The Locked Room

A couple of weeks ago a discussion I was involved in touched fleetingly upon the idea of an internal locked room, where we keep our most private thoughts and feelings. I’ve been thinking about the concept ever since, fascinated by the metaphor.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

What’s in my locked room?

I don’t know. I don’t want to know, and I don’t want anyone else to know. That’s why I lock that stuff up!

But what’s in there?

I can’t let it go.

As a storyteller, I immediately recognize this common theme running through oral stories and folklore from all traditions. Something is locked or hidden. It’s forbidden to look. Lovers make a bargain. Authority demands obedience. The consequences of looking are not fully revealed, but it’s forbidden to look!

Someone always looks. Remember Pandora? Consequences ensue.

I’ve never really thought about an internal locked room until now; never considered how big it might be or what’s behind the door. I haven’t realized whatever my room contains is locked away from me as well as everyone else. All the memories I don’t want to remember. The hurts, the fears, the terrible thoughts, my unforgiveable deeds. The things about myself I can’t love.

Is it unhealthy to have a locked room? I assume everyone has one, but maybe not. I’m not uncomfortable about the presence of mine, but I question the wisdom of locking myself out. The road to self-love is long and arduous; can I practice it if I still don’t want to face (and accept or forgive) parts of who I am? That doesn’t feel like self-love.

Is a locked room adaptive or maladaptive? Could it be both? Does size matter? (You know what I mean. The size of the room!) Maybe the size is irrelevant and it’s the contents that count.

Why do we put things in our locked room? Why did I put things in mine?

Well. I’m ashamed. Or I’m afraid of emotional pain, conflict, or of hurting others. Maybe it’s something I’m not ready to forgive myself or others for. Maybe I lock it away to fester?

Ugh.

So is the locked room about keeping me safe or others safe?

Both, I think. Others safe from me and me safe from others. But it’s also a holding place where I keep things I don’t want to deal with.

I’ve read Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton. It gave me the horrors. I’m unable to see radical honesty as a pathway to healthy cooperation and collaboration. For me, privacy is a need, not only in an external sense of spending time in solitude, but also in the internal sense. This is unsurprising from a highly sensitive, empathic person who has experienced emotional trauma and abuse. I need my privacy and I’m intensely protective of the privacy of others.

I think a locked room is an essential piece of healthy functioning.

However, we as a species have a dreadful propensity for carrying things too far.

Not me, of course. I never do that.

How do we decide what’s appropriate to share and what’s not? Working with patients and patrons at the pool facility where I’m employed, I constantly feel battered with oversharing. People, especially seniors, are lonely. They have a lifetime of memories and experience. They have health issues that frighten them. They need to talk. My team and I do our best to be compassionate listeners.

But sometimes I wish I could forget what I’ve heard. Secrets are safe with me, but the feelings that come with them are burdensome; as an empath I’ve struggled all my life to avoid taking on the emotions of others. Mostly not very successfully.

Does everyone need some privacy? Is it a continuum? Do I need too much privacy? How much is too much? Who gets to decide? Is there such a thing as being too open, too un-private, if you will? Or does everyone have a locked room, even if it’s only the size of a mousehole?

Rooms. What happens in private rooms? Clutter. Dust bunnies. Cat hair. Hoarding. Loneliness. Despair. Death. Birth. Love. Sex. Creativity. Cooking. Self-care. Self-harm. Sleeping. Using the toilet. Distraction. Playing out addictions. Violence. Weeping. Exercising. Entertainment. The human activities of daily living we all engage in.

A locked room could be a dark and bitter dungeon or a light and airy penthouse. What kind of a locked room do I have? What kind do I want?

I hate clutter. Is my locked room cluttered? Surely not! Well, maybe. There’s 60 years’ worth of stuff in there! It’s spring. I kind of want to unlock it, open a window, air the place out. Maybe tidy up a little? Let go of some stuff? Sort? Organize? Would that be so terrible, so impossibly painful?

I have a sneaking suspicion some of what’s in my locked room is not even mine, but things given to me. Or imposed on me. I inherited toxic beliefs, experiences, and feelings from generations before me and believed it was my job to carry and preserve them.

Why am I storing what doesn’t belong to me?

Perhaps my locked room contains parts of myself I tried to get rid of and now need. Treasure, if you will. Maybe exploring it could be in part an act of reclamation.

Maybe if I open the door a tower of horror will fall on top of me and I’ll be smothered. Maybe if I don’t open the door green slime will ooze out from under it.

What’s in there?

I have some answers. My relationship with a cat named Ranger is in there, and no, I don’t want to talk about it. Every room needs a cat, in any case.

Health struggles (not serious) I’m largely unwilling to share are in there, although I have recently cracked the door and let some of them out. Carefully. Nothing bad happened.

My relationship with my children, one in particular, is in there. Now and then I’ve let a small amount of that out, too, but not often, not much, and only to my most trusted female friend.

My locked room is filled with passion. Passionate feelings of all kinds I’ve been hiding and repressing all my life. They’re strong and intense and I’ve been brutally taught they’re ugly, frightening, and obscene.

This has lately become a problem because rage is finding its way out of my locked room with disturbing results. Having escaped the room, it has no intention of being stuffed back in there and restrained. It’s a daily challenge at home, at work, and in the most unexpected contexts. It has stories to tell and I’m listening, reluctantly, but it frightens me and I’m ashamed of it. I thought I would always be able to keep it locked up and controlled. It appears I was wrong.

What else? I don’t know. These are the only specifics I can come up with. I’ll probably become conscious of more, now that I’m thinking about it.

I won’t fling the door of my locked room open and do a thorough cleanout because it’s the wellspring of my creativity, any small wisdom I’ve gained, and my empathy. As a gardener and a writer, I believe in compost. Something wild and primal in me, nurtured by Baba Yaga, loves the stink, the rot, the death, the blood, because these are the cradle of life. Nature does not waste. It’s all recycled. My experience of pain and passion empowers my writing, power I would not lessen in spite of its high price. Such power is born and rooted in fecund darkness, in muck mixed with blood and tears, in the edge of chaos, not in a bright, shining, passionless, well-aired room.

Yet I fear the passion the most. It feels like too much to release or keep contained. I fear its power to tear me apart, which is why I locked it away in the first place, and I fear its potential to hurt others. Much of it fuels my writing. I bleed some off with exercise, especially dance. But those are safety valves rather than open doors. Part of me wants to set my passion free. But for now most of it will stay in my locked room.

Questions:

  • Do you have an internal locked room? How do you feel about it?
  • Do you believe emotional privacy is essential, or do you think it’s unhealthy? Is it a need on a continuum?
  • Are you familiar with the concept of radical honesty? What do you think about it?

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:

Echoes and Ghosts

For me, February 1st is the first day of spring. I know it’s early. I like it that way. I like the anticipation, the half-intuited first stirring of life under the soil, under last year’s debris, the slow, cold wakening of seeds, stiff in their dormant shells but quickening, murmuring, “Is now the time …?”

The birds are the first harbingers for me. Here, in this place, a small city in central Maine, it’s the crows, the jays, the cardinals, and the little tufted titmice. The crows and jays complain in harsh voices of salt-encrusted pavement, tired snow over lumpy ice, the steely cold. Cardinal pairs flit in my bare, bedraggled forsythia, and visit the feeders, a startling splash of color in the grey and bone landscape.

The titmice sing. Joyful, bursting little songs of nests and eggs, of green growth and warming light. The first spears of bulbs, the budding lilac, the luscious magnolia petals are in their song, though those things are only memories and hopes in the February garden.

(As I edit this, the first goldfinch outside the window.)

(On the morning of the day I publish this, at dawn, the chickadee’s two-note spring call.)

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

I have been feeling quiet. I’m burning down the last two Yule candles, gradually bringing out those of white and ivory, scented with lavender and herbs. Midwinter festivities are packed away, red table linen and warm-colored throws washed and folded for another season. I’ve been spring cleaning, making glass shine, mopping the scarred old floor, washing cupboards and doors. I walk to and from work bundled up in wool and fleece, the cleats on the bottoms of my boots clicking on the bare pavement and keeping me anchored in the ice and snow. The cold makes my eyes water, my nose run, and my ears hurt. At night, after closing the pools at 6:00, I drop a fluorescent sash around my backpack and chest and hold a small flashlight in the hand closest to the traffic, a white LED light shining ahead, a red flashing light showing from behind.

At times sleep has been thin and wrinkled this winter. In other periods of ebbing sleep I’ve felt frantic and exhausted, but this time I don’t mind. The long cold nights are restful whether I sleep or not, lying comfortable and warm in my chilly room, cocooned in linen sheets and a down comforter. I think of stars overhead, the moon on her path, ebbing and flowing, the tides lapping against the stony coast not so very far away. The hot water pipes in the radiators pop and click reassuringly.

I remember ice skating as a child, gliding smoothly over frost and snow, soaring over magically transformed water, cold biting like the crystalline sound of the sharp-edged skate blades, but warm in body from the rhythmic thrust of my legs. I haven’t skated in more than 50 years, but I remember it now, the freedom, the rhythm, the pleasure, the sense of inconsequence, as though nothing mattered, all was easy and graceful and flowing.

As the old year and winter inch over thresholds into something new, I am companioned by memories. This time last year is a constant whisper in my mind, because this time last year my mother was dying. I am not preoccupied with any time before that. After a lifetime of striving to understand and repair family history and relationships, I have surrendered to what was and what is now over. My battered empathy lies tranquil, not ravaged and torn but manageable, docile, turning over the pieces of last year with gentle intention.

In the clarity of cold winter, in my internal peace, I am alive, aware, receptive in new ways. I learned much in the last year, but intellectually. There was not time for more. The intensity of the situation, the constant crises, the long distance management, the anguish, the helplessness, the impossible tasks, the planning, demanded everything I had. I did not have time to process, to think long and deeply. I did not have the strength for it.

But now, now the past year echoes within my bones and flesh and memory. The ghosts of my feelings and experiences are miraculously without anguish, without horror, whispering a half-remembered story from childhood in which everything works out in the end.

Mom herself does not haunt me. She wouldn’t come back to me in any case, but even before that thought has formed I realize she wouldn’t come back to any person. If she is in a place we can call somewhere, she’s with her animals. No one who knew her well or loved her could doubt it. She wouldn’t come back to anyone, not just me. I knew it before, but now I feel it, and the feeling is gliding, no friction, just freedom and clean, cold air. I can picture her face, laughing, joyful, with manes and tails, paws and shining coats, flopping tongues and pricked ears all around her. And I’m happy for her happiness.

A year ago I was home again after my first trip back to Colorado. I wrote on the ice, on the surface of things. I think without that I might not have stayed the course. It was my lifeline. I was surviving.

A year ago I noticed but did not feel the presence of the birds. The first weeks of Spring came and went; I was focused on the next trip to Colorado, on arranging an estate auction, on supporting my brother in finding renters for Mom’s home, on maintaining communication with Mom’s community, her caregivers, and family. I had no attention for anything but calls and texts as her condition and behavior worsened.

I was not here in April when the magnolia tree began to bloom. I did not kneel in the cold mud of the garden, rejoicing in the chilly sun as the bulbs first thrust up through the softening soil. We were dismantling Mom’s life in Colorado, reading the intimate stories of her history, her loneliness, her fear, and her private struggles. Revealing and releasing stories she never meant anyone to know, casting her life’s possessions and debris into the world, one way or another.

My brother was heroic. The community was stalwart. One step at a time, one item at a time, one mile and minute at a time, we got through it. Somehow.

Home again in May, and back to my life, but only in the motions. Some intuition kept my focus narrow, looking only at the next task, the next step. I gave myself time in the garden, time in the sun. I moved my body. I ate, and worked, and showered, and wrote, releasing my razor-sharp feelings and experience gingerly in words, like so many chips of ice. Now and then I found a moment of peace, a small oasis in between calls and texts, in between Mom’s querulous voice and caregiver check-ins, in between broken nights. But I did not try to plumb the depths of myself. I knew it was not time and I hadn’t the strength to stay safe.

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Summer bloomed fiercely and slowly withered as Mom did, until she was released in August.

She was released, but the work of wrapping up a life went on and on, the majority falling on my brother’s shoulders. He soldiered on. We signed and notarized papers, transferred ownership, sold the house, thought about taxes. I dealt with family jewelry and wrote an obituary, and chose a picture for the local paper.

Autumn came. On Halloween, I thought a year ago today she fell and broke her hip and it all began to end …

Winter came, and passed.

Spring is on the threshold. It feels like my first spring in this new house of ours. And now the ice begins to melt. Now I am not skating on the surface of things because the surface softens and melts, warms into depth and movement, into living water, cleansing and healing. The broken edges, the shards, blunted in the sun before melting away.

Water has ever been my strength and my safety. I take off my skates and float in my depths, my memories weightless, my ghosts drifting quietly, the echoes of the past fading away into peace as I allow them to brush against me, perhaps not for the last time – who knows? I will not be afraid if they visit me again. They are familiar now, and will melt again, as winter melts into spring.

“Ice holds memories … great islands of ice … hold many stories, but they’re just the fragments. Most of the stories are gone.”

James Roberts at Into the Deep Woods

Questions:

  • What signals spring to you?
  • What intense experiences have you had to unpack slowly, over a long period of time?
  • How do you manage your intense feelings?

Leave a comment below!

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

Wandering Mind

(Due to a technical glitch, most of you were not notified when I last posted. You can follow this link to read the post if you missed it. I think the problem is fixed now!)

As so often happens, several threads came together to weave this post. The first was a suggestion from Seth Godin to follow our wandering mind, as that’s where our heart might be.

On first read, I smiled and thought “of course,” because following my imagination is one of my greatest pleasures.

As I considered it over a period of days, however, noting where my mind wanders, I discovered something.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

I happily follow my wandering mind as long as I feel undisturbed about where it goes. The minute I start to get uncomfortable, however, I shackle it. Brutally. This might be with distraction, compulsive productivity, or starting to speed. A lot of people eat, overexercise, or get trapped in substance abuse. Let us count the ways!

I have rules about where my mind is allowed to go. I enforce my rules without mercy, in collaboration with draconian internal voices. My rigidity is not so much about my thoughts wandering as it is the feelings I have about my thoughts. This is emotional intelligence 101, and I’ve written about it before.

Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.

In essence, then, I’m putting a lid on my feelings. Again. Still.

Sigh.

It doesn’t work. It never works, and I know this, but I do it anyway.

I do it for the same reason we all attempt to avoid painful feelings. They’re painful! Avoidance is easier than allowing ourselves to feel them, find healthy ways to express them, and let them go.

How many thoughts do we have in a day? I suspect most of us chew on the same preoccupations day after day, whether our thoughts engender feelings of rage, grief, fear, or shame, or a combination du jour. Uncomfortable territory. Also highly addictive territory. I’m chagrined to admit my own attraction to struggle. It’s so easy! Which is ridiculous, because it makes everything much, much harder than it needs to be, physically, emotionally, and generally.

Maybe what I mean is it’s so familiar!

As humans, we have an irresistible compulsion to notice, emphasize, and dwell upon the negative rather than the positive. That’s why so many people find relief in a gratitude practice, including me. Switching from a negative to positive focus requires mindfulness and mental effort, but the relief from anxiety and stress is immediate.

I should do it more often. Like ten times a day.

Understand, I’m not suggesting we avoid our feelings. I’m suggesting we take control of our thoughts, especially the negative kind. Feelings rise and fall inescapably. They’re biochemical messages from our physical bodies. We were made to have feelings. What we do with them, of course, is well within our control. Thoughts, however, are ours to steer.

Feelings, though arising naturally, are contagious and easily manipulated. That’s why advertising and social pressure work so well. Our feelings can be deliberately manufactured to serve those who would control our money, our votes, and our humanity.

On the other hand, this means we can to some degree manipulate our own feelings with our thoughts.

I came across an article by writer and speaker Rob Henderson, who I follow on Substack. He wrote a piece listing lessons he’s learned during a challenging life, beginning in the foster care system. One of the lessons is “you are what you do.” Not what you feel, but what you do.

I thought immediately of my writing community on Substack, where each of us struggles with what it means to be a writer. I don’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve called myself a writer ever since I began writing. Writers write. That’s what I do.

I like to keep things simple (even though I often don’t, which is a perfect example of what I say versus what I do!)

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

We are what we do. I agree. We are not entirely defined by what we think and feel. I’ve known that ever since I went through emotional intelligence training. We’re also not defined by who we say we are, or who others say we are. We are not our highly polished and desperately maintained identity. Our true thoughts and feelings, the private stuff no one else can see or hear, steer our choices and actions, and those are what truly reveal our most authentic selves.

It follows if we want to change, we must do things differently. As many others have discovered long before me, true change comes from the inside out. If we manage our thoughts and feelings in healthy ways, our actions change. That’s why short-term strategies like diets often fail. A temporary diet does not address our broken relationship with food, a much harder proposition to tackle.

We seem to be on a giant rack, ever widening, between who we think we should be or must be and who we really are. The struggle and tension threaten to tear us apart, yet we cling to our rack, desperately holding ourselves together, too afraid to relax into who we really are and make peace with our true selves.

In a constant state of tension, we don’t let our minds wander. We can’t afford to. We don’t have access to the peace and quiet or even boredom a wandering mind requires. Our technology has erased the fertile ground of boredom, particularly for our children. We feed our hearts a diet of distraction, manufactured drama, busyness and productivity; a hunger for more, bigger, better, newer things, and expect it to be satisfied. We ignore or numb our feelings, or turn them into destruction of ourselves and others.

I often think of this Chinese proverb:

Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.

Toxic positivity is not an effective coping mechanism. Nor is a state of deep depression and withdrawal, as in addiction. I want to find a path between the two.

Perhaps my wandering mind knows the path and will point the way if I allow it to. Perhaps our minds know exactly where our hearts are but we’re too afraid to know.

Questions:

  • When your mind wanders, where does it go?
  • How do you feel about where your mind wanders?
  • How do you think an inability to focus (distractibility) might in some cases be connected to a refusal to follow the guidance of mind and heart?

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!

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