My Prickly Valentine

Everything is relative.

As I write, a three-year-old girl, Charlotte, is singing loudly on the floor of Caffe Fiore, a made-up song with a single line repeated over and over. At the end of every refrain, Charlotte’s voice grows louder; it’s rhythmic enough to knock me off pace and prevent me from concentrating.

Her parents, classic yuppie hipsters in organic cotton sweaters, have taken over the high table behind me, giving Charlotte a generous rooftop under which she has splayed out her many amusements. Warbling in what will be her drunk karoake voice some day, Charlotte unabashedly writhes on the floor in her fashionably mis-matched outfit, the kind of get-up that might land a woman my age in jail—or garner an impromptu fashion shoot by The Sartorialist.

As I sigh, purse my lips, and shake my head, silently willing them to leave, a man walks by and wistfully comments, “She’s so well behaved. I wish I get could my son to entertain himself in public. He’s an absolute terror right now.” I couldn’t help but laugh at my own heavy-handed seriousness—a tempest in a teapot over a kid in a coffee shop.

It made me realize that, though I am drawn to chaos for inspiration when the mood strikes, the older I get, the more I actually prize tranquility. In fact, I feel strangely entitled to finding that tranquility in public, such as my favorite coffeehouses where I write, which is probably where I should expect it least.

Lately, the search for tranquility has led me back to acupuncture in the hopes of resolving the lingering effects of “Civita Syndrome.” Filling out paperwork during my consultation with Jim Dowling yesterday, I remembered back to late 2008 when I first tried acupuncture to treat symptoms of stress.

I wasn’t sure that I believed in it, but several friends swore by Cherie Mensching’s services. When we first met, I imagined that she would begin immediately with my aching shoulders and back; instead, we started with my head.

Cherie’s questionnaire was quite detailed; it requested that I describe my feelings, emotions and relationships. I hadn’t been ready for that. How happy was I with my current job? How close was I with my family? Was I in love? If so, was I happy in that relationship? Were we having sex? How often? What hobbies or activities did I engage in? Basically, did I have a life?

Normally, an essay question for me is like a 5k to a marathoner; a welcome, easy warm-up exercise. That evening, faced with writing out detailed descriptions of all the things I was struggling with—and seeing them in my own handwriting—made me wince. Honestly, I hadn’t even realized how many things were wrong until I was asked to write about them.

It became clear rather quickly that my physical aches and pains were stemming from stressors that I no longer had the constitution to stomach. My body was succumbing to the ills that my mind was tired of dealing with. Laying there on Cherie’s table that evening, feeling the zingy winces of needles poking into pin-pointed nerves on my face, chest, hands, legs, and feet, I wondered how life had gone so far awry for so long without me noticing.

I also wondered if all those needles were really doing something, and when—or if—I’d feel different.

Within those essay answers—and, apparently, my own nerve bundles—resided a legacy of stress that had accumulated in layers: a palimpsest of unhappiness that on one side seemed rich with life lessons and texturally interesting encounters, but on the other was a tangle of unresolved relationships and confused spinning.

Everything is indeed relative. This time, filling out Jim’s paperwork felt like acing a test. When faced with those same questions two years later, I realized how far I’ve come; so far that it felt a little sad that Cherie wasn’t practicing in Seattle anymore to be able to see it. In fact, when Jim and I discussed my answers, it felt great to share all of things that are working well, including my experience leading up to and in Civita, and the nearing publication of my first book.

While I described my bumpy re-entry and my desire to integrate the reality of Seattle with the ways I grew and changed in Civita, he nodded intently; I realized that what I’ve been feeling is a “next level” issue. This is not 2008, and I have significant terra firma to build upon. In some ways, the weaving of a powerful experience with my new, naked philosophy for the future seems like a great problem to have.

Part of what I’ve learned since those days with Cherie is how to reveal my own character—to the audience, and to myself. As Bonnie suggested, there’s a time to act and a time to watch, but really understanding the range available to me and learning how to develop it is where I’ve found success.

Civita is the pinnacle so far, which is one reason why I’ve been unable—and loathe—to let it go. I think I was afraid that I’d never be able to tap into those depths again.

Leaving Jim’s office after two hours of needles, I found myself thinking that the dynamic flow I discovered as a writer in Italy was something I brought with me, not something that resides only there. That and, at times like Valentine’s Day when we shower our loved ones with affection, I’ve realized that my deepened capacity to love other people has come about because I finally found the strength to appreciate, respect—and love—myself. Over the past two years, I’ve braved a gauntlet of hard choices, loss, solitude, meditation, yoga, and even needles, to figure that out.

That feeling of inner confidence, emotional core strength, and resilience in knowing who I am is what makes wading through chaos possible—here, in Italy, at work, in love, and in life. One strongly played character on stage can also serve as a catalyst for showcasing others; it’s trust between castmates that leads to honesty in performance.

Understanding and embracing oneself is what gives a person the ability to wear her personality—her true character in her native costume—unabashedly in the world without apology or regret.

If you don’t believe me, just ask Charlotte.

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