Responsibility

One of my favorite things about life is that changing one subtle thread in the pattern of our behavior and identity can change the whole picture in unexpected but beautiful ways. The overculture promises such a transformation if we buy the right product, but that’s a hollow promise. If we really want change, we have to work internally, which is messy, confusing work, often filled with anguish — much less sexy and fun than buying a new pair of shoes or trying a different hair color.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

As I navigate through the process of submitting my first book manuscript to agents and publishers, the necessity to write a strong and appropriate query letter, synopsis, autobiography, and pitch has forced me to come further out of hiding than I ever have before.

While sitting on the lifeguard stand at work last week, it occurred to me that one word sums up the change spurred by my creative ambitions and rippling into all areas of my life.

Responsibility.

This is an amusing twist of irony because I have always been overly responsible about everyone and everything other than myself. I’ve believed myself responsible for the health and happiness of every person and animal around me since I was a child. When things become challenging or unpleasant, I’ve blamed myself. When accidents and misunderstandings occur, I’ve blamed myself. When others make self-destructive or boneheaded choices, I’ve blamed myself.

It goes without saying I’ve certainly blamed myself for all my own real and imagined flaws, weaknesses, mistakes, blue eyes, wide hips, wild hair, cellulite and countless other things.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Futility doesn’t begin to describe the kind of life this behavior creates.

The literary submission process was not the only catalyst prompting me to reverse my old pattern of taking on responsibility that doesn’t belong to me and ignoring that which does, but it’s certainly a big one.

I’ve been so uncomfortable with trying to present my creative work in a professional, objective, supportive, respectful manner I haven’t had the time or attention to sit back and view the last two or three weeks with any kind of objectivity, but that particular hour of lifeguarding gave me the pause I needed to see the changing pattern of several different areas in my life.

In my primary relationship I’m gradually becoming more authentic and less concerned about taking responsibility for the needs, wants and preferences of my partner. He’s a grown man, intelligent and able to speak for and take care of himself. He’s also able to adapt, adjust and take his lumps like everyone else. It’s not my job in life to see to it that he (or anyone else) is never uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable all the time, and I manage to live through it.

Letting go of what I was never responsible for in the first place is an enormous relief, but the truth is I’ve always preferred caring for others to caring for myself. It’s not that I don’t know who I am and what I want. I’m not a bit confused about that. Since I came to Maine, I’ve learned to know and love myself.

Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash

What keeps me caring for others rather than myself is the belief that I’m the only person who can love me. Choosing to be more open and real about my own needs, wants and preferences, even though they might conflict (and often do) with those around me, seems like a life-and-death risk. Even sitting here writing about It gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want to be responsible for myself in this way.

I have a friend who frequently invites me on activities and play dates of all kinds. At least half the time I say no. I cringe when I say it. I worry. I brace myself for the end of our friendship every time. But no is the honest answer — the real me. I’m an introvert. I like nothing so much as a quiet day or evening at home. My few social needs are well met, and I have no desire to be out and about in the world more than I already am. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty …

See? There it is again. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty, as do I, and that means I must take responsibility for my truths: knowing them, speaking them, and accepting others will inevitably be affected by them.

I don’t want the responsibility of making anyone uncomfortable or unhappy. Ever. Under any circumstances. (Well, unless I’m really pissed off, like when the fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy at the pool announced during an exercise class that people with tattoos don’t have jobs and he wouldn’t have any such person in his house. Note: I have a tattoo on my left shoulder that’s quite obvious in my bathing suit, which is my work attire (you know, for my job), and I was present at the time. Also, two of my colleagues have tattoos, clearly visible in their bathing suits, not to mention many of our patrons are tattooed. Fortunately, I’m able to be professional and keep my obnoxious opinions to myself in public. Unlike some people I could name.)

One of the greatest gifts of my current relationships is how often I’m forced to be authentic and speak my truth. I’m getting a lot of practice in assuming those I interact with are adults who can deal with their feelings about my choices (I’m talking to you, fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy), just as I deal with my feelings about theirs. If others are not adults and refuse to take responsibility for their own feelings, well that’s not really about me at all, and those are not the kind of relationships I’m available for.

Suddenly, everywhere I look, I’m watching myself openly say yes or no, ask for what I want and/or need, state my feelings and preferences without apology or justification, and present my creative work with pride, love and belief in its value.

When I reread this, I smile. It sounds so smooth! It’s not, though. I feel a lot of anxiety as I come out from under cover. Challenging these old patterns gives me a greasy feeling of imminent doom. How can I expect anyone to love or even tolerate me if I insist on being a real person with needs and preferences? How can I admit openly what I think, feel, need and create?

No, it’s not smooth. It’s terrifying and exhausting.

It’s also exhilarating and freeing. Life is a lot easier when I give up taking care of anyone but myself. One of the great gifts of aging has been my gradual journey from a people-pleasing shell to sensual creativity, warty wisdom and vigorous connection to my own power and intuition.

 

I Don’t Want To

In a recent conversation, someone asserted to me that ultimately everyone does what they want. I felt an immediate fury. That does not describe my life at all. I chewed on my outrage and resentment for a few weeks, simmering, until I decided to get over it and figure out why I was so hijacked.

I was immediately lost in the puckerbrush. Making choices about what we do and don’t do is intimately tied to needs and wants, and I have yet to be able to distinguish between the two once beyond the level of survival needs, or find any kind of clarity from someone else. Needs and wants are unpleasant territory I don’t want to explore. (See? There it is. I don’t want to. Yet I am, and I might need to.)

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

Then there’s the whole actions versus words aspect. People say they want things but don’t act accordingly. If we really want something, our behavior reflects it. If our behavior does not reflect our stated wants, we’re deceiving ourselves, or someone else, or both. I deeply distrust mixed messages. More unpleasant territory and old trauma.

Choice is in there, too. Choice is a big subject and a major theme in this blog. As I’ve mused on the statement ‘we all do what we want to do’ and made notes (you know I always make notes), I’ve wondered how we can compare a parent in some war-torn place attempting to keep their starving child alive another day with a wealthy person trying to decide if they want to fly their private plane to Paris for dinner or stay in and watch a movie in their in-home theater and have their chef prepare a seven-course meal. With wine, naturally.

One person has limited choices, all excruciating, to achieve continued survival for a few hours. The other has almost unlimited choices, all luxuries. How can I possibly compare the two? Can we say the parent trying to keep their child alive is doing what they want to do? Come on! Yet they do want to keep their child alive, right?

Perhaps it seems complicated and confusing because it’s complicated and confusing.

I wound up with a page full of notes, some sobering personal revelations, and a hairball.

On an internet search, I found articles pointing out the distinction between doing exactly what we want to do in any given moment (a toddler or a hedonist) and doing things we don’t want to do in service to an outcome we do want. That made sense to me.

If we focus on wanted outcomes rather than individual actions, we must have the ability to plan, look ahead, anticipate, and understand possible consequences of our actions. We also must attempt to predict the responses and reactions of the people around us to our actions, which means we have to understand something about emotional intelligence

Photo by Manuel Sardo on Unsplash

… and now we’re back in the puckerbrush. I hate predictions. I don’t like leaps of faith. (I have a magnet on my fridge that says “Leap and the net will appear.” I don’t know why I keep it. It makes me mad every time I read it. Show me the warranty on that net. Show me the weight testing. Show me the damn net, in fact. Who will set it up when I leap? Are they paying attention or looking at their phone?) I trust my intuition, but I know I can be wrong. People are unpredictable. Life is unpredictable.

And yet we humans, including me, make choices all day long every day based on what we think will or might or could happen next. I’ve written about attachment to outcomes before. As I get older I’ve replaced a lot of my desired specific outcomes with simply wanting to know I did my best, regardless of outcomes. I may not like the outcome I get, but my integrity remains intact.

And then there are the people who don’t seem to understand actions and consequences in any kind of relationship. They choose what they choose in the moment and are hurt and/or outraged to discover the downstream consequences of that choice, especially in the context of many other choices. I observe this is a frequent divide along male/female lines. Women generally see everything as connected. Men generally see most things as discrete, in their own box. This is just one reason why I think “romantic” male/female relationships can be so devastating. We are often on different pages without knowing it.

If it’s true that we all do what we want in service to a desired outcome, what happens when my choices collide with yours? If you perceive me as blocking progress to your desired outcome you’re going to feel angry, and vice versa. We’re going to want each other to make different choices aligning with our personal desires. Most of the time, people won’t do that. We’re all attached to the outcomes we want.

A big piece of this for me is emotional labor, that hidden torrent winding through my life, sweeping away incalculable energy, time, and innocence. One of my priorities is healthy relationships. Close healthy relationships require time and attention; the ability to make choices for the good of the relationship rather than considering only our own wants and needs. This is an ongoing practice, not doing something we really don’t want to do once every six months and expecting applause. It means we have to face our own demons, learn to communicate clearly and honestly, negotiate, share power, and problem solve. It means boundaries and respect. It means reciprocity.

Having learned about reciprocity, I now prioritize my relationships to the degree the other does. I will not sign up to do all the emotional labor. I’m not interested in a close relationship like that. The price is too high. I’d rather put my energy into my relationship with myself. At least I appreciate my own efforts!

My conclusion about this ‘we all do what we want’ thing (gritted teeth – it still makes me mad), is it may be true if we consider our choices in the context of outcomes. I’ve made a lot of choices out of the clear knowledge that they were simply the right thing to do, too, choices that have been terrible for me, terrible in some of their consequences, yet ultimately still were the right thing for me to do. I had no outcome in mind. I don’t regret those kinds of choices, but they left permanent scars.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

I want to blame others for all the time I’ve spent doing things I didn’t want to do, but it seems what we do and don’t do are entirely in our own hands, our own responsibility. Our lives are built on the choices we make, big and small, every hour of every day. If we don’t like our lives, we need to pay attention. Perhaps the useful question to ask ourselves if we hate what we’re doing at any given moment is, “Why am I doing this?” If we’re focused on a particular desired outcome, we may need to stop and think about whether our actions are effective in getting us there. Spending years of our lives desperately hoping and trying to reach an outcome and doing things we hate is not effective. I know this from personal experience. Our wants and needs change over time; what we once longed for may no longer be something we’re interested in. Sometimes we need to reality check ourselves. If we’ve been trying to get loved, for example, or please someone for a long period of time, it might be time to acknowledge our goal is not attainable or not worth attaining. Sometimes no matter how hard we work for an outcome it’s not achievable.

Then there’s the flip side: None of us do what we don’t want to do. That one is equally hard for me to swallow, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Questions:

  • How much of each day do you spend doing things you don’t want to do? Why?
  • What desired outcome(s) in your life requires you to do things you don’t want to do?
  • Do you see your daily choices as isolated or part of a larger context attached to your wants and needs?
  • Do you feel forced to labor emotionally? What would happen if you stopped?
  • Who in your life reciprocates your level of emotional labor?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Vacation

Years ago I came across a tip somewhere for getting to know new people in a meaningful (versus social media, digitally-altered images, and dating apps) manner with good questions, one of which is “What would your ideal vacation look like?”

At the time I thought it a great question and I still do. I tried it once without success. Not only was I not asked in return, I received a kind of non-answer along the lines of “I don’t take vacations …” (I wondered why, but it felt intrusive to ask) which didn’t help me get to know the party in question any better! Connection dead on arrival, the story of my life. I retired, abashed.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Ever since then, I’ve thought about my answer to the question nobody has ever asked me!

I’m thinking about it again because I just picked up Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman for the first time. It’s a memoir about a woman, about my age, who spends a summer alone in a primitive cabin on an island off the coast of Maine. Primitive means no telephone, no running water, no electricity. She has no transportation aside from her own legs. She finds the experience so satisfying and remarkable she begins to spend all her summers there, for the most part alone.

It also happens to be school vacation week here in Maine, and I hear lots of talk at the pool where I work about planned trips right now. A good friend is taking the week off with her daughter and partner to go to Florida.

Online Oxford Dictionary defines a vacation as “an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.”

Hmmm.

I looked it up because all my life I’ve heard people use the word ‘vacation’ to describe trips and adventures that sounded exhausting and stressful rather than like ‘leisure and recreation’. Of course, it’s not a one-size-fits-all definition. That’s why it’s such a great getting-to-know-you question.

I cannot remember a single vacation I’ve taken with others as a child or adult that wasn’t fraught with tension and stress, and from which I didn’t return far more exhausted and burned out than when I left home.

When people talk about vacations, I shudder.

But once I had a perfect vacation. An incredible period of leisure and recreation away from home. I’ll never forget it.

I was a struggling mother of two school-age sons in an abusive marriage, living in a small town about three hours’ drive from my sons’ father, who was too busy and important to drive to us. For the sake of my boys I therefore drove to their dad twice a month for years and years. A six-hour round trip. This effectively took care of two full weekends a month. I had chronic pain and was always exhausted. My husband had isolated me socially and controlled our finances. My mother and adoptive father had just moved to the small rural town where we lived so I was once again caring for her and my significantly older adoptive father. As Mom was also abusive, I had no respite childcare. I did not trust my husband and tried to keep the kids away from him. I solved the childcare problem by working at their little school, so we had the same schedule.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

A friend of mine had a family cabin in the mountains west of town and she offered it to me one summer. I carefully planned for a period of time when the boys would be with their dad, and I went.

The cabin was in an isolated community, mostly of summer places. Here in Maine, it would have been called a “camp.” It had been built on a hill amidst pine trees. No road or other building was in sight. It had running water, but no electricity and no phone. These were the days before cell phones. My friend’s family used oil lamps and candles for light. The hot water heater ran on gas; I had to light the pilot light. The cabin consisted of one large room and a bathroom, with four twin beds in the main room, a fireplace, and a simple open-concept kitchen. The small fridge was also gas, as well as a rudimentary stove. Outside was a large outdoor fireplace and seating area.

I packed a couple of books, a journal, some food and minimal clothes. Nobody but my friend knew the exact location. I was alone.

I was alone! No one could interrupt me. No one could make a demand, tell me I was doing it wrong, hurt me. No one could telephone. No one could have a crisis that only I could solve. I did not have to be responsible for anyone but myself. The relief was indescribable.

It was a beautiful Colorado mountain summer. No bugs, clean air, cool nights, dry weather, abundant sun. I lit pilot lights, unpacked, put a chair in the sun, and undressed.

Yes. I undressed. I wanted to soak up every bit of sun and privacy I possibly could. I got myself a cold drink and went outside with my book, naked as the day I was born. I read for a while. I was reading Elizabeth George at the time, the author of a magnificent mystery series, each book big and fat and long.

I got sleepy in the sun and realized I could take a nap!

I went inside, chose a bed, opened it, cuddled down, and slept for almost two hours. When I got up I was hungry, so I ate. Then I went back out, moved my chair into the afternoon sun, and read some more. When the sun went down I put on clothes for warmth, lit candles, ate again.

It went like that for three blissful days. I took a shower once, and brushed my teeth when I thought of it. I ate and drank when I wanted to. I paid no attention to the time. My hours were bounded by the sun’s movement across the deck. I slept naked and spent the days naked, dressing only in the cool early mornings and evenings. I wrote and read and slept around four hours a day. When it got dark, I slept again. I had never slept like that before and I haven’t since. There seemed no end to my exhaustion and my relief at knowing I was somewhere they couldn’t find me. Nobody needed me. I didn’t have to respond. I was safe. I knew my friend would never tell my husband where I was. The kids were with their dad. It was the first time I’d ever been inaccessible to everyone.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

No amount of money could have given me such a respite. No exotic destination could have suited me better than the utter privacy of that old cabin in the pine trees. I have never again experienced that kind of freedom to do nothing, be nothing, and know I would not be interrupted. For me, the word ‘vacation’ will always mean those three days.

I suppose some people would find this pitiable. The thought makes me smile, as it was one of the peak experiences of my life. And that’s my point; that’s why imagining (or remembering) an ideal vacation is so interesting to share with others. Such an exercise points to our longing, and what we wish to escape. I know people who love to travel and go on adventures, enjoy getting away with friends or family. I listen to their plans and stories and marvel at how different we all are, how unique our ideas of fun and what we choose to do with our leisure.

I know other people who are perfectly content at home, who have no desire to get away at all. That’s not me. I love my home, but I’d go somewhere like that cabin in a flash. I’m not so exhausted now, but I’d welcome the same feeling of being out of touch, unavailable, free of the necessity of emotional labor, not because I don’t love my friends, my job, my cats, but because I also love my solitude and one can’t do things like sit naked in the sun and read all day in company! I couldn’t, anyway. I’ve never been able to be all of what I am unless I’m alone.

Questions:

  • What would your ideal vacation look like?
  • What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?
  • Do you return from vacations rested and renewed or exhausted?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Simplicity

I’ve been resting in this pause between solstice and the new year. Although I made a conscious choice to set aside everything I could, it was uncomfortable to let this blog lie fallow. On the other hand, I have not been inspired to do much more than manage day-to-day life.

I’m grateful to have moved into new holiday routines after decades of feeling imprisoned by obligation and duty to my fractured family and making Christmas meaningful and fun for my children. Gone are the days of huge, exhausting meals, tight schedules, trying desperately to please everyone at my own expense, spending much of the holidays in the car traveling between homes, and tired, overstimulated children. Not to mention tired, overstimulated me.

Now I focus on Yule, on the deep, introspective peace of winter and long nights, withdrawing into my cozy home. I engage in rituals I love: candles, simple decorating, making a double batch of Spritz cookies with my cookie press to share, and welcoming the return of the light.

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

This year we had a tropical storm the week before Christmas with high winds and torrential rains that flooded our town and, indeed, the whole state. We were without power for 48 hours. The lack of electric light (or electric anything else) fit in well with Yule, though we got very cold. We were also trapped; every bridge in the area was closed and the Kennebec River, which winds through our town, rose 30 feet, which is 15 feet above flood stage. Between flooding and downed trees, we were unable to leave our immediate neighborhood. Most businesses closed. The ones that stayed open (with generators) quickly ran out of everything. Our neighbors loaned us a butane camp stove so I could heat water for hot drinks.

As soon as the power was restored I ordered a propane camp stove.

Life rolls along, whether I’m posting or not.

This morning, as I lay in bed waking, I heard snow plows in our neighborhood. We’ve had more rain here, and clearly sometime during the night it had changed to snow. As I moved around the kitchen, watching the sky lighten and the snow fall, cooking breakfast, sipping my first cup of tea, enjoying glowing candles, my thoughts drifted.

Impossible to avoid end-of-year lists and reviews and new year resolutions, hopes and fears this time of year. I generally am uninterested. I’m content to let the old year diminish and recede, particularly this one, which was especially difficult personally. I don’t enjoy new year resolutions, mine or anyone else’s. None of us know what the new year will bring and many of us look ahead with some trepidation and anxiety; I don’t need to exacerbate mine by making or consuming predictions. What will come will come and we’ll have to cope with it.

I will be 60 this month. Impossible. Incredible. For the first time in my life, I’m daunted by a birthday. Generally, I hardly notice them. I’m annoyed by my discomfort this year. I’m determined not to focus on it, but I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye.

I asked myself a question as I moved around the kitchen this morning. If I could have anything for my birthday, if I could make one intention for the year ahead, what would it be?

It’s easier to think about what we don’t want, isn’t it? I reviewed my current challenges and anxieties, watching the pewter sky and the snow becoming less rain and more flakes as the temperature dropped. I flipped the bacon, gave the cats another half a can of food so they would get out from under my feet. The pipes in the radiators creaked and popped as the furnace turned on.

The word ‘simplicity’ came into my mind. I turned it over. I thought about what brings me joy. I thought about candles, reading a good book, the warmth and weight of a cat in my lap. I thought about a cup of hot tea. I thought about music, the rhythm of swimming, being with people I love and trust. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my weighted blanket, just breathing. Peace. Stillness. Light and shadow. Long nights. My warm bed. Hot showers. Solitude. Privacy. I thought about my current laptop background. A perfect illustration of simplicity:

I thought about what I don’t want. The endless complications of being nice, pleasing others, fawning to stave off violence and pain. Clutter. Bright lights, noise, demands. Busyness. Obligation. Duty. Feeling hounded, imprisoned, criticized, judged by myself and others. Too much talk. Racing the clock.

I thought about boundaries. Inconsistent boundaries, badly maintained, easily breached; and strong, smooth, tough boundaries, well-maintained and consistent. Unapologetic.

I thought about the simplicity of ‘No’ and the complications of ‘No’ followed by five minutes of cringing apology and justification, or the inability to say ‘No’ at all.

‘Simplicity’, I decided, named my longing.

When I consider the first 60 years of my life I mostly see the unending labor and anguish of caring for others, the years of trying and trying, as only a woman who loves can understand, to love them all. To please them. To make them happy and healthy. It was complicated. Noisy. Chaotic. Bloody. Painful. Extremely expensive in terms of my own health and happiness.

And frequently thankless. Rarely reciprocated.

That’s what I thought I was for, to live that way. I was taught that was what I was for.

In the last few months I came across a little mantra which has become something like a prayer permanently nestled in my consciousness:

I am enough.
I choose my life.
I trust myself.

Sixty is a nice, round number. How would it be if I chose to begin again, now, with just myself; my own self-care, which is simple and easy? What if I chose to embrace the discomfort and power of maintaining strong, consistent boundaries and let people react to them however they need to, making their feelings none of my business? What if I stopped apologizing for what I need because it’s not what they need or understand or want?

What if I made up my mind to choose the simplest thing, the most direct, honest answer, the clearest communication in any given situation? What if I stood up for myself the way I stand up so readily for others?

Maybe 60 years of responsibility for everyone around me is enough and I could choose to spend the next 60 years (!) being responsible only for myself.

What a relief!

I don’t tell myself living more simply will be easy. It won’t. Boundaries, (I’m never allowed to forget) are invariably heavily challenged and battered by those who have the most to gain by us having none. Maintaining boundaries means conflict, a thing I dread and have always avoided as much as possible. It means emotional manipulation, the most painful (and successful) weapon those close to me can wield against me. It means Failing To Please. It means controlling my natural empathy, focusing it inward rather than outward, being more present with my own internal state rather than that of others.

Simplicity. What a lovely intention.

Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash

Here’s a deep winter wish for you all:

May You Grow Still Enough

May you grow still enough to hear the small noises earth makes in preparing for the long sleep of winter, so that you yourself may grow calm and grounded deep within.

May you grow still enough to hear the trickling of water seeping into the ground, so that your soul may be softened and healed, and guided in its flow.

May you grow still enough to hear the splintering of starlight in the winter sky and the roar at earth’s fiery core.

May you grow still enough to hear the stir of a single snowflake in the air, so that your inner silence may turn into hushed expectation.

by Brother David Steindl-Rast

Questions:

  • How did you spend your holidays? Did you spend them the way you wanted to or the way you had to?
  • How do you feel about new year’s resolutions?
  • What single word names your deepest longing?
  • In your view, how do self-care and selfishness differ?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

 

 

 

Love, Me

Elizabeth Gilbert is on Substack, and I follow her. Best known for her breakout novel, Eat, Pray, Love, she’s a journalist, speaker, and writer. Her Substack is called Letters From Love and more than ten thousand subscribe.

Letters From Love is the most uncomfortable Substack I read. I write that statement with wry humor. The premise is writing love letters to oneself.

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

When I first came across it, I was equally horrified and attracted. I poked around, reading here and there, and realized quickly Elizabeth and I share certain experiences. I already knew this, because years ago I came across her brilliant piece on tribal shaming, which I immediately blogged about.

It takes one to know one.

When I found Gilbert on Substack I subscribed, so her newsletter comes regularly into my Inbox. Sometimes I ignore it for days, but sooner or later I open it and read. She posts love letters she’s written to herself. Publicly! She also has a podcast, does interviews, and posts love letters others have written to themselves.

(Cringe.)

I can’t help but notice my violent reactions. Me being me, I don’t choose to turn away and read something more comfortable. I have questions. What is my deal? I’ve been working for more than ten years on self-care and self-love, on reparenting myself and healing old trauma. Why am I not delighted with the idea of a practice of writing love letters to myself?

(Shudder.)

My first reaction is to crawl through the screen and beg her not to expose herself like this. Beg them all not to expose themselves. Don’t they understand how dangerous it is? Haven’t they learned a display of this kind of vulnerability will attract destroyers with stones and blades and (worst of all), terrible, terrible words of contempt? Oh, and don’t forget lethal indifference.

(If you’re not paying attention, I’ve now told you everything you need to know about the way I grew up.)

Except clearly the sky is not falling. More than ten thousand people are reading Gilbert’s love letters, and she goes on writing and publishing. The discussions within her community are neither indifferent nor contemptuous. On the contrary, they’re supportive and tender.

Which leads me to conclude my red alert reaction is about me rather than the practice of writing love letters to oneself.

Hm.

How can they do this? I wondered.

Could I do this?

No, no, no, not to publish! I reassured myself hastily. Just for me. Like my journal. My eyes only. A delete key. No one ever needs to know.

But there was a problem. Elizabeth writes to herself with endearments. Creative, funny, quirky endearments, like “my glinting little piece of foil from a gum wrapper.”

OK, now that’s fun! Words are so much fun!

What kind of endearments would I address myself with?

I’ve had pet names for my kids and my animals. No one else, really. Certainly not myself. My tone with myself has mostly been the harsh, hectoring, contemptuous, cold voice I internalized from the adults around me as a child.

More discomfort.

But, words … If I had a child just like the child I was, what endearments would make her giggle and feel loved and seen?

So I started a list of whimsical endearments. A very private list. So don’t ask! I was a little ashamed of myself, but no one else need ever know …

Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

The list was fun, because it was a creative exercise. I can do creative exercise. It occurred to me part of my resistance to love letters (either giving or receiving) has to do with my disbelief in words. (Ironic.) Words can say anything. People say anything. The proof is in action. The older I get, the less interested I am in words, and the less I believe them. Demonstrate. Act. Show me, don’t tell me. As I’ve worked to heal I’ve developed routines for self-care, for eating well, for exercise, for sleep, for writing. I’ve been successful, and take much better care of myself than I ever have before. I take better care of myself than anyone ever has before, in fact.

But I haven’t written love letters to myself. I would have told you I could do so, if I wanted to. If I thought they’d have value. If I thought I’d believe them …

I grew up with emotional withholding. I’ve believed I’ve broken that pattern with my own children and my loved ones, including my animals. But now I wonder. Isn’t demonstration of love with no words a little sterile? I know the mixed message of loving words and abusive actions is devastating. Is active demonstration of love without words also confusing? Am I withholding from myself? Obligation, responsibility, duty – all these I’m very good at. But those are stony words. Where is the tenderness, the humor, the generosity? How about compassion? I feel those for others. I’ve spoken them from the heart; written love poems, love letters, notes, and cards – for others. Could I learn to feel and express them for myself?

Then I got sick with COVID, the events of the last couple of years (traumatic, protracted move; my mother’s decline and death) caught up with me, and I felt miserable. At once, I began putting pressure on myself to get back to writing, get back to work, get back to exercise, take out the trash, do the shopping, and generally pull myself together, because, after all, the world is full of bleeding, suffering people and I have a good life, a privileged life, and don’t deserve to feel sorry for myself and be lazy.

Not a love letter, in other words.

In the middle of the week during which I sat on the couch, alternately shivering and burning and blowing my nose, I wrote myself a love letter.

Well, maybe a let’s-see-if-I-can-tolerate-you letter.

It was an extremely strange experience. In fact, it made me cry, which didn’t help my congestion. Or my cough. At the time I had no sense of taste or smell, and I reflected that it was like that. When I tried to turn toward myself with love, tenderness, affection, whatever you want to call it, there was nothing. Just … nothing. A thick, numb shell between me and myself.

It made me so sad. Immediately upon the heels of that, I was ashamed. Because, you know, self-pity.

Almost as bad as self-love.

Wait now, what?

It’s bad to love yourself … if you don’t deserve it.

And, readers, I thought I’d left that belief far behind in the dust.

Then I began to feel angry, and I told myself I was going to start practicing writing love letters to myself. Because I deserved and deserve love as much as anyone else. I’m not important enough to be the most loathsome person in the world.

Questions:

  • How does the idea of this practice make you feel? Can you write a love letter to yourself? With endearments and everything?
  • If you could write a love letter to yourself, how would you feel about making it public?
  • What do you most need to hear from someone who loves you? Would it have power if you wrote it to yourself?

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