Stories. How many stories can you tell about your life?
Story has always been deeply embedded in the human experience. Every piece of art tells a story. We read, watch television, go to movies, listen to the news, fall in love with music. Stories, all.
Stories teach, entertain, connect, inspire and guide us.
Stories are prisons and torture chambers. They brainwash and manipulate. They can be powerfully limiting.
The paradox of story lies in the power we give it.
Think about a story from your own life. Something painful. Likely it’s a story you’ve told yourself many times. It’s important. It’s part of who you are and how you understand yourself. It’s a place from which you look at the world. It’s absolutely True. You know. You were there. It was such a crippling experience you can’t ever, ever forget.
Stories can’t happen in a void, so there’s an event of some kind, an action, a word, a relationship, other characters in your story.
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Let’s say your story is about four people who spend an hour together on a walk. In that hour everybody sees, smells and hears, thinks and feels different things. After that walk, and maybe for years afterward, each of those four people can tell a story about that day, that walk, that experience. Every one of those stories is partly true. Every one of those stories is inadequate and incomplete. The truest story is the one all four people tell together. If one person’s story is refused, denied, disbelieved or lost, all four people have lost something important out of that hour of their lives. They’ve lost an opportunity for understanding, for compassion, for connection and for becoming just a little bit bigger.
The thing about story is that we create it. Something happens. We have an experience. We have feelings, like mad, glad, sad or scared. We have thoughts about our feelings. We make up a story. We tell it to ourselves over and over again as we try to make sense of our experience, or recover from some hurt. We believe our story to the point that we refuse to consider changing it. We behave as if our story is True.
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Now we have a story that imprisons us. The story has all our power. We hurt people, break relationships and viciously defend our story. We will kill people, including ourselves, to maintain our story. Not only that, others must accept our story in its entirety. They must never question it, add to it or take away from it. Our story becomes us. A threat to our story becomes a threat to our life.
We’ve made something up, chosen to believe in it and now it rules us.
A lot of people talk about truth and lies as though one is black and one is white. As a storyteller, a writer and a human being, I question that. What is truth, really? If I was walking with you on that day and I saw a beautiful grass snake and you saw a dangerous serpent, which one of us is lying? What is the truth? I was charmed, you were horrified. So, I must be a sensitive scientist type with big glasses and a mouthful of Latin. And you’re a beautiful, sexy woman with big boobs and brown eyes who needs to be taken care of in the terrifying outdoors.
There. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it. Don’t you dare try to give me a different version.
See what I mean?
Isn’t the truth that two people saw a snake and had two different experiences and sets of feelings around it? Don’t we all have histories, fears, beliefs, prejudices, expectations and filters through which we experience life? Are yours right and mine wrong? Are mine right and yours wrong?
Can’t we allow room for everyone to experience what they experience?
Some people lie, deliberately and with intent. We all know people like that. We learn quickly not to trust them.
Some people distort. They’re caught up in their story about themselves, about the world, about others. They’ve been deeply damaged and wounded, or they struggle with addiction, or they have health problems, or they take medication, or they struggle with mental illness. Am I prepared to call them liars?
No. But I recognize the danger of some of their stories.
Does investment in a distorted story mean the storyteller is not a valuable person worthy of love and compassion? I hope not. I’ve my own set of distorted stories. I think we all have.
Other, very dangerous people deliberately manipulate with story. They invalidate yours in favor of theirs. They tell you you’re wrong, you didn’t understand, you’re too sensitive, you’re too dramatic, you’re too crazy; you’re hateful, bigoted, disloyal, a liar. They tell you your story didn’t happen, that they didn’t hit you, even though there’s blood in your mouth.
So what do we do about story — ours and everyone else’s?
Maybe the most important thing is to be aware that much of what’s happening in our head is a story. It might be partly true. It might not be. It’s certainly part of something larger than our point of view. Our feelings are ours and we need to honor them, but our thoughts about our feelings can become a real problem.
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We could ask others about their stories. We could be open, curious, nonjudgmental, compassionate, respectful and prepared to be enriched by someone’s perceptions and experiences. We could, in short, build healthy connection.
If we’re holding tight to a story that hurts us, angers us, or is otherwise destructive, we could go to other characters in the story, tell them how we feel and ask for help understanding the situation.
We can build trust and respect with ourselves. We can claim the power and dignity to form our own opinions about others, based on our own observations and experience, and decide when to build connection and when to limit it. We can refrain from repeating destructive stories to or about others. We can take responsibility for our own rigidity and blind spots; our intolerance, injustice and poor communication skills, and own that we might make mistakes in judgement.
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We can be wary and watchful of people who impose their stories on us. Some people use story like a hammer and chisel, relentlessly splitting connection and relationship. In the end they hurt themselves the most, but many a relationship has been lost because of this kind of behavior.
We can pay attention to red flags such as feeling confused, feeling torn, feeling overwhelmed, feeling exhausted by drama, and feeling dragged down or being asked to keep destructive secrets. Healthy people in our lives who truly love us will never try to split us from others or force us to make a “them or me” choice. Healthy people do not share destructive personal stories about others publicly, nor do they tolerate or enable this kind of behavior. Healthy people communicate honestly, directly and clearly and recognize the ineffectiveness of black-and-white thinking.
In the end, our only power lies within the circumference of our own lives. If we want others to give us a chance to speak when someone tells a distorted story about us, we must do the same for them. If we want to be heard, understood and treated with respect and compassion, we must extend those to others. If we’re hurt and angry, we must find appropriate and effective ways to talk about that, either with a professional or with others in our story. We can’t control what others say and believe about us. We can only live the most authentic lives possible and hope that our actions and words speak for themselves. We can be responsible for our own stories.
For more on the power of story, here’s another blog you might be interested in. Same subject, different writer. It’s titled Who Are You?
Also, here’s a link to a remarkable teacher, Byron Katie, who asks, “Who are you without your story?” I highly recommend her.
Do your stories about yourself limit you? Do your stories about others limit them? Can you consider another version of one of your stories? What needs to happen for you to revise one destructive story you’ve created?
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except where otherwise noted
This week I’m exploring the idea of cultural appropriation. In the linked article, cultural appropriation is defined as “Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.” This definition provides a useful starting point, but it begs a couple of important questions.
I approach cultural appropriation from two different directions. I begin with a story I wrote years ago for oral telling. The story was inspired by the wonderful children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle . He wrote several books, among them Draw Me a Star. As a parent and librarian, I’ve bought, recommended and read aloud his books hundreds of times. You can look at ‘Draw Me a Star’ here .
“Sing me a star …”
And the Artist sang a star.
It was a shining star.
“Color me a sun,” said the star.
And the Artist colored a glowing sun, a golden lion, a hillside of orange poppies, a burning fire, and a feather.
It was a red feather.
“Weave me a tree,” said the feather.
And the Artist wove branches and leaves and pieces of sky into a tree, and She wove fields and forests and deep, invisible roots, and a spider’s web.
“Build me a fence,” said the spider.
And the Artist built a fence and sculpted rocks and ice and sand and snow into a world.
It was a glorious world.
“Tell me a story,” said the world.
And the Artist began, “Once upon a time …”
It was a wonderful story.
“Tell me some more!”
So the Artist made all kinds of people to share all kinds of stories.
They were strong people.
The people said, “Teach us what love is.”
And the Artist said,
“Sing me a star …”
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
Now set your burdens down for an hour and dance with me. Here’s the sound track I made for our community dance last Monday evening.
“Symphony of the Forest and Mysterious Island,” by Kitaro a Japanese artist.
“Maryam,” by Hamza Shakkur, from the soundtrack to the movie Bab’ Aziz , a Tunisian foreign film.
“Aye Lon Lon Vadjro,” by Angelique Kidjo , an African artist.
“Kozuma,” by Professor Trance and the Energizers, who perform multicultural Trance Dance music.
“Stars Align,” by Lindsey Stirling, an American violinist.
“Mwari,” from the album World of Rhythm.
“Pinguli Pinguli Giuvaccinu,” by Savina Yannatou , a Greek artist.
“Barcelona Nights” by Ottmar Liebert, a German guitarist.
“Symphony of Dreams and A Drop of Silence” by Kitaro.
I wouldn’t steal a pencil or a nickel. It’s easy to make a distinction between concrete objects belonging to me and those that don’t. Trying to define intellectual and cultural property, however, is another thing. Part of my integrity as a storyteller includes rigorously reporting the origins of my material to my audience. Part of my integrity as a librarian and a researcher includes investigating roots and versions of old stories and communicating that information to my audience so they get a glimpse of the amazing historical journey of human creativity and experience. Part of my integrity as a writer is to be open to the world of human beings around me in all its rich history, language, symbol, tradition, spirituality, expression, art, ideas and feelings.
Anyone who creates art or delves into old oral traditions realizes cultures are not so easy to distinguish from one another, and the farther back we trace certain artifacts, oral material, symbols and traditions, the more blurred the boundaries between cultures become. Part of my motivation in becoming a storyteller is to become a link in a long, long chain of humanity that reanimates old stories. Oral tradition survives because it speaks to the culture of human beings. Themes of love, birth, death, war, change and power engage everyone. The repeating horrors of colonization, genocide, slavery, plague and pestilence, massacre and religious persecution are embedded in the history of every culture on every continent.
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It would be convenient to simplify the history of mankind into good/bad, victim/oppressor and black/white literally, as well as figuratively, but that’s an intellectually lazy and ignorant point of view. Science teaches us life is a complex, nonlinear, dynamic, holistic system, and every culture changes every other culture just by existing. Every species impacts every other species. Every organism impacts every other organism. It’s inescapable.
Culture is defined geographically, ethnically, politically, by religious belief, by shared history, by language and by physical types. All these factors and many others weave cultural definition. I define some of my cultural aspects and others also define me, sometimes accurately, sometimes ridiculously. Defining culture is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands.
Who is authorized to speak for their culture, and what gives them that authority? Who controls the sharing or withholding of cultural information? At what point do we qualify for inclusion in a culture? My own ancestry is a polyglot of Irish, Norwegian and German, at least. Am I Irish enough to be allowed to tell an Irish traditional tale? Does the fact that my skin is white prohibit me from dancing to African music and introducing others to artists like Anquelique Kidjo?
We have ample evidence that cultural purity is a fast track to cultural death. It doesn’t work in breeding animals, it doesn’t work in the plant world and it doesn’t work any better with humans. Life is not about maintaining divisions and isolated islands of purity. It never has been about that. Successful life is about biodiversity, cooperation, adaptation and hybridization. The attempt to maintain cultural purity is an attempt to restrain change, which is an attempt to harness life itself. Human beings, thank all the manifestations of divinity, are not that powerful.
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What human beings are is creative. We are sensual. We thrive on expression and ritual. We hunger for spiritual nourishment. At our best, we’re observers, recorders, problem solvers, explorers and synthesists. We’re curious. As in the old stories, we go out into the world and seek our fortunes, our mates, our place, our families, our passion, our destinies and ourselves. Yes, there are plenty of madmen/women, megalomaniacs, destroyers and other pitiless, power-hungry, dangerous, destructive people out there. Entire human cultures have disappeared, leaving behind nothing but artifacts and fragments of language. Many, many other kinds of life have vanished as well, and many more are at risk. Yes, there are people who steal real property as well as intellectual property. There are people who would gladly wipe out whole groups of humans and other life, given the power. It’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.
Photo by Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash
Have you noticed, though? Life — human, animal, plant — goes on. No one can really steal our heritage or our identity, because those things reside within us. Plagiarism and duplication are sterile things. Culture persists. It might go underground for generations in order to survive, but it persists and eventually shows itself to the world again. Stories, music, traditional arts and crafts, religious rites, dance, clothing, jewelry, language and tools are all seeds of culture. When someone with cultural seeds in their pockets reaches across boundaries to another culture, powerful, life-sustaining, magnificent collaboration happens, the kind of collaboration that allows an ordinary person like me to create a multicultural dance track and lead a small group of people (all kinds of people) in dance, which is a human cultural tradition from the dawn of man/womankind. The mingling of cultures creates new cultures, as well as sustaining the original parent cultures. If one person reading this discovers new music to add to their lives and pass on, a long history of cultural tradition goes with it and is preserved. I’ve succeeded as a link in the chain going right back to the first humans.
Eric Carle has had a hand in shaping my life, along with hundreds of other authors and illustrators. His books were read to me when I was a child, and in turn I read him to other children, including my own. He’s a unique and beautiful artist. My appreciation for his work inspired my own creativity. I was also inspired by my brother, who is a gifted musician, and I dedicate ‘The Artist’ to him, out loud, every time I tell it. I take my copy of Draw Me a Star to every telling to pass around. I’ve told ‘The Artist’ dozens and dozens of times to all kinds of audiences, children as well as adults.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The story tells my truth. The act of creation is an act of love, appreciation and respect. Creation never happens in isolation. It’s never pure. It’s always a maelstrom of conscious and unconscious influence, memory, and inspiration from things seen, heard, read, felt and experienced. Culture is not static. It adapts, adjusts, persists, learns, discards, incorporates, borrows and contributes, or it dies.
Last week I wrote about making ourselves small. Cultural eradication makes the family of man smaller. Plagiarism kills creativity. Appropriation shrivels our souls. The threat of tribal shaming limits our joy in discovery and exploration outside our cultural boundaries. Choosing rigidity, hoarding and withholding our beautiful languages, our nourishing spiritual wisdom, our rapturous music, our skills and traditions, impoverishes us. Refusing to experience, explore and appreciate other cultures and their richness also impoverishes us. Sterility and isolation in, sterility and isolation out.
The greatest honor I can give the countless musicians, authors, artists, dancers, storytellers, photographers, sculptors, weavers, gardeners, mystics, filmmakers and other creators who grace the world is to see, to listen, to be touched, to weep, to laugh, to dance, to receive, to learn from, to be inspired by, and to add my own work to the dynamic, ever-changing culture of humanity.
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except where otherwise noted
For many years, I’ve been a story teller. I’ve told stories in nursing homes, schools, at seasonal events and in women’s circles. I think of stories as medicine, as guidance, as blueprints for living. Old stories from cultures around the world contain information we’ve forgotten or lost about how to live well.
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It’s striking how often I share a familiar and oft-told story with an audience that suddenly turns out to be what I most need. Oral stories, if written on a page, look static and lifeless. They’re not. An oral story lives. It twists and turns and wriggles unexpectedly in the mouth. Every time I tell a story it’s a different telling than I’ve ever done before. Every time I tell a story I’m different than I was the last time I told it. Every audience is different.
I’ve discovered blogging is like that. As I blog, I think of the reader. I blog to make an external connection. As I create posts, though, I also discover deepened connection with myself. My writing reveals my truth to me, and shines a light on the places where I’m not living what I know is my truth.
Last week I posted about quitting. In essence, I gave permission to all of us to change, to grow, to seek happiness in our work and in our lives. Ever since I resigned from my job (last day will be Saturday) and wrote that post, I’ve noticed an internal feeling of rediscovery, freedom and fizzing joy.
I only worked 20 hours a week at that job, but the choice to force myself to do it, even though it didn’t make me happy or meet my needs, cast a shadow of apathy over the rest of my life. It dulled my response to my own distress. It fed all those powerful voices that tell us there’s no help for it. We have bills to pay. We have responsibilities, duties and obligations. The most sinister voice of all says this is the best we can hope for or deserve.
I was empowering fear, not love.
All of a sudden, I’m operating with new clarity, the kind of clarity that the right story at the right time brings. This week I’m acutely aware of what’s working well for me and what’s not. I feel my power to choose afresh. I’m not motivating out of fear. Somehow, fear is taking a vacation. I’m motivating out of curiosity, pleasure and the desire to actually be happy.
For me, this is a crime of immense proportions.
I want to be happy. It occurs to me this isn’t a childish pursuit. It’s the pursuit of real personal power.
I follow a blog by Dr. Sharon Blackie, who is a writer, psychologist and mythologist. I’m reading one of her books, The Long Delirious Burning Blue, which has a passionate delicacy I haven’t experienced in a new read for a long time.
Dr. Blackie recently returned to the place she calls home in Connemara, Ireland, and her last couple of blog posts are about taking a walk with her dogs on the land that she loves.
Photo by Takahiro Sakamoto on Unsplash
That’s all. Taking walks. She posts pictures of the lochs, a stream, the bog and the mountain. There are pictures of her dogs, and I imagined wet, muddy paws and soft black and white coats tangled with leaves and stems. I think these posts are among the most joyful and powerful things I’ve ever read, not because Dr. Blackie is an extraordinary scholar and writer, which she is, but because she writes as a woman who’s come home to the place she belongs after a long time away. Her delight and reverence for the land and the life it supports radiate from every word and picture.
That’s how I feel this week, but my homecoming is internal rather than external.
I’m familiar with some of my terrain. Over the years, I’ve learned some of what I am. Always, though, there have been caverns, edges and deep forest I haven’t explored. Perhaps I knew all of myself before my memory in this lifetime begins, but if so, I’ve forgotten.
Photo by Cameron Kirby on Unsplash
This week I’m a wanderer, an explorer, a solitary traveler in my own psyche. I leave my well-worn internal paths to roam under trees. I follow the sound of water. I read my own spoor and run my hands over moss-covered rocks. I hunt in vernal pools for singing frogs the size of my toes. I wade through bogs of memory, getting my feet muddy and losing my shoes.
I’ve found old, abandoned structures smelling of rot and damp where birds nest and bats cluster. I’ve stumbled upon shallow graves where, once upon a time, I discarded and abandoned parts of myself. I’ve tripped over fallen idols, are now covered in a lacy blanket of ferns, found forgotten altars and pulled mats of dead leaves out of fountains I haven’t seen in years so clear water can flow again.
I’ve found shed skins whispering and rustling with memory, nearly invisible overgrown paths, and ruts and scars from old burns, floods and landslides.
I suddenly remember the happy feeling of waking early in the morning and going straight outside. I release myself from the expectation that I’ll work well in the last third of the day, a thing I’ve never in my life been able to pull off. I listen to music I love. I read what interests and moves me. I write lists and journal entries, blog posts and edits for my book.
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Like Dr. Blackie’s dogs, I follow what catches my attention. I move along scent trails, noting the passage of all my selves, spiraling from what I’ve been to what I’ll become and back again. I dance from thought to thought, from word to word, from dream to dream. I cast myself into a wider pattern of life.
It’s not that I don’t want to do anything. On the contrary, I want to do a hundred things. I want to do much more than I did when I was structuring my time and energy around my job. I can hardly wait to get out of bed and see what the day brings. I want to play outside, take care of tasks inside, read, write, watch the birds at the feeders, stretch, dance, swim, listen to music, make a list and check things off, be present in my relationships, make new friends, pursue intriguing new connections, earn money joyfully, and see how much I can want and how gloriously I can dream.
I’ve written about leaving home before, and in that post I wrote that in some counterintuitive way leaving my old external home in Colorado allowed me to begin to finally come home to myself internally and reclaim my power. I’ll never think of home solely as a one-dimensional place in the world again. Home is not just a house, not just a beloved landscape, but the place where my dearest friend, my most passionate lover and my most loyal companion reside, along with my deepest power. Home is my own wide-flung arms, my own pulse and breath, my own joy. Home is me, myself.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot that the most important things are also the simplest. There’s great power in being happy. If happy is missing, life is muted and apathetic at best. This is when the power of boredom and the power to quit come to our aid. This is when choice becomes something we must fight to reclaim as if our lives depend on it … because they do.
Claiming the power of happy. My daily crime.
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except where otherwise noted
As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.
The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.
Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:
Here in the Mountains
There is one memory deep inside you.
In the dark country of your life
it is a small fire burning forever.
Even after all these years
the embers of what you have
known rest contented
in their own warmth.
Here in the mountains,
tell me all the things
you have not loved.
Their shadows will tell you
they have not gone,
they became this night
from which you drew away in fear.
Though at the trail’s end,
your heart stammers
with grief and regret,
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.
My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.
Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.
But I thought about things I have not loved.
It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash
And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.
I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.
I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.
I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.
I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.
I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.
And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.
Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash
It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.
The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.
- Share three things you have not loved.
- Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
- What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
I’m pausing. It wasn’t, I hasten to say, my idea! However, after an interesting and stressful concatenation of events I’ve decided to embrace the opportunity to pause.
It all started with a wonderful post from one of my favorite Substackers, Lani Diane Rich. It’s titled “Emotional Ex-Lax.” Honestly, how could anyone not go look at that post?
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The post suggests an exercise in blind journaling. I journal daily, first thing in the morning, with my first cup of tea. I don’t go on line first. I don’t work in the house, or start breakfast, or make my bed, or clean the cat boxes. I feed the cats (because if I don’t I won’t be allowed to sit peacefully and journal). I pee. I turn on one low light. I heat water and make tea. Sometimes I put on very low music. Sometimes I light a candle or two. At 5:00 in the morning there’s nothing going on. Darkness presses against the windows. Nobody needs anything from me. I’m free, and something of the twilight of sleep lingers. I sit with my laptop, open a new document, and start typing. Every month I delete the last month’s journal entries. I never look back at them. They’re for no one else’s eyes. It’s an entirely private space.
If, for some reason, I miss this time with myself, I notice it immediately. I’m not as centered. I feel more anxious. I feel more stressed. If I can’t get to a word processor, I journal with pen and paper, and then destroy it.
I never thought of blind journaling, though.
I recognized resistance. As I peeled the resistance away, I discovered the roots of it: perfectionism. That made me mad. I’ve worked so hard to uproot that toxic growth, but I never seem to get it all eradicated. It’s like bindweed, that bane of gardeners. Out in Colorado, where I used to live and garden, bindweed choked the dry landscape. Its roots can grow 6 feet deep. Any attempt to dig it up or kill it above ground merely encourages it. It grows fast. Herbicides don’t work. Its folk name is ‘Devil’s guts.’ A perfect description.
I think about perfectionism as bindweed.
Even as I journal, I edit. I correct spelling. I make sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes I even cut and paste. For a journal no one else will ever see and I won’t read again. For a journal document I’m going to delete in four weeks. If I blind journal I can’t edit as I write.
It won’t, God help me, be perfect. It won’t even kind of be perfect. I’m a good typist, but I make mistakes. Sometimes the cursor jumps around. Sometimes my sentence structure is poor.
So, naturally I made up my mind to try blind journaling, to challenge my perfectionism if for no other reason.
I chose a day off and journaled the usual way for a bit, then set a timer for 20 minutes, shut my eyes and blind journaled. I thought I was already emptied out, but wow. I was in full flood when the timer went off, and it felt like I’d only been doing it for five minutes. I loved it. I knew I was making mistakes (which I refused, by the way, to go back and fix!), but they didn’t interrupt my process. I just kept going, never looking back, never losing the thread of what I was saying. No visual distraction whatsoever.
I didn’t want to stop.
Well!, I thought. This will be a fun thing to blog about.
Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020
I picked up my 16-ounce cup of tea, pomegranate green this season. Our little calico cat, Izzy, who had been snuggled in her favorite position in my armpit, woke up and decided she wanted to be in my lap where the laptop was. I pushed her away. She came back. I pushed her away. She started chewing on the upper corner of the screen, an obnoxious habit she has. I pushed her away with more irritation this time. The tea I was holding slopped onto the keyboard. I cursed, wiped it away, tipped the computer and let it drip out. I got a couple of Q-tips and dried around the three or four keys that got splashed. I sat down again to go back to my peaceful morning journaling.
The computer died.
I plugged it in in case the battery was run down, but I knew it wasn’t. I let it be for an hour, then tried to turn it on.
When the computer store opened, I got in the car and took it over. Mark, my computer guy, shook his head. I left it in his capable hands.
Now my quiet day off, in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything but noodle around at home, had turned upside down. My serenity fled. My excitement about starting a rough draft of a post on blind journaling withered. I couldn’t pay bills and deal with money, always a major stressor. Speaking of money, replacing my laptop would cost over $1,000. And what would repairs cost? And how much money do I have in savings? In checking? I couldn’t check! Panic until I remembered my cell phone is connected to the Internet. I couldn’t write, at least not with a word processor.
But none of that was the worst thing. The worst thing, and I’m completely mortified by this fact and would prefer to hide it from both myself and the world, was I couldn’t play solitaire!
Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash
This realization was so unwelcome I longed, craved, itched to play a few games of solitaire and “think about it.” Except that’s a lie. I wanted to play solitaire so I could numb out.
I roamed around the house, restless, wanting to crawl out of my own skin. The day I had looked forward to suddenly seemed dull and endless. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t know what to do with my anxiety. I started waiting for the phone to ring with news of my machine.
I did eventually get a grip but I recognized the symptoms of withdrawal from an addiction, and I didn’t like it. I kept myself busy with several tasks I’d been putting off. I cut greens I’d gathered with a friend a few days before and decorated for Yule. I pulled out a notebook and continued journaling, off and on, long hand. It gave me a sore hand, but it helped. I told myself I could rough out a blog post long hand, too. But it was probably not worth it. I’d have my laptop back by the end of the day. Probably. Maybe. Wouldn’t I?
I set aside the budget and a couple of bills I’d just received and weren’t due for a week or more. I tried not to think about money, or scarcity, or money.
Not thinking about money – la, la, la-la – fingers in my ears and eyes squinched shut.
I tried not to think about my email piling up. I read some of it on my phone, but the screen was so small it wasn’t much fun.
I thought and journaled about how busy I always feel, how often I hear myself say I’m tired, how overwhelmed I feel. I’ve been telling myself feeling overwhelmed is natural. I work; I run a blog and a Substack page, publishing on both every weekend; I’m writing another book; and now I’m co-manager of a long-distance situation in which a loved one is recovering from a broken hip and sinking into dementia. I anticipate making the long trip from Maine to Colorado and back again at some point during the holiday season, running the gauntlet of weather, travel complications, crowds, and various respiratory viruses. Oh, and spending money I don’t have. Especially if I have to replace my laptop.
Of course I’m overwhelmed.
Yes, said a snarky little voice in my head, “and how much time and energy does it cost you to play solitaire in all the pauses, cracks, and crevices of your life? What about visual stimulation? What about your problem with speeding? What about your anxiety? You’re not helping your anxiety, you’re feeding it!
The day passed and the computer guy didn’t call. The next day was a work day. Normally I would have been working on posts for the weekend ahead. I was beginning to feel behind. If I didn’t get the laptop back I wasn’t going to be able to post. Less than perfect. Inconsistent. Letting my readers down. Everyone would probably unsubscribe. Even if I got the laptop back, the weekend was going to be tight. Starting from scratch on Saturday morning for Harvesting Stones and on Sunday morning for Substack takes a lot of hours out of my weekend, when I also run errands, clean, do laundry, cook for the week ahead, and take care of business I haven’t had a chance to do during the week.
And I was already tired. Already wanting those two days off, not to fill up, but to relax in. Could the solitaire really be feeding my anxiety rather than calming it, I wondered?
Yes, your solitaire habit is feeding your anxiety. You know it.
At the end of the day, I called my computer guy. He informed me my machine was disassembled and he’d been running a fan on it night and day. He didn’t know if it was a goner or not; he wasn’t going to put it back together and plug it in until he was sure every molecule of water was gone. He told me, rather pointedly, he’d call me.
OK, I thought. I won’t post this weekend. Nobody will care but me. I’m allowed to take a weekend off. I read all kinds of people who take frequent breaks and pauses. I don’t think any the less of them for it; in fact, I admire their self-care and confidence.
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
Friday happens to be my nine-hour day at work, so I wouldn’t have used the laptop much that day in any case. I gritted my teeth, used a computer at work to catch up a little, and tried not to worry too much. I never play solitaire at work, so it was my third day without it.
Meanwhile, I made and received long distance calls from the facility where my loved one is recovering physically and wandering mentally. I finished the book I was reading and started another. I journaled a lot in my notebook. I played with the cats, giving them my full attention, which felt nice. I noticed what I was eating and enjoyed the taste of my meals, unusual for me. I savored my tea more. I wrapped a few Yule gifts and got them in the mail. I did some cleaning. I exercised. I put on an old movie and did upper and lower body resistance training in front of it rather than playing solitaire.
I slept well. I felt less exhausted. The inside of my head was quieter. I even took a nap, a thing I don’t normally do, as playing solitaire is “resting.” (Uh-huh. Whatever you say.) My anxiety ratcheted way down. I had a couple of crying jags, but they passed and I felt relieved rather than more upset when they were over.
I had more time.
I have more time because I’m not writing without my laptop, I thought.
“No. You have more time because you’re not playing solitaire in all the cracks and crevices,” said the snarky voice.
On Friday, while I was at work, my laptop was resurrected and my partner brought it home. What saved its life, I am told, was there was no sugar in the tea. Who knew?
By Friday evening, when I returned home from work, I’d made some decisions:
- No more solitaire.
- No more liquid in close proximity to the laptop.
- Take the weekend off. Really take it off. No pressure to post and publish. No solitaire. Embrace the pause. Make it last. Feel about things. Think about things. Be present.
All weekend I had the half delighted, half guilty feeling I was playing hooky. I ran several errands. I journaled on the word processor. I dealt with receipts, bills, accounts, the budget. I did some cleaning and laundry. I read. I listened to music. I watched a couple of movies and exercised. I played with the cats. I texted with a friend. I talked to my loved one and their nurse in Colorado. I made a new recipe for a pork shoulder in the crock pot which made the house smell like citrus, garlic, and herbs. I read several inspiring pieces from the Substackers and minimalists I follow. I started making notes for this post, which flowed into writing a rough draft.
It was a good weekend. It didn’t feel too short or too rushed. I didn’t feel pressure or anxiety. I slept well.
I’ve realized it’s time to make some changes. It’s a good time of year to reevaluate and do that, right? I didn’t set out to do it, but once it was forced upon me I realized I’ve been running a little faster every day for a long time, feeling a little more tense and anxious, and needing a little more numbing to manage it all. I’m grateful I was forced to stop. I’m going to start moving again, but in a different way, with slightly new priorities and without the damn solitaire!
(“You’ve finished the post!” says the snarky voice. “You’re way ahead this week. Wouldn’t you like to relax, play a game of solitaire, and celebrate?”
Oh, shut up!)
What’s your favorite numbing activity?
On a scale of 1 (hardly any) to 10 (all), how much of your power does it have? Are you uncomfortable about the level of power your habit has over you?
Does your habit increase your anxiety?
Does your habit decrease your focus?
Have you ever formally kept track of the time you spend doing your favorite numbing activity?
Leave a comment below!
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