Standing Close to the Flame
You arrive in Malta exhausted. You have made this trip several times, but this time you find it particularly difficult to sit on the plane for the long flight from Seattle to Istanbul. You pay for extra leg room and ensure an aisle seat, but it does not seem to matter. You twist and turn and shift in your assigned area to no avail. You are healing a biopsy taken from right near your tailbone. It is thankfully benign but has been very painful and difficult to heal as every time you sit, your tailbone presses into the wound. You bring an extra seat cushion with a cutout for your tailbone which alleviates some of the pressure making it a bit more bearable. It will take the better part of four months to heal this tiny scooped out crater. Your methods for managing your internal dialogue elude you as you tamp down the compulsion to throw open the door midair and leap from the plane. Oh, the power of the mind.
Working through the details of your international move, while starting a new business, vacating your condo, culling through and donating or selling all your possessions, and packing your life into two 50-pound suitcases and a carry-on have taken their toll. When you finally arrive at the small, now familiar airport you fall into the arms of your partner, E. “Askim, come”, he says, taking your suitcases and calling a Bolt to zip you to your village about 20 minutes away where the big apartment you will share awaits. The separation over the last several months has been difficult and you are starving for the physical closeness with him that is medicinal and calming for you, ratcheting your anxiety down to sometimes undetectable levels. He is compact to your lankiness creating a perfect snuggle ratio.
By Monday morning, less than 48 hours from arrival, your throat is sore. You mention it and take a rapid Covid test. It is negative. You feel worse over the next two days but push yourself to be productive. You unpack as much as possible and make a list of what you need in order have a place for your things and feel like you are at home. You tell him you are feeling unwell. You keep telling him. He does not seem to understand or accept this, however. You have known each other 4 months at this point, spending just one of those months together stretched over two trips. Everything you experience with each other is going to be new. And, potentially surprising. His lack of acceptance of the truth of your unwellness eventually cracks open your emotions and you break down. You do not feel seen, understood, or believed. He reiterates his strategy for interreacting with people who are ill, which is to ignore their sickness and focus other things. You have heard him speak about this before but had not realized that it was being applied to you. This does not work for you. When you are experiencing acute illness, you need it acknowledged. You explain this. When your next Covid test is positive, he still tries to spin scenarios in which the positive test is wrong. His best friend, young and healthy, died of Covid. You don’t know how this is impacting him as he sees you now. You reiterate, “I am unwell, and I have Covid”.
Once all doubt is removed, you do all the things that need to be done. You sleep in separate rooms, you mask, you keep at least 6 feet of distance between you. The apartment, large for just the two of you, is a blessing. You are somewhat surprised at how begrudgingly you do these things. Your desires for conversation, company and warm human contact are very strong, almost overwhelming. You spent the vast majority of the last two years alone save for the recent time at your mom’s and are still trying to fill the bone dry well with which you were left. Even for someone who enjoys solitude as much as you do, physical isolation for that extended period left you with what you call isolation sickness. Now, you are finally here with your partner, and you desperately want and need intimacy and physical closeness. As with most things these days, while you are not happy to have Covid, you are grateful to have gained this perspective and empathy. Covid is lonely.
E. shifts from denying your illness to using his available time at home, before he leaves for his job in hospitality, to take care of you. He lets you sleep late and then wakes you for the breakfast he’s prepared for you. A Turkish breakfast of cheese, almonds, hazelnuts, peppers, tomatoes, apples, apricots, prunes, olives, and your favorite fig omelet that his mom made for him and his eight siblings when they were young. He makes a very strong medicinal tea from lemon, ginger, cinnamon, and you are not sure what else. You eat dutifully and drink the health tea throughout the day. You have the requisite sore throat, fever, body aches and fatigue. Your time with Covid is made more difficult by your lack of acceptance of your reality. You want it to be over so you can get on with the life the two of you planned those months apart. Comparison is at the root of suffering and simply wishing this situation to be different and wishing to be well and test negative before your body has finished with the virus makes it feel endless. By the time you finally get a negative test, which you examine in every light imaginable searching for confirmation of its efficacy, you set about washing all the linens in the apartment and when E returns home from work that night you throw your arms around him and assure him that it is gone, and everything is clean. He is dubious. He has repeated to you several times, “Askim, if I get it, who will take care of us?” He acquiesces and you wrap yourself around him like an octopus that night and hold on tight.
After emerging from your Covid haze, life takes on some amount of predictability. You spend the mornings together before E. leaves for work and you await his arrival at night around 11 pm. You wind down in bed, streaming something from your limited options, which makes everything just a bit more pleasurable and satisfying. This shrinking of access creates a peacefulness, a lack of desire for more. In between, you acclimate to this new life. Rentals in Malta are furnished down to the housewares and linens. So, there is nothing much to do other than buy a few essentials, not the least of which is a yoga mat. You longed for it while you were Covid positive and masked up and went and got one as soon as your symptoms abated. You begin working with a business coach to help you build your new coaching practice and the first order of business is to determine your coaching niche. What type of coach are you? After working through the exercises and viewing the videos, arduous in their length and volume, you land upon the answer. You are a self-love and compassion transformation coach. You are passionate about the transformative power of unconditional self-love and self-acceptance. You have experienced the magic yourself. The magic that gave you the vision and courage to move here to Malta and to change and let go of nearly every facet of your previous life so that you can begin anew.
“It’s hot.” This is the remark made by everyone, even the Maltese, during these intensely sweaty summer months. The heat and humidity make it a challenge to be outside. You’ve been warned about this part of the year and now understand the caution. The days are long and slow. You work on your business, write, and record your essays, and sometimes get drawn into a job search that is a reaction to the fear of going without income while you build a new business. You realize after engaging and detaching from this pattern several times that it is draining your spirit. Reading job postings that seem to list requirements that no one human being can ever meet and sometimes applying for said job only to receive a rejection either active or passive is instructive. This is what fear does. Fear is helpful in certain situations, but you have not encountered a lion on the savannah or a threatening figure in a dark parking lot. You are safe and well and you have everything you need in any given moment. This fear is manufactured. It is brought into your consciousness by self-doubt. When self-doubt taps fear on the shoulder, it does so to give it credibility. Self-doubt tells you that you will not be successful, and because fear has been brought in as the muscle, you believe self-doubt. Strong emotions are convincing. They make the voice of doubt feel true. But the voice of doubt is just a thought, and this type of fear is made up. They do not have to be believed. While strong emotions typically demand to be felt, and often this is the best way to let them pass through you and dissipate, sometimes you need to expose the emotion for what it is, shine a light on it and dismiss it. And there is the comparison. Again. The comparison of what is with what your inner critic says should be. This is all it takes to shift you out of acceptance. You begin to use a mantra to remind yourself that “everything is as it’s meant to be”. The idea that life is easy or should be easy or that you are supposed to feel a certain version of good all the time or that things are supposed to happen on a certain timeline is simply not true. This manufactured ideal is but a reference point for comparison, so that comparison can do its job which is to make you feel not enough.
As Malta experiences its high tourist season, E is asked to work doubles to cover the restaurants in the hotel in which he works as a supervisor. You see him working to the point that his body becomes upset in various ways. He is exhausted. You miss him and your beloved solitude spills into isolation. You connect on Sundays with your friend who is managing a long Covid cough, having gotten the virus just a couple of days before you did. She is awaiting the disappearance of this cough to return to church and the timing of these two-hour Zooms work well and provides you a touchstone. A cherished friend with whom to share the ups and downs of your new life. You have known each other since you were both seventeen and have shared the roller-coaster of life for more than three decades.
Then, a series of choices and circumstances land E. without employment and without a valid residence document. You are both third country nationals and not given the preferential employment opportunities of a Maltese person or someone with European Union citizenship. You struggle to understand the systems and processes that he is navigating. He is gregarious, has a very strong resume based upon his years as a restauranteur in Turkey and quickly finds a position as a supervisor at a new restaurant on the busy waterfront near the hotels. His new residence document is attached to this employer and will take nearly three months to acquire as the system is backlogged. He cannot travel out of Malta until the process is complete, or he risks not being able to return. He works tirelessly at this new restaurant to help them set up and organize everything. He works morning until night. He comes home with more and more darkness surrounding him. He tells you that he is treated “not human”. He tells you there is something wrong. He knows and feels it. He is sensitive and intuitive and observant. He warns you that soon he will come home without a job. He stops laughing. He stops joking. He stops dancing around the apartment. He stops singing his various Turkish terms of endearment to you. He stops nearly everything else while being enveloped in the hellfire of this situation. All the oxygen burned as quickly as it is produced and ensuring the flames lick at him constantly. Furrowing his brow. Contracting his body. Dulling the sparkle in his eyes. Turning his usually animated smile into a stern frown.
Your relationship is not free of conflict. It is not meant to be. Your previous partnership, where anything that might have drawn conflict was hidden from you, was peaceful, but dishonest and the chickens eventually came home to roost. The way in which this adversity manifests in E., results in palpably uncomfortable silence alternating with a flow of anger, indignance, complaints and negativity. From your perspective, although his situation is objectively challenging and adversarial, you know that applying a lens of negativity, victimhood, resentment, blame, anger, and various other members of the doom squad are making it worse for him. And, for you. You have worked for the last several years to redesign your internal life such that your default is one of acceptance and compassion for yourself. You use gratitude mantras to steady yourself in anxious situations. When your inner critic interlopes, you give it a quick and stern rebuke and send it packing. When you feel fear, you turn inward and reassure yourself. When someone mistreats you, you no longer wonder what about you would draw such treatment. You know it is not about you and you care for yourself such that you can avoid the never-ending road to nowheresville that is trying to understand why other people do what they do.
In thinking that sharing these concepts and perspectives will be helpful to E., you begin to have escalated conflict. Sometimes, the amount and force of negativity is too much for you. It takes a variety of uncomfortable interactions for you to learn that listening when you can and separating yourself when you can’t are the best options for you. It is like sitting close to the flames of a fire. Offering different perspectives, suggestions and opposing thoughts is not helpful. Not for him or for you. You try to introduce the calming and centering practice of belly breathing and he absolutely comes unglued. He imitates this ludicrous suggestion like a human blow fish. He cannot conceive of breathing helping his situation. For you, it is walking into the fire and then being surprised and upset that you’ve been burned.
Other times, there is problem solving to be done and your help is requested. The way in which you understand things is to ask questions and to keep asking until a situation and its facets are clear to you such that you can perhaps help or offer a solution. However, you come to understand that only a certain percentage of your words are landing. His English is conversational and far more advanced than your Turkish, but you are accustomed to a certain level of vocabulary, sentence structure, analogy, metaphor, and colloquialism. When you are explaining or showing him how to do something, you encouragingly say, “there you go!” to which he responds with wonder, “Where I go?!?” You jokingly chide him that he is “ridiculous” one night. He responds that you are “diculous” and after going back and forth several times queries, “What this mean, diclous?” Oh. My. God. You have been prattling on sometimes spurring anger in him that surprises and confuses you. It now becomes clear. He doesn’t know what you’re saying! He doesn’t understand your vocabulary! He doesn’t feel supported! You are not helping! And guess what? This is not your fire to stoke or dampen. It is his. If you are to be of any help, you must shore up your own needs and then connect with him in a way that centers him and does not leave you burned. It is a careful and intentional dance, to live with this fire and not get burned. There are a couple of explosive arguments. They are centered around his constant negativity and your unmet needs. When you leave these interactions smarting with anger, you reflect upon the suffering that they cause you. Hmm. If nothing much constructive seemed to occur, you are suffering, and you observe your relationship to have been harmed by the interaction, then it does not make sense to continue this. You break this pattern soon after it begins. Because you can. Because it’s a choice. You are not run by your emotions unless you allow it.
Your main objective is to take care of yourself first and fill yourself with all the love and compassion you need. Then, and only then, should you give of the excess. You set about practicing this as well as calling BS on any comparison that holds the present in a less than acceptable light. The rubber hits the road on self-love when you are in the presence of self-hate, and it is on fucking fire. You know him to have and understand self-love, but as is often the case, when he most needs it, self-hate elbows its way in, instead. You are reminded how you felt when you were treated badly by someone you trusted. Treated without regard for your humanity, your lifeforce. You see in E. the consuming hurt, anger, and resentment. He has suffered many losses over the last six years. There are few if any remnants of his old life. And this, is not the life he imagined he would be living at this age. Your heart swells with compassion. It swells with empathy and understanding. It swells with love. As the fire still burns, you focus on quietly caring for yourself and loving him with the extra cushion that always builds when you cease to overspend and underearn. You hug him, run your fingers through his hair, rub his back, kiss his face, sprawl across his lap until he tells he says, “Askim, you are heavy”. You smush yourself against him at night in a way that heals you from the hurts of your day and returns you to the pure and flawless reality of the present.
The fire burns for the last couple months you are there. When your inner dialogue tells you it is a shame that you are spending your time together in this way, you remind that voice that you are being given a gift. You are seeing and experiencing each other in challenging circumstances. From the beginning, your relationship has been based on complete honesty, being yourselves, accepting yourselves and accepting each other. In the days that precede your return to the US to manage your own immigration considerations, E. speaks a couple of truths that blow your mind in their crushing simplicity. After sharing a particularly bad meal out, during which he complained from the moment he picked up the fork, commenting that it was not a good fork, to the moment he finished the objectively bad food, he raises the
memory again a few days later as you are out for a walk. Yes, you acknowledge that it was bad but wonder about the choice to relive it and he simply says, “I like to complain.” You burst out laughing and right then drop into acceptance. That night, the neighbors are fighting as they often do, and he bursts into the bedroom, “Askim, too much noise! Too much noise!” You again laugh deep and hard. He is fun and funny and tease-able and wonders what you are laughing about, and you posit, “Everything bothers you!” Although the situation itself does not resolve, his level of suffering appears to lessen and he makes the adjustments in his interactions with you that you’ve asked for because they are important to you, but which you do not judge or measure, so you just feel loved when you observe and feel his effort. He acknowledges your kindness and positivity and that you are “for him”. And then he drops the other truth bomb. “You are very kind. Very positive. My beautiful. My Askim. But, I cannot be like you.” The calming peace of acceptance, love and compassion falls over you. You accept yourself. You accept him. You’ve learned to stand just shy of the flames and in certain circumstances can walk the hot coals without getting burned. Of course, he cannot be like you. You don’t want him to be like you.
The gift of adversity is again your treasured companion and teacher.
Acceptance is yours for the taking.