the UK, I have no idea where I could go next. I haven’t felt drawn to anywhere in particular, in many, many years.

As I thought about all of this, and felt some nostalgia, some longing, some hope, some curiosity, I kept thinking about my time in the USA, in both 2004 and 2009. The USA holds a very special place in my heart. Growing up, it always held the symbolism of hopes and dreams for me, and when I finally received a scholarship that enabled me to move to Great Falls/McLean, Virginia, at the tender age of 17, I was honestly beside myself! I still remember this moment at Lisbon’s airport, when my whole family was crying, and I couldn’t quite understand why, because I felt so excited and hopeful to start a new life. That moment still represents the perfect example of how different I always felt from my family and upbringing. I wanted to go away and leave so badly! Partly running away from repression, partly running towards my dreams. But this part of my life in the USA is for another day. I wanted to talk about the time I returned there, this time to the state of New York.

I was in year 3, of 4, of my first degree at the University of Glasgow. I was becoming more and more aware of what interested me and what didn’t, in terms of job prospects. At the time, I was working several jobs alongside my joint theatre studies and politics degree – bartender, tour guide, administrative assistant, project assistant, youth worker, drama worker – and was particularly intrigued by the work I was doing with LGBT young people. I used to run this drama group with a colleague, who is still a great friend, and we would create these forum theatre pieces where the young people could explore some of their difficulties, and possible solutions. There was something about it that I loved, and something that I hated. I’d already given up on the idea that I was ever going to do any work in politics or international relations, and it seemed that the future was leading me to theatre work, from a healing/transformative perspective, rather than performative or entertainment one. There was also something about the young people themselves – did I enjoy working with young people? Why? Why not? And how much?

Looking back, these questions don’t seem to matter so much, but at the time they did. And so, I did what I usual do: I found an extreme situation of something and dove right into it. I’d been thinking about returning to the USA for some time, and I wanted to know exactly what I should be doing with my life, and if working with young people was going to be part of it. Also looking back, I’m almost laughing at my own naiveté of wanting to know exactly what I wanted to do at the age of 22, but anyway. Live and learn! After not being able to get a scholarship to participate in an exchange program in California, I went for the next best thing available to me at the time: summer camp! I signed up to go work in the USA at a summer camp, in the following roles: dance teacher, drama teacher, or swimming coach. After an initial interview, I was invited and hired to go work as a swimming coach/lifeguard/general youth counselor at Camp Mariah, part of The Fresh Air Fund, a not-for-profit agency providing free summer vacations to NYC children from low-income families. Specifically, Camp Mariah, named after its patron Mariah Carey, was part of a wider Career Awareness Program, where children were not only going to be having fun, but also go through challenges to encourage their resilience and confidence.

As I thought about that summer in the past week, one main thing kept coming back to me: the simplicity of that life experience. It wasn’t at all easy, but the more I thought about it, the more I could see how simple life at camp was: getting up, cleaning, breakfast, swimming, teaching swimming, lifeguarding, lunch, swimming, lifeguarding drills, more teaching and lifeguarding, break, dinner, activities, and sleep. The days were long and intense, but they felt purposeful. At least, most of the time. During that summer, I experienced the same thing I had experienced 5 years before whilst living in Virginia: some kind of inner belonging and familiarity. Being in the USA always makes me feel like I’m somewhere familiar. Still to this day, meeting someone from the USA always makes me feel at ease, an inexplicable connection to that country and people. Every time I’ve lived there, I’ve also experienced this heightened connection with myself and my inner world. People who are very close to me know that I rarely cry. In fact, even though I may be profoundly moved by something or someone, I can often only let out a lone, single tear. Not in the USA. It’s the only place on Earth where I’ve cried my eyes out about different things, and the summer of 2009 was no different.

Spending a summer at the Sharpe Reservation in Fishkill, NY stripped me right back to my core. On an external level, I literally spent most of my time in swimming trunks, t-shirts, and flip-flops. I think I only had one haircut that entire time, and it’s fascinating to think back to that experience, because there is so much “stuff” that I think I depend on, living in London. Living in big cities, in particular, gives us this illusion that we couldn’t possibly live elsewhere. What would we do without the 100s of daily activities at our disposal? Do we even do 1% of everything that we could possibly do in a city like London? I think we often mistake quantity, for quality. I used to think 100s of options represented quality of life, but I don’t think I believe that anymore. That’s what I mean by simplicity. At camp, I rarely concerned myself with outfits, hairstyle, appearance, and that was so refreshing! Maybe at 22/23 years old, I didn’t really appreciate it, but I certainly do now! On an internal level, not having so much external stuff to worry about, really allowed me to get in touch with many emotions, and my own instincts.

It was also the summer I finally got around to read Eat, Pray, Love, and I remember completely resonating to much of what Elizabeth Gilbert was writing because I was experiencing similar things: letting go of the past, being in touch with my inner core, facing the truth of my own contributions to the many dramas of my life, enjoying the simplicity of certain lifestyles, embracing the art of doing nothing, and generally just being with my damn self, without running away. I faced and experienced many things that summer, but many of those things have only really made sense in the past couple of years. I forged very deep bonds with others who were working alongside me, and I’m still in touch with a few. Social media also enables me to know what’s going on in many of those friends’ lives, and I’m always happy to see what they’ve been getting up to in these past 9 years.

I also learned immensely from the children themselves, and there is also something very special about mentoring young boys and being a role model for them, even though our backgrounds were so different. One of my fondest memories is this: the boys in my cabin had been up to no good, which had prompted my co-counselor and I to think of some consequences for them. But before we presented any kind of consequence or punishment, I sat down with them and explained why we were doing what we we’re doing. At the end, one of the boys said to me: “You know, Ryan, someday you will be a great father, because you never shout at us, and instead you explain everything to us.” It took me some time, but I can now see how important that is, not only to a child, but any person: to take the time to explain, to have the patience to connect.

I’ll leave you with Brené Brown’s definition of belonging, from her book Braving the Wilderness:

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

...on the Absence of Drama

Remember my blogpost from a few weeks ago, on contentment? I had found myself in this place in my life, where I felt truly at peace with it, probably for the first time ever. I was feeling calm and grounded, and ready for whatever challenges might arise. Well, let’s just say that I fell off my board whilst riding that wave. There are many reasons for this, but I would like to mention that a week or so after I published that post, I had a few people ask me: “So, still content about your life?” I didn’t make much of it at the time, even though I felt and sensed the underlying tone and message of such a question. Sometimes, things like these come from within our own circles. Not necessarily with conscious intention, but if something isn’t going right for us, and it’s going right for someone else, there can be a very human response of dismissing and attacking that, both subtly and explicitly.

Indeed, I haven’t felt much contentment recently. A close of friend of mine saw me a couple of weeks ago and asked me straight away: “Where did it go?” I didn’t need to say or do anything, she could just see that the contentment had left the building. That’s the other thing about close circles: sometimes, you don’t even need to speak or talk about something – your people just know. And I very much appreciate this!

But it wasn’t until this week, that I realised why it had left the building. As it often happens, this insight came to me as I helped someone else in my work as a Dramatherapist. One of my clients was telling me how much their life has changed in these past months we’ve been working together, and how in many ways it felt a bit boring. They had made several healthy and proactive changes, had improved relationships, had taken up physical exercise, and felt more and more at peace with themselves. As they listed all these things, I realised straight away what was missing. Can you guess?

Drama. That’s what is missing from their life at the moment. There’s no drama, no chaos. Problems and conflicts that arise are solved swiftly and with purpose. Immediately, I was taken back to my work in drug and alcohol abstinence, where one of the most common struggles was to figure out the meaning of fun in a life without substances, as well as the becoming accustomed to a life where there are no big highs, and no big lows, and instead, there’s a steady stream of something. This something is hard to explain, for most of us are really not used to it. I’m certainly not. I’ve grown familiar to it over the past 8 years in particular, but it’s still something that I find hard to accept.

Many things contribute to this. As I remembered my previous work in addiction services, and spoke to my client, I also deeply resonated with my personal experiences of struggling with this. For many years, I internalised the drama of my environments, then I externalised all of these dramas I had internalised, and made my life chaotic both internally and externally. Either way, I know drama. I know chaos. I know pain. And sometimes, we all fall in the trap of the whole “better the devil you know” thing, and return to deeply painful, but familiar, places. By the way, I call bullshit on that! Fuck the devil we know! I started actively working on stabilising my life 8 years ago, when I moved to London. I took up active spirituality, I did a masters in Dramatherapy, I spent two years without drinking so that I could figure out what I was trying to avoid with so much alcohol, I spent three years without sex for the same reason, and have been in therapy for more than 3 years. Honey, they don’t call it “personal/spiritual work” for nothing!

Through all of that, however, I must admit that I also went too far on that spectrum of self-reflection, analysis, and transformation, and lost touch with reality a little bit. By reality, I mean the day to day. The regular interaction with people, places, and things. I tried to “connect” so much, that I ended up disconnecting. And that’s when the little devils came back and reclaimed their spotlight in the drama of my life. I had lived my life without major or minor dramas for many years – at least in the sense of great disruption to my personal balance and inner focus. But something was missing, and I had never addressed the idea of what fun meant post-insightful living, and slowly, steadily, and subtly, old parts of me began to return and eventually took over again. That was two years ago, and I’ve been making peace from those broken pieces (thanks Iyanla Vanzant, for this wonderful saying and play with words!).

Why does that happen? Why and how do old parts of us return and seemingly destroy all the good work we’ve been doing? Firstly, they’re older, which by default means that they may hold great power over us. Also, because of that longevity, they’re familiar, they’re comfortable, in many ways. I mean, my depressive states, whilst depressing, can still be more comfortable, than a completely new situation. I’ve had those states since my teens – a new situation is, well, new. The development of new patterns is the same thing. Going back to my client, they’ve been living this new life for the better part of a year, but in contrast, their self-destructive, victim mode, was in operation for decades.

I suggested that being mindful of this will be very helpful. To understand that the new pattern, the new life story and narrative is incredibly powerful and full of potential, but at the same time, is still new. It’s still in its infancy. It needs to grow, to learn, to become stronger. This requires time, patience, and consistent effort and commitment. Eventually, this will become the default pattern, just like the old pattern was once new and then it became the default one. And at some point in the future, there will be a new shift in personal paradigms and a new pattern will emerge. When patterns and life narratives begin to shift in our lives, it is important to find new ways of describing it, with new vocabulary. For instance, the whole reason my client and I explored this in the session, is because they called their life “a bit boring” at times. That’s literally like sending an invitation to our personal devils saying: “I’m available again. I miss you in my life.” They’re more than willing to return and cause havoc.

I encouraged my client to find a new way of describing their current life, without the word boring. They came up with calm and intentional. Their lives are “calm and intentional”. The work then becomes about reaffirming this statement every single time the thought of “boring life” comes up. Then, it’s important to work on finding new ways to have fun, and rediscover what fun is, what it means. I struggle with this one a lot. For so many years, fun was inextricably connected with abusing alcohol, and casual sex. For my client, it was something else. The abuse of substances, the dysfunction in relationships, and many other forms of self-destruction, create and spread drama in our lives. Drama gives us highs and lows, and the reason why we struggle when we don’t have it, is because we struggle with just being. We struggle with balance, calmness, contentment, peace. It’s like we don’t think we deserve these things. It’s like we all believe we always have to be in some kind of struggle, fight, or whatever.

Drama is overrated. Contentment is underrated. I’m currently somewhere in the middle.