Animals & The Serious

I don’t know if you know this about me, but I can be a little . . . new-agey. I came to college with a book on Wicca packed in my dorm library. I have studied feng shui and believe lots of it to be true. I watch Long Island Medium with no hint of irony. Once, when I did mushrooms, I was convinced I had been a native american maiden in a past life – and I’m still convinced.

I joke about these things with friends and play it off like they’re cute quirks. But more deeply, I have always had an intuition that has felt uncomfortable, and which I have minimized for fear of either seeming a) like I think I’m special/some kind of whisperer, and have abilities that I don’t actually have (which would be embarrassing) b) weird and off-putting and invasive with my intuitive questions and observations (which would be alienating).

At a young age I learned to keep what I knew to myself. I could feel what people were feeling easily as a child – not imagining and empathizing, but feeling it myself, without their saying a word. I also knew what people would say before they said it, and would sometimes in class write down what the teacher would say before she spoke, to see if I’d be right – which I usually was. As a child I felt drawn to certain animals as well, and could spend hours in their presence, saying nothing, but still feeling the back-and-forth exchange as though we were in conversation. There were other times I knew something would happen exactly in a particular way, and then it did – I could see it perfectly, and when it then happened I didn’t feel deja vu, but I did have a knowing feeling of “yup”. Walking into spaces I was deeply affected by the sense that either something good was happening, or something amiss had occurred in that place. At 16 years old I sat straight up in the middle of the night, roused from a deep sleep, sobbing heavily into my hands; it was 4:00 am. The next day, I learned my father had died in the hospital in the early hours of the morning.

On long car drives I would stare out the window at the forests beyond the highway, and long to be on horseback, galloping through the trees until I could come to a field, dismount, and lie in the sun with my horse, picking flowers while he nibbled at the grass. I felt this was something that I had done before, that would come naturally to me, and I longed for it the way you long for food.

As you can perhaps imagine, these are things I have spent most of my life trying to make light of, or hide. I strongly believed it would make me seem like a hokey weird crackpot, and being some kind of Cherokee Soothsayer was at odds with the image I had in mind of who I wanted to be. I wanted to be intellectual, serious, a sleek business lady. I wanted to own a fax machine when I grew up.

But what was I really? Emotionally intuitive; incredibly sensitive; deeply feeling.

So why am I saying all of this?

One of the areas in which I have always felt extremely deeply is a connection to animals. As a child I was obsessed with visitng homes of friends & family with pets. One of my best friends, Jenny, had a maltese; I was no longer allowed to have playdates with her unless I promised to play exclusively with Jenny, as it seemed I had a nasty habit of disappearing to play with the maltese, and walk it with her brother whenever possible, leaving Jenny alone in her room with an unfinished imaginary scene, scattered dolls, and a lot of questions. This contributed to my sense that the feeling/intuitive/nature-connected side of me was not the side to present to society.

Baltimore_Aquarium_-_Big_tankThis weekend, Husband took me on a surprise weekend jaunt to Baltimore, and we went to the National Aquarium. I was excited to see the animals, but as soon as we started to tour the exhibits, my spirits deflated and a deep sadness overtook me. I tried to hide it, but I’m not very good at that. Also, it was damn humid in there, and I felt like I might keel over into the crocodile tank at any moment.

My green face and dour expression did not go unnoticed by Husband, unfortunately.

“What’s wrong, love? Do you not like museums, or aquariums?

“No, of course I do! It’s wonderful. I love it.”

“But . . .”

“It’s great! It’s so interesting to learn about all the different animals.”

“But . . .”

“Well, I mean – it’s nothing. I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer.”

“No, what is it?”

“I just – I kind of always feel really sad at zoos and aquariums. I just – the animals – this isn’t how they should live. Look at that seven foot snake, in a glass cube the size of a UPS box, all alone. And all these fish and turtles and crocodiles in the tank with the scummy water, never able to be someplace fresh, or new, or really move. There’s just something kind of terrible to me about it, and it makes me so sad for them.”

“I feel you, love. Let’s get out of here.”

The fact that we then went to distract ourselves from the plight of sea creatures over lunch at a crabshack shall be struck from the record.

In the car leaving Baltimore on the way to my Aunt’s house to pick up our puppies, Husband I talked about the aquarium, and how it made us think about environmentalism. We like to think of ourselves as conscientious people, but the ways that we behave in regards to the environment don’t reflect that. Nobody’s perfect, and we do take great pains to be kind and thoughtful people, and help others – but wouldn’t it be nice to our behaviors regarding the environment be aligned to our values, as well? This got me thinking about ways that my feelings about animals could change more than just my eating habits; if I took my connection to animals more seriously, what other behaviors in my life might be changed?

We arrived at my Aunt Laura’s horsefarm, and everyone took their spots on the squishy sofas to watch football. I nestled into my corner and put my glass down on the coffee table, when a book caught my eye. I’m even embarassed to tell you the title, but just bear with me. It was called “Angel Horses,” and – OK! I know, it’s ridiculous, but don’t laugh! – it was called “Angel Horses,” and it contained short vignettes about people’s deep emotional experiences with equines. I started reading it out of morbid curiosity and a desire to do something other than watch football, and found myself, an hour later, having read 97 pages and crying three times.

Don't knock it till you try it.

Don’t knock it till you try it.

This book seemed to materialize at such an opportune time. I was asked on Friday to be on the marketing committee of the Morris Animal Refuge; then there was the experience at the aquarium, and all the conversations about environmentalism, living more “green,” and my own thinking about really committing to vegetarianism.

Getting up to refill my water glass and take a break from sobbing over pony friends, a whole lifetime of memories – connecting animals and the spiritual – came fluttering back to me. I had forgotten so many of them; others I had poo-poo’d, or brushed aside as insignificant. Taken together, I saw they were anything but.

By the time we got in the car to come home, I was practically in a dream state. Why was I having all of these experiences about animals all at once? What was this trying to teach me?

We drove quietly for awhile, until Husband asked,

“So, you really liked that book, hmmm?”

“I did.”

“So tell me about it.”

It is such a relief to be with someone with whom you can let your freak flag fly. I told him about the book; the memories; the intuition; the sense that there was something here for me to learn, that this might be an important path for me to pursue; the feeling that it was, and wasn’t, just about animals.

“Hmmm.” he said.

Normally I would jump to say more, but I’m practicing holding my tongue and letting other people think before I rush in to talk. So I stayed quiet, uncomfortable but hopeful, and we drove on.

In the silence I left unpunctured, he said:

“Honestly, it does seem you’re grasping at straws, trying to do something, but it’s always what you think you should do, or what someone else has told you. So you grasp at these straws and flail around, and it shows. And you’ve spoken about this kind of thing before, but you never pursue it, or take it seriously.”

I was shocked at the intense shift the conversation had taken; but also thrilled. I let the words fall. I imagined they were snowflakes; I let them hit the pavement, and make it wet with their melting. I felt I’d waited long enough.

“Can you name one of these straws?” I calmly asked.

Without missing a beat, he said “Pedalogical.”

I felt a jolt through my system, but I wasn’t angry – he was right. I was curious to know what he knew about this.

“Ok. Tell me more – what makes you say that, exactly?”

“It doesn’t seem like you love it, like you have a desire to do it; more like you feel you should. Then think about something like coaching. You’ve talked about that for years now, and it sounds like something you actually, truly, want to do.”

Without thinking, and much to my surprise, I said, ” Yes. You’re right. Completely. But I’m afraid to do coaching.”

“Why?”

“I’m afraid people will think it’s ridiculous and not take me seriosuly.”

“And what be so terrible about that?”

“Well, who would hire me?”

I shifted in my seat. This was, of course, only a small part of what would be terrible about that. The bigger part was shame & lack of confidence. I imagined my high school friends on the phone, checking in about me (“Have you talked to Justine?” “Yep. yep yep yep.” “Is she still becoming a life coach?” “Yep.” “Ughhh . . . what happened to her? She had so much going for her and then she kind of just fell apart. Is she going to start practicing ayurvedic medicine next?” “I don’t know – I just wish she’d stop flitting from one thing to another and just go back to school. She’s wasting her potential.” ” I know. It’s so sad.”) I imagine the pursed-lips-of-disgust of my aunts, who will never ask me about my “business” because they think it’s a joke, and are excrutiatingly disappointed.

I felt the hope drain out of me. The boulder of shame pressed down on my chest; the leaden shoes of self-doubt shackled my feet. I had felt so light and curious; now I felt uncomfortable in my skin and heavy.

Husband knew this without my having to confess. But that didn’t mean he was sympathetic.

“You worry so much about being taken seriously that you end up doing nothing. So then of course you won’t be taken seriously, because there’s nothing to be taken. You’re too scared to do things you actually want, so you flutter around doing things you don’t really care about, and it shows. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy.”

His words were hard but not harsh. The snowflakes had turned into hail nuggets. In the past I would have launched into a litany, listing all the manymanymany things I do. But instead I let the words sink in. I gulped. My stomach dropped, then rose to its usual spot in my ribcage.

He was right.

“You’re right.”

I had nothing else to say, so I settled into my seat, wrapped my arms around the dogs in my lap and hoisted them closer to my chest – eliciting a collective groan from the two of them at being moved – and looked out the window, at the blue trees whipping against the black sky.  I could hear the water on the pavement through the cracked open window, and the breeze was deliciously cold on my cheeks and chin, the rest of me warm under my coat and scarf and the soft blanket of heavily breathing puppies I was pinned under.

The tires swished. The dogs snorted.

Suddenly, a thought materialized that made my eyes open wiide in the darkness. Pedalogical. I had first loved the name, then felt confined by it. I thought to myself on a number of occasions, “if I took the name out of the equation, what would I be doing? Am I trying too hard make it work?” But as we bounced along the black highways with the strobe of headlights lighting up our faces, I realized I had just been approaching it from the wrong direction.

Pedalogical. Teaching logic. It’s not about giving logical solutions to problems pertaining to education – the peda isn’t the “field of teaching” – it’s me; I’m the teacher. I’m the coach. The logic is what I bring to the mess clients feel they’re in the midst of; it’s what we bring to their stuckedness, their problems.

I felt better; I felt inspired. I thought about coaching, and felt peaceful. Shit, I thought. This is what happens when I’ve hit on the right decision. I know what’s coming next, and it did –

Suddenly, in a crazed flurry, came visions of what coaching would look like; they flew into my mind in three-dimensions, and I could see things as though I was there. Not only could I see how things would look, and feel how they would feel, but each thought came with a step-by-step instructional manual to help me figure out how to get there. I saw myself teaching free workshops on elements of my coaching. I could smell the coffee I brought. I was wearing a blue lady suit. We were in the classroom of Peirce College, with clean carpets and demurely lowered window shades. We were in the conference rooms of  IndyHall and CultureWorks; folks were there on their lunchbreaks, skeptical when we started, but they would get into it once we started the writing exercises and small group work. I gave out my business card – which was tan and red – at the end and encouraged folks to follow up. I heard from at least one person after each workshop. They would be happily surprised to learn my prices weren’t too high.

This would lead to my getting clients, and a few small speaking engagements that might seem small and silly to me at first, but end up being meaningful.

I would look back on this moment in two years and feel peaceful and content, remembering the angst I’d suffered while figuring out a path. Eventually I would have my own small studio office, with a shiny white desk and comfortable armchairs with colorful pillows, a frosted glass window facing the street, pine floors.

I saw my new website in a flash. My new logo, my new packages.

Pedalogical: Teaching You to Make Sense of Your Next Steps

I just looked up from writing this, and thought “Wow, that’s a tangent. Am I getting too-thinky again? Do I want to make this public? Won’t this bore people? Am I just doing the same damn thing I always do – putting things in nice lists and presenting them on a doily to get people to say it looks good, you’re on the right track, go ahead?”

I don’t know, self; maybe I am. But I also feel excited about this for the first time in awhile. All of these are things I have said about Pedalogical before – the workshops, the packages – but somehow naming it “consulting” sucked the life out of it. And somehow naming it “coaching” makes it seem so much more… right?

Usually when I have a vision-flash of something, it means I’m on the right track. And in the past I ignore that, and think it’s hokey hocus pocus, but if a damned horse can communicate telepathically with a rider about a landmine buried in the plains of Nebraska (as one moving character did in my Angel Horse tome), then I can at least try to communicate with the other half of my brain without telling it to shut up.

I believe I may be starting a new chapter of letting myself feel my way through things instead of thinking and listing and categorizing them to death. It’s kind of horrifying. But kind of curious and amazing . . .

Have you struggled with this dichotomy? Have you squelched your intuition/spiritual side/ emotional talents in favor of the crisp, clean, clear world of logic? I’m finding it so difficult to turn off that side of my brain – and the running monologue that says feelings are stupid – and let myself be. How have you managed to do it, if you have?

Some questions I’m asking myself are:

– How can I let my intuitive/feeling side take more of a role in directing my actions?

– How can I let this part of me take a central role in my work?

– Where do I censor myself, and why?

– Who would I need to contact/learn from in order to cultivate these dear but censored parts of myself?

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9 thoughts on “Animals & The Serious

  1. Life has gotten way better and way more beautiful since I’ve learned to accept and harness my intuition, as well as how to reel it in when I’m too sensitive to what I’m round and being in a room feels like having a direct connection to every emotion, dream, hope, and fear around me. (Very rare, but when it happens – WHOA.) Let’s chat in detail offline. 🙂

  2. Finally, the other thing I forgot is, although this isn’t about you becoming an artist whatsoever, I think you’d find the book (and the process of) The Artist’s Way very powerful anyway. I’m happy to share my experience of it.

    Also, I’m sorry and/or you’re welcome for the absurd number of comments today.

  3. Justine,

    OK, I’m finally chiming in after reading this on and off, with great interest, for weeks. Of course your writing is just so sharp and delightful, as always, but more than that it has been a true gift to get such an intimate look into a peer wrestling with (similarly and differently) these huge questions of work, self, home, world…

    And yes, I think about this dichotomy in myself all the time — the emotional versus the intellectual. I certainly don’t believe this is a purely female conundrum, but for whatever reason, I find myself thinking of it often in terms of my own understanding or definition of feminism. I think that a large part of my professional maturity has grown out of a need to join the two, the emotional and the intellectual, and to fight for the emotional as BEING intellectual, as not being any less valuable, but rather an integral piece of my work.

    I believe deeply that there are threads in all of us that begin in the earliest of childhood – threads of interest, personality, pursuit — and that these threads, while often mysterious in the present, can be easily traced in retrospect. I think of this often when it comes to teaching: watching for those threads in children, nurturing them, celebrating them, honing them. I think also of those threads in myself as I reflect on how I came to where I am: how as a child (and even an adolescent, and even a very young adult) my ambitions were things like artist, actress, President, and most of all, writer. While none of those job titles are the title of the job I now have and love, there are pieces of what drew me to each of them in everything I do. The threads can be very abstract and completely obvious at the same time. For example, when I fancied myself a writer (and I suppose I still do), I wrote mostly about people: trying to capture the nuance, the details, the essence of an individual. This is the kind of writing I do about my students all the time. This is the kind of seeing I work at as a teacher.

    When I first began teaching formally, then with very, very young children, I was amazed at how deeply intellectual the job was. In fact, I was thrilled. I felt like I had found out some secret or tricked someone somehow — how could I have found a career that was so engaging of my intellect, requiring so much thinking, analyzing, describing and processing, and yet also requiring so much intuition and so very much love?

    And somehow in this mix I also began to tie this into somewhat defensive feelings about being a woman and what this means, and about “women’s work.” Meaning, of course teaching young children is an incredibly intellectual job, of course it is serious and difficult and professional, but it is also about caring, loving and kindness — and the two are not mutually exclusive. Is it because the latter are traditionally female qualities that teachers have so much trouble being seen as the professionals they are by the media, by society? Of course there are so many other variables at play here. It is a complex problem. But even now, when my principal is pushing me to work with older and older children as time goes on (which a large part of me is thrilled about), I find myself feeling this pang, knowing that part of this is because I am smart and well-educated, which pisses me off, because teaching four-year-olds is, in my mind, just as intellectual and requiring of smart, strong, passionate teachers as teaching high school is.

    Well, anyway, this is in danger of becoming a rant. And I’m starting to think this has little to do with the particular questions you asked. I confess to being on glass of wine number two after a day of school followed by a grueling meeting about standardized testing. But it’s a start, for now! I will continue to follow you here, and would love to pick all of this up in person, the next time you’re in NYC!

    All my best,
    Rue

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