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On the Other Side

We have finally moved. It was a long time coming. This has been one of the most significant transitions of my life, and it was not easy.

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

Regular readers know the ups and downs, so I won’t reiterate the journey. What’s important is I’ve come out on the other side, and I’m sitting typing this at my new desk in front of my new window with a new view. I’ve been cleaning, unpacking, and moving things around all morning, and I didn’t want to stop, but I made myself. It’s been ten days of nonstop work.

Reducing chaos and disorder is one of my favorite activities, but it’s exhausting. My partner and I are bruised, stiff, and sore. My hands are chapped and my fingernails broken. Yesterday afternoon I finally got our teeny tiny shower clean enough to use without gagging; I’ve been showering at the pool facility where I work.

On Monday I went back to my regular work schedule after taking a couple of days off, and I walked to work! Amazing. In fact, I walked to the lower parking lot where I always park and laughed at myself. I don’t need to go there anymore. I can just walk straight to the building door.

Our new place, an old colonial, is sadly dilapidated and was very dirty, so I moved in the day we closed last week and got to work. My whole area is floored with old “punkin” pine floors, which consist of pine planks aged to a warm brown-orange with wide cracks between the boards. The floor, probably original to the house, is terribly battered and stained. It could use a sanding and refurbishing, but we had no time for that and it will have to wait until sometime in the future.

The house is heated with baseboard hot water and the old radiators are bent, broken, filthy and rusted. I’ve spent hours and hours on my hands and knees with a long-handled flat head screwdriver cleaning out the cracks in the floor and pulling debris out from under the radiators.

I excavated needles, screws, nails, other miscellaneous hardware, children’s socks, hair elastics, bobby pins, hair clips, at least $5 dollars in coins (mostly pennies), broken glass, food crumbs, dry cat food, rubber bands, paper clips, all kinds of beads and plastic toys, dental picks, a kitchen knife, small toys, pencils, pens, crayons, markers, lip balm, lint, pet hair, people hair, costume jewelry, toothpicks, lollipop sticks, candy wrappers, pieces of plastic, pieces of paper, popcorn kernels, thumbtacks, and one green jellybean.

I swept and vacuumed, swept and vacuumed, swept and vacuumed, every time finding new layers of dirt and debris. Then I damp mopped with a couple of drops of dish soap several times. Finally, I used a special wood floor cleaner, applied with a damp mop.

The plumbing and wiring need to be updated. The yard is full of trash. None of the doors shut well and all the knobs are loose. Most of the exterior doors don’t lock. Many of the windows are painted shut. At least half the blinds are broken. More than half of the electrical outlets don’t work.

And yet. This is a wonderful old house with graceful proportions, high ceilings, some of them tin. The windows are tall and generous and the sun floods in from both east and west. We’re on a corner lot and I can hardly wait to explore the garden. A magnolia tree in front is in flower. Spring bulbs are blooming.

In spite of the house’s neglected and outdated state, the structure is sound. The roof doesn’t leak. The foundation is not cracked. I think our heating and cooling costs will decrease, even with skyrocketing prices. My partner and I each have a floor to live on, so we’re not in each other’s hair, which works better for us. We’re in a small city, so groceries, appointments, our car mechanic, the laundromat, and emergency services are all right here. Have I mentioned I can walk to work?

It’s a new chapter, and I’m shaping a new kind of life. As I unpack and sort through my belongings, some of which I haven’t seen or used since I moved to Maine seven years ago, I’m asking myself who I am now, who I want to become, and what I want to do with this part of my life. Objects and habits precious to me in the house we just sold no longer seem so meaningful. Everything is different.

I am different.

One of my goals in moving was to build for myself a simpler, more sustainable life to make room for what matters most to me. I’m all too aware how frequently the people and activities most meaningful to us are squeezed out by carelessness, time and energy destroying habits, being over busy, and having too much stuff.

What matters most to me are my relationships, including being owned by cats, my work, and my writing. I’ve prioritized creating an office space with ample room where I can work, dream, and research. My oak desk sits in front of a tall east-facing window, outside of which I will plant a lovely garden and hang a couple of bird feeders. I have my file cabinets, my laptop, and, most importantly, my books.

Developing a routine in a new place is difficult, and I’m compulsive about getting everything organized and put away, but it’s the weekend. In fact, it’s Saturday morning as I write this, and I’m going to publish today, no matter what. I have promised myself this. So I pulled myself away from the work of settling in to finish this post. It’s good to be writing again. I didn’t take the first hours of my day to do it, as I always did in our old house, but it is still morning, so I give myself points for that!

After two weeks of chaos and confusion, it’s good to be back to the page. Perhaps next week I’ll have more brain as well as a newly redeveloped writing practice. I’m sure I brought my brain. It’s probably carefully packed in a box somewhere …

 

Overreaction

All my life I’ve been told I overreact and I’m too dramatic, two labels which automatically invalidate my experience, feelings, and any attempt I make to communicate honestly.

Being told we’re overreacting is a sure way to shut us down, especially when we hear it regularly. It makes us question our own experience. It breaks connection and trust. It isolates us in shame.

It’s an insidious form of gaslighting.

Photo by Jonathan Crews on Unsplash

When I went through emotional intelligence coaching, I understood being told I’m dramatic is code for, “Your feelings make me uncomfortable.” It’s not a message about me at all, it’s a message about the person with whom I’m interacting.

As a child, I believed I exaggerated and I was too dramatic. I pushed my feelings down and hid them. I didn’t respond to my own distress. I didn’t ask for help. I trusted no one with my real emotions. I taught myself to become stoic and uncomplaining, to focus on the positive, to carry on no matter what.

My feelings became my enemies. I was deeply ashamed of them. They were bad and wrong and they hurt other people.

Now, decades later, I think a lot about feelings as I struggle with my re-triggered autoimmune disease. I know my current physical pain mirrors my emotional pain, which consists of passionate, intense feelings. Learning to manage those feelings more effectively is a work in progress. I do well with one at a time, but right now I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Emotional overwhelm is the trigger for physical pain. I keep right on keeping on through difficult feelings, but once the anguish is translated into back spasm, I can no longer hide or ignore my pain. Everyone else can see. Everyone else knows. I can’t hide my physical disability.

My body betrays me.

Horrors. I cringe, waiting to be told I’m too dramatic and I overreact. My feelings are wrong. They make others uncomfortable. They’re shameful, immature, crazy. I have nothing to complain about. Others have much harder lives than I do. It’s my business to support, not ask for support.

But my body tells the truth. Physically, everything hurts.

The truth beneath that truth is my heart hurts. I’m scared, I’m angry, I feel alone, I feel supported and horribly vulnerable, I’m excited about new beginnings, I feel guilty and ashamed about struggling, I feel relieved, and I don’t know how to bear my grief, both current and past. But I’m still too distant from my feeling experience to encompass all that, let alone manage it effectively.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

So, back pain.

In the middle of this experience, I read an article by Courtney Carver from Be More With Less titled “5 Thoughtful Ways to Help You Underreact.” As you can imagine, it caught my eye.

Every day I think about this list of five strategies, and the difference between overreaction and feelings.

Overreaction is defined as a more emotional response than is warranted. Who decides what kind of an emotional response is warranted? Some people feel things very strongly and vividly; others do not. Certain events and situations trigger deep emotions for all of us. Do any of us have a right to judge another person as overreacting, especially when we can’t possibly know the entirety of their private emotional experience? Certainly, some people appear to overreact frequently, but do we stop to ask ourselves, or them, for more information? What is going on? What is behind the perceived overreaction? What need is crying out to be met? What are the feelings involved in the overreaction?

Feelings are value-neutral raw data we’re all biologically wired to experience. They’re simple. Mad. Sad. Glad. Scared. Ashamed.

We’re largely not in control of the complicated neurological and chemical experience of our feelings. We are able to control how we think about, express, and act out our feelings.

Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.

I’m familiar with some of the strategies Carver writes about in her piece, but I’ve never seen such a concise and useful list of ways to manage habits of thought leading to “overreaction.”

It’s not our business to be concerned with onlookers who attempt to shut us down because of their own discomfort with feelings. Our business is learning how to refrain from shutting ourselves down or allowing anyone else to do so. Our business is taking care we don’t hurt ourselves as we feel our feelings.

Here’s Carver’s list:

  • Do what you can. Let the rest go.
  • Determine if any action or reaction is useful or effective in the first place. Does this deserve my time and energy?
  • Don’t take anything personally.
  • Distinguish between inside and outside. We can’t control what happens outside us. Our power lies within us.
  • Closely related to the last strategy, if we feel we’re overreacting, what else is going on? Are we sick, hurt, dealing with unfinished feelings or unhealed wounds, struggling with addiction, lonely, tired, hungry? We need to focus on supporting ourselves.

Some people don’t want to deal with feelings, their own or anyone else’s. I understand. Such people will always struggle with someone like me, who feels deeply and expresses vividly. To them, I will always look as though I’m overreacting.

What overreacting means to me, though, is the intensity of my feelings is negatively affecting my health, and I need to find ways to support myself. I don’t want to feel less. I want to feel better.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

 

 

When Things Don’t Go As Planned

In the online Red Cross Lifeguard Course, there’s a segment titled “When Things Don’t Go As Planned.” Every time I come across it, I smile.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Yes, indeedy. Because things often don’t go as planned.

Learning, in a real or virtual classroom, from text or videos or slideshows or YouTube, is necessarily simplified. The situations are controlled. Even the blood looks like cherry-flavored candy.

As a blogger, I ruminate, explore, define, proceed logically, and research. I’ve touched on so many different topics over the years here on Harvesting Stones. I’ve examined needs and boundaries, reciprocity and connection, contribution and authenticity.

However, this kind of intellectual exercise, learning at a remove, is not where the real mastery is.

The mastery comes when we put it all into action in real life. And real life is unbelievably messy. Real life is a loose cannon on a rolling deck. Real life does not go as planned.

We are occasionally plunged into chaos, into complicated experiences involving a lot of feelings and requiring all our skills. Our predictable routines and schedules turn inside out. We are not able to care for ourselves or anybody else as usual. We become exhausted. Our personal demons crawl out of our subconscious attics and cellars and play with us. Our physical weaknesses take advantage of our stress. We lose track of our power. We lose track of ourselves.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

I would avoid such times if I could. I believe most of us would. Few people enjoy living in a maelstrom. The thing is, the maelstrom holds gifts, insights and growth we would never realize if we always lived serene, well-controlled lives.

I’m writing this on Wednesday morning. A week ago today, less than 24 hours before closing on the house we’re selling and the house we’re buying, closing was cancelled. Well, “extended.” I’m not sure there’s a difference, but my hope is pretty frayed right now, so I’m inclined to be pessimistic.

I thought I had been living in chaos before that abrupt last-minute change of plans, but those far-off days seem like a cake walk compared to what the last seven days have been like for me.

When our lives fall apart in painful ways, part of the stress of it is the rest of the world goes right on without giving us space and time to process, remember our resilience, and get back on our feet. I still needed to figure out how to get the car in to get the studded snows changed. I still have bills to pay. I still have a job. I still need to search the stores for cat food. I still have family birthdays to remember. The bed still needs to be made, the dishes washed, the laundry done. I want to remain consistent in my writing.

Autoimmune disease is highly opportunistic. I have not had this amount of stress since I moved to Maine seven years ago, and within a few hours of the cancelled closings my back went into spasm, which means I need all the love, rest, and care I can give myself right now, in the middle of the shit show. My body would feel better if we could close and get this move over with. And I can’t possibly move with this level of pain.

Meanwhile, the world turns. I feel guilty about my struggle when I know people in Ukraine are losing their homes, lives, loved ones, and perhaps their country. I tell myself I’m being dramatic, I’m whining, I never deserved for things to work out in the first place, etc., etc.

I told you about the personal demons crawling out, right?

So what do we do during times like these? How do we get through them? How do I turn the concepts of letting go, courage, detachment from outcomes, and emotional intelligence into tools to help myself? It’s all so clear, logical, and neat on the page/screen. I believe every word I write. It’s all organized and categorized.

When things don’t go as planned, nothing is neat, organized, or categorized. We can’t think well. Our feelings sweep us from fear to fury to despair and back again.

In my old dance group, we used to say when you feel overwhelmed, dance small.

Dance. Small.

Dancing small is focusing on breathing in and out. It’s making small movements. It’s wrapping your arms around yourself, facing a wall or a corner, closing your eyes, and concentrating on the floor under your feet. It’s deliberately sinking into yourself and letting everything and everyone else go as best you can. It might be the healing release of tears.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

This strategy doesn’t make the chaos go away, but it does give us a small resting place within the chaos. It allows us to find and hold onto ourselves. It gives us a tiny bit of power. It allows a little space for rational thought, for us to remind ourselves of what’s true:

  • Nothing stays the same; all things pass
  • Things invariably work out somehow, some way
  • There is always much to be grateful for
  • We are allowed to have feelings about our experience, and they’re allowed to be messy
  • We always have some choice
  • None of it is personal

This week, though in many ways painful and difficult, has also provided me with valuable practical experience in using some of my newer skills. It’s given me a chance to stay in my own power, always a worthy practice. I’ve had an epiphany about a longstanding destructive pattern in my relationships which has emotionally freed me in significant ways. Paradoxically, the current chaos has brought me clarity.

I’ve also been touched and humbled by the support I’ve received from friends and other members of my community. I am not alone.

Most of all, it’s given me a chance to deal with my feelings. It occurs to me the word “stress” is misleading. I don’t need to deal with my stress. My feelings need attention. They need to be named, welcomed, fully experienced, and released, no matter if they’re in my head, heart, or back. Managing my feelings will take care of my stress and my physical discomfort.

By the time you read this, things will have changed. Perhaps we’ll have a new closing date. Perhaps I’ll have decided to make a different plan. Perhaps we’ll still be in limbo, but it will be a different day in limbo. Today, we’ve taken my car in to get the tires changed, so that’s something taken care of. At some point, the muscles in my back will unclench and I’ll move freely again and be able to resume exercise.

Meanwhile, frogs boom, chuckle, and peep in the pond. The birds are busy and the spring dawn chorus gladdens each morning. The phoebe has returned and hunts from the barn roof. Rain falls and the sun shines. The mud is gradually drying up. I will feed the cats, play with them, clean their boxes. I’ll go to work, teach swim lessons, wipe down the locker rooms, read the pool chemicals, guard lives, answer the phone. I’ll feed myself, drink cups of tea, rest, write, read, and sleep. Time will pass. Days will pass.

It will all pass, the things that go as planned, and the things that don’t.

Photo by henry fournier on Unsplash

What I Learned

Unless the sky falls (again), we will be moving in less than a week. It’s hard to believe. In fact, it’s impossible to believe, but that’s okay. Today is real, and I know what I need to do right now. The future can take care of itself.

As I moved around the kitchen early this morning, feeding (and tripping over) the cats, making breakfast, heating water for tea, watching the sky lighten, it occurred to me the last seven years in this old farmhouse have taught me a magnificent lesson.

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

When I moved to Maine, I had a solid idea about what I was moving into, a whole set of expectations and dreams, none of which turned out to be real.

The loss of my fantasies was heartbreaking and took me years to process. During that time, I started this blog and later remodeled it, finished my first book, wrote my second, and began my third, started publishing my fiction serially on Substack, put everything I’ve learned about emotional intelligence into action, grew deep roots in my community, found a great job I love, and became part of a second family.

At the same time, I experienced disempowerment in terms of my living space and physical surroundings. Never before have I lived in a place where I had so little power to respond to my needs and preferences, and never have I been so overwhelmed with maintenance tasks I could not take care of.

Because of my emotional intelligence training, my disempowerment was visible to me, and I was able to turn towards what I did have power over, again and again, until it became second nature. It didn’t feel good, but it was invaluable practice at managing my own power, at recognizing my own power.

Always before in my life, I’ve had plans and projects, things I wanted to buy, walls I wanted to paint, the ability to rearrange furniture, make repairs, have new shelves built, and discard what was no longer useful. Such activity gave me a great deal of pleasure and was thoroughly distracting. It was never finished, so I stayed firmly focused on externals.

In this house, that distraction has been unavailable. To stand in my own power has been to stand still with myself, to work internally, to feel my feelings, create, stretch, grow, learn, explore. It’s been lonely. It’s been uncomfortable. It’s been transformative. It’s been internal, invisible, and has nothing to do with a shiny presentation.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Most of us would acknowledge real change and healing come from the inside, not from the surface. But understanding that intellectually is not the same as spending years living it. I would never have voluntarily given up the power to manage my surroundings. When I realized it was happening I had a choice to make, and I chose to explore this new, unexpected territory.

That choice is one of the best I’ve ever made.

I have learned a dream home, a dream wardrobe, a dream body, a dream library, is not a life. What others see of me and my possessions and home is not me. My presentation has nothing to do with my state of health, presence, and groundedness.

Our new home is old, though not as old as this farm, and it needs some work. Sure, it needs new exterior paint and other cosmetic help, but that’s not where I’ll start. Those changes are fun and everyone can see and appreciate them, but the invisible, internal issues like plumbing, wiring, and insulation are what will really make a difference to my experience living there.

The looks of the new house are not what matters. It’s the life we create inside it that matters.

The color of my hair doesn’t matter. It’s what’s inside my head that matters.

The clothes I wear don’t matter. It’s the health and peace in my body that matter.

Attaining perfection (and perfect control) of my space is not what matters. It’s the ability to manage my thoughts and feelings, maintain integrity, and live well that matter.

In these last few days of packing, sorting, and endless tasks and details, at every step I’m thinking about what I learned and how grateful I am for the lesson. I didn’t choose to learn it. I wouldn’t have volunteered to learn it. I was forced into it, tricked into it, even.

But that’s not important. My life has consistently taken me exactly where I need to go, in spite of how much I whine and complain about some of the places I’ve been. Now, just ahead, is a whole new chapter.

I wonder what I will learn.

(Next weekend we’re moving, so you won’t see a post here from me. I’ll be back in two weeks!)

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

Guilt

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less suggests the feeling we call guilt may in fact be discomfort.

What an interesting distinction. I was immediately intrigued.

Guilt is defined as feeling responsible or regretful for a real or perceived offense.

A real or perceived offense.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

If you’re someone like me, you feel almost everything you do and say is some kind of a breach of conduct, especially things like saying no, meeting your own needs, and setting boundaries. This feeling is based on past unhappy/critical/invalidating reactions of others to my actions. If I’ve Failed To Please, I feel guilty. I feel guilty even when I know I’ve done the right thing for myself.

So what if that feeling isn’t guilt at all? What if it’s discomfort?

Changing habits is uncomfortable, no doubt about that. Habits are effortless, especially mental and emotional habits. They feel like our friends. They’ve been with us a long time. We’re attached to them because they’re easy and familiar. Whether or not they’re effective or useful is not the point. How they affect others is of no interest.

They’re easy, and they’re ours.

The thing is, our habits don’t belong to us so much as we belong to them. We can stop them any time, we tell ourselves and everyone else. If we wanted to. But we don’t want to.

So there.

Breaking habits takes intention, focus, and determination. Support helps, but sometimes it’s unavailable.

So, do we feel guilty because we’re making different choices than our habits dictate, or do we feel uncomfortable because we’re making different choices? Making different choices affects those around us, and when things start changing, people get uncomfortable, especially if the change wasn’t their idea. Most people are sure to tell us when we “make” them uncomfortable.

Then the guilt starts.

Maybe discomfort, theirs and/or ours, is a good sign, a sign we’re truly doing the work of change. Maybe the guiltier/more uncomfortable we feel, the more successful we are.

Maybe we shelve the guilt and welcome the discomfort.

Sometimes we all do something we know is wrong and guilt helps us learn and make amends for our choices. Sometimes. Not every day, all day.

Being alive, taking up space, growing, learning, and reclaiming our power and health are not worthy of guilt. Uncomfortable work, yes. An offense, a breach of conduct, a crime, no.

When I feel that old familiar guilt come knocking, I’m going to look at it more closely. Maybe it’s not guilt at all. Maybe it’s just discomfort.

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash