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Meeting the Comfort Queen
by Jennifer Louden

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 soon.

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 in.

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 again.

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 leaping."

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.

"Who are you?" I say. My voice emerges as a tentative squeak.

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 you?"

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.

"Darling, I’m 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 given."

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?"

"Who are you?" I mumble into my forearm, wondering how she knows I’m fighting back tears.

"I’m your 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 asks.

Disoriented, I wipe away my tears. "Marcie, I think I’ve been dreaming."

Marcie sits down on the ground and wraps her arms around her legs. "I’m listening."

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 cigarette!

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 2001 Issue

Excerpted with 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 Louden:

The Woman's Retreat Book

The Woman's Comfort Book

The Couple's Comfort Book

The Pregnant Woman's Comfort Book

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 York Times.

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.





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