This blog is my resignation from a job I’ve held my whole life.
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It’s a big world with a lot of people in it, all living their lives, thinking their thoughts, trying to find a place to stand, trying to survive, trying to get loved. I’m just like that. I’m not rich or famous, especially intelligent or beautiful or talented. I don’t do social media. I’m not a special success or failure.
I’ve done all the average things most every American does. Grew up, got a decent education, worked, got married, had a couple of kids, got divorced, moved, got older, watched the kids grow up and fly away, worried about money, tried to do my best, made a lot of mistakes.
But all that was incidental to my real job.
My real job has been to please people.
I wonder how many of you read that last line and felt sick. I know I’m not alone. I know you’re out there, as invisible and tired as I am.
I now intend to Fail to Please Others.
That’s not to say I refuse to ever please anyone again. No. That would only be another kind of jail. What I mean is now my choices are not based on what he/she wants me to do, say or be. Now my choices are based on The Right Thing To Do — for me.
I nearly always know what people want from me. I nearly always can identify The Right Thing To Do for myself. The problem is they’re rarely the same choice and I always, infallibly, reliably, boringly, sickeningly choose to please.
Why do I do this? Oh, that’s easy.
I believe I won’t be loved if I don’t do it.
Now think about that. Think about a life empty of people who love you. No one. No parent, no family member, no child, friend, lover. Think about believing, all the way to the soles of your feet, that if you Fail to Please, people around you will withdraw or withhold their love and/or leave. Forever. As in permanently.
I assure you I understand, as all People Pleasers do, that pleasing others to get loved doesn’t really work. Oh, in the moment you might get rewarded for it, but it never ends, the pleasing. Once isn’t enough. 100,000 times isn’t enough. Also, some people are impossible to please. Someone like that probably taught us this dreadful belief in the first place.
Well, life has just given me exactly what I needed to finally decide to make a change. Something happened, and I said no.
I never say no — at least not when I know the answer wanted is yes.
The answer wanted this time was yes, and I said no, because that was the true answer, the honest answer, the Right-Thing-To-Do-for-myself answer. I said it repeatedly to the two people whom I love best in all the world. There was upset, and outrage, and fury. There was a scene, not a violent smash-the-dishes-scene but a verbal scene, the kind I’ve spent my whole life trying desperately to avoid, the kind of scene that makes me want to run out the door and throw up under a bush. The word “betrayal” was used. But something about the whole situation woke up a deep streak of stubbornness in my nature and I just kept saying no.
I laid awake all night crying, telling myself now I was truly alone, as these two who heard “no” from me are the center of my heart.
But the next day I asked one of them if he still loved me, even though I said no.
And he said yes.
Now, bear with me while I explain what all this has to do with this blog.
I’m a writer. I’ve got a finished manuscript, another started, and am exploring the hair-raising process of getting published. I’ve always been a writer, since I was a child, but I’ve always tried to stifle it, hide it, ignore it and otherwise amputate the desire to do it from my life.
Because I find I can’t write anything but the truth.
My truth is unacceptable.
It Fails To Please.
The digital age has swept over us and people blog. I read lots of blogs. I’ve wanted to blog myself for a long time.
But I haven’t.
Because everything I want to blog about will Fail To Please — someone.
This is my first post. I’m still building the site. Feel free to explore and watch for new additions. Check back for weekly posts. Please leave a comment. Let’s have a conversation. If you’re hateful or disrespectful or a spammer I will block you without apology.
Please accept my resignation from the role of People Pleaser, effective immediately.
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except where otherwise noted
Last Friday I resigned from my medical transcription job. Shortly after emailing my letter of resignation to my supervisor, she called me, wanting to know why.
I told her the truth. I don’t feel as though my contribution matters. I don’t like the company culture of perfectionism and high stress. I don’t feel valued as an employee, and my skills and talents are worth more than I’m receiving.
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We parted in a friendly manner. She assured me I was eligible for re-hire any time and wished me well. I wished her and the rest of the team well. Cyber handshakes and smiles all around.
I’m in the middle of selling a property back in Colorado. I currently have wonderful renters in the house. They’ve been honest, cooperative, open and have done every single thing they’ve said they would do. They’ve become friends. I’m faxing paperwork, including the lease with these tenants, to Colorado and working with my Colorado real estate agent long distance. The agent expressed surprise that our rental agreement didn’t contain language about punitive consequences if the tenants suddenly decided to break the lease and leave.
It never entered my head to limit my tenants’ choice to leave if they were unhappy. Obviously, at least one property professional feels this is inappropriate business practice, but why would I want to force two people whom I respect and like to stay in a situation that wasn’t working for them?
Answer: I wouldn’t want to, I didn’t want to and I don’t want to.
Last evening I had a long conversation with one of my sons, and among the things we talked about was the idea of noticing how things are within ourselves and the choices we make about our own unhappiness and discomfort.
This morning, as I fried bacon and sausage and worked in the kitchen, I was thinking about this week’s post, trying to come up with something I wanted to write about from my current experience, and suddenly all these interactions lined up in my head (Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!) and I thought, well, there it is. I want to write about quitting.
What do you think of when you think of quitting?
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I think of the word “should,” as in should quit smoking, should quit drinking, should quit eating so much sugar, should quit fill-in-the-blank. These are the kind of circumstances under which quitting is supported and validated, but the “should” is an instrument of shame, guilt and fear, as well as a thoroughly ineffective motivator.
I was taught being a quitter or a dropper outer is a desperately mortifying thing. Quitting is associated with betrayal, abandonment, failure, letting others down and weakness.
Quitting is often an act of aggression. It’s what we do when we’ve hung on by our fingernails until they’ve torn out, one by one, and we have to let go or die. It’s hitting bottom. It’s burnout, breakdown and nothing left to lose, often accompanied by scenes, meltdowns and an exchange of insults.
Quitting is selfish and irresponsible. Choosing to be happy is an embarrassing thing to admit. We’re told If everyone did what made them happy, everything would unravel. Nobody would work. Important things wouldn’t get done. The economy would collapse.
There are cultural consequences for quitting. The label “quitter” impairs our ability to get hired, find stable relationships or make financial choices. A quitter is unreliable and untrustworthy at best. Someone who quits their marriage, family or children is so despicable as to be unforgiveable in some cases.
The word quit, according to a quick search, means to leave a place, resign from a job or stop or discontinue an activity. In short, it’s a word that defines a choice. Interestingly, one of its origins is Middle English, in which it means “set free.”
Set free sounds a lot more positive than quitting, doesn’t it?
It occurs to me that the whole idea of quitting is rooted in power. To quit is to stop. How is it that the culture is so unfriendly and unsupportive, for the most part, of making a choice to stop? Why are we so consistently and pervasively discouraged from saying no, from quitting, from changing?
I’ve written before about the yes and the no. To be in our full power, both consent and dissent have to be available to us. We have to be able to make a real choice. The inability to freely choose points to a power-over situation, and it doesn’t matter if it’s work related, relationship related, addiction related or some internal limitation like fear. Something or someone is interfering with our power to freely choose if we can’t make a choice to quit.
Said a different way, the problem is not so much the addictive substance, the miserable job, the narcissistic family member or the abusive romantic relationship. The problem is we’ve been systematically amputated from our full power to choose.
Sadly, this is a consequence, at least in part, of our current educational system in the United States. It doesn’t work for a lot of kids. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for my kids. I told my sons the same thing I was taught when they complained. Education is important. Everyone has to go to school. It’s the law. We all have to do things we don’t want to. Being happy doesn’t matter.
Ugh. I wish I hadn’t believed that. I wish I hadn’t said it, and more than anything I wish I’d listened to their distress and taught them to respond to it appropriately by responding to it appropriately myself. At the time, all I had was what I’d been taught, and I’m absolutely certain my own mother taught me the only thing she knew as well.
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The point is few of us learn how to respond to our discomfort or unhappiness, either by expressing it appropriately or taking action to help ourselves. Public education certainly doesn’t teach it. The way we work in this country doesn’t support it. Patriarchy in general doesn’t validate self-reflection, honest communication, or simply saying, “No more. This isn’t working for me. I’m stopping. I’m quitting.”
On the other hand, we’re great at demanding and commanding, as in “You should … You will … You must … You have to …” However, living in a cage of internalized and externalized shoulds is more power-over. When the shoulds have our power, we’re not free to choose. I know, because that’s how I’ve lived most of my life.
One of the hallmarks of power-over is its resistance to change. Change threatens the status quo. Traditional marriage vows are forever, no matter what. Many jobs reward length of service. We’re encouraged to grow up, settle down, get a stable life. Loyalty, dependability, reliability and predictability are all rooted in not changing.
But we do change. Our bodies change. Our needs and desires change. We learn new information. The things that captivate and delight us change. The best of us learn, grow, question, seek new experience, dance elegantly with challenge and tension, and develop a healthy relationship with being wrong. The best of us spend a lifetime making friends with our changing selves, investigating our motivations, our patterns, our behaviors and beliefs, our weaknesses and strengths, and doing battle with our fears and demons.
A relationship, job, priority or place may be a perfect fit at some point in our lives, and then be outgrown. A coping mechanism or response may work very well, even save our lives at one time, and cripple us at another. Life is always changing. The ability to flow with change, to welcome it and play with it, responding with free choice after free choice, defines a well-lived, powerful, elegant life
Quitting, like boredom, has a bad reputation. I suspect this is mostly due to a cultural smear campaign. My son is in his 20s, and as he shared parts of his experience with me, I realized we’ve arrived at the same place, he’s just 30 years ahead of his late-blooming mother. He’s reclaiming his power to respond to his own discomfort and distress and choose what to do, based on prior choices and how they worked out. He’s not waiting until he can no longer bear his unhappiness. He’s not quitting in a blaze of hand grenades and gunfire. He’s not self-destructing. He’s allowing himself to stop, to change, to leave. He’s setting himself free of what doesn’t work for him, and he’s doing it without guilt or shame or the need for outside validation.
Quitting is an art. I can be done with respect, gratitude and dignity. It can be a gift of love and authenticity to self and others. The right person for a job, place or activity is not someone who hates the job, place or activity. The right job, place or activity for us is not the one that makes us unhappy. Commitment, responsibility and keeping our word are all important things, but not unto death. Not unto madness and broken-down health. We are allowed to set ourselves free. We are allowed to change. We are allowed to learn. We are allowed to try and fail and move on.
I began this project of blogging with a letter of resignation. This week I sent another letter of resignation. In both cases, I hung on long after I knew I was miserable because I was afraid to make a change. I have more work to do in building trust with myself, but I’ve made a start.
I quit. My daily crime.
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In January, my brother and I traveled to Colorado to transition our mother into memory care.
As some of you know and many can imagine, a journey into dementia is an unsettling one on good days, by which I mean relatively calm days. On bad days, days of panic and confusion, days of anger and restlessness, it’s heartbreaking.
One of the greatest challenges for me is the chaos of my jostling feelings, all mobbed together and struggling for attention. I can’t feel everything at once, and I can’t focus on one thing at a time. One minute I’m entirely relieved because I know she’s in a safe, protected environment being well cared for, which has not been the case for the last ten years. Knowing she was living alone, driving, walking her dogs, and slowly losing her ability to function and manage her own life and I could do nothing about it took a daily toll.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
The next minute empathy and compassion overwhelm me and I’m reminding myself to maintain boundaries. She is not me. I am not her. My attention needs to be on taking care of my own feelings. If I could have effectively helped and supported her, I would have started doing it when I was five years old. I never found a way because there is no way.
Then I’m angry. Angry because I tried to avoid this particular outcome. Angry because she wouldn’t help herself when she had the ability to. Angry because I’m still in the position of parenting and taking care of my parent, which has always been the case. Angry about her suffering and confusion, and mine.
At the end of every conversation we have on the phone, I tell her I love her. It’s true. I have always loved her, but was not allowed to say so. She would ignore such a statement, or dispute it. She says it back to me now. It always makes me a little bit mad. It was a thing she would not say outright before. She’d sign herself “Love, Mom,” but she wouldn’t say it. She’s not a person who offers or accepts any kind of touch. Does she really love me, or is she merely participating in the familiar ritual of the exchange? Did she feel it all along but couldn’t say it?
Even before her dementia onset, Mom wouldn’t have answered these questions. I will never know.
I’m also sad. It’s not a sobbing, tearing grief, but a gentle, diffuse one, like watching a teabag steep in hot water and gradually turn it into tea. I don’t feel it all the time. There’s resignation in it, and acceptance, and surrender.
Mom is receiving palliative care under a local hospice organization. They recommended a book to me, titled The 36-Hour Day, by Mace and Rabins. I bought a copy. It was hard to read because it stirred up uncomfortable feelings, but it’s also a goldmine of information, including the latest research and standards for dementia care. It’s enormously validating. I read about specific behaviors and the stages of dementia and realize I have been struggling with Mom’s gradual disintegration for years. Nobody else saw it, so I was alone with my fears and concerns, but I knew she was slipping and I suspected this time was coming.
What I was most hoping for from the book was a script for dealing with difficult questions and conversations. I have some professional experience with dementia and am comfortable with refraining from using logic or trying to bring anyone back to reality. Mom has always believed entirely in her narratives, which often were distorted, paranoid, and inaccurate, so I have a long and painful history of managing her stories and beliefs. However, now the briefest conversation is fraught with pitfalls I don’t know how to respond to or address. I spend a lot of time on pause, frantically trying to figure out the best way to engage with her.
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The book didn’t give me a script, per se. What it gave me was a simple strategy for everything: reflect and validate feelings. Not the stories (thoughts), but the feelings. Emotional intelligence strikes again.
This was good news for me because I’m highly emotionally intelligent, even in this difficult personal context. I know how to recognize, name, and manage feelings. On the other hand, it seems like so little to offer. It’s hard to provide comfort in the context of dementia. Language feels pointless. Nonverbal communication is useless over a long distance and, in this case, in person. Mom has flinched away from me too many times for me to even think about touching her. On the phone, all I have is language. Following my impulse to reassure, to explain, to provide some kind of structure, only makes things worse for both of us. I measure my effectiveness by the level of her distress, which is eerily like measuring my effectiveness by the degree to which I can please her. Even that may not be accurate. Mom’s distress has always been extreme in the face of boundaries, limitations, the word “no,” and any questioning of her particular narratives and beliefs. It’s a personality trait having nothing to do with me personally. The mere fact of her feeling confined (which is accurate) may be the root of her distress rather than anything I’m saying or doing. Or not saying or not doing.
It occurs to me feelings live inside the just-born infant. Maybe before that. Certainly, we experience feelings long before we master language. I’m realizing intellect, logic, language, can all fall away at the end of life, too, but the feelings remain. I assume our need to be heard and validated remains.
Conversation with Mom is like wandering blind through a meadow filled with rabbit holes. Dementia is at once simple and extremely complicated. I never know how she will be or what she will say next. Sometimes she sounds down and depressed. Sometimes cheerful. Sometimes calm. Once she even told me she was “content,” a word I’ve never associated with her before. Sometimes she’s anxious, sometimes angry, sometimes groggy and hardly responsive.
When we talk, I work to set aside (temporarily) my own feelings, thoughts, memories, expectations, and predictions. I ask her how she is and listen to her response, looking for the feelings. When she tells me she needs to leave there because “everybody steals,” I sidestep the stealing accusations and acknowledge it must be an uncomfortable and discouraging way to live, and I can understand why she doesn’t like it. She perseverates on this theme off and on, and I enlarge on how difficult the feeling of losing things is, how unsettling to not be able to find our possessions. After all, she’s lost her whole previous life. Her feeling of loss, of things missing, is based in reality. On the other hand, her paranoia and fear of people (including me) stealing money from her was in place long before her dementia. I was never able to persuade her they did not reflect reality. I certainly can’t do it now.
Reflecting and validating her feelings back to her feels inadequate. It even feels condescending. But there’s nothing else I can do, nothing else to say. Witnessing her feelings is all I have left.
And, after all, maybe that’s a lot. We’re not very skilled with feelings in this culture. It’s not easy to find someone who will just listen without trying to fix or solve. Perhaps great healing lies in being heard with nothing added. I hope so.
Another constant theme is one of buying a car and going shopping when we visit. When I ask her what she needs, she can’t tell me. She needs “things.” When I ask her if she’s started a list, she never has. We are not sure she can read or write anymore. I realized when we went out to move her and worked in her house she’s a shopper. She has enough clothing for three women. Her closets were filled with shoes, both old and worn and newer. She had six or seven open bottles and jars of the same products. Her cupboards were packed with supplements and vitamins for both herself and the animals, many of them outdated. As her confusion grew, it appears she self-soothed by shopping and receiving packages in the mail. So, we talk about how much fun it is to take a day and shop for this, for that. We talk about having new things, buying special gifts for ourselves. She doesn’t want to make a list and have someone else get her what she needs. She wants to go on her own and play, buy what she wants, choose what she wants. She wants to feel free, independent, and empowered to give herself that.
She cannot understand that’s no longer possible. Even if she could, the feeling of wanting what she once had would likely persist. It breaks my heart.
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I have feelings, too. I turn to journaling, to writing. I’ve tried without success to find support groups in my area; then I found a mental health professional experienced in family trauma to speak with. I talk with Mom’s hospice team regularly; having worked for hospice, I know they want to support the whole family system. I extend to myself all the gentleness, support, and patience I extend to Mom. I hold my thoughts loosely and hug my feelings. They need comfort. They need expression. I think about boundaries and regulate my empathy. I’m newly appreciative of my own freedom and independence. I look for reasons to laugh, reasons to smile. I look for ways to connect to others. I intend to learn to receive as well as I give.
As I write this, an exuberant spring wind blows outside, pushing snow off roofs, tangling our wind chimes, shaking the lilac branches with their new, hard buds. One of the cats is stretched out on my desk in the sun. My desk calendar was in his way, so he kicked it off with his back feet. A glass paperweight pins down a card for Mom, the envelope addressed and stamped. Every Monday I put a card in the mail for her. I do it for me. She does not acknowledge them or remember receiving them. I hope they’re all displayed in her room, but I don’t know. I’m not sure she can read them. I imagine a staff person or hospice team member reading them to her. I’m not sure she can connect them with me at all. But it makes me feel better to make the gesture, and I enjoy picking out cards I think she’ll like. I’ll write a couple of lines about the weather, about the moment, about spring. I’ll sign it with the word love. I’ll put it in the mailbox and raise the flag, and the mail carrier will take it in an hour or so.
Feelings are pure. Feelings are simple. It’s our thoughts about our feelings that fester, tangle, entrap us. I want to soothe uncomfortable feelings, make the pain stop, dry the tears, turn aside the rage. All my life it’s been my role to take care of Mom, fix whatever was going wrong. I still feel her emotional dependence. I still feel the responsibility to solve every problem for her.
But Mom has traveled now to a place I can’t go and she can’t come back from. She can’t follow me, clutching at my clothing, needing, wanting, pleading, demanding, rejecting. I can’t walk beside her in a way she recognizes. We have separated. I am relieved. I am absolved. I grieve for her anguish. Witnessing her feelings without taking action to assuage them is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done in a lifetime of hard things in caring for her.
But I cannot fix this. Neither of us can go back. There’s only feeling our way forward.
- What has been you experience, if any, with dementia in a loved one or family member?
- What are your thoughts and feelings about hospice care?
- What’s the hardest thing for you in supporting an elderly loved one?
- Do you worry about developing dementia yourself? Have you made a plan?
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Regular readers will know I struggle with money. The first time I wrote about it was here. About three months ago, I came across a creative prompt suggesting inviting Money to dinner and seeing what happened. I wanted to engage with it. I didn’t want to engage with it. I didn’t delete the article. It’s been sitting in the bottom of my Inbox sneering at me all these weeks. Finally, I decided to play with it …
I’ve unwillingly invited Money to lunch. She suggested it three months ago because she wants to see my new house. I’ve avoided it, tried not to think about it, even forgotten about it for days at a time, allowing the layers of my life to gently cover it, but then it shows up again, a small piece of grit in my psyche.
Finally I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to get it over with. She’s not going to get tired of waiting for me. She wants to see my new home, and she wants to have lunch. I can’t deal with the silent demand and the weight of her expectations any longer.
After all, it’s only a lunch, right? Two hours at the most.
Having made up my mind, I decide what will work best for me. I feel resentful, railroaded into doing something I don’t want to do. Why can’t I just say no and feel okay about it? Why do I feel I have to do this? I hate the feeling of being pushed, being badgered, being emotionally manipulated. Most of all, I hate how much I care about what she thinks. I hate my fear of her judgement.
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash
I don’t want to do this. I really, really don’t want to do this.
But I feel I have to. I can’t possibly tell the truth. It’s lunch, for God’s sake. Why do I make such a big drama out of everything? What’s with the dread? Why can’t I just be a normal person, get it over with?
I eat alone, so my round, glass-topped table is small and there’s only one chair. I’ll bring another chair in. Which would be most comfortable for Money? She’s a small person. The second chair is an antique, but it’s not as sturdy or large as the one I always sit in. Would it be a subtle compliment to give her that chair, or is it too old-fashioned to be comfortable and welcoming?
I can’t put flowers on the table because the cats will destroy them.
I have cloth napkins that match the tablecloth I’m using; that’s good. That looks nice.
My kitchen, where the table is, needs work. We haven’t been in this house long. The kitchen is outdated and battered, the formica countertops stained and pitted. The stainless steel sink has old drips of paint in it I can’t scrub away and haven’t taken the time to tackle more resolutely. The refrigerator is too big and partially blocks the pocket door into the bathroom. The litterboxes are tucked under a bench along one wall near the door leading to the entry; I don’t yet have a good place to set up the cats. Their food and water are on a boot tray on the floor in the kitchen. The floor is lovely old pine with wide boards, scratched, scarred, stained.
I try and fail to see my home, my kitchen, my kitchen table, through another’s eyes. It so clearly needs work, but, to my shame, I don’t have the money to get the work done. I may never have the money to get the work done. Yet I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, and this lovely old house as a refuge from the world. I love it. I don’t want to have to defend it or feel ashamed I can’t give it the care it needs right now. It’s clean, at least.
New Home, May 2022
Since this invitation was not my idea, and Money is not a friend, I don’t feel I must make a meal. I basically eat meat and high-quality animal fat. I don’t have the time, skill, or money to make an elaborate meal. I’m afraid to make something simple, like a big beef stew. Whatever I do, I’ll feel it’s not good enough. We agree, Money and I, to get a to-go order from a local restaurant. That way, if she’s disappointed, it’s got nothing to do with me. I make sure to insist I pay for my own order. I don’t want any favors from her.
I know the cats are going to be on the kitchen counter, in the sink, walking across the stovetop. It’s what they do. There’s no way to keep them off the counters. Believe me, I’ve tried it all. One of them will probably choose the time we’re sitting a few feet away to have a big, stinky BM in one of the litter boxes with lots of noisy scraping and covering while we’re eating. Then they’ll jump out, scattering litter across the floor, come into the living room adjacent to the kitchen, and scoot their dirty bottom across the carpet and try to cover that. I’m mortified, just thinking about it. Do I pretend it’s not happening, like when you’re talking to a cute guy and your leashed dog squats to take a dump? Do I get up from the meal, scoop out the litter box, spray the scoot mark with stain remover and sponge it away while it’s still fresh and visible? I can keep them off the table, at least, while we’re sitting there eating. But there might be cat hairs.
Who am I kidding? There will definitely be cat hairs.
What will we talk about? That one is not so hard. I’m good at drawing people out. Most people love talking about themselves. A few good questions can get the ball rolling and I can stay safely concealed.
When Money arrives, I greet her at the door, hoping she doesn’t notice the rotted sill and threshold, the damaged door frame, and the fact that the outside door has gaps underneath it large enough to admit a squirrel in search of winter housing. I take her through the lovely, shabby, wood-lined sun porch, another door that has clearly been kicked in at some point, and into a narrow little hallway leading to the kitchen door. Everything is clean, swept, mopped, scrubbed. I give Money the tour of my living space. The cats come to investigate. (Does Money even like cats? I don’t know. I don’t want to know in case the answer is no. If she doesn’t like cats, one is sure to jump in her lap.)
Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020
Money has picked up our order. I gather cutlery, plates, glasses. We sit down to eat. I am nervous, tense. The last thing I want to do is eat, but I do. I ask a couple of questions to get her talking and we chat in between bites. I wait for the curled lip, the sneer hidden within polite words, the fleeting contemptuous expression on Money’s face I know will be coming.
Money’s fingernails are unpainted. She’s wearing plain gold hoops in her ears. She’s dressed in unmatched leggings and a sweater. No makeup. I realize I expected something quite different …
And then my flow dried up and I came to a sudden stop, realizing I expected, in fact, my late maternal grandmother, who was always made up, bejeweled, well-coiffed, and wore little designer or custom-tailored (in Hong Kong) skirts and jackets and high heels. I expected her gold watch, expensive perfume, perfect manicure, and big, heavy rings. I expected her vivacious social cocktail chatter (gold monogrammed cocktail napkins). I expected her small brown eyes to turn mean, to tell me to act like a lady, to use my napkin, to keep my knees together. I expected the Jekyll-and-Hyde experience of watching her flirt, even when well into her 80s, and smile, and bat her nearly denuded eyelashes, still thick with mascara, with every male in the room and then the sharp little knife buried in a smiling comment or an aside about my looks, my conversation, my choices, and my behavior.
Gram, as we called her, had money. A lot of it. She was widowed young, inheriting considerable wealth from my grandfather. When her daughter, my mother, was divorced with two young children, Gram financed the family. By which I mean she demanded invoices, receipts, and bills, and gave Mom just enough to cover things and no more. No allowance. No lump sum. Mom had to ask specifically for every penny. Gram made her grovel. It was an exercise in humiliation. When Gram came to visit she hounded Mom about her marriage (Gram hated my father), her divorce, her stupidity and bad judgement. Mom went back to school to get a degree in order to get a job and support her children. We became latch key kids. I was assigned to care for my younger brother; we both were assigned to care for the animals, though the horses were sold during the divorce, taking the core of Mom’s happiness with them and leaving only bitterness and grief behind.
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Every night, after I went to bed, I listened to Mom cry while she sat at her desk in her bedroom down the hall and dealt with the bills and finances or did coursework. I was often hungry because I felt guilty about eating food Mom would have to ask Gram to help pay for. I was 11 years old. Yet Mom remained loyal, thanking Gram for her grudging support, telling everyone how lucky we were to have her mother, who loved us, to help out. I don’t think she dared do anything else. Mom cared for her mother until the end of her life, when she died in a nursing home in her 90s.
Only one time did Mom break down in front me. “I’ve never pleased that woman one single day in my life,” she sobbed. It was true. She didn’t. And she tried every single damn day. I never pleased Gram a day in my life, either, but I didn’t try. I did not love my grandmother.
That moment of truth was never referred to again. By either of us. I’m sure, had I tried to talk about it later, Mom would have denied saying it. The world, especially her male relatives, saw Gram as charming, entertaining, gregarious, and generous. She could be all those things. But could also be abusive, toxic, selfish, and manipulative. She became (I discover), in my mind, the face and personification of Money. Money weaponized. Money withheld. Money rather than love or true connection. Money as a tool for power, control, and shame.
Every dollar of “help” Gram gave us was, as far as I was concerned, soaked in Mom’s blood and tears.
So, I’ve had a difficult relationship with money. Surprise, surprise. This exercise revealed to me the roots of my self-sabotage and conflicted feelings about “success,” which in my family meant plenty of money. In many ways I feel very successful, but I’ve always struggled financially. The work I’ve done and loved (being a librarian (yes, I have a degree); working with animals, children, the elderly; teaching swimming; lifeguarding; working in the public school system; working in hospitals; storytelling; and medical transcription) are not high-paying jobs in terms of money. The work of my heart, writing, has so far not earned me a single penny. All this contribution, all this creativity, all this love and care for animals and people and books, doesn’t count and is a matter of shame because I haven’t made much money. How sad and messed up is that?
My car is falling to pieces. My house needs work. I buy clothes at thrift stores. I’m a minimalist. I could use more money. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. It would help. A lot. But it wouldn’t fix everything I struggle with in life. I’m clear about that, too. And money is not love or success. Money is a tool, one I’ve mostly refused to consider learning to use. So I haven’t. What’s the point? I don’t have any! I’ll never have any. I don’t want Money to come to lunch because it’s wrong to need it and I do. I’m certain I don’t deserve it, because I’ve failed the family expectations, but I need it. Convoluted. Tricky. My personification of money in this exercise exposes a lifetime of shame about needing money, or any other sort of support or resource, to be honest. Which is ridiculous. Because the less money I have, the more I need it. And the more ashamed I feel. And so on.
At the same time, I’m proud of my contributions to the world. I’ve loved all the jobs I’ve had. I like to work. I like to volunteer. I have no plans to retire. I’ve been richly rewarded for my service in far more important and meaningful ways than monetarily. I’m proud of my self-sufficiency.
But those things won’t pay down the equity loan or fix the car. They won’t pay my bills.
Maybe I’ve never clearly seen Money at all, because I can’t look past my grandmother. Maybe Money doesn’t wear her face, but another I’ve never glimpsed. Maybe it’s time to grow up and out of that old anger and rejection of anything Gram stood for …
So this is the story of when Money came to lunch.
- If you imagine an issue or feeling you struggle with as a person, what would that look like? What issue or feeling would you start with?
- What feelings are attached to your experience of money?
- How do you define success?
- What contribution are you most proud of? Is it the one that made the most money?
Leave a comment below!
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Courtney Carver from Be More With Less suggests the feeling we call guilt may in fact be discomfort.
What an interesting distinction. I was immediately intrigued.
Guilt is defined as feeling responsible or regretful for a real or perceived offense.
A real or perceived offense.
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If you’re someone like me, you feel almost everything you do and say is some kind of a breach of conduct, especially things like saying no, meeting your own needs, and setting boundaries. This feeling is based on past unhappy/critical/invalidating reactions of others to my actions. If I’ve Failed To Please, I feel guilty. I feel guilty even when I know I’ve done the right thing for myself.
So what if that feeling isn’t guilt at all? What if it’s discomfort?
Changing habits is uncomfortable, no doubt about that. Habits are effortless, especially mental and emotional habits. They feel like our friends. They’ve been with us a long time. We’re attached to them because they’re easy and familiar. Whether or not they’re effective or useful is not the point. How they affect others is of no interest.
They’re easy, and they’re ours.
The thing is, our habits don’t belong to us so much as we belong to them. We can stop them any time, we tell ourselves and everyone else. If we wanted to. But we don’t want to.
Breaking habits takes intention, focus, and determination. Support helps, but sometimes it’s unavailable.
So, do we feel guilty because we’re making different choices than our habits dictate, or do we feel uncomfortable because we’re making different choices? Making different choices affects those around us, and when things start changing, people get uncomfortable, especially if the change wasn’t their idea. Most people are sure to tell us when we “make” them uncomfortable.
Then the guilt starts.
Maybe discomfort, theirs and/or ours, is a good sign, a sign we’re truly doing the work of change. Maybe the guiltier/more uncomfortable we feel, the more successful we are.
Maybe we shelve the guilt and welcome the discomfort.
Sometimes we all do something we know is wrong and guilt helps us learn and make amends for our choices. Sometimes. Not every day, all day.
Being alive, taking up space, growing, learning, and reclaiming our power and health are not worthy of guilt. Uncomfortable work, yes. An offense, a breach of conduct, a crime, no.
When I feel that old familiar guilt come knocking, I’m going to look at it more closely. Maybe it’s not guilt at all. Maybe it’s just discomfort.
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