46 — A Blagenflorble Heart

😱 Holy shit, I’m 46 years old! It’s been a year. Literally. Because that’s how birthdays work. But for the first time in a long time I took a weekend to myself and am staying in Calistoga and treating myself to mud baths, geothermally-heated pools, massages, walks through gardens, and some delicious food and beverage while I consider my past year and think about the one coming up.

Palomas, mud baths, and lots of sitting in my hotel reading and writing (not pictured).

Looks like I have (on the mean) about 33-ish years before I die…

(check your when)

… of either cancer or some heart thing.

(check your how)

Nothing like kicking off an annual review with some morbid fixation. I’ve always kinda been obsessed with looking at life through the lens of death, but also feel a tiny bit bad about reminding people about their own mortality. Sorry! We are nothing if we aren’t a society that loves our death denial!

And yet, death seems to be around every corner lately. I mean, it always is, but the last few years it has been jumping out and scaring us before we even get to the corners. A million COVID-19 deaths in the US. The war in Ukraine. Abortion rights likely being rolled back. The awful mass shootings in Uvalde. Life expectancy in the US is estimated to have dropped over a year since the pandemic started. And meanwhile time keeps marching on one box every week, and here I am solidly in the 2nd half of my 40s. Oh god.

My life in weeks (every box is a week)

My mean life expectancy is in the mid 70s, but then there’s my long-term life goal of riding my bike around the block on my 100th birthday. The gap of 25ish years is real, and something that motivates me to pursue health (physical and mental) in a very tangible way every day.

I’m happy to report that I’m in better health on my 46th birthday than I was on my 45th birthday, thanks to Peloton and some serious attention to my sleeping and eating habits.

I sometimes daydream about a time when I’m doing these annual reviews in my 90s, and how much anticipation I would have for those last few rows and boxes.

Okay, wait. Let’s back up a bit.

👋 Hello, friend! Welcome to my… 16th!… year of yearly birthday reflections. This is gonna be a kinda rambly, wandering one, cause that’s just the kinda mood I’m in. Here are the previous 15 with high-level notes about what happened in those years:

Last year was the year of reconstellation ✨

I’ve had a running dialogue with myself since 2019, slightly before the pandemic even started, when a lot of things in my personal life were already in turmoil. It has to do with an oddly strong attachment to the Tower card in tarot. That one with the tower being struck by lightning and people jumping out of it.

Top row, left to right: Rider Waite Smith, Japaridze, CBD. Bottom row, left to right: Dali, She-Wolfe, Thoth.

It generally represents upheaval. I’ve had an ongoing internal dialogue about the ambiguous nature of this card and it’s placement within a major arcana between the Devil and the Star indicating that it’s not really the end of things, but more of a radical shifting and clearing away of things. Like a forest fire. Part of the natural order. The proceeding pandemic and #blacklivesmatter movement and January 6th attack on the Capitol and so much more have reinforced this feeling that we’re collectively stuck on the Tower card, and a part of me has been anticipating that moment when we feel like we’re able to collectively move off this card. To take a breath and begin to build things anew in the space that had been created by all this awfulness. The card after the Tower card in tarot is the Star card, which perfectly encapsulates this “next step” in the natural cycles of creation and destruction.

Same decks in the same order as with the Tower card above.

Last year, I thought I was there. Ready for the Star. My year of reconstellation (creating new stories from the same stars of my life) felt like the right time to re-connect the dots of my life and the world and the stories that had felt broken by the previous two+ years of pandemic and personal pandemonium. But… looking back now, I think I jumped the gun. Neither I, nor the world, were quite ready to leave the Tower card.

Honestly, I’m still not ready.

And I don’t know if / when we’ll be ready for that in the near future.

The timeline feels incredibly dark.

I feel the heaviness of everything right now, and some days I don’t feel like I know what to do with it all. The task of “moving on” feels impossible because terrible things keep happening, and it doesn’t feel like these waves of awful are going to end anytime soon.

Three books

During my continued residence in feeling groundless and lost in the world, I’ve been reading a lot of books in the hopes that I might find new wisdom that might help me navigate these feelings.

Three books in particular have really impacted the way I am thinking about and processing stuff:

Isn’t it amazing when you read books that have nothing to do with one another and yet somehow it seems like they’re voices singing different harmonies of the same song?

These three books, when read back to back, felt like a three-part map for learning how to use dignity, grief, and a love ethic to reclaim my aliveness and pain while also motivating myself to participate in the big mess wholeheartedly.

From Creating Capabilities, I found this amazing question:

“What does a life deserving of human dignity require?”

Nussbaum outlines a series of capabilities that answer this question. A life of dignity requires, first of all, the opportunity to live a full life. It requires access to health care, bodily autonomy and integrity, and an educational environment that develops our senses, imagination, and thoughts. It requires the capability of having and expressing our emotions, developing and exercising our understanding of what is good, true, and beautiful, and the space for develop belief and faith. It requires the opportunity to find communities where we feel a sense of belonging and respect. It requires being able to recognize and respect the dignity in all humans, as well as in other members of the natural world. It requires being granted some amount of control over our environments, through political, economic, and social participation. And lastly, perhaps enabled by all of the above, a life deserving of human dignity requires the space and security necessary to laugh and cry and play and have time for silliness and recreation.

Francis Weller, in The Wild Edge of Sorrow, and coming from a less philosophical and political perspective, addresses the elephant in the room that I feel whenever I get too swept up in how things should be. The way things are feels so far from that ideal. With amazing clarity and poetic grace, Weller describes 5 gates of grief that we must acknowledge and learn to walk through if we hope to be able to integrate and learn from the awful things happening in the world.

  1. The first gate is simply described as: everything we love, we will lose.
  2. The second gate contains the places within us that have not known love.
  3. The third gate of grief is the sorrows of the world.
  4. The fourth gate is what we expected and did not receive.
  5. The fifth gate is ancestral grief.

My takeaway from this is that when the life I have doesn’t live up to my expectations in some way, I can learn to grieve this loss. The same goes with viewing others who may not be granted lives that live up to the human dignity that they deserve. When I witness this in myself or others, and I don’t find a way to channel this grief, I run risk of growing callous, cynical, and detached from myself, others, and the world. When the timeline feels extremely dark like it does right now, instead of denying what is happening, I can also choose to process this loss and become an apprentice to the grief and sorrow that seems to encroach from everywhere, and from there find ways to take action and care for others.

At this point bell hooks shows the way forward in All About Love when she talks about how to partner with heartbreak instead of running from it, in her beautiful meditation on how a love ethic can co-exist in a world filled with a battle for domination, violence, and power.

She says:

Since so many of us are imprisoned by fear, we can move toward a love ethic only by the process of conversion. Philosopher Cornel West states that “a politics of conversion” restores our sense of hope. Calling attention to the pervasive nihilism in our society he reminds us: “Nihilism is not overcome by arguments or analyses, it is tamed by love and care. Any disease of the soul must be conquered by a turning of one’s soul. This turning is done through one’s own affirmation of one’s worth — an affirmation fueled by the concern of others.” In an attempt to ward off life-threatening despair, more and more individuals are turning toward a love ethic.

Embracing a love ethic means that we utilize all the dimensions of love — “care, commitment, trust, responsibility, respect, and knowledge” — in our everyday lives. We can successfully do this only by cultivating awareness. Being aware enables us to critically examine our actions to see what is needed so that we can give care, be responsible, show respect, and indicate a willingness to learn.

It’s tough to connect all the dots here, and between the other books, because it’s not a linear or logical progression, but after reading these three books and taking all kinds of notes about them and journaling about them for a few weeks, some kind of shift happened in my perspective, sparked by a final piece of insight from Alice Walker:

The way forward is with a broken heart. — Alice Walker

A blagenflorble heart

WTF is a blagenflorble heart?

Well, it’s of course nonsense.

This word — blagenflorble — came to me one day when I was feeling particularly lost and broken and I just wanted to find a word that captured the absurdity and mystery and wildness and ambiguity of that unnameable, kind of overwhelming feeling.

Then, over the ensuing weeks and months, I’ve tried to pour meaning into this word, and make it my own. Here’s what it means to me.

A blagenflorble heart is a heart that has been broken, and repaired, and broken, and repaired, and broken, and repaired, hundreds of times.

It’s a heart that has been broken by every spike in COVID deaths, every mass shooting, every loved one who dies, every day of war, every setback in the Supreme Court, every new outrage, every news cycle, every relationship that ends, every misunderstanding, every trauma, every harmful pattern that we carry with us and keep repeating.

And it’s a heart that has been in turn repaired by every intimate confession, every reconnected friendship, every care package, every hug, every acknowledgement of solidarity, every day that grants new perspective and healing, every insight in therapy, every act of self-care, and every moment of cultivated awareness that has led us to express our concern and care for others.

A frequent question throughout the last few years has been:

Is it okay to have moments of happiness and even joy when the world is so fucked up?

I realized that a part of me has been focused on letting the awfulness of the world always roll over me, because I don’t want to push it away or ignore it even if it’s not directly my problem. Then I respond to it with anger, outrage, grief, sadness, and sometimes am able to channel these feelings into some kind of minor act of resistance / solidarity / care in service of those who have been hurt. It has felt like I’m in a pirate ship getting riddled with cannon balls from the world, and we’re taking all the hits and scrambling around the deck repairing and fortifying the ship as quickly as I can. (Can I just inject here a note of high praise for Our Flag Means Death? What a lovely show.) This deluge of awful events, and the need to respond to each and every one in an honest and whole-hearted way — it’s exhausting. It’s heartbreaking. When I look at other people and they admit to feeling completely depleted, I recognize that we are both doing our best to keep our ships afloat in this way. And that moment of recognition also helps us keep going. But it’s a lot, and it seems to also have a long-term impact on our ability to continue responding to each new thing.

This is where I something new clicked for me recently, when considering the way forward with a broken heart, walking with the 5 gates of grief wide open, committed to a love ethic instead of an ethic of domination and violence.

A blagenflorble heart isn’t concerned with repairing itself after every heartbreak. That is an ultimately futile task. Instead, a blagenflorble heart is about expanding the awareness of our hearts to allow ourselves to be both whole and broken at the same time. It’s about shifting from a mindset of feeling only one emotion at a time (and laboring to repair it each time it is hurt), to allowing all of the emotions to co-exist simultaneously, and being able to zoom in on each of them without negating the others. To be in deep grief about the injustices that relentlessly increase, and to be in deep love and concern for our friends and neighbors who are in pain, and to feel anger about the harm that will come to those who least deserve it, and to feel shame about our own privilege and ability to avoid some of that harm, and to feel fear about the future, and what this will all mean for our kids, and to feel guilt for the inability to help as much as one can, because there are so many other things pulling us in different directions. Additionally, and crucially, to also feel compassion for ourselves and to grant ourselves permission to tend to our own needs even when they feel so privileged and indulgent relative to what others are experiencing. To also allow ourselves to enjoy a new show, or a nice meal, or a walk, or quality time with kids. All of these things can happen at once, and it’s not as exhausting in the same way as feeling each emotion one at a time because you’re not actually moving between these states with laborious emotional work. I don’t have to force myself to completely process each emotion before moving on to the next. The Star card can exist at the same time as the Tower card and all the other cards. That’s kinda why tarot works for me… all the cards always resonate with some part of me.

A blagenflorble heart is like a pipe organ where every key can be played at once. It’s an admittedly weird and wild heart.

A blagenflorble heart embraces the bittersweet, the melancholy, the discordant, the cringey, the paradoxical, the awkward, the overplayed, and the quiet. Whatever is happening, it embraces. It doesn’t have to make sense, or create an acceptable melody, or please others.

It doesn’t need to be repaired, because it is always whole. And when it inevitably breaks again, every day, that’s okay, because it is already broken. Breaks can be acknowledged with dignity as opportunities to grieve for something that you love, and motivation to show care and compassion to those who might need it.

We live in a dark timeline. A blagenflorble heart doesn’t change that, it accepts that. It allows us to participate in what is happening without trying to push it away. Accepting things as they are, and bringing our energy and love ethic to it.

Finding the way forward with a blagenflorble heart is my hope for this year.

Other statistics and bits and bobs

  • Age: 46
  • Weight: 175lbs
  • Book of beliefs / Codex Vitae updated with some new organization and light edits
  • Life in Weeks updated with getting divorced and getting COVID (both actually much less awful than I feared)
  • Employment status: self-employed, working on 750 Words
  • Relationship status: divorced, single
  • Living status: 50% custody of Niko and Louie, living in 2-bedroom apartment in South Berkeley
  • Mental health status: blagenflorble, duh, did you even read this thing? 😂 Also lots of therapy propping me up to look like a functional human.
  • Pet status: none, nope, not getting a pet, don’t try to talk me into it
  • Financial status: dipping into savings as the market 📉😬
  • Reading now: The Dark Forest and Radical Acceptance
  • Listening to now: new Big Thief, Sylvan Esso, Joep Beving
  • Watching: kinda in-between shows now, sadly, but still reeling from seeing Everything Everywhere All at Once 🤯
  • Wordle status: still playing, but my streak keeps breaking due to them moving it around. I have 11 2s, 43 3s, 54 4s, 26 5s, 3 6s, and 1 loss to date.

P.S. Lastly, wanted to plug Michael Ashcroft’s Expanding Awareness course for helping me really understand the value of… expanding awareness… so that I could apply it to this particular domain of the blagenflorble heart. Thanks, Michael!

P.P.S. Also want to thank the people of Rickshaw who helped sanity check this post and also continually provide excellent friendship and love and blagenflorble.

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Buster Benson

Buster Benson

Product at @Medium. Author of “Why Are We Yelling? The Art of Productive Disagreement”. Builder of new.750words.com.