The Octopus's Garden
What are you going to do…what are you going to do…what are you going to do…Your mind races and your body vibrates with anxiety. Anxiety, ever present, is a matter of degrees, like a low-grade fever that spikes and comes down and spikes and comes down. On this day you are staring down at your phone while this question swirls on repeat. It is not rhetorical. What ARE you going to do? You can’t stay here. After a tumultuous 17-year marriage, you lived alone for 11 years. You enjoy living alone. Buying property and cohabitating was a last gasp to save a dying relationship. Probably not unlike getting married or having a baby thinking that it will change things for the better. It didn’t. Now you are entangled. You must find a new home.
You click the Zillow icon, see a unit for sale in the same downtown condo building in which you are sitting. The unit number, 602, tells you that it is for you. Twelve has been your number for as long as you can remember. You have a variety of behaviors that are features of obsessive-compulsive disorder, counting, multiplying, dividing and awareness of the significance of the number 12 among them. You click the button, an agent contacts you, you see the unit in the evening and make an offer. Your escape hatch is dependent upon your partner, from whom you are separating, refinancing the unit that you currently share. It will be a process that is fraught from beginning to end. There is no guarantee that you will be able to hit the eject button until his loan finally funds with nary a day to spare. You live together during this process. You can insist he follow a clause in your legal cohabitation agreement that requires him to move out for 90 days while the disposition of your living arrangement is settled. You ask only that while you are living together during this slow death, he not see other women and then climb into bed next to you. There is no intimate contact, that is over, but the proximity to his extracurriculars offends you. You suspect the boundary is breached. At a certain point, it hardly matters.
Friends and colleagues question your decision to buy a unit in the same building. The same building where he will still be living in your former home. They are right to raise this concern. However, you like the building, the culture of the building, the location, the unit, and you feel as though you are losing everything, so it provides a comforting familiarity. Also, there is the intention to retain a friendship from your 14 years together, for which you are attending therapy. The attempt has meaning. The therapist you visit as a separating couple sees YOU. There are times during the handful of sessions that you attend that you catch her looking at you straight in the eyes with a tremendous amount of compassion and something else. A knowing. During one such session she recommends a book to both of you, and about it she says, “it is both profound and deeply upsetting”. You buy the book and set it aside.
A month after moving into your new home, you see the face of an old friend pop up on social media. Seeing his photo delights you and you simply comment, “hey dude”. You have a brief written exchange, mention the changes in your life, and he offers you a tarot reading. You have always wanted a reading. In fact, a few months earlier when attending one of those separating couple sessions, you walk past a psychic reader in the neighborhood and state your interest, which is dismissed as “bullshit” by the soon to be ex, soon to be someone you no longer speak to. There is no one here to dismiss you or your interests and you readily accept the offer. This reading is given by someone you’ve not spoken to in over 30 years, who lives on the other side of the country, but with whom you have always had an inexplicable connection. It lays out two paths. The path of the black cards depicts illness, self-denial, loneliness, and death. The other, the path of the red cards, depicts warmth, happiness, music, dancing, joy, and even a gentleman who your friend characterized as “useful” standing in the background. The reading scares you to your core. You recognize the path of the black cards. It is the path you have been living. You have been living it in service to the path of the red cards. But they are separate. They don’t converge. One does not lead to the other. Sacrifice and self-denial do not lead to warmth, health, and happiness. You resolve to extricate yourself from the path of the black cards. You don’t know how exactly you will do it, but you will. You must. You are scared, which is good. You should fear continuing to exist this way. You know that death comes for us all, sometimes sooner than we think, and you would like to live before you die.
You and your former partner attempt a friendship and use some of the tools suggested by the therapist to surface feelings and communicate with each other. But, after several progressively hurtful interactions, you are shown that a friendship is not possible. You communicate this in the throes of sinking into the quicksand of grief and cut off all contact. Soon after, you remember the book. The one you set aside. You open it and read it in one sitting. You stop various times to catch your breath. It is indeed “profound and deeply upsetting”. It tells you a truth that will be the basis of everything to come. That truth: you are in the grips of self-hate. The book sets out a simple-but-not-easy path of awareness work leading to love and compassion for self which then culminates in a rebirth. From where you are sitting, you cannot conceptualize what it would be like or feel like to no longer suffer. To be reborn and released from self-hate. To love and accept yourself. It seems like an exotic, faraway locale, and it will in fact require many forms of transport and myriad important guides along the way. This is your way out. This is your way to the path of the red cards.
You’ve made quick work of furnishing your condo and as the pandemic wears on, you decorate it with all the art you’ve collected over the years and artifacts from your international travel. You lovingly frame original pieces that you have been toting around and protecting for years. You ensure that everywhere you glance, there is something beautiful to take in. Your home is splashed with your favorite things. In addition to a love of the abstract and the grotesque there are nudes, giraffes, octopuses, and Jimi Hendrix. The Octopus’s Garden, The OG, becomes a womb. It is safe, comfortable, comforting, a launchpad for the hilly five-mile walks that will save your body and your sanity, a peaceful place for your yoga practice, a retreat from a world that you used to know. The downtown Seattle streets no longer bustle with well-dressed businesspeople and tourists taking selfies in front of the Central Library, but the green space provided by the courthouse lawn and its trees that mark all four seasons provide you with endless hours of niksen, the Dutch art of doing nothing whilst gazing at nature. You also learn something about yourself. You are creative. You had been so severely over-Spocked, with a highly developed analytical mind, that you assumed you were just not a creative person. Not so. With resources to decorate and no accommodation of anyone else’s preferences and limitations you have a unique eye and will spend countless hours curating just the right item for just the right spot, everything being an opportunity to add something visually interesting. You see the delight The OG conjures in your very occasional masked visitors. You believe you will be here for many years to come. You don’t realize that this womb you have created is temporary, as a womb is wont to be.
It is here in the comfort of The OG that you will heal your deepest wounds. You have been working on yourself for years, trying to tame your addictive tendencies and eliminate anything that leads to secrets, shame, or suffering. That work tended to center around modifying behaviors. Starting something or stopping something else. This work is different. You don’t recognize yourself anymore. You feel hollow, your insides scooped out, your self-image erased. You will come to understand that this is necessary. That for you to be reborn, you will also need to die.
The steepest part of your journey will take about 20 months. The awareness work that is called for to shed light on the ways in which self-hate shows up in your beliefs, thoughts, emotions, choices, and behaviors is a daily practice in and of itself and becomes your way of living. There are online courses, books both written and audio, various podcasts, check-ins with a therapist during the first year, and lengthy phone calls with friends and family to share your realizations, grief, discomfort, and epiphanies as well as the tools and practices that are helping you, which they in turn also
find helpful. It is the pandemic and suffering abounds.
Your job in healthcare administration, an important facet of your life and identity, provides you structure and purpose outside yourself. You have teams that span all US time zones and you awake and begin work earlier and earlier and finish later and later. Upon finishing, though, you find yourself in deep contemplation as to how to solve the tremendous challenges that are presenting themselves. The pandemic’s impact on healthcare, and your own shift in awareness, expose realities that were once hidden…or that you would not or could not see. You have no plans to leave your job. You do not see the fork in the road until it is upon you. Yes, you had hit a couple of unfamiliar bumps that rattled your teeth and left
you feeling disoriented, but now you are faced with a choice that isn’t really a choice. After more than 16 years of feeling a part of your work family, you lose your sense of belonging and it is so painful that you leave your position. Quickly. You receive a supportive exit for which you are grateful. You have watched people over-stay their happiness and cause themselves and those around them to suffer and you want no part of that. You have tremendous love for your teams and take pride in what you’ve contributed and want to leave that intact. Losing your sense of belonging, or not belonging at all, has been a theme in your life. A source of alienation, disconnection, and loneliness. That thing that makes you feel separate and alone. Life often feels like a cafeteria filled with people who already have their clique and you are not welcomed to join so you stand with your tray and either eat alone or exit the cafeteria completely.
In addition to the awareness work shining a light on your unresolved grief, it also illuminates your loneliness. You are becoming an efficient griever. In addition to moving through all the layers of loss that went unhealed while your perfectionism soldiered you through life, you grieve these new losses straight on. You see and experience that when you allow something in, full force, it moves through you intensely, but relatively quickly. It reemerges and then moves through you again. If you do not resist, but rather welcome it for all it may teach you and for the meaning that you will see and understand later, it does not stick to you in the way that grief used to. In learning this, you allow your loneliness in full force. Holy hell. The pain is exquisite and excruciating. You do not remedy it. You instead find yourself in your bathroom sitting on the comfy spot you built by putting bamboo planks over the tub and adding linens and pillows. Because you live downtown and the blinds are a relatively sheer weave, it is the only total darkness that exists in colorful Octopus’s Garden. You sob with the pain of loneliness. You repeat the same prayer countless times. It’s one of the only prayers you know and is meaningful to you. It is the third step prayer from the AA Big Book.
God, I offer myself to Thee
To build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt
Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will
Take away my difficulties that victory over them may bear witness to those I would helpOf Thy power, Thy love, and Thy way of life
May I do Thy will always
You hang on to two phrases; “relieve me of the bondage of self” and “take away my difficulties that victory of them may bear witness to those I would help”. It is particularly this second phrase that has carried you through many difficult experiences as you knew that you would be able to use your resilience to help other people. It has sometimes been your only solace. Today is different. Today you are praying to God. A God that for you, is the universe and its forces and energies that hurtle us through time and space and connect us with each other like stars dancing in the cosmos. You are praying as if your life depends on it because it does. Yes, you feel like you’re going to die. Your loneliness is so deep and so painful that you sit in the dark and sob and pray for an unknown number of hours. You do so because there is nothing else left to do. You are in what you have come to characterize as a
tunnel. You choose this metaphor because it has a beginning and an end. It can be long or short, lit or pitch black, once in, you either need to go forward to emerge or you must whip a dangerous U-turn and return to where you started only to find the tunnel still before you. Yes, there might be a way around, but by avoiding the tunnel and the monsters lurking within, it only makes them more powerful. More ominous. More foreboding. So, you stay in the tunnel. Sobbing and praying and sobbing and praying. And then there is a glimmer of light that explodes into an epiphany. Other people are not a remedy for loneliness. Other people are not a remedy for loneliness. Your relationship with yourself and your self’s relationship to something greater is at the root of connection. As with the rest of your journey, you find the answers within. Always within.
This realization frees you. Yes, the isolation sickness is very real for you. It does need to be remedied. In-person human company and human touch are essential for well-being. An octopus doesn’t necessarily hang out with another octopus, but it does scoot around the ocean avoiding predators and interacting with a variety of unusual friends and acquaintances before returning to relative safety of the garden. You travel to be with your family, start weekly mandolin lessons with a fun and wonderful teacher, and make plans to travel outside the US. When you reflect upon your life, the most alive and relaxed you have felt is when you are in a country you’ve never been to with people that don’t look like you, speaking a language you don’t understand and living a culture that bears no resemblance to your own. You spend a wonderful week in Belize that is fraught with hiccups and near misses that are made wonderful by the people you meet and who readily help you. Travel is medicinal. A part of your lifeblood. And so, a short while after returning, you find yourself acting upon the inner voice that you can now readily hear and plan a month in Malta. You have wanted to visit Malta for many years. Not because you know much about it or have researched it extensively. You’ve done neither. You feel drawn there. By your spirit. By your place of knowing. You choose a wonderful apartment with a solarium overlooking one of the picturesque harbors with active fisherman in old wooden boats. It is beautiful. You make a friend your first night. An unusual gentleman who sees you, sees that you are wobbly in your rebirth like a baby giraffe dropped on the ground and left to find its way upright and balance on impossibly long limbs. He introduces you to another gentleman. The second saying to you, “You are, what is the word, strange”, to which you reply, “Thank you!” You know what he means. You are strange, generally, but additionally your full and vulnerable truth tumbles out of you naturally without pretense or concern. You have observed the quick and authentic connections that come from this stripping away of your idealized self, such that your true and authentic humanity is all that there is.
You return to The Octopus’s Garden and make quick work of deconstructing it. It is time for you to go. You have been reborn and can no longer stay in the garden. When you leave, nothing of the you remains. It is a blank canvass for its next inhabitant. Whatever labels may have formerly defined you have been stripped away. You are a human being. A human being who allowed yourself to lay to rest your idealized self, your self-hate, and your fear so that your true self has a chance to live before the opportunity to live your authentic life passes you by, death being the one sure thing that awaits you.
You routinely ask yourself a question you learned from one of your many guides. “If today was your last day of life, would you be okay with how you spent it?” If you are in acceptance of what is, and you have treated yourself with love, compassion and respect, your answer is always yes. And when those things have given way to fear or the selfish and destructive narratives of your ego, the question alone brings you back and neutralizes what is not real.
One of the challenges of acceptance is that in acceptance there is nothing to do. Nothing to change. Nothing to be. Nothing to fix. Nothing to compare. Nothing to want.
In acceptance, you just are, and everything is as it’s meant to be.
In acceptance you are one with yourself and one with the universe.