Over the next couple of months I will be sharing the sweet, brave stories of women that I admire who are doing beautiful work in the world. The very first of these posts is written by the powerful and delightful Esmé Weijun Wang - so I totally adore and am really pleased to welcome to my corner of the internet.
I once spent a rattling train ride in Taiwan with my mother, during which she sketched a family tree in my notebook. At the end of various branches, she drew Xs to signify those known to have some sort of mental illness.
What surprised me wasn’t the three Xs that did exist: a great-aunt who’d been institutionalized for most of her life, and lived a tragic existence as “the madwoman in the attic”; a cousin who had killed himself; and, of course, there was me, who had been living with schizoaffective disorder for years. Rather, what surprised me was how many unknown entities there were, with branches leading to blank spaces on the page.
No one talks about these things, she said, and no one wants to ask.
I chose to reveal my psychiatric diagnosis on my website years ago, before that website became the hub for a business. And even though I wasn’t ashamed, and began to give anti-stigma talks in San Francisco, I continued to think of mental health advocacy as something that rode alongside my work as an editor for visionary entrepreneurs. Being an advocate, after all, isn’t a profitable enterprise; more significantly, I worried that to speak of it too frequently might alienate potential clients. I pictured these clients as searching their Twitter feeds for productivity hacks and insights on work/life balance, and not essays about the choice of whether or not I, as a person living with what’s been called “severe mental illness,” will try to have children.
Be useful, the dominant wisdom said; I saw this again and again in books and blogs. But what “usefulness” actually looks like — lists of tips? How-to guides and templates? — remained vague.
I spent most of April living in a cottage on Whidbey Island, alone. I’d been awarded a writing residency to work on a book of essays, and was using that time to research, doodle, outline, draft, and dream. The seven cottages that belonged to the residency were deliberately not equipped with any sort of Internet connection. Without the noise of constant input, my days became quiet.
The silence, as it turns out, enabled a clown-carful of previously unattended concerns to tumble forth. I snapped awake one night to the thought that I wanted to publish a book myself, to be sold on my website. It would be a book about living well with mental illness — hopeful, but not sugarcoated; realistic, but without the gory details. This was not the book that I’d essentially been paid to work on while on Whidbey Island, but it was another kind of book, and it was a book that wanted to be birthed quickly.
I spent the next few weeks doing two things: sketching out essays for the initial project, and assembling a book — which would become Light Gets In — composed of both new writing and the best bits from three years of online writing.
And I was scared shitless.
My fears about writing Light Gets In were completely unlike my fears about the essay collection. The essay collection was something that I spoke to my literary agent about over the phone; it was something that the other writers at the residency were interested in, and understood as a Serious Project that would take years to complete. Light Gets In, on the other hand, was a book that no one had asked for. It was storytelling that revealed themes of living well with mental illness, but was still far from the sort of “useful” business move that, say, a workbook for tracking medications and symptoms might be, and this worried me.
After I returned home, and was again inundated with business advice from e-letters that I’d voluntarily signed up for, and after I finished Light Gets In, and initiated the process of hiring Allie Rice to design the 52-paged book for me, I finally understood something essential.
If I was going to push this book out into the world, I was also going to have to step into a certain kind of bravery — because I already believed that storytelling is as valuable as, and sometimes more valuable than, a 1-2-3 Guide to Infinite Happiness; but I also needed to bring that into the way I spoke about the book when it was released. I needed to have faith that its value would come through without a list of concrete deliverables.
Light Gets In came out on June 2. It isn’t a handbook, but it is a flashlight in the dark. It’s a story for everyone who is, knows, loves, might know, might love, or might interact with someone with mental illness.
My mother owns a copy of the book. She told me that she’s reading it slowly, making sure that she doesn’t miss anything. “I want to translate it into Chinese,” she says, “and have it published in Taiwan.”
Esmé Weijun Wang is a writer and editor-for-hire. Her site, esmewang.com, is where mental health advocacy meets meaningful work. As seen in The New York Times, Jezebel, and Clementine Daily, her site is the home of the Chronicles, a series of mini-essays that records her life with schizoaffective disorder, thoughts on compassionate business, and explorations of the writing life. Find more about her new e-book, Light Gets In, as well as a downloadable chapter, here.
When my world gets big and discombobulated, I often find myself in the moment of choice. I could choose to become escalated, loud. I could choose to rail against the multitude of things showing up, throwing myself on the floor in a fit of tears and terror about the enormity of it all.
Or I could choose to settle into a state of quiet coexistence with all that is happening around me.
I find myself by pulling out the cutting board. Readying my ingredients – going to the store and carefully perusing produce if I don’t have everything that I need.
I find myself in the slow rough chop of garlic and brussels sprouts.
I find myself in the careful and quiet process of creating something delicious out of seemingly disparate parts.
This version of myself is the real me. The me that exists beneath the tendency towards melodrama, the loud exertions of my ego and bright spirit. The me that exists beneath my distinct ability to complicate matters, searching to reinvent the wheel at every turn.
I find myself, instead, in the steady boil of an unwatched pot, sprinkled with salt.
I come from women who cook. Women who share their love for one another through steaming, simple soups and silver dollar pancakes. Women who seek their own sustenance and nurturing in peeling the skin from the onion and a sense of order in the cutting it into tiny, similarly sized pieces.
I find myself, again and again, with my feet in my slippers on the cold linoleum floor, making order of my internal landscape by following a recipe and feeding my spirit by intuitively tossing in spices at the end.
Today, as you are moving about the world, find yourself in the moment of choice. Slow things down. Invest in yourself and the legend of your own happiness by turning your attention towards the things that light you up, that bring you home.
Today, choose your rough chop, your steady boil.
Today, choose to find yourself in the spaces between.
Kale, Shallot + Mushroom Buckwheat Groat Risotto
Ingredients [2 servings]
1/2 cup raw buckwheat groats (I buy mine online here)
1 handful of kale
1 handful of mushrooms
2 cloves of garlic
nutritional yeast or parmesan cheese
Preparing the Groats
Combine 1/2 cup of raw buckwheat groats and 1 cup of water in a large saucepan with a sprinkle of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for 10 – 12 minutes.
Preparing the Vegetables
Truthfully, I chose these vegetables because they were what I had on hand. You can toss in any vegetables that you have!
Rough chop your preferred vegetables into small, bite sized pieces. Mince one shallot and two cloves of garlic as small as you are able. Turn on your pan to a medium heat and melt a dollop of coconut oil in the pan. Add your vegetables, shallot, and garlic to the hot pan and sauté (cook) them until they are tender.
Add your preferred amount of cooked groats to the pan of tender vegetables in a ratio that is pleasing to you. Trust yourself. You will not screw this up by having too many vegetables or too many groats. Go with what feels good to you.
Stir the two together in a pan on low heat, combining them nicely together.
Once they are combined, add a little olive oil and add either nutritional yeast or parmesan cheese. Again, to your liking. I love my risotto pretty cheesy but dairy free, so I opt to add in two tablespoons of nutritional yeast.
Add Protein, If You Like
There is a lot of protein in buckwheat groats already, but sometimes I like to add a fried egg to the top of this dish or some sautéd shrimp.
This week, I wrote a secret prayer for a woman that I don’t know . I rolled it up and laid it sweetly into an a tiny altar that I had made for her, surrounded by star shaped sparkles and images of blooms budding.
You deserve a revision – then another. Delicious, unhurried mornings. Tender, toe-curling romance. The slow luxury of knowing that there is no race, no rush – simply you being exactly who you are. You deserve to tend to your sweet body in a way that honors and respect your wild, loving spirit. You deserve your own compassion.
I have been feeling the push to rush. The push to make things happen, putting one foot in front of the other in spite of myself. I have been feeling the urge to prove myself.
This is old energy for me.
The striving, the pushing, the persistent urging of the fear of not being enough, not doing enough, and not having enough.
I didn’t sleep through the night a single night in January.
Instead, lulled by the constancy of my excitement and churning wheels of what’s next what’s next what’s next, I lay in bed, eyes open, and thought about my life and my business. I thought about who I want to be, what I want to do – next.
But, because I was awake and vibrating with idea upon idea – I had no ability to implement any of my own beautiful visions. I would wake up, circles beneath my eyes, fragile and yearning to return to the quiet web of my dream world.
The push and pull of ideas without action.
The truth is, we are only as good as the version of ourselves that we bring to the world.
When we are living off of coffee and sugar, wide-eyed and yawn-filled-moments, we are not bringing the best version of ourselves to the table. And, yet, we back ourselves into this corner again and again, believing in production at all costs.
How often do we push ourselves, believing that we are getting somewhere?
How often do we tell ourselves that we must stay up past our bed time, rush through our hungers, or push our the desire of our bodies to the far, dark corners of our minds?
We can not live in spite of ourselves. We cannot force ourselves to show up and perform without leading directly to a state of burnout.
We must be tender stewards of our bodies, moving ourselves with purpose and pleasure as we tend to our own needs.
We do ourselves a disservice when we tell ourselves that we will start taking care of ourselves tomorrow, because today is the day for action.
Action without the capacity to participate in our own lives is useless.
Your life force requires rest. It requires hydration, movement of your limbs, the steady uncoil of pent up emotion. It requires connection, closeness, and intimacy.
A joyful, satisfying life demands all of you – including the parts that you have quartered away and hidden. The inconvenient parts. The non-productive parts. The child parts. The sensual, day dreaming parts. The parts that have you pausing to feel the softness of fabric or the quiet of five deep breaths in the morning.
Tender sustainability is the way that you support yourself during your daily life, so that you can keep on showing up in the way that you want to.
It is turning your sweetness, the full-breadth of your ample care-taking abilities, in on yourself and allowing yourself to receive your own love, your own compassion.
It is about plugging into your life in a way that allows all of your parts to cozy up and find a safe spot to perch.
You deserve the slow luxury of knowing that there is no race, no rush – simply you being exactly who you are.
The accumulation of snow with hibernating blades of grass beneath. The warm covering of a quiet landscape.
A momentary lapse between fits of doing and being and perceiving action as truth.
At the root of it all, I have a complicated relationship with relaxation.
On the one hand, I yearn for it. I peek into the mirror in the morning at my frazzled hair and dark circles beneath my eyes, and promise myself that I’m going to take it easy today… only to fill my day to the brim with to-dos and have-tos. I yearn for the slow pace of space in my calendar and lazy cups of coffee.
On the other hand, I do not recognize myself in a state of rest.
When our self-image is based squarely on what it is that we are offering the world or excelling in at the moment, our self-worth is closely tied to production. As in, when we are producing and doing and acting, we are good, and when we are not, we are bad.
Many of the women in my life struggle with the concept of rest, embarking instead on the daily action of proving their worth to the world around them. They pick up the house. They make moves in their businesses. They rock their children. They show up and stand in their personal truth. They are good at doing things.
But rest is another beast entirely, clawing its way into our perceptions of divine deserving.
When do I deserve to rest?
When will enough be enough?
We set barometers for ourselves. We tell ourselves that we will deserve rest, once we’ve _______. We create conditions for our enoughness, believing in our hearts that we will only have an opportunity to soften into relaxation once we’ve finished all of the tasks or tended to the needs of all of those in our lives.
I want to call a truce with myself.
I am a high achiever. I am most comfortable in the amplified state of three cups of coffee and a massive list to tackle. I am, in my heart, the kind of woman that prides herself on her ability to get things done, tucking my needs neatly away in a small pocket for safe keeping.
But, I cannot help but notice the things that I sacrifice for my constant ability to be on and ready. The slow, languid expanse of knowing that comes from breath and space. The chance to know truly know myself in a realm outside of making things happen. What it might feel like to have that sweetly nurturing and deeply maternal energy turned in on itself, cozying myself into a tender nest of my own design.
Today, it is snowing. It is is snowing, so much that I don’t have a hope to hop in my car and run errands. And yet, within my house and heart, the busy inner working of a business that never sleeps.
I am giving myself permission, instead, to soften. To pick things up as they appeal to me instead of bullying my way through a list of perceived emergencies. To read the book that lights me up or rest my eyes for just a minute.
To separate my being from my doing.
To know that I am enough – in breath, in prayer, in stillness.
I invite you to put down what you’re carrying and join me.
There are movies that I feel compelled to watch, even though I know that they will be hugely difficult and triggering for me. I see them coming my way, peripherally watching the trailers or making plans to see them with my friends. And then, when it comes to watching them, I freeze.
There is never a good day to break your heart wide open.
There is never a good day to travel to that deep and dark part of your experience and chip away at the shame and hurt corroded there.
Instead, our lives are filled up with days that we try to keep good and maintain our equilibrium by making the distinct choice not to go there.
So what happens, if we are carrying pieces of our own story like the plot of a particularly difficult movie?
What happens if we are carrying pieces of ourselves around, pieces that it doesn’t serve us to hold anymore, but there is no nice or appropriate time to share?
Many of us carry stories and fragments that feel impossible to hold.
When we are feeling particularly vulnerable, we pull those pieces out and lay them on the table in front of us as we construct the story of our worth. We connect the dots, attaching our deserving to the emerging patterns.
We tell ourselves that we are our stories. That we will never escape where we’ve been.
And the when brush all those pieces back into their hiding places, slinging the bag over our shoulders and trudging down our paths.
In the scheme of the world, there exists a spectrum of hurts. A wide net of perceived trauma.
My hurt will be different than your hurt. And some hurts carry labels and diagnoses and cultural relevance. And some don’t.
Yet, to each individual person, the dark part feels impossible to hold – no matter where the action or story might fall on the grand spectrum of the human experience.
Your hurt matters. Your shame matters. The quality of your life matters.
It is not useful to fall into conversation with yourself about whose pain is worse. If it hurts, if you’re holding it, carrying it around like a hot potato that is burning your hands and you are looking for a place to toss it – then it matters.
If it matters to you, it matters.
There is never a good day to break your heart open. And, yet, you are deserving of a sweet reprieve. You are deserving of a safe place to land. You are deserving of a life free from the tight and maniacal grip of what was.
You deserve to construct your inner landscape in such a way that you can hold your pieces – without giving them the power and permission to write the entirety of your story.
You can give that gift to yourself.
You can choose to bring in a support team.
You can ply your darkest parts with understanding and care, even when you are simply going through the motions while holding onto some distant prayer for a life free from daily hurt.
You can choose yourself. Your life. Your spirit.
There is never a good day to break your heart open, to travel deep into the mine of your lived experiences with a small flashlight and pick to begin chiseling away at the layers of shame and hurt that stand between you and where you want to go.