Lifelong Learning

I have recently come to the conclusion that I have become a lifelong learner.

It is often said that learning is a lifelong activity. I think that most of us don’t really look at it that way. We go to school while we grow up, then some of us go to college (then a few of us go to graduate school), and then we go into the ‘real world’. Once we’re in the ‘real world’, there are things we have to figure out, and some things that we admit we must ‘learn to do’; for the most part, though, we figure that once we’re done with school, that’s the end of it.

I used to feel that way—but now I don’t. For one thing, I have been back to school twice since I graduated from college. I wanted to change careers, and I felt that school was the best way to properly learn the basic skills I needed to carry with me.

But that’s not the kind of learning that I’m thinking of—or not the only kind, anyway. I’m thinking about the kinds of things that we get outside of academic settings, the kinds of things we look for and live through in our everyday lives—whether through experience, reading, therapy, things our friends and family tell us, or what have you. Unless we choose to completely isolate ourselves from everyone and everything, those things are never-ending.

It is exactly those things that I have been drawing upon over the last few years—even before I became aware that that’s what I was doing:

In November 2011, a couple of self-portraits I took one evening (a Polaroid reproduction of one of them appears here) showed me that I was not able to hide the unhappiness I was experiencing as my marriage deteriorated; it showed quite clearly on my face.

In September 2012, new songs by Pet Shop Boys (‘Leaving’) and Amanda Palmer (‘The Bed Song’) reinforced my feeling that my marriage was at an end. (It fell apart at the end of the month.)

A couple of months later, I learned that good things don’t happen only to other people. When I was having trouble finding a new place because of my lack of income and savings, one of the folks I had just started to intern for (and had known for less than a month) offered me the use of a condo for six months to help me get through my divorce (which involved selling the house my soon-to-be-ex-wife and I had lived in for the previous four years).

In April 2013, I learned from the poems I was writing for National Poetry Month that I was able to express things through poetry that I apparently could not express in my regular journal entries—and I learned that some of the things going on my life were affecting me more than I thought.

In September 2013, a storytelling workshop in which I participated led me to re-examine something that happened when I was eight years old; for the first time, I was able to view it in a different light, even seeing some humor in the chain of events.

The resurgence of anxiety (with the occasional panic attack) in the last three months of 2013 led me to re-examine its history; I discovered a pattern or two in the process. (Learning to change those patterns is harder—but at least I know what they are.)

The anxiety’s unexpected return also prompted me to seek help from a number of quarters. In the last year or so, I have done craniosacral therapy, hypnotherapy, regular talk therapy, acupuncture, massage, and even yoga (in addition to checking in with my doctor). In the process, I began to learn that reaching out and opening up is often preferable to shutting down and keeping things to myself. Some of the folks I have gone to (and go to) have become my biggest boosters, regularly encouraging me to acknowledge my efforts, my successes, and the positive steps I have taken to make things better, and even reassuring me that sometimes taking a step back to take care of myself is also important. (I also learned that what I had thought were night-time panic attacks were actually caused by sleep apnea.)

I have learned to let go of toxic relationships. Early this year, as I was hunkering down to deal with the anxiety, I found myself avoiding connection with a close friend. Eventually, she wanted to meet to talk about things. At first, I demurred, but she appealed to my sense of fairness, so I agreed. It was a tough meeting; though it seemed as though we came to an understanding, something didn’t feel quite right (plus I did not do a good job of expressing myself), and I remained as conflicted as ever as to what to do. Four weeks later, things came to a head, and the friendship was over. To my surprise, I felt an enormous sense of relief—perhaps even greater than what I felt when my increasingly unhappy marriage came to an end eighteen months earlier. It was at that point that I began working in earnest on what would become the two collections of poetry that I published this summer.

From sharing my creative efforts with others, I have learned that support can come from surprising quarters. Despite the fact that I have not had a regular full-time job since September 2006 (I went back to school at the start of 2007), neither friends nor family have judged me harshly for taking time off following my divorce; instead, they have encouraged me to do the things I’ve been doing, and to follow the path that I need to in order to be happy. One of my friends hosted a poetry reading for me, and another invited me to read as part of a talk she was giving; around the same time, another friend invited me to contribute artwork for the inside covers of a comic book he was producing that would be made available at this year’s Short Run.

Most recently, though it has really been an ongoing process, I have learned to pay closer attention to my body. During September and October of this year, I found that I was still having some episodes of panic despite going back on prescription medication in August. One day at the end of August, I noticed that one such episode happened after my regular workout. Since I don’t like working out when I feel like crap, I took a few days off from my workouts, until the tightness in my upper arms had fully subsided. Five days later, I realized that I was clearly overdoing parts of my workout and not giving my muscles time to recover properly in between workouts. I have since adjusted the equipment I use, and make sure I am not pushing myself harder than necessary (I’m not doing CrossFit, after all). I have also pretty much eliminated caffeine (though I still drink decaf coffee), I opt for beer over wine (I love wine, which makes it difficult for me to not finish a bottle once I’ve opened it), I eat very little red meat (I make lots of soup), I have cut back on the chocolate milk (the only kind of milk I will drink), and I avoid excessive snacking.

I have this week just read Amanda Palmer’s new book (her first), The Art of Asking. In large part, it is a memoir, but it overlaps in many ways with the things that Brené Brown (who wrote the book’s foreword) has written about—albeit from a different angle. In other words, it’s about self-worth, self-doubt, being open, being brave, being seen, trusting, and vulnerability. I bought my copy this last Monday afternoon, read all but one chapter that afternoon and evening, then finished it the next morning. There is so much in the book that strikes a chord with me that I will no doubt be reading it again (and referring to parts of it for some time to come). In any event, it feels as though something has shifted. Whether it will take is something I don’t know, but in the last few days since reading it, I have felt, well, normal. Now, it could just be coincidence, since I recently saw my doctor for a routine checkup—at which time he had me increase the dose of the medication I’ve been taking to the usual minimum (I’d been taking half that). I just know that something feels different.

I know this is not the end—not least of all because I have so much more to learn. I will probably never figure it all out—does anybody?—but that’s okay. As long as I am able to keep learning, and to put what I learn into practice in some way, then things will unfold the way they should.

In the meantime, there is more that I want to do. Stay tuned…

(21 November 2014)