I’ve been thinking about loyalty recently. Loyalty is one of my bigger rabbit holes. I most often use the term when I’m beating myself up. A nasty little internal voice frequently hisses “Disloyal!” in my ear. This happens so constantly, in fact, that I’m bored. I’ve decided to unpack the concept of loyalty, spread it out, let the cat sniff at it, and either own my own disloyalty without shame or permanently silence that particular internal accusation.
The first thing I notice is I want to be loyal. Loyalty is a virtue. Good, loving people are loyal. I certainly want to be a loyal family member, friend and partner. Loyalty has always been an important part of my identity, which is why it’s such an effective lash for me. What’s more shameful and ugly than disloyalty?
I don’t want to be shameful and ugly. If I am shameful and ugly, I certainly don’t want anyone to find out.
Loyalty, then, is something that depends on what onlookers think about my behavior and choices.
Before I’ve even crawled into the mouth of the rabbit hole I’ve moved out of my power. Interesting.
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Recently, I took my morning cup of tea and spent two hours with dictionary, thesaurus and my laptop looking at poetry, quotes, memes, definitions and articles. I read about families, patriotism and dogs. I discovered 80% of results returned for a search on loyalty have to do with manipulating customer and product loyalty. Of course. What a world.
At the end of that two hours, I felt no wiser. I had some notes, but I still didn’t have a clear idea of what loyalty really is, what it looks like, what it feels like to give or receive it, and how it overlaps with trust, authenticity, truth, enabling, coercion and control. I can point to people in my life I feel loyalty for, and I can point to people who I feel are loyal to me, but the truth is I don’t trust myself on this issue. Maybe my confusion means I am, in fact, shamefully disloyal. A humbling and humiliating thought.
At the same time, would I feel so torn apart by family and personal social dynamics if I was thoroughly disloyal? My sense of loyalty to others has given me much anguish over the years. Surely if it was absent in me I wouldn’t struggle so hard with it.
Simply defined, loyalty is a strong feeling of support or allegiance. That definition leaves me even more clueless than I was before. It has to be more complicated than that, doesn’t it?
Well, doesn’t it?
Is it just me, or does the cultural definition of loyalty consist of a much more convoluted hairball of expectations, assumptions and false equivalencies?
I often use back doors when I feel stuck. My two hours of research did give me some ideas about what loyalty is not, at least in my mind. But already I can see others might disagree. Still, that’s why we have dictionaries and definitions.
Loyalty cannot be slavery or prostitution. If I have to compromise my integrity in order to fulfill someone else’s expectation of loyalty, it’s no longer a virtue, but an abuse and manipulation. True loyalty must be freely and heartfully given. Authentic loyalty can’t be bought, sold, stolen or owed. It’s not demonstrated by obedience or compliance. If it’s not free and spontaneous, it’s only a sham, an empty word that sounds great but has no substance. Loyalty is not a weapon. It’s a gift.
Said another way, from a perspective of power (and you know how much I think about power!), loyalty is a tool of power-with, not a weapon of power-over.
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Loyalty is not blind. Part of its value is its clarity. We prize it so highly because seeing and being seen clearly, warts and all, and demonstrating or receiving loyalty in spite of it is an act of strength and love. In that case, compassion, tolerance and respect are all involved in loyalty. It follows, then, that loyalty does not require agreement. I can feel entirely loyal to a loved one while disagreeing with some of their choices and beliefs.
Loyalty does not imply denial, arguing with what is or colluding in rewriting history in order to sanitize it. Loyalty is not a right or an obligation.
In fact, the thesaurus suggests the word “trueness” as a synonym for loyalty. Interesting. Isn’t trueness the same as authenticity? I count on those who are loyal to me to tell me the truth of their experience with me and of me. I count on them to trust me with their thoughts, feelings, concerns and observations. I count on them to ask me questions about my choices, and to forgive me when I’m less than perfect. I hold myself to the same standards. This can mean a hard conversation now and then, and uncomfortable vulnerability and risk, but real loyalty is not cheap.
The thesaurus also supplies the word “constancy” as a synonym for loyalty. Constancy is an old-fashioned word these days, but it leapt out at me because consistency is very important to me. I’ve had some experience with Jekyll-and-Hyde abuse patterns in which the goalposts and rules constantly change without notice, keeping me nicely trapped in trying to please people who have no intention of ever being pleased no matter what I do. Loyalty is present one day and absent the next, then present again, then unavailable. That kind of “loyalty” is an abuse tactic.
As always, the construct of loyalty is two-sided. There’s the loyalty that extends between me and another, and then there’s the loyalty I extend to myself. This circles back around to slavery, prostitution and silence. If I have to betray my own needs or make myself small in order to earn or retain someone’s loyalty, something’s very wrong. If I’m called disloyal for saying no, having appropriate boundaries or telling the truth of my experience, then we are not in agreement about the definition of loyalty or I’m being manipulated (again). How loyal can I be to others if I fail to be faithful to myself?
True loyalty will never require me to make a choice between myself and another. Loyalty is strong enough to compromise and collaborate.
Loyalty becomes weaponized when we demand or command absolute agreement, devotion and unquestioning support. Then the concept becomes very black and white. This is demonstrated all over social media and media in general. One unwanted question or view leads to unmerciful deplatforming, silencing and a torrent of threats and abuse. Our loyalty is questioned and tested at every turn. We allow bullies, tyrants and personality-disordered people to achieve and maintain control, terrified of tribal shaming, being unpatriotic or being cast out of our social groups and communities.
The label of disloyalty is extremely powerful, but when I strip away all my confusions and distortions around loyalty and return to the simple definition, it’s not complicated at all. I certainly feel a strong allegiance and support for many individual people, for my community, for my country, for women, for writers, for this piece of land I live on, and for myself.
I suspect many others would like me to wear the label of disloyalty, but I can’t do a thing about their distortions except hand them a dictionary. Very elitist behavior, I’m sure you will agree. Not to mention the disloyalty of refusing to collude in my own shaming.
Being called disloyal doesn’t make it so.
That voice in my head has to do better, find a new slur. I’m willing to own being disloyal if I am, but my conclusion after this investigation is mostly I’m not, and when I am, my greatest trespass is against myself. That I can do something about.
Loyalty. Setting down the weapon. Picking up the tool.
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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.
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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!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
I’m sitting at my desk this morning, the sun shining on the wet grass scattered with wrinkled leaves outside my window. I’ve just been running errands. My desk, unusually, is piled high with scraps of paper, notebooks, my calendar, receipts, to-do lists, and a new binder and paper I just bought to help me organize. My big grey tabby, Oz, is busily knocking everything off the desk and chewing on a new plastic package of AAA batteries because I won’t let him lie on the keyboard.
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I was sick most of October. I’m finally on antibiotics; I can breathe, and consequently think, more clearly. A week ago an aged family member living halfway across the country with whom I have a lifelong troubled history became openly unable to manage their life and then fell and broke their hip in quick succession.
Sometimes life requires us to muster every bit of learning, wisdom, strength, courage, insight and experience we have in a catastrophic practical test, like a nightmarish pop quiz. This is one of those times. It helps to look at it that way, because I know I have (somewhere) everything I need to manage this situation with all my considerable compassion and clear-sightedness.
This last week I let go of everything. My living space needs to be cleaned. I desperately want to change my sheets after so many nights crying, coughing, and trying to breathe adequately enough to snatch some sleep. I’m longing to escape my phone and laptop, sit in the sun, read, relax, do some gentle gardening (still like late summer here in Maine). I haven’t even started on this post yet, a thing I usually do during the week.
I made it to work. I made it to the doctor for antibiotics. I stayed hydrated. Aside from reactive crisis intervention and coming to terms with what’s happening long-distance, that’s about all I can say for myself. But now, at last, I’m beginning to stir feebly into some kind of normal experience again.
It’s a relief.
I opened this document and started typing without any plan whatsoever. I don’t have to post today on this blog. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. I suppose I’ve grown used to the opportunity to organize my life into words every week.
For nearly a decade I’ve worked intensively on boundaries. Ten years ago I knew nothing about personal boundaries. My life was accordingly dysfunctional. It was hardly my life at all, in fact. It was everyone else’s life. I’ve written extensively about boundaries on the blog, and the concept of the difference between your experience and mine is woven heavily into my fiction. I’ve practiced building and maintaining healthy boundaries in the last years, though I’m still far from perfect in working with them.
But I’m getting better all the time.
When we are prevented from building appropriate psychological boundaries as children, we never create an internal world in which we can rest, center, and ground. We become an image in someone else’s mirror, a paper doll, a nonperson.
Nonpeople have no needs, no credibility, and no permission to express themselves as individuals. It’s worse than no permission, though. Nonpeople are severely punished for any independent feeling, need, or expression. Nonpeople have no private life. They’re not allowed to say no.
This kind of relationship, sadly, is often invisible to onlookers. From the outside, such connections look bonded and mutually adoring. The public view never sees the anguish involved in a relationship without boundaries.
Anguish on both sides. Those who seek to prevent others from having boundaries are deeply damaged, insecure people whose own boundaries were likely brutally violated and torn down. They are terrified of being alone, and a boundary makes them feel utterly outcast and rejected.
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But for me, boundaries are sanity. They’re safety. They allow the power to choose and respect to flow both ways. They say, “My self is worthy. Your self is worthy. We can choose to love one another as well as ourselves.”
Reshaping a primary relationship with no boundaries into one with healthy ones is excruciating. It may not be possible. I haven’t decided it is impossible, but I wonder. One of the hardest things about it is how it looks to outsiders, who don’t understand why all the harsh edges and corners are suddenly showing in such a perfect, loving relationship, the kind we all want, the kind we should feel lucky to have.
Another feeling I’m present with just now is the nauseating swing between relief and guilt. All secrets, painful family secrets included, have an uncomfortable way of being revealed. Even if everyone involved conspires to keep the secret, eventually, often in a you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kind of way, someone or something like a terrible series of events exposes it.
I’ve posted about such ideas as loyalty, responsibility, duty, gaslighting and projection. The bars of prisons built by family systems are forged out of concepts and strategies like these. But when a secret escapes the bars melt away and we’re suddenly free. We’re not alone in solitary anymore.
Some stranger says to us, “Oh, yes. I’m familiar with that dynamic. I’ve observed that behavior. I understand,” and we realize we are not crazy. We are not mean and ugly. We are not hateful.
We are not alone.
The relief of validation is indescribable. So is the guilt accompanying the relief. When we guard secrets, literally with our lives, for the sake of protecting the dignity of a loved one and the secrets are revealed through no fault of our own, we also feel exposed. The mere fact that we were the designated secret keeper means we failed.
Our love and the cost of bearing the secret’s burden for so long doesn’t matter. The least we can do, the least we can do, is remove all the boundaries we’ve erected so carefully and painstakingly and once again give up our lives, our freedom, our selves. Our loved one’s anguish should become our anguish, their pain our pain, their limitations our limitations. If necessary, their death should be our death. Because we betrayed, we let them down, we failed.
The secret got out.
I can’t see very far ahead. It’s not useful to gaze at the road behind. I’ve already walked it and everything is different now, the people involved and the situation. Right now I know where I am. I can see the next steps. This is a new path, one I’ve never taken before. It’s a new script, a new experience. I’m working on releasing my assumptions. I don’t know what will happen next. I can predict, but predictions make me tired. What I have is right now, today. I know what I will do today, both in my personal life and to manage my loved one’s situation.
This time I will find a way to inhabit my boundaries and support my loved one without sacrificing one for the other. I will make phone calls, send emails, get myself organized to do whatever I can long distance and prepare to travel in case of need. I will grieve.
I will also write, get outside, do some laundry, maybe take a nap, and work on recovering my health, because mine is the only life I can live.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
Except I’m not. Balancing, I mean.
A few weeks ago I came across a quote: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.” Backtracking through multiple sources, I ran it down to a woman named Jamie Anderson who wrote it in her blog, which is now gone. The quote went viral.
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It hit me right in the heart.
I’ve written previously about my struggle with intense love that is not received. I don’t mean unrequited romantic love. I mean flesh-and-bone love, blood love, the helpless love and connection we feel for family.
My strategy all my life has been to divert the love I feel but can’t give to the intended recipient (at least not in a way I feel they receive and believe in it or even want it) to others who do need and want it. This practice relieves some of the pressure in my heart, but there are several ways it can go badly wrong. Plenty of people in the world will suck up all the love, attention, and support we give them, but have no thought, or perhaps no ability, of returning it. In this case, my painful, overfull heart becomes withered and empty and I have to detach the vampire I’ve attracted.
I’m not looking for a place to dispose of my love like it’s a worn-out sock. I’m looking for a place where it does some good. Because that’s at the heart of feeling love one can’t give – the futility of it. What’s the point of love if we have no place to give it, if love has nowhere to go?
There are places where I feel my love has been useful. Animals. Children. Hospice work. Emergency rescue work. But, aside from animals and my own children, none of these are intimate relationships sustaining me day-to-day. Animals, sadly, have shorter lifespans than we do. Children, inevitably, grow up and find their own lives, which may or may not include us.
I’ve been thinking about this quote for several weeks, intending to blog about it at some point, but always turning away from it into other subjects. It hurts to think about it. I know intellectually writing about pain helps, but loyalty to those who refuse my love stops me. Or maybe shame? Or maybe guilt? (If a family member won’t accept our love, surely the logical conclusion is we’re a terrible person?) Also, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or be unfair, or humiliate another person.
I can always find something to write about. I’ve been posting weekly for six years. But there’s much I do not write about. Too painful. Too intimate. Too risky. Too messy.
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Sometimes life is like a boxing match. I have good stamina, and I’m dogged as hell. I’m organized and efficient. I try to think clearly about my choices. I’m thoughtful. But every now and then life knocks me down. Hard.
Usually I cope with vigorous exercise, writing, getting a good night’s sleep, and processing with a friend. I get back on my feet and keep going.
But every few years the blows keep coming, hard and fast, unexpected hooks and jabs.
This has been one of those times. I’m nursing my third upper respiratory infection in four weeks. Not COVID, but one of the many other plagues circulating this fall. I’ve once again pulled out the essential oil, the powdered vitamin C, the elderberry and echinacea tea, the nasal spray, the cough and cold medicine. I don’t usually take medication of any kind, but on this third round I feel so bruised and battered I’m choosing to. I’m tired out.
In between this virus, which arrived Thursday night, and the last one, which departed Monday, we discovered our dirt-floored cellar was ankle deep in water due to several inches of recent rain which caused some flooding. It’s going to take more than a thousand dollars to fix it.
Then, yesterday (Can it only be yesterday? It feels like weeks.) I was informed about the illness and injury of a family member, one of those people I love most in the world who is unable to receive it and has amputated me from their life. Now, a long way away from me as I sit here in Maine with a Kleenex box, another family member (another of my dearly loved ones) is carrying the whole situation on their shoulders: the hospital, surgery, legalities, finances, paperwork. My presence would only exacerbate the situation and make everything worse. I know it. The family member managing the crisis knows it.
So here I sit, wretched, broke, sick, and I can do nothing – nothing. A lifetime of petrified love weighs like a stone in my chest. It has nowhere to go. It never has. It’s not useful. It’s not wanted. But I can’t stop feeling it. It’s part of me.
And I’m down for the count. I’m all the way down and nothing in me is ready to get back up. My eyes are swollen. I can’t stop crying. I don’t know where the cold begins and the grief ends. All this grief, a lifetime of grief. It feels endless, bottomless. I don’t think there are enough tears in the world to wash it away. I can do nothing but wait for news and try to be a long-distance support to the one who will accept my support. I can’t seem to get and stay well. I can’t fix the cellar. A plumber in hip boots with a new sump pump will do that early next week.
How can the truest, deepest love we feel be refused and rejected?
Rhetorical question. I don’t expect an answer. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever asked that question. Some things just can’t be understood. They’re not fair. They’re not explicable. They’re just life. I learned some time ago to cease arguing with what is.
And what is, right now, is grief. I can’t contain it, control it, avoid it, distract myself from it. I won’t share it, except in words. I’m simply letting it wash through me, surrendering to it. Maybe that’s what I need most today. Maybe the laundry, emptying the trash (all that soggy Kleenex), my usual weekend posting and publishing, raking leaves, dumping the compost, washing dishes, and all the rest of it doesn’t matter. Maybe I can’t get back on my feet until I’ve chosen to just stay down first.
How long do we have to cry to drain a lifetime of grief?
Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
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This is not my usual kind of post, but it is a stay down, raw, naked one. It’s what I’ve got this week. It’s the best I’ve got.
On another note, I am expanding the site. I’m adding excerpts from my books to The Webbd Wheel page. Scroll down past the overview for the excerpts. If you’re intrigued, you can go to my Substack page and read for free as I serial publish my fiction. You’ll find extensive archives, so you can read from the beginning if you wish.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
Years ago, when I was seeking a divorce, my lawyer asked me one day in the middle of my frustration and fear regarding custody of my boys if I wanted to be right or I wanted to be free.
It was one of the best questions anyone had ever asked me, and I didn’t have to think about my answer.
“Free,” I said. In that moment, I gave up on my rather naïve ideas about justice and cooperation in the process of divorce. I stopped worrying about being right. I understood no one but me was interested in the best situation for the kids. I fought for as much freedom as I could get, not for myself, but for them.
The memory came vividly back to me when I read this article by Arthur Brooks from Big Think. The author describes an interaction with a successful but unhappy financier, who remarks she would rather be special than happy. Her definition of special has to do with professional success. Ordinary people, she says, can be happy. She wants to be more special than that.
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I thought about that choice, and I wonder, are special or happy the only two choices? Is there some rule stating one can’t be special and happy?
Why do we believe we have to give up something to be happy?
I’ve written a series of posts about happiness, inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, PhD. I went back and reread those posts.
Can ordinary people be happy but extraordinary people can’t?
Are ordinary people happy?
Is ordinariness shameful? Is happiness a goal only for those who can’t be special in any way, a kind of booby prize?
I don’t believe happiness has anything to do with being ordinary, extraordinary (as defined by whom?) or somewhere in between. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I wonder if we’re losing our ability to distinguish between temporarily satisfying our addictions, expectations, and compulsions while numbing our pain and fear, and feeling true, enduring happiness.
Happiness, after all, is a state of being rather than a state of doing. To some degree we must allow it – give it time, space, and a safe place to exist. It’s not something to pursue or try to create. It’s already within us, somewhere.
(This creation of space, by the way, is a pillar of minimalism. If everything is important, nothing is. One discards until what’s truly important is revealed.)
I jotted down this statement: I’d rather be dutiful, loyal, responsible, a good parent/partner/daughter/sister, rich, powerful, in control, right or successful, than happy. I didn’t think hard about it. I have chosen everything on that list at one time or another in my life. I haven’t chosen happiness or seen it as a choice, and I’ve been unconscious of my belief that happiness can’t coexist with my standards of integrity.
Happiness just doesn’t seem like a worthy goal to me. It’s not culturally sanctioned. Ambition, power, wealth – those are worthy goals. Those are things that matter. Obviously (so obvious it goes without saying directly), those are the roads to happiness. One can be happy, but it must be earned, and happiness is not the goal, just a nice bonus. The real goal is productivity. The shadow side of productivity is consumption.
But productivity is a moving goalpost, and it doesn’t make us happy.
It occurs to me we talk about happiness or unhappiness as a blanket state of being, but it’s really more like Swiss cheese. I feel chronically unhappy about some aspects of my life, and chronically angry about others. Yet every day I also feel periods of happiness when I allow it and take the time to be present in the moment.
When I allow myself to play in the garden, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to settle down with a good book, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be creative, I feel happy.
When I allow myself to be who I am, I feel happy.
Gardening, reading, being creative, and living authentically take time, intention, discipline, and energy. Discipline. Can you believe it? It takes discipline to remember I’m not a human doing, but a human being. My intrinsic worth as a being isn’t tied to productivity or consumption. The treadmill of productivity is easy. Stepping off and relaxing takes discipline. And that’s not only me.
The nature of addiction (physical and mental dependence) in any form is that it gradually pushes everything else out of our lives. Our addiction consumes our time, energy and money. Anything not in service to the addiction is discarded, including relationships, health, free time, quiet time, and creativity. Our addiction becomes our primary relationship and those around us quickly learn we’re not available for anyone or anything else.
Workaholism and perfectionism are addictions, along with productivity, toxic positivity, substance abuse, eating disorders, over-exercising, and sex addictions.
Happiness is power. That which takes us away from our happiness is disempowering.
Why do we live in, perpetuate, and enable a culture that relentlessly and brutally disconnects us from happiness?
That’s easy. Our individual happiness does not benefit capitalism, because happiness can’t be bought or sold. Capitalism benefits from an unhappy population brainwashed into believing productivity and consumption will make us happy. Who benefits from violence, division, hatred, manipulating our fear, restriction of choice, and disconnecting us from the simple pleasure of happiness?
Those currently in power and determined to stay that way, both governmental and corporate.
Who allows and enables that power-over stranglehold?
But we could change our minds.
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