Meeting the Comfort
After I returned home, I started asking
myself, "What one thing do I need most?" I get
up early, before my husband, Chris, and my daughter,
Lilly, and plunk myself down on the couch and try to
listen. Some mornings I inhabit that same place of not
knowing I had felt in my hotel room, actually rest there
for seconds at a time. That feels divine. Some mornings
I bounce up after two minutes, too anxious and fearful
to sit still—I don’t want to know what is going on
inside me. But bit by bit, I begin to hear modest,
subtle prompts, like "Let go of your anger at
Chris" and "Get some writing done before Lilly
wakes up." Yet this makes it sound too concrete; it
is often more of a feeling, like a gentle hand patting
the small of my back.
Then one fall morning,
as I waver between my desire to get up and my desire to
let go, I hear, "Why not go somewhere and write?
Why not take a retreat?"
I have to laugh out
loud, which wakes my daughter. How many times had I
fervently told women, "When you find yourself
declaring that absolutely, no way, can you possibly take
time off, that is exactly when you need to."
I also have to laugh
at how obvious the solution was. The lid of a box I had
been shut up in for months suddenly flew off. I stood up
and looked around. Oh, yes, I could take a few days for
myself and concentrate on what I wanted to write, what I
wanted to do with my life. That was possible.
Of course, my critic
began to yammer away at me almost at once. "You
have no money. Where are you going to go on such short
notice? Why don’t you wait and go later?" The
more he yammered, the more I knew I had to go, and go
It’s two weeks
later, and I am sitting in Marcie Telander’s tiny
tin-roofed cabin in the Colorado Rockies. I had first
met Marcie—therapist, storyteller, ritualist, crone—on
a canoe trip in New Mexico almost ten years before, when
I was splayed out at another lost and desperate
juncture. She spoke a nourishing language I had never
encountered before, a language of self-acceptance and
self-celebration that allowed me to be kind to myself on
a much deeper level than I had ever thought possible.
Years later, when a friend asked me when I had become a
woman, I thought of that week on the Rio Chama.
Marcie’s guest cabin
was built in the 1920s and is filled to bursting with,
among other things, two old iron bunkhouse beds, a
potbelly stove, one perfectly preserved owl wing, a
Navajo loom and rug, fur from the local white buffalo,
childhood books from four generations of Telanders,
about fifty pictures of beloved horses, and a pot to pee
I sit at the table in
the center of this collection, attempting to write about
being stuck. I have written fifty pages. Most of which
isn’t working. I’m Dorothy in the poppies. All I
want to do is give in to the altitude and my fear of
never writing another book and go to sleep.
Outside my open door
the hazy sunshine glints off the hoods of the cars
parked across the road. I pierce the dusty air with my
voice: "Look, you came here to decide what to
write. You are taking time away from your family. You
have spent money to come here. This is a writing
retreat. Get to work."
Write or sleep? Give
up or buckle down? I’m skewed between indecision and
self-loathing. Dopey, I stand up, fumble for my notebook
and pen, and head for the creek, where Marcie keeps a
student’s desk tucked in among the willows. I move my
pen in an effort to do what writers Natalie Goldberg,
Julia Cameron, and other creativity gurus preach: get
your pen moving, the great unknown will fill you up, be
a faithful scribe. Show up and the Divine will do the
rest. How I detest this advice, I seethe, detesting it
simply because I don’t want to listen. I write what
appears to be a laundry list of why I’ll never write
I feel an abrupt
breeze on my neck and a distinct tart mixture of clean
sweat, fresh-cut grass, and what—it occurs to me later—must
be hot chocolate chip cookies envelops me. I dutifully
record this, keeping my pen moving. The breeze becomes
more insistent, tugging at the pages of my journal. I
slouch over, holding the journal open with my other hand
and my elbow.
"Give it up,
girl. It is time to stop writing and start
I jerk around and find
myself staring at a six-foot-tall woman. She appears to
be wearing a jeweled crown, the kind that makes you
wonder how her neck can possibly support the weight, and
the most resplendent pajamas I have ever seen, pajamas
that shimmer with tea and toast and rainy days under
quilts. Her cape is made of rose petals. The noonday sun
is reflecting off a watering can into her face, so I can’t
quite make out her features.
you?" I say. My voice emerges as a tentative
She waves her hand as
if to dismiss my question, and I hear small bells
tinkle. "Here you are again, sinking into your own
despair. When are you going to relax the grip, pry your
fingers off the stick shift? You get your body to this
divine place, but you leave your soul chained up in the
basement, cleaning toilets. What am I going to do with
She rustles past me,
her cape whispering against my arm, and sprawls on the
ground. The river alder twigs beneath her release their
wine-dark musk, which mixes with her distinctive aroma.
I still can’t see her face clearly.
here to ask you, do you have the wherewithal, the
courage, the stamina, to do what needs to be done? Do
you have the trust, the love, the juicy juju, to stop?
Take in the sail. Bring down the curtain. Whoa."
I want to tell her she
is contradicting herself, but her words are melting
around me like honey, gluing me into place.
"Who taught you
not to trust yourself? Who taught you not to love
yourself? It doesn’t matter anymore. Because I’m
here to teach you the Golden Rule of the Comfort Queen,
the sutra of your muse. You teach everybody else. Who
teaches the teacher? Every woman is a teacher, every
woman needs to be taught, to be held. The first thing
you’ve got to do is stop being so mental." She
cackles at her own silly joke. I hear the distinct sound
of a lighter being flicked and ice cubes dropping into a
glass. Is she smoking a cigarette? Making a cocktail?
"The question to
ask yourself is, How do you behave in a way that keeps
food on the table and clean sheets on the beds and that
keeps you connected, sweet girl, connected to the big
energy source? With your attitude, you are not going to
find the answer. No, ma’am. You aren’t creating a
life, you’re mangling the one you’ve been
I am stung by her
remarks and open my mouth to retort when her cool,
slightly rough hands start rubbing the back of my neck,
pressing my head down onto the desk, into a child’s
napping pose. She whispers in my ear: "I know my
remarks hurt, but sometimes it takes a dose of what ails
you before you can get well. Homeopathy of the spirit.
What do you do when faced with the truth? You condemn
yourself to death row, sleep on a bed of nails, tear at
your hair, gnash your teeth. I’m here to help you face
all that is slimy in you, but with compassion—compassion
with a capital C, sweetheart. What you face with love
makes you strong."
She leans over me as
she speaks. "Whoever told you not to cry?"
you?" I mumble into my forearm, wondering how she
knows I’m fighting back tears.
Comfort Queen, honey, the muse come alive to love you
and wake you up."
I smell cigarette
smoke. I sit up and blink at her. She is much shorter
now, the same glinting light obscuring her face. She
moves to one side, and I see it is not my preternatural
visitor but Marcie. "Jennifer, I’m going for a
hike before it rains. Do you want to come?" Marcie
Disoriented, I wipe
away my tears. "Marcie, I think I’ve been
Marcie sits down on the ground and
wraps her arms around her legs. "I’m
The Comfort Queen on "Shadow Comforts"
Shadow comforts are encumbrances like eating too many
sweets, watching too much TV, shopping for things we
don't need, surfing the Internet for hours, reading too
much -- numbing out. Another word for these behaviors is
soft addictions or buffers.
As CQ says, "Shadow comfort doesn't nourish you,
it diminishes you. It's what many people think of when
they think of comfort. They are actually punishing
themselves instead of nourishing their souls."
The problem with shadow comforts is they seem so
satisfying and so familiar. And they are endorsed by our
culture – think about the Virginia Slim ads of women
relaxing, taking time for themselves –to have a
With shadow comforts, we believe we’ll have to rely
on sheer willpower to overcome them – the model of
"just say no." Yet willpower never seems to
work, at least for me. After a few weeks of "being
good," I go off the deep end then, oh boy, does my
critical voice have a field day. "See what happens
when you take care of yourself? You can't be trusted.
Stick with work and routine, and you'll be safe."
The key to taking care of ourselves in healthy ways
is not willpower but the ability to listen to and trust
ourselves. As CQ says, "Overdoing it, indulgences
that don't satisfy, narcissism, and selfishness are
related to emptiness, boredom, and self-hatred. Shadow
comforts are fed by the inability to trust yourself. But
when you value yourself enough to savor the life
bubbling through your veins, and when you continually
listen, then the potential for destructive indulgences
shrinks dramatically. Bye-bye."
Of course, all of this is a VERY slow process with
lots of stumbling and also lots of discerning because
sometimes what seems like a healthy comfort is really a
shadow comfort and sometimes it isn’t.
Read About Transforming Shadow Comforts in Our April
permission from The Comfort Queen’s Guide to Life:
Creating all That You Need with Just What You’ve
Got, Copyright 2000.
Enjoy Other Books by Jennifer
Jennifer Louden is the author
of The Woman’s Comfort Book, The Couple’s Comfort
Book, The Little Book of Sensual Comforts, The
Pregnant Woman’s Comfort Book and The Woman’s
Retreat Book, all published by Harper Collins. There
are over 700,000 copies of her books in print worldwide.
Her newest book, The Comfort Queen’s Guide to Life
was published in May 2000 by Crown/Random House along
with the launch of www.comfortqueen.com
and a line of greetings cards and journals from Portal,
2000 calendars from American Greetings, and complete
line of giftware from Papel.
Jennifer’s books have been
translated into eight languages and have been German
bestsellers. Jennifer has taught her lively workshops
across the US, Canada, and Europe at hospitals,
corporations, and universities to thousands of women.
Ms. Louden’s media
appearances have included "Oprah," "Later
Today," "The Home Show," MS-NBC, CNN, and
Fit TV as well as numerous local TV shows in most major
markets including most recently "Women to
Women" in LA and "NorthWest Afternoon" in
Seattle. Articles about her work have appeared in Glamour,
Shape, People, Redbook, Good
Housekeeping, Self, New Woman, Ladies’
Home Journal, Yoga Journal, Health, Parents,
and most major newspapers including USA Today, Chicago
Tribune, Dallas Morning News, and The New
Jennifer is the mother of
Lillian, who is six, and the wife of cinematographer
Christopher Mosio. They live in a wide canyon behind a
purple door in Santa Barbara, California.