Review and Preview

A few weeks ago I explored self-trust. Until I wrote that piece, I had not realized how deeply I distrusted myself. (As a writer, I find nothing clarifies my thinking better than written inquiry. The process uncovers so many unconscious and hidden things.)

In that post I speculated about choosing to trust myself, as trust is a belief, and beliefs can and do change. I thought it would be interesting to consciously trust myself for a few days and see what happened.

What has happened is a profound change in my interior life and my mental health. What happened is the realization that learning to self-love, while a healing and valuable practice, was not, after all, what I most needed.

This still seems strange to me. We are certainly taught love is the greatest feeling, the closest to the Divine we can come, the best we can be as human beings. We define love endlessly, discuss it, long for it, search for it, tell ourselves it will fix everything if only we can find someone to love, if only someone will love us completely, unconditionally, forever and ever (or at least until death do us part), amen.

But my experience has taught me love is changeable and elusive. All kinds of abuse masquerades as love. We don’t all mean the same thing when we express love.

By Marianna Smiley on Unsplash

Perhaps most heartbreaking of all, we don’t always value the love that comes our way, and we may learn to distrust it. Every master manipulator in the world recognizes the power of our need for love. Once that need is used against us, we are on our guard against love.

Love hurts. Love can endure, but a withered, starving love living on memories and perhaps based on delusions or the simple call of blood is a desolate ghost haunting our hearts. Love can scar us so deeply we’re never the same.

The daily practice of loving oneself is less complicated than loving another. At the very least, I know what I mean when I say it to myself, and my self understands my demonstration of it. Nothing is lost in translation. I can trust my own love.

And there’s that word – ‘trust’. Trust and love: does one require the other, or are they separate? One is a feeling (love), and one is a belief (trust). Both can be manipulated. In terms of our love and trust of ourselves, both are highly subject to interruption or even amputation by those who influence us, especially as children. If we are repeatedly given to understand we are not lovable or not to be trusted, we internalize those beliefs before we even have language. We don’t learn to love and trust ourselves.

Internalized beliefs are enormously powerful right up until we examine them closely, at which point they can vanish like a wisp of smoke. Once we’ve seen them as false, we become conscious of their pervasive influence and our internal structure changes in astounding ways.

This is what has happened to me.

When I set out to live a few days consciously trusting myself, I realized within an hour my obsessive and unending loop of review and preview. Just like a fish in water, I have no memory of ever living any other way, so I never noticed it before. Well, that’s not true. I noticed it, I just called it anxiety. As I’ve always been anxious and expected I always would be, I didn’t think further about it.

In an example from my childhood, when I was very young, kindergarten age, my mother had a lot of pain and was quite unhappy. I had a younger brother and we had cats and dogs. In an effort to take care of my mother, I learned how to do things like make beds, sort laundry, set up the coffee maker, make orange juice in the blender (frozen concentrate), take care of the animals, tie my own shoes and teach my brother to tie his, etc.

I vividly remember lying in my bed, my brother across the room in his bed, reviewing everything I’d done that day. I had trouble with hospital corners on the beds because I wasn’t strong enough to tuck the sheets in properly under the mattress. Mom had to bend over and do them again, so I failed to help and caused her pain. I didn’t turn a sock right side out when I sorted the laundry. I could tie my own shoes, but I was baffled trying to teach my brother to tie his while facing him. And so forth and so on.

Review: I hadn’t done it right. I hadn’t helped. I hadn’t been perfect. I hadn’t made Mom happy. I had to do better. Preview: Next time I would look at every piece of laundry, be sure nothing was inside out. Next time I would remember how to sort it properly so Mom wouldn’t have to bend down and do it herself. Next time I would figure out a way to get the hospital corners right, but I wouldn’t have to face that again for a week or so. Maybe I’d be stronger or bigger? If I got behind my brother and tied his shoes from that angle, could I do it? I had to do it! It hurt Mom to bend down.

This habit, this ongoing internal review and preview, has never stopped. Whatever I’ve just done, I review it. Whatever I’m about to do, I preview it. Racing thoughts. Circular thinking. Problems with sleep and chronic tension. Adrenal overload and exhaustion. The need to distract, to make it stop. The inability to have a quiet mind. Most of us are familiar with the symptoms of anxiety.

I believe my anxiety has been rooted in my self-distrust. When I decided to behave as though I do trust myself, I became conscious of my lifelong review and preview habit, as much a part of me as my blue eyes. At the same time, I discovered the solution. The minute I catch myself either reviewing or previewing, and it’s many, many times a day, I say, “I trust you,” to myself.

And I stop. I don’t need to review. I don’t need to preview. I did the best I could, because I always do that. I’ll do the best I can, because I always do that.

“I trust you.”

I’ve also realized, after long experience of sorting through my own psyche, this self-distrust is not mine. It doesn’t smell like me. It’s not home grown. It came from someone outside me, like so many of the unmanaged, unacknowledged emotions and beliefs I’ve carried, recognized as not mine, and let go.

By Danijel Durkovic on Unsplash

I discovered, as I wrote that post on trust, I do trust myself. I’ve always had cognitive dissonance around trust. Those around me didn’t trust me, yet I trusted myself. I trust my intuition. I trust my empathy and sensitivity, I trust my intention to do the right thing, I trust my flexibility and my ability to learn. I trust my ability to love. I trust my ability to think critically and recognize the truth, no matter how unwelcome. When I assure myself of my trust, it’s not a lie. It’s a truth buried for years under trauma.

I suspect many of us review and preview, consciously or not. It’s wholly ineffective in terms of healthy functioning. It makes us less flexible and resilient. It tires us out, creates long-term chronic stress, and is a constant no-confidence vote we give ourselves. It doesn’t make us more perfect; in fact, it does the opposite because it encourages us to be brittle and fearful. It doesn’t stop us from making mistakes. It turns us away from presence and authentic expression and towards behaving like automatons with a rigid script.

It gives us anxiety.

Most of all, reviewing and previewing doesn’t keep us safe. It doesn’t help us feel loved.

The compulsive habit of reviewing and previewing took up an extraordinary amount of space in my mind and required enormous quantities of energy and attention. Without it, I feel an internal spaciousness I’ve never had before. I read more. I write more. I can rest and relax. I’m far less driven, far more comfortable in my own skin. I’m more present and mindful in the moment, and with my feelings and my body.

I’m far less anxious.

Learning to love myself has been a gift. Reclaiming trust in myself has changed my life.

Questions:

  • Do you love yourself? If not, why?
  • Do you trust yourself? If not, why?
  • If you could only have one, would you prefer others to trust you or love you?
  • What do you think is more important socially: love or trust? Why?

Leave a comment below!

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

Trust

When I wrote about internal locked rooms earlier in the month, I had no idea how much there would be to unpack. In subsequent discussions about locked rooms and unconditional love (for a connect-the-dots map go here) a friend tells me she believes trusting herself is the biggest barrier for her in unconditionally loving herself. Me being me, I asked her how we define trust. In asking her I asked myself.

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

Here we go again.

Trust is defined by Online Oxford Dictionary as “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.”

Trust is a tricky subject for me and I’ve so far avoided taking it head on, but this feels like the right time. Part of my hesitation to talk about it is my own identity as a person who doesn’t trust easily.

I feel that piece of identity as a shameful aspect of my character. As I write this, I have a vivid childhood memory of being in the back of a dim car in a blinding snowstorm feeling scared. An adult in the car was also fearful, as were the family dogs. The driver asked me, “What’s the matter, don’t you trust me?”

The answer clamored inside the car, “NO!” For a moment it seemed to me we’d all shouted it, though nobody said a word and I huddled, frozen with fear and not daring to speak, in my corner.

It’s bad not to trust; disloyal, unloving, unnatural. But I learned very young trusting those around me was dangerous. All my life I’ve been torn between my shame about not trusting and a determination to survive and learn to self-defend … which sometimes (often?) means not trusting.

I don’t see trust as a black-and-white belief. I might trust someone completely with money and business affairs, but not at all as a confidant. I might trust someone as a parent but not as a dog walker. I might trust someone’s essential goodness but not their reliability in following through on plans.

This question of trusting ourselves, though, is slightly different. What does it mean, exactly, to not trust ourselves? What do I mean when I say it to myself?

Trust is defined as a belief, and beliefs can and do change. Belief is a choice. My belief that I’m untrustworthy is not something I was born with, but something I internalized from my family. I’m untrustworthy because I’m dramatic, I struggle with math story problems, I have needs and feelings, I’m intuitive, I’m sensitive, I have boundaries, I challenge authority and rules, and I tell the truth, among many other reasons.

Internalized voices are a bitch, because we don’t realize or remember they came from someone outside us.

And people outside us lie. People outside us can never fully see what’s inside us. People have agendas, their own wounds and trauma, and navigate around their own internalized bullshit.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

People outside us are not necessarily reliable sources about our worth and value as a human being.

If trust is a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something,” we have specifics we can explore.

Reliability: I know myself to be reliable. I have many flaws, but my integrity is strong and I keep my word to myself.

Truth: A thorny aspect of trust. I wrote two paragraphs here about the ways in which others perceive my truthfulness. On edit, I realized none of that has to do with my truthfulness with myself, which will always be invisible to the outside world. Do I trust my truthfulness with myself? Yes. Absolutely.

Ability: This is my weakest area of self-trust. In some ways. At some times. I wrestle every day with imposter syndrome. On the other hand, I absolutely trust my ability to write, to teach, to swim, to dance, and to do many other things. Oddly, though I trust my ability in most cases, I don’t want others to trust my ability because I have a huge fear of disappointing people. This, too, is an old wound, first opened when I received constant messaging about how disappointing and inadequate I was as a child. Because of that, I don’t want people to rely on me for fear I’ll let them down, not from my perspective, but from theirs.

I told you trust was tricky for me.

Strength: Which brings me to strength. This, for me, is a no-brainer. I have absolute belief in my own strength. God knows I wouldn’t be sitting here at the keyboard typing if I hadn’t been strong all my life.

Given this mostly positive review of the components of this definition of trust, what’s the problem? Why have I so consistently mistrusted myself during my lifetime?

I can easily come up with two reasons. There may be more lurking in the background, but these two are in front: One is trust in my physical body, and the other is perfectionism.

Perfectionism is one of the first things I wrote about on this blog. It’s another piece from my childhood I’ve struggled with it all my life, and I’m certainly not the only one. I’m conscious of it now, which is helpful, but it affects every day of my life and if I’m not mindful it rules me. Publishing this blog was one of my first real efforts at resistance. It took more than a year of weekly publishing to stop feeling panic as I pushed the “publish” button after a reasonable amount of writing and editing.

Even as perfectionism drives me, I’m aware enough to know I can’t define it beyond pleasing people. Which is impossible, and I know that. Yet the internal pressure to be perfect seems to be inescapable.

I’ve also written extensively about expectations. As a child, I was expected to be perfect according to conflicting expectations from three adults on whom I was dependent. Needless to say I failed to please any of them, which meant I lived in a constant state of shame and fear of abandonment. A perfect setup for internalized self-loathing. The road from self-loathing to considering unconditional self-love has been an amazing journey.

I was aware, as I explored ability, reliability, truth, and strength above, of a little voice in my head saying, “Yes, but—,” a precursor to the time I was late, or forgot an appointment, or the occasions I did deliberately lie, or the times I felt weak, or when my ability did not live up to my own unconscious standards of perfectionism.

As I became aware of this, I realized I will never trust myself if I aspire to be perfect in these four categories. I have never been perfect, I am not perfect, I never will be perfect, and I’m not much interested at this point in my life in attaining perfection in any way.

So fuck off, perfectionism. I’m not your bitch anymore. AND you will not stop me from loving myself, unconditionally or otherwise. Unconditional love is not built on some ridiculous set of expectations.

Photo by Emma Backer on Unsplash

Which brings me to an interesting insight on my relationship with my body. Let’s not do the body-as-a-political-signal thing, OK? I’m sick of it. We all live in a body. We have baggage about how our bodies look and function. We’re pressured, every day, to try to buy a “better” body, especially children. In today’s world, many of us feel we “should” be different, no matter what we look like. Currently, we’re obsessed with appearance and virtue signaling rather than health and function.

I don’t hate my body. However, due to autoimmune issues and years of chronic pain, I haven’t trusted it. Until the last ten years or so, since I’ve gone carnivore, my physical state was extremely limiting; I was unable to engage fully in activities I loved, get regular exercise, or even reliably manage the activities of daily living without severe pain.

Now I have my inflammation under control, my chronic pain is gone, and I’m able to joyfully live the kind of active lifestyle I’ve always wanted: gardening, walking, swimming, water aerobics, free weights, stretching, a little yoga, a little Pilates, a little time in the gym. I’m healthier and more active than I’ve ever been, but I am aging, and as I age, my body is changing. (Big surprise, I know!) I noticed, in my post about unconditional self-love, some of the things I wrote about unconditionally loving were physical things. In this culture, nobody tells us to love our varicose veins, or our age-spotted hands, or our lined neck. Instead, we’re encouraged to buy something and “fix” all those problems, or at least hide them.

That’s not unconditional love. (I also deny it’s “body positivity,” but I don’t want to dive into that rabbit hole!)

I know if I push myself too hard my body will hurt. I know if I allow my anxiety to spin out of control I won’t sleep. I know if I eat a whole pizza I will a) have inflammation and pain from the carbs and b) have severe constipation (cheese). I know if I garden for too many hours at a time I’ll be too stiff the next morning to get dressed without sitting down. I know if I spend too many hours in the pool I’ll develop eczema on my elbows and hips.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

I ask myself, does all this mean I don’t trust my body? Because it actually sounds like I do trust it to react to my choices in various predictable ways. Is what I’m really saying I don’t trust my body to be a 20-year-old perfect body?

Well …. Yeah. I guess that is what I’m saying. Pretty silly.

My friend doesn’t feel she can unconditionally love herself without trusting herself. She’ll navigate her own path through all this. My own conclusion is I can trust myself. Perhaps I should consciously start doing so. (What an idea!) For me, lack of self-trust is not an obstacle to unconditional love, but it certainly makes a nice contribution to it.

Questions:

  • Do you see trust as essential to unconditional love?
  • Do you agree with this definition of trust? If not, how would you define it? Can you find a better definition?
  • What aspect of trust in this definition do you struggle with the most?

Leave a comment below!

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

The Locked Room 2: Everything I Am and Nothing I’m Not

I’m still looking at my locked room, which I wrote about in my last post. I’ve had some interesting conversations about that post.

My emotional intelligence coach (who has now retired) used a phrase years ago when I was working formally with him: “I want everything you are and nothing you are not.”

It touched a deep, lifelong longing in me to be loved, accepted, seen in my entirety, though I know I would never allow myself to be seen in my entirety.

Through the years since, I’ve carried that phrase with me as I love and interact with those around me. Depending on my mood, it’s a ridiculous, impossible-to-achieve sentiment for any human being, cruel in its false hope, akin to rom coms. Or it’s something to aspire to, a reminder to be softer with my rigidities and expectations, quicker to forgive.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago about locked internal rooms, it suddenly struck me in all the years I’ve been thinking about that phrase I never once said it to myself. I’ve been focused on my grief and shame about never being good enough to find that kind of love from another human being, or on my suspicion that none of us can honestly say that to one another. Not day after day in the long term.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

Over the last decade or so I’ve slowly, agonizingly, stopped hoping a prince on a white horse would show up who would love everything I am, or even love part of what I am unconditionally. (But, honestly, I wanted him to love everything!) I’ve turned more and more towards meeting my own needs for intimacy and connection, realizing the pain of disconnect is from within myself, not external. I want unconditional love. It’s not a feeling I have any power to make others feel.

Unconditional love towards myself, however, is a minute-by-minute challenge in which I have all the power.

Now, that’s a thought.

Extending unconditional love to myself is hard. I would a thousand times rather love someone else and dream of Mr. Right, except I know how that ends … and frankly, I’m bored with it. In fact, it occurred to me a couple of days ago I’m really not interested in Mr. Right anymore. Or Mr. Wrong. Or Mr. Anybody, romantically speaking. I’ve been smiling about that realization ever since. It’s oddly freeing. I watch women in my age cohort with their husbands/significant others where I work in a pool rehab center and think, “Better you than me, sister!” And smile some more. An enigmatic lifeguard smile (I hope).

The whole idea of romance doesn’t fascinate me anymore unless it’s strictly fantasy. Repairing and healing my relationship with myself is far more interesting. This refocus may be the greatest gift of menopause. I know some women grieve over it, but for me it’s freedom from what was frequently an overwhelming, stressful, and complicated biological imperative. Whew.

Is it possible for us to love ourselves unconditionally? Is it possible for me to do so?

What a question! A question leading straight back to my locked room.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

I can’t love everything I am and nothing I’m not if I don’t know everything I am. If I don’t want to know. If I refuse to find out.

(Item: in my last Tarot spread for Imbolc I drew the Sea: Plumbing the Depths card.)

Now, like all of us, I have acceptable (to me) qualities and traits and unacceptable ones. I’m a mishmash of genetic inheritance and learned behavior. I’m a hot mess and I’m reasonably competent and effective. Sometimes all at the same time!

And I’m supposed to unconditionally love that?

Well, yes. That’s what unconditional love is, right?

I have a varicose vein popping up. I’m deeply insulted. WTF? I’m supposed to love that? I’m supposed to love the genetic inheritance/sun exposure/years of chronic pain that caused me to be sedentary/and other factors in the tired, bulging, blue-violet vein in my lower leg? What about the foot I’m pretty sure I’m developing a touch of arthritis in? What about my aging neck? What about my age-spotted hands (more sun exposure)?

And that’s just the beginning. I’m supposed to love the roots of my perfectionism, my speeding, my anxiety? Well, not the roots, but the child who was traumatized and developed those mechanisms to survive? (And did survive, let’s not forget.)

Romantically speaking, it’s easy to love white horses, roses, diamonds, champagne, sexy exotic vacations (none of which I find especially romantic, but you know what I mean!). I can love my competence, doggedness, creativity, integrity, ability to support others, and many other fine qualities (if I do say so myself). But the aches and pains, sleepless nights, endless loops of anxiety, tendency toward depression, rigidity, fawning, inept healthy boundaries and self-advocating – these are not lovable. These are a pain in the ass.

I am a frequent pain in my own ass.

Can anyone relate?

As for mistakes (I turned out the ladies’ locker room light while someone was still in there last week when we closed the pool!), shameful thoughts and feelings, dire deeds I wish I could forget, habitual catastrophizing, hurt I’ve inflicted on others, parenting mistakes, and a host of other miserable dead bodies in my locked room, unconditional love means I love those, too. It means I love my fallible, aging, flawed, exceedingly human self. All of it. All of me.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

It makes me want to permanently lose the keys to my locked room.

Then there’s the “nothing I am not” part of the equation. Boundaries again. I’m so tired of working on boundaries. On the other hand, having no boundaries makes life not worth living, so I persevere. “Nothing I am not” includes what I was taught about myself and my role in my family as a child; false and limiting beliefs; my endlessly carping, nitpicking, internal critic; fear; despair; depression; anxiety; etc., etc. We carry so many burdens, and many of them never belonged to us in the first place. We took them upon ourselves, or someone forced them upon us, or we accepted them in order to ‘help’ someone else. Some are simply old coping mechanisms allowing us to survive our hard times but now outdated and useless.

At the end of all this, I wonder if our locked rooms are just another challenge in love. How much of ourselves do we shut away because we can’t love all of what we are, and we’re certain others couldn’t love us if they knew what was behind the door?

In the case of storing experience too horrific to manage, such as deep trauma, grief, or guilt, don’t those feelings need unconditional love most of all? The locked room itself, however we envision it, however we envision its door, is surely deserving of love too. It allows us to continue to function in life in spite of terrible experiences. It gives us respite, a way to pause, a way to give ourselves time to gain distance, wisdom, grow into new skills and learn how to help ourselves if and when we do crack the door open. It allows us to stay safe and sane.

For me, a choice to practice loving everything I am and nothing I’m not means I’ll be opening the door to my locked room and poking around in there. Now I’m curious. Could I at least consider loving what I find?

I’m considering it. Carefully.

Questions:

  • What do you love about yourself?
  • What do you have to do, be, or stop doing to earn your own love?
  • Do you think more about finding someone to love you or practicing self-love?
  • What if finding “true love” is impossible unless we love ourselves fully first?

Leave a comment below!

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

 

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:

The Center

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
–From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats

The line “the centre cannot hold,” has been running through my mind for several weeks, through all the time I’ve been sick with COVID and whatever nasty virus followed in its wake, and my slow recovery. “The centre cannot hold.” I found a quiet moment and looked it up. I knew it was poetry, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it or what the poem was. Thank you, Google!

W.B. Yeats, of course.

I suppose it’s a common experience to feel we’ve lost our center, our groundedness, when someone significant in our life dies, as my mother just has. I’ve fought against the feeling because over the years I’ve worked so hard to individuate from my mother, to reclaim my right to center my life around something other than her. If she was not the center of my life, why do I feel things have fallen apart since she died in August?

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Did I fail to reclaim my power, define myself and my value apart from our relationship? Has all my work been for nothing? Are my healing and growth an illusion?

I have been afraid of answering these questions.

When I reread the first three lines of the poem, I first imagined myself as the falconer and the falcon as … my soul? My joy? My wisest self? My intuition? All those and none of those, exactly. The falcon seemed like a piece of myself I lost a long, long time ago when I was child, a piece I struggled through many years and miles to find and reclaim, and now is lost again. It can’t hear me, and I can’t hear it. It feels unbearable. My center didn’t hold. Why didn’t it hold? Did I do something wrong? How do I call it back to me?

And I want to call it back, not haul it back by its jesses. In fact, why is the falcon restrained at all? If it’s truly mine and we belong together, why is it leashed? The idea disturbs me. I want it to be free. I’ve worked too long and hard for my own freedom to relish restraining any other creature. I note I assume the falcon is leashed. The poem doesn’t explicitly say so. Interesting.

Maybe my assumption of leash and jesses reflects all the ways I’ve restrained myself. As a child I internalized restraint. I had to. Everyone else felt free to throw self-control to the winds. Is my feeling of my center not holding asking me to release myself further? Is it time for deeper faith and trust in myself?

As I typed those three lines onto the page to begin this post, I imagined another picture in which my mother was the falconer and I the falcon. She no longer holds the leash. I am free. I have flown away from the only center I was allowed to have and now I’m overwhelmed by my freedom. I don’t know how to be wild. I don’t know how to live without the restraining leather jesses around my slender legs. What if I can’t? What if I perish? Must I find a new falconer to hold the end of my leash? What if my freedom is a mistake and I’m not fit to be free? What if I’ve lost the ability to fly free?

Ugh. Goosebumps.

Don’t get carried away, I say to myself. Slow down. We’re talking about emotional freedom versus physical freedom. You’ve been flying in an ever-widening gyre for years.

What’s changed is that leash, woven of blood and bone and love, woven of years and empathy and need, guilt and shame and obligation, too strong to ever be severed … except, it turns out, by Death.

What do we center around?

Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

It changes, doesn’t it? In my first 20 years I centered around my family of origin. When I was in my 20s and beyond I centered around a man and my children. Work was in there, too. And my family of origin, particularly my mother, who was not pleased to be sharing the center. The proverbial 3-ring circus. It went on like that until my children emancipated and, to be honest, for some time after. Then, as they slowly faded out of my center, being far away and engrossed in their own lives, I centered around some man (but not the same one; I’m a slow learner) and my mother. Slowly, writing began to nudge for a place in the center as well.

This created real problems. Mom could never tolerate sharing. I was used to her competition with the kids and whatever man I was involved with but the writing would have created a real threat, so I hid it. The more I hid it, kept it inviolate and safe from outside sabotage, the more I centered around it, and the more I centered around it the more threatened she felt, though I’m not sure her reaction was conscious and she had no idea what she was fighting against. She just knew she didn’t have all of me anymore.

She was right to feel threatened, because writing eventually tore me away from her physically and geographically, a thing that had never happened before and a last betrayal she never forgave.

In the stresses and strains of the last couple of years, I lost writing out of my center. Oh, I still did it. I blogged and serial published. I journaled. But as Mom’s health and sanity crumbled, she became my center once again, this time to the exclusion of everything else. Work (generally part of the center for all of us) competed, keeping me sane, physically fit, and anchoring me into a community of friends, but Mom once again became the primary gravitational pull in my center. My days and nights were full of her. I had less and less respite and the intensity increased daily, winding around my life more and more tightly, and then …

She died. In the middle of the night, a night in which I lay awake in Maine while my brother sat vigil with her halfway across the country in Colorado.

When I write it all out like this, I can understand why I’ve felt so dazed. I can feel some grace for myself.

The one thing that’s always been in the center is gone.

“The centre cannot hold …”

Being too old to have any desire to put a man back in the center (been there, done that), and loving my job while realizing it’s not big enough to define me, I turn once again to the truest, most joyful, wildest part of my life: writing.

And that’s scary. If I let writing take all the space, time and energy in the center, what will happen? I don’t even make money with it!

I make joy with it instead. Joy, connection, contribution, authenticity. Writing is not a black hole of failure. It does meet my needs. When I write, I actually feel good enough and sometimes even better than that! No wonder I feel bewildered.

As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time to not only allow things to fall apart, but to participate actively in the falling away and, falling down. To dance in the ruins, even as I weep. I’m reminded of a Rumi quote:

“Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.”

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

Things fell apart. The center did not hold. Change, in other words. Life. Which is to say Death.

So, an unexpected ending to this post. Things are falling apart. I’m ready to stop trying to hold them together. It’s time to let go. Mom already has. Now it’s my turn. What lives in our center changes as we change. It’s time now for me to choose my center, choose it freely without guilt or shame.

Sometimes things fall apart and the center cannot hold.

So we find a new one.

Questions:

  • What’s in your center?
  • If you were free to choose your center, what would you chose?
  • How many things compete for your center? Could you reduce the gravitational pull of your center?
  • If your life changed in some dramatic way and you were forced to find a new center, how would you go about doing that?
  • Is your center all about others, or do you have something there for yourself, too?

Leave a comment below! To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Time

In the last few months I have noticed a pattern as I teach private swim lessons.

It first caught my attention over the summer as I worked with a six-year-old in her home pool. She and I have worked together for some years. We have a good relationship built on trust and affection. She’s strong and big for her age, and she’s a tiger, assertive, competitive, stubborn, determined. She’s focused on progression through Red Cross Learn-to-Swim levels. She’s less interested in the skill-building than the card proclaiming her a Level ___ swimmer, and she wants the card now.

Photo by Chris Kristiansen on Unsplash

I started out her summer lessons the way I always do, with a review of the skills I knew she had already mastered. Then we began working on next-level skills. Except things fell apart. I began to feel frustrated. Her behavior, instead of sunny and eager (she was always waiting in the water for me until this), became oppositional. She stopped laughing with me. She stopped looking me in the eye. She stopped cooperating. She wouldn’t follow directions, she had to be coaxed into the water, and suddenly it wasn’t fun for either of us.

Her mom and I were puzzled. We agreed to take a couple of weeks off and regroup. My little student seemed relieved. During that time I thought about things and my student had some talks with her parents as we all tried to figure out what was wrong. Young children often lack the language to communicate their difficulties. Adults need to decode the behavior and provide the language.

I threw away my lesson plans for the next level and worked on games incorporating skills she already had. I made sure she knew our next lesson would be games. When I got to her house, she was able to tell me, with her mom’s support, that she didn’t want to learn some of the new skills I was presenting.

I suddenly recalled I was working with a six-year-old. Big, strong, determined, yes. But six years old! The level she and I had reached is typically a skill set nine to eleven-year-olds are working on.

Too much, too fast. Her competitiveness and determination had outstripped her physical and developmental ability, and in my delight in teaching and sharing my love for swimming, I simply forgot what was age-appropriate.

So, we spent the summer playing games and giggling. We practiced all the skills she already had, and we worked on some new ones, too, but she didn’t know that because they were games. If she didn’t like the game, we stopped immediately and did something else. She made up some games, too. We had a lot of fun. She waited in the water for me and pouted when our lessons ended. We were back in business.

I spoke privately with her mom and we agreed to slow down. This little girl needs time. Time to grow. Time to develop. Time to play and simply enjoy the water. Next summer she’ll be seven. If I work with her again, I’ll pay attention. She may be ready for next-level skills. She may not. But this time I’ll adjust more quickly, and she’ll have better language skills, too.

I have been observing this pattern during the autumn months as I teach. Sometimes kids want to learn more but we don’t have a lot more to teach them. Sometimes they want to learn more, or their parents want them to learn more, but they’re simply not ready physically or developmentally. An activity that used to be fun and easy starts to be stressful. Parents are frustrated. I’m not having fun. Children are uncooperative.

I’ve been thinking about time lately because in October I caught COVID for the first time and I’ve been sick ever since. I took good care of myself during COVID, in part because I was too sick to fight it. As I began to feel better, I slowly started exercising again. I didn’t want to slide backwards or develop a secondary infection. I was worried about weight loss and weakness, as well as my fatigue and lack of endurance. I gradually began walking to work again, and doing a mile at a time on the elliptical. I even got back in the pool and did an easy half a mile instead of my usual ¾ of a mile with intermittent sprinting.

I was just beginning to feel better when I got sick again. Not with COVID and not as sick, but I filled up with congestion and started to cough.

Photo by Travis Bozeman on Unsplash

So, it’s been doctor visits. More nasal swab testing. Masks at work. Shortened shifts. Teaching lessons from the deck rather than in the water. No gym. No swimming. No walking to work.

The doctor keeps saying rest. My friends keep saying rest. I am resting, I swear it! I don’t have a lot of choice. If I do housework for an hour I’m worn out. I can rest, but sleep has been hard to come by because when I lie down I start to cough and nothing really stops it. The nights have been hard. And haunted.

I’ve been dreaming about my mother, who died in August. Bad dreams, where she’s in trouble and I’m trying to rescue her. Often we’re in water, which is ridiculous because Mom hated the water. Often we’re in the dark, but I can hear her end-stage breathing and death rattle and I grope through the dream, trying to find her. Sometimes I find her and get my arms around her, but then I wake up. In fact, Mom hated to be touched and I never held her the way I do in my dreams. Only in her deep dementia would she tolerate touch. The dreams hurt me with their promise of loving contact that never happened and now never will happen. I doze in my recliner and wake up weeping.

I want to move, to be at work, to go out and rake leaves, to scrub the kitchen floor. Something. Anything. I trail into the kitchen, make another cup of tea, have another half cup of chicken soup, read a few pages, write a bit. I get in the car to go to work instead of walking (everyone at works frowns at me when they find out I walked), and I’m resentful. I want my life back. I want my strong, fit body back. I want my energy back. I want it back NOW.

And, clearly, I need time. I don’t want it … but I need it. I suppose it doesn’t much matter if my experience is post-COVID, or post-whatever-this-last-virus was or grief or trauma or just getting old (!). Whatever it is, I am not in charge, and my stubbornness and determination are presently more than my physical and perhaps emotional reality can live up to.

Time is enigmatic, isn’t it? We say time heals all wounds. Does it, or does it just give us a chance to process our wounds, to clean them out, breathe on them, bind them up and learn to live with them? How can I help myself? What am I supposed to be doing with all this unwanted time? I think of my little swimmer. She doesn’t need to do anything. She’s perfect. She simply needs to give herself some time to grow. That’s it. Time does the work. Our job is to allow it to do the work.

This is unsatisfying. I’ve read that rest is productive, which makes me mad. It cannot be true. I can’t remember ever feeling loved, valued, or wanted because I rested well. Quite the reverse. (On the other hand, when has unceasing production ever worked to buy love, value, or a sense of being wanted? Never.) I have a feeling Time doesn’t need me to do anything, at least not anything I’m not already doing. Another cup of tea. All the calories I can take in. Rest. Tears. Dreams. Writing. Reading and dozing on the couch with the cats.

Photo by Benjamin Combs on Unsplash

Time.

I worked two days Thanksgiving week before having five days off. My physical upper respiratory symptoms are certainly better. Normal sleep patterns are returning. Yet a dragging fatigue and bewildered feeling remain. “It’s detox,” my massage therapist says. “It’s transformation,” the wisest, deepest part of me says. “It’s rebirth,” my Tarot cards say.

It takes time. Everyone agrees on that one.

I remember my little swim student, outraged tears in her eyes. “I’m still a Level ___, right? You won’t take away my Level ___?”

“No, sweetie. You haven’t lost anything. It’s all still yours. You’re just not quite ready to go on to the next level. You need some time …”

I hugged her and gave her a kiss, told her I’d see her again next summer if she wanted lessons. She believed me, reluctantly. She’s in a dance class this winter. That will distract her, I hope.

Now I need to put my arms around myself. My life is not passing me by. I’ll exercise again. I’ll put the weight back on. I’ll get strong, sleep well, stop coughing.

I just need some more time.

Questions:

  • Do you think rest is productive? In what way(s)?
  • Do you think of time as an ally or an adversary?
  • Do you think time actually heals, or does it just help us come to terms with what is?
  • What does rest mean to you?

Leave a comment below!

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