Archives for Shannon Cutts
I've been on stage since I was 10 years old. My family band first put me there, and much later I led a band of my own. In the middle years, I played and sang and acted and even danced in front of groups of strangers, feeling rather more perfectly placed there than anywhere else. This, I discovered later, was because I wasn't really comfortable in my own oh-so-ordinary regular company. I needed the odd safety of the stage to let the best bits of me out unguarded. But then later, being on stage started to feel less familiar....less comforting. Suddenly, gradually, I was no longer bugging my booking agent for more gigs. In fact, I felt relief when one event would end and there was no next event looming. Suddenly, and especially the more comfy I got living inside my own skin, I began noticing how much I enjoyed being out of the spotlight. Over the years, I have received some very genuine and heartfelt letters and emails and personal shares to let me know that my work mattered. But there were also many times when the critiques seemed unusually harsh, and focused on intensely personal aspects of being me - aspects that only the real me or perhaps someone very very close to me could possibly perceive or interpret with any accuracy. For instance, women would come to book signings and later email me with comments about my weight. Some event coordinators would witness the line of eager students waiting to talk one-to-one with me after a speaking event (lines that sometimes took an hour or more to break up) and then send a nastygram telling me they were disappointed in my presentation for one reason or another. At times someone decided they didn't like my book or a blog post I'd written, and they would let me know and then let their entire network know in the most public way possible. It all just got to be a little too much. I started to realize I liked myself and my life better with fewer eyes on me.
I learn a lot from Facebook. I mean, not from Facebook itself, but from the awesome folks I meet there. Recently, a sweet friend tagged me in a post featuring 17 slides. Each slide addressed an area of life where people commonly struggle. I scrolled through, and the slide that first caught my eye said this: Anger is a natural defense against pain. So when someone says "I hate you" it really means "you hurt me." This statement hit home like, well, (insert compelling sports metaphor featuring fastball + pro athlete here). And (just for clarification's sake) I don't mean to imply on any level that "I hate you" doesn't also mean "I hate you." But under that feeling of anger, rage or hate, more and more these days I am personally finding pain. Hurt. OUCH. To further complicate matters, I'm learning that sometimes, when I say "I hate you" to someone else, I really am talking to myself. Sometimes I am talking to both of us. Sometimes I am addressing the circumstances rather than any particular person, or I'm stomping my inner 2-year-old's frustrated little foot, because, after all, life isn't fair! Saying (or shouting, or even thinking) "I hate you" is sometimes the fastest, easiest, and most effective means of getting the e-motion OUT. So the hate-feeling often comes first. But then the pain hits. Then the grief process begins to unfold, with its denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and (if I'm lucky) whatever I needed to learn that can lead to an eventual acceptance and the ability to move along. Why is this realization so impactful for me? I would have to say it is because I used to hear myself thinking or speaking the words "I hate you" and I would immediately stop whatever I was feeling/thinking/doing to jump on myself with judgment and condemnation.
I'm not sure exactly when I began to believe I didn't have any surprises left in store for myself. After all, I still learn new things about other people and my pets each and every day. But at some point I guess I just stopped paying attention to myself in that way...like there wasn't going to be anything new left to learn about me. That ended last month. It has taken me a bit of time to wrap my mind around what I recently discovered about myself, but it has been time well spent. By that I mean, I've needed the in-between processing time to finish a big task I set for myself - constructing my growing baby tortoise's new habitat. My red-foot tortoise, Malti, is one and a half years old and nearly 4 inches long. She is growing fast, and her habitat must grow with her. This is more challenging than just buying a bigger enclosure for several reasons:
Recently I read a fascinating book called "The Naked Ape." Written by zoologist Desmond Morris in 1966 - four years before I was born - it nevertheless reads like "breaking news" in the ongoing human-animal consciousness debate. Morris states quite matter-of-factly in his introduction that he has always both liked and felt more comfortable with animals than with people. He discloses that his work on "The Naked Ape" book is in part an attempt to help remedy that. His literary premise is therefore fairly simple: by stripping humanity of its rather glamorous "top of the food chain" status and simply taking a look at lifestyle, behavior, breeding, feeding, fighting, even anatomy from an apples-to-apples, ape-to-ape perspective, perhaps it will then become possible to feel more connected to the vast variety of non-human life that exists all around us. Maybe, in this sense, Morris's goal is to finally discover some sense of normalcy - a feeling that he, that we, belong here on this planet we are so intent on dominating and (these days) over-populating.
When I was 15, I had a Schwinn bike that I loved. Then some mean people came and stole it out of our garage. Fast forward 30 years to, well, this year. I am 45, and guess what I am learning to ride again? One day several weeks ago my mom called me up out of the blue. She mentioned a sale (my mom is great at finding sales) and a three-speed bike and how if she got it for me, I could take my young & restless tortoise, Malti, for rides in the handlebars basket. This sounded like a great plan and I enthusiastically agreed. Yes, a bike would be wonderful, thank you. In fact, I told her, I've been having what I call "biking dreams" for several years now. In the dreams, I'm riding my old Schwinn, flying around my childhood neighborhood and feeling totally free. So she hit "add to cart" and the bike was on its way to me. Then the anxiety kicked in.
I can answer this question on my own behalf - YES. and YES. My 15-year-old parrot, Pearl, and my nearly-2-year-old tortoise, Malti, are two members of my closest support circle. I work from home, and guess who shares my tiny office with me (it is actually more "their" office that I share with them!). They come with me to most family events and all Sunday brunches at my folks' house (where they are pampered and spoiled while I occupy myself by doing the brunch dishes and documenting each occasion with multiple cute photos). In fact, in pondering this question further, I can honestly say Pearl and Malti are vital - essential - in terms of their ability to keep me on an even keel in what often feels like a very uneven-feeling world. Recently my brother and sister-in-law launched a crowdfunding effort to assist with training a service dog for my three-year-old nephew, FuMing. As it turns out, this is not an easy or cheap undertaking, especially if the child in question is under the age of 12. So here (and as my perhaps all-time favorite article on the topic clearly details) there is a different between a trained service animal (usually a dog) and a registered emotional support animal, or ESA. There are many differences. I think the most critical difference is the training aspect. Service animals are formally trained and certified, and many who go through the process don't make the final cut (I found this out when a friend of mine volunteered to train a candidate dog for a year, then was able to adopt him when he didn't qualify in the final round). Emotional support animals, on the other hand, go through no formal training process at the moment. The process to register an animal as an ESA basically involves two parts: a) stating you have an emotional issue or need, and b) forking over some cash.
A few days ago, I posted some thoughts about a possible evolutionary basis for worries about whether or not we are "normal." Surprisingly, this contemplation came out of a book called "Come As You Are," which is basically about, well, sex. Author Emily Nagoski is a sex educator and researcher who has tackled (and, I would say, thoroughly knocked out) that age-old enduring myth that there is any kind of normal barometer by which to assess anyone's sex life. But she accomplished this in a surprising and welcome way - by first knocking out the underlying myth that there is any kind of normal barometer to anyone's life, period. Male or female, young or old, heavy or slim, tall or short, rich or of limited means, our individual biology can definitely differ significantly from one of us to the next (Darwin liked to call this variation "natural selection"). But our individual psychology can differ even more so. In fact, our psychology is unique to us and is totally dependent upon our innate mood "set point" as well as who raised us, how well they did, the messages we accepted along the way, whether we were good at what others wanted us to be good at, how well our appearance fit in with cultural sex appeal standards during our lifetime, how we felt about all of this, and - most of all - how we felt about how we felt. And how we feel today about how we feel. In other words, we may not have chosen to have the feelings we have, but we are definitely choosing how we feel about our feelings! Dr. Nagoski calls this phenomenon "the little monitor."
As I've continued reading Dr. Emily Nagoski's "Come As You Are the surprising new science that will transform your sex life," I've happened across all kinds of very surprising new insights indeed. But very few have been about actual s.e.x. For example, an eye-popper that crossed my mind right before lights out last night: Why is normal the goal? What do people really want when they want to be normal? I think that to feel normal is to belong." What if our continual ruminations (individually and as a society) on the word "normal" have far more to do with our early clan and tribe days than with today's oh-so-independent and largely low-risk lifestyle? What if, to our ancient limbic/reptilian brain that just wants to help us survive, this is what "not normal" translates to mean: I'm not normal. = I am an outcast. = I must live alone with no one else to rely on. = I will likely be lunch for a hungry predator very soon.
Out in California, something special is taking place. At a sanctuary called Serenity Park, traumatized parrots and traumatized people are connecting for mutual healing. What is interesting about this is, well, pretty much everything (of course, as a lifelong parrot lover, I may be just a touch biased here). The people participants are formerly homeless veterans (both men and women) victimized by the many and varying traumas associated with wartime military service. The parrot participants have been victimized by a different kind of war - mainly abuse by or loss of their human owners. On both sides, there are emotional and mobility issues to contend with. But in all cases, it is clear that the interspecies participants' minds are still sharp and eager to heal. Speaking of minds, there is no doubt in mine that the pioneering work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her now-passed African Grey parrot, Alex, (two of my own most cherished mentors) are responsible for laying the foundation for what is going on at Serenity Park right now. Thanks to Alex & Dr. Pepperberg, we know that parrots can display emotional and cognitive abilities to rival young humans. We know they feel deeply, form intense social bonds, understand abstract reasoning and have the capacity to develop complex and extensive vocabularies. This means that, in some capacity, parrots may be even better suited than dogs to participate in animal-assisted therapy as service and support partners. Perhaps this is what veteran volunteer Lilly Love meant when she told New York Times reporter Charles Siebert, You can look in their eyes....any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.
A couple posts ago, I wrote about a neat and very effective new tactic I just learned for healing stress. Oddly, I learned about this technique, called "completing the cycle," in a book called "Come As You Are: the Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life" by Dr. Emily Nagoski. As I've kept reading, I've kept learning more surprising new things. In fact, I just finished a section that describes how our ancient reptilian limbic brains prefer to deal with stress. I have always believed that when animals (human or non-human) feel threatened, our ancient limbic brain gives us two options: fight or flight. But according to lots of science and Dr. Nagoski's book, we actually get three options: fight, flight, or FREEZE. This makes a lot of sense....so much sense that I can't believe I didn't learn about this until age 45. It also makes sense because I am now realizing that freezing is one of my threat-detection specialities. Freezing is what baby deer do when they hear a nearby rustling in the grass (hoping that if the hungry predator does spy them, it will think "oh look a dead baby deer - that is not what I had in mind for lunch today"). For that matter, freezing is what adult deer do when caught in a set of car headlights....and likely for similar reasons. Freezing is what my baby turtle, Malti, does whenever a shadow changes the light around her. And freezing is what I do in nearly any context when I am startled out of whatever it was I was doing before the startling occurred. For many of the memories I am now working towards completing, my threat-response option of choice has been to freeze. I have played dead. I have pretended I was part of the scenery (no matter how little I may have actually blended in). I have dissociated my mind and frozen my body, a good trick that left the predator talking to empty air, however much I may have appeared to still be standing there. Ha.