sometimes i do cry over spilt milk

Has it ever happened to you?  Feeling dreary and glum and no matter what you seem to do, you’re always left in a state of dissatisfaction at the result.  Your milk has gone 1% sour, and you overcooked your eggs by 5%, despite your punishing exactitude.  Your face isn’t quite right, and your body is all wrong.  It’s almost as if you’re wearing a suit, which covers you, from the tippy top of your head to the soles of your feet.  The zipper seems to have disappeared, and you can’t step out of this version of yourself.  Drinking glasses slip through your hands and shatter on the counter, throwing a cascade of shards onto your leftovers.  The work project that is supposed to be simple becomes a nightmare.

I had one of these weeks recently, when everything (from my perspective) went wrong and I didn’t feel  right.  My natural response was to draw the shades between me and the world, have a “good cry”,  and become quiet and still.  As prepared as I was to wallow in my own misery—which I know is ludicrous juxtaposed against all of the real problems in the world, but nonetheless—I realized my state was not entirely unique.  In fact it occurs with some degree of regularity.

In other words, I was moulting.

According to the illustrious reservoir of knowledge of our time (perhaps not the galactic library, but at least a global one), mammals, invertebrates, reptiles, amphibians and birds all go through a moulting process.  They shed sheaths of old dead skin in some cases.  In others, cuticles (e.g. crab shells, and the like) are cast aside during periods of growth.  With birds its feathers, and fur for cats and dogs.  Goodbye scars and damaged tissue; goodbye phantom limbs and hello beautiful new claw.

Moulting is a powerful process triggered by adaptation from either external (e.g. seasonal) or internal (i.e. growth) stimuli, and is cyclical.  It is a visible manifestation of regeneration and transformation.  And it is exactly what I was going through.

it's messy

it’s messy (photo and text by JL Colomb)

This wasn’t an orderly intentional transformation, like putting together New Year’s goals or getting a make over. It was messy, and involved questioning.  Questioning my reactions to specific situations, the real source of my angst; questioning my path, and how I treat myself and others.  My eyes had to be covered with a thick slough of skin, and my sensitivities heightened so I could see what needed to change.

After a night of sulking, and a day of quiet contemplation, I decided a few things:

– This is temporary;
– All I can do is the very best I can do;
– Life requires balance;
– The most important things to me are my relationships and my art.  Everything else requires perspective; and
– Even though it can be painful, ‘letting go of that which no longer serves you’ (I heard this at a yoga class and love the concept), and accepting change and guiding it toward a transformative outcome is cathartic and revitalizing.

While you can cry over spilt milk, you can’t see out of a dirty windshield.

Go. Moult.

Snake Skin, Mojave Desert

Snake Skin, Mojave Desert (photo by JL Colomb)




protocols for being human

Holga, Take 1, 2

Holga Play ©JL Colomb and AE Welch

We got a new toy.  It’s a plastic camera called the Holga.  The thing is primitive and cheap, and looks like it’s about to break at any point.  The Holga we have is best designed for 120mm  film, but I wanted the ability to also shoot 35mm, and low and behold they had an adapter.

For 35mm, there is no counter for winding film.  Maybe you’ve manually cranked it a full frame; maybe (most likely) you haven’t.  The end result was— well, upon initial viewing it was a mess.  In some cases, we had 4 overlapping frames.  Once my brain was able to read the images, I was in love with this imperfect little camera.  The Holga is a good device for reprogramming someone who is perpetually concerned with doing the right thing perfectly.

But what is the right thing to do?  A step further, what is the right thing to do when you’re the person who never wants to offend?  Which would be me, by the way.  Should I probe and ask someone what’s really going on when they seem upset?  Should I have said or done X instead of Y?  Should I be as dry as a rice cake at work, or reveal a little of my personality? When something is wrong, how do I handle it?

The problem is this, I find myself so overly concerned with “what is the right thing to do”, that when there isn’t an immediately evident protocol on how to behave I often either become paralyzed, or silent, or somewhat one-dimensional.  A couple of examples:

  • I received an email from someone I hadn’t talked to in years.  Accusations were made, questions were asked.  No I hadn’t done A, and I have no idea if B happened. The thing I wanted to say but didn’t was that on the other side of the threshold of a major life change, this person was better off, deserved so much more, and that the person’s previous life was more of a fabricated fairytale than a reality.  But how do you say something like that? (Hint: if you really need to say it, you just say it.  With love and kindness and without any selfishness.)
  • Outside of the written world, face-to-face with real live people, things run pretty much the same.  I was in DC a few years ago for a meeting, and I met a colleague for dinner. An innocent dinner, which was not code “come onto me, please, I have sex with anyone.”  An hour into the situation I knew I had to extricate myself, and fast.  I also knew I never wanted to be in public or in private with him again.  But did I confront him?  No.

There are a couple of things to unpack here. A major one is that rather than being absolute, notions of right and wrong are conditional.  What we put in each category depends on our cultural and societal norms.  How we assess and react to right and wrong depends on what we have observed in our individual lives, as well as how our reactions have been shaped by feedback from others (both negative and positive).

Self confidence also plays a role.  We have the capacity to be strong and absolutely have thoughts and feelings, which are just as valid as anyone else’s. But we have to recognize our strength, and when the situation calls for it, rely on that strength.  We have voice, both what we use to communicate with other people, as well as an intrinsic voice, i.e. instinct.  If we listen close enough, we might find our own internal guidance system.  We can ask of ourselves not only what is the course of action I can live with, but looking back, what can I be proud of.

So, instead of being fixated on right or wrong, instead of being fixated on doing things perfectly and without offending anyone, pick up that crappy camera and just do.  Do passionately and to the best of your ability, but for the love of water, do and be without too much of a filter.  Yes, it can be a risk.  Hell, it can be terrifying.  But shedding the veil can also bring unexpected beauty and fulfillment.

Holga, Take 3, 4, 5, 6

Holga Play ©JL Colomb and AE Welch

the things we leave behind

the things we leave behind

On the streets of Antigua Guatemala, February 2015 © JL Colomb

It’s afternoon.  We’ve been walking the streets of a foreign city for hours, taking pictures and talking and absorbing our environment for hours. The lighting in the city is surreal.  Clouds migrate above us while the stone streets and plaster walls glow.  We come upon a street corner and there, carefully placed upon a ledge, is a used doll. I love things like this.  Her face is smudged, and her little pink jumper suggests a state of undress.  The absurdity of this trinket – reeking of a kind of innocence left in a place that is hard, effervescent with life and all its requisite hope and desperation, its meager achievements and monumental failures – appeals to me.

I don’t know what the doll’s story is.  Perhaps a child dropped it, and some well-meaning stranger discovered it and left it in the most protected place they could so the thing could be recovered.  Maybe it was thrown in rage, or simply left as a sort of goodbye to a past, which has no shape in the future.  In any case, there is this discarded thing, disconnected and waiting.  But material possessions are not the only things we leave behind.

We abandon habits, people, and beliefs. Friends, lovers, childhoods and visions of the future.  I’m chagrined to think that I have left people to the past, that I have few vestiges of family history. It galls me and at the same time it has very little importance.  As appalling the notion is that things with inherent intrinsic value can be cast aside, it is also necessary.  Life is a process of acquiring and discarding. Destroying and rebuilding or building from new.  This is true for our physical environments, our bodies and also our psychological and spiritual selves.

People, thoughts, bits of knowledge, beliefs, and other things in our lives serve a purpose in our development.  Like a tank of gas, they carry us to a certain point until they are spent.  Maybe we are grateful for the territory covered.  Maybe not.  But it is our journey, and these things we leave behind have given us shape and meaning.  We would not be who we are and where we are without them.  And when the time and the reasons are right, like a doll left on a ledge, it is okay to let them go.

i always wanted to, but never did (reflections on change)

At dinner, with a random cadre of people, I learned two restaurants I had always been meaning to check out had closed. “No!” I thought to myself, feeling a peculiar sense of loss, as if an almost friend had been taken away from me. The restaurants were there for years, and I had passed by them for years, always meaning to check them out, but never actually doing it.

“That always seems to happen, right?” someone asked. “There are these cool places, and then they disappear before you have a chance to get to them.”

layers of changes

After I thought about it, the fact that a restaurant had closed became less of a surprise, while my reaction to it became more of one. Why should I be so shocked that something has changed?  After all, the most constant and true thing about life is its mutability. Everything, all around us, even inside us is in a state of flux. Our bodies die in microscopic pieces, and are created anew. The food in the ground sprouts, grows, ripens and decays, sending its potential progeny into the universe to do the same. Asphalt succumbs to the elements and wear, radioactive isotopes decay.

old & new

Change isn’t just about decay and loss. Part of the circle is transformation. The next step in the dance: creation. The example of chrysalis is often paraded about in such discussions. (And how utterly incredible is it that a caterpillar literally dissolves into a sticky gooey mess, undergoes some sort of genetic rewriting, and emerges into this creature with wings?)

The struggle is that the human brain seems to be programmed to prefer constants. We map the world, and commit it to our hardwiring. That coding guides our actions and reactions. As convenient as that is, we have to stay flexible, which perhaps at its heart is about accepting things do not remain the same. And to see the beauty in that.

fire ecology, or evolution of a soul

Anza Borrego Desert by InkSpot's Blot
Anza Borrego Desert, a photo by InkSpot’s Blot on Flickr.

Adaptation: Resin-coated seeds require intense heat to melt their cocoon and stimulate germination.
Adaptation: Obligate seeders require complete fire to germinate their seed banks.
Adaptation: Resprouters store energy in their root systems, which promotes rapid regrowth and recovery after a fire.

At a basic level, fires represent an agent of dramatic change. I’ve walked through a burn area and felt the desolation of the place, otherworldly and lacking in life. All there is is this ragged scar and it’s hard to imagine anything thriving there again. In this sense fire is seen as a destructive force. Certainly human encounters with it have been often times devastating. Smokey the Bear crams his rhetoric down our throats. Yes, only I can prevent forest fires. In Southern California, as in other places I’m sure, we have fire danger advisor boards prominently displayed in National and State Parks. For a reason.

However, fires have been around for much longer than humans. Several ecosystems have evolved to require fires to clear out underbrush to promote soil and light conditions for certain saplings to grow. Specific species of seeds need intense heat to germinate and grow. Here, fire is still an agent of change, and while it appears to ravage a landscape, it actually effects change in way that is necessary to promote growth.

A proverbial fire has been burning through my life. It started several years ago, cleaning out the overgrowth in my life, harsh and stripped, left vulnerable. During the time period, my landscape has been bare, exposed. It felt like one of those destructive fires. Only recently have the seeds cracked open. This week I experienced a curious shift in thought. A sudden enlightenment. It isn’t anything as dramatic as a redwood appearing overnight. But a sprout has pushed through the surface and is easing into the light.

The shift has to do with action and fear. I fear conflict in my life, and tend to shutdown and cocoon during disagreements. Instead of clearly communicating who, what, where, why, when and how, I sit back. I storm, I isolate. I wait for someone else to do and all the while make sure that they FEEL how pissed or hurt I am about something. The shift in thought is this: how effective is that behavior? Furthermore, it’s so bloody passive. It puts power and responsibility into someone else’s hands instead. So I wait and wait for someone to finally get what I want or need. An apology, a resolution, a change. It almost ensures dissatisfaction with an outcome. The shift also has to do with being uncomfortable with that time-honored reaction of isolation and storming.

The benefits of fire ecology are somewhat slow to be realized, it takes time for plants and trees to do their thing. Fire ecology of the soul is similar. Tomorrow I probably won’t be an outspoken and amazingly articulate advocate of my own interests. But likely I’ll hesitate, my period of withdraw will be shorter, I’ll have that uncomfortable conversation far sooner.

Progress is often hard to see in the details, but if you step back it’s there. Steadily unfolding.