On Thanksgiving morning I started a four-day break from my job. I spent the first hour of my day in my favorite chair snuggling with the cats, drinking a cup of green tea, journaling, and doing my morning online check. Perky articles and posts about gratitude and thankfulness were inescapable, as was Black Friday advertising. All of it made me feel sour. The swing in our media and advertising between catastrophizing and toxic positivity, whatever has the potential to make the most money in the moment, is nauseating.
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By nature, I make the best of things, though I’m not an optimist. I’m a wait-and-seeist. By long habit, I spin my experience of life in a positive way. I practice gratitude regularly.
But, honestly, sometimes life is damn difficult. And this fall has been extremely difficult. And let’s face it, many, many people on this planet are struggling in ways I can’t even imagine. That’s true every single day.
I could make a long list of things for which I am grateful. I do it all the time when I’m feeling down and out. That’s attractive and adult and fashionable, particularly on Thanksgiving.
But I could also make a list of things for which I am not grateful.
I know, I know, nobody likes a whiner or a complainer. It’s unattractive and unseemly. It’s entitled.
But is it really entitled or is that just a criticism we throw out because we don’t want to think about all the tough stuff? If we do think about it, we want to do it privately where no one will catch us being less than grateful and positive, as though it’s shameful to feel frustrated, exhausted, impatient, fearful, or upset. But aren’t the times when we feel those feelings also the times we most need support?
I’m not proposing to pitch a tent and live in the negative outback of life, but it is part of my experience, part of my landscape, and it certainly influences many of the more pleasant aspects of my life and my gratitude.
Isn’t gratitude more powerful when we’ve acknowledged our ingratitude? Is there some virtue in refusing to tell the truth about the things in our lives that don’t work? Some would say the perceived negatives, the hidden pain, sorrow, and difficulty, must not be acknowledged or displayed. What would the neighbors think? Dirty laundry!
I discovered, as I made my list, how difficult it was to refrain from putting a positive spin on things. I wanted to explain, to justify, to make exceptions, to soften my ingratitudes. I wanted to signal my shame.
The strength of my compulsion to be grateful, submissive, and positive was enough to trigger my wide streak of rebelliousness. So here, in no particular order; without apology, justification, too much detail, or any other anxious softening and sugar-coating, is my Thanksgiving 2022 List of Ingratitudes:
Planned obsolescence (greed meets waste)
Spammers and black hat hackers
Unclear, ineffective, hard-to-navigate websites (I’m talking to you, federal and state governments!)
Unavailable or unusable tech support (see above)
Broken public “education” system (education is not about what to think; it’s about how to think)
Rape culture and misogyny
Alcohol and nicotine
Wokeism (Great roots are now cancerous and have become toxic “overrighteous liberalism” (quote from British journalist Steven Poole). Get a grip, people! Let’s work together for a level playing field for all rather than exercise our moral indignation!)
People who want to win and be right (shut up and sit down!)
Institutionalized racism (can’t we do better than this?)
Homophobia (get over it, and mind your own business while you’re doing it!)
This list is not complete, but these are are some of the things that don’t work in our culture, in our world. We can do better. We could make life better for everyone.
Sour humor aside, I am truly grateful for all you readers, your comments, your shares, your presence. Thank you. Happy holidays!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
I was taught, as a child, it was my job to alleviate distress. One must always respond immediately and help the sufferer. It went far beyond duty and obligation. If I did not fix the distress of others, my childish world would fall apart. Everyone would leave.
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For a child, such consequences are death.
I was also taught “help” meant doing anything and everything I was asked to do, immediately, unquestioningly, and unendingly. My own distress was of no consequence at best and a direct threat, an unwelcome competition, at worst.
That core teaching stayed with me as I grew up, and has been a keynote of my behavior and experience most of my life. I wanted to help people. When people around me suffered, I felt an overwhelming, painful panic, as well as complete responsibility. I had to do everything I could, give the situation my all in order to “help.”
I also grew up with an inability to respond to my own distress. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, emotional and physical pain, were all ignored. My disconnection from my own needs and experience led me into chronic pain, eating disorder, depression, and anxiety. I was unaware of my traumatic wounds. I had no interest in helping myself. Helping myself was selfish, bad, and unloving.
Then I studied emotional intelligence and all the work and therapy I’d done over the years with guides and teachers as well as on my own (see my Resources page) wove together into an intention to reclaim my health and my self.
This blog has been a key part of that work.
I still don’t like to watch people suffer, but I’m more careful now about “helping.” I’ve learned suffering is not necessarily the enemy. We get ill, have painful emotional and physical injuries, have uncomfortable feelings. We age and our bodies and sometimes our minds wear out. To be human is to experience these things; they’re inescapable. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we deal with such events. When someone is suffering, I’ve learned to be less reactive, to remember it’s not my fault or my responsibility to fix it. I’ve learned to notice whether the sufferer is helping themselves before I jump in.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
I have learned a bitter lesson: No one can help someone who will not help themselves.
I realize now we can’t always go back to where we were before we were wounded; we can’t always heal the wound itself. Sometimes our wounds and suffering are taking us into something new and what’s called for is not healing, but tolerance and patience.
What does “help” mean? This is an important question. Does help mean we respond promptly to all demands, whether or not they are safe, sustainable, or even possible? Does help mean we make thoughtful, intentional choices for safety and practicality even if those choices go against what we are being asked to do in terms of “help?” Do we decide what the best “help” is, or does the sufferer get to choose what kind of “help” they want?
I’m still uncomfortable talking about my own pain. Honestly, I’m still uncomfortable even noticing it, but I practice every day at staying present with how things are with me. It feels selfish and wrong, but I know that feeling doesn’t mean it is selfish and wrong, just that it’s very different from my early training. Sometimes the choice that feels worst is the best choice. Sometimes suffering is the only possible road forward into peace, growth and resilience.
None of us has the power to help anyone avoid suffering. I confess I’ve argued with that reality all my life, but it hasn’t done a bit of good. In fact, it’s done harm, most of all to myself.
I have occasionally, in the depths of anguish, asked for help. When I do that, what am I asking for?
Nothing tangible. Not money or a thing. Not love. Not sex. Not a gallon of ice cream. I’m not asking for someone to come along and fix it all, or take responsibility.
I’m asking to be heard. I’m asking for someone to say, “I’m here. You’re not alone. I believe in you. I know your goodness, your strength, your courage.” I’m asking for a safe place to discharge my feelings. This might involve snot, wet Kleenexes, rage, and a raised voice.
A safe place is not a place where someone else takes responsibility and fixes, or asks me to stop feeling my feelings, or is clearly uncomfortable with my suffering. A safe place is provided by someone with healthy boundaries who is willing to witness my distress without feeling compelled to fix it.
Witness. A witness. That’s ultimately what I want. Just someone to be there with me for a little while. I can face my own demons and challenges, but I can’t do it all alone.
Photo by Gemma Chua Tran on Unsplash
None of us can. We are social animals. But we can witness for one another. We can sit quietly, holding a safe space without judgment or a fix or advice, and just witness. Pass the Kleenex.
It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to do. Simply witnessing seems so passive, so weak, so useless. Someone right in front of me is deeply distressed and I simply sit like a bump on a log witnessing? Are you kidding me?
Surely, I can do better than that. I can do more than that. It’s up to me to make their suffering stop!
And yet. And yet. Isn’t finding a witness incredibly hard? How many people in our lives can take on such a role? What an inestimable gift, to be willing to walk beside someone who is suffering, to be willing to stay, to not look away. What if our boundaries were so healthy we could do that? What if we weren’t afraid of suffering? What if we were wise enough, strong enough, to make room for it and sit down beside it?
Someone I love is in great anguish of spirit. They beg me for help, but a very specific kind of help which is ethically and practically impossible for me or anyone else to give. Which makes me an enemy. Which makes my loved one even more alone than they already feel, more victimized, more powerless, more confused.
There is nothing about this that doesn’t suck. I dread the phone calls beyond words because I don’t want to witness this suffering. It feels unbearable. But my loved one must bear it, and if they have to, I can. I choose to witness. It feels like nothing. It’s not what’s wanted. But at this point it’s all I can do. So I will keep calling and answering calls. I will get up in the morning and talk to case managers, nurses, CNAs, palliative care consultants, nursing homes, and whoever else will talk to me. I will update friends and family. Then I will get up the next morning and do it again.
I pray there is some power in witnessing, some rightness. I pray that somehow my love and willingness to remain a witness does a little bit of good, provides some small comfort, lights a candle in the darkness of dementia, even for a moment.
And I search inside my own suffering for wisdom, for healing, for grace, and for faith.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
Now is the path
of leaving the path.
And we hear our own voice
demanding of ourselves
a faith in no-path,
when there is no faith at all.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
I sit in my favorite grey-green overstuffed chaise, a pillow at my back, a cat curled in a cat bed behind me on the back of the chair, my laptop on my lap with a slim volume of poetry by David Whyte titled Fire in the Earth next to my leg. A bookmark indicates the above passage. It’s a chilly, grey day. As I sit here the furnace hums and stops, hums and stops, keeping the temperature around 60 degrees. This house we bought in May has a brand-new propane hot water furnace, supposedly the most economical and efficient available. This week is the first time we’ve used it. What will propane cost this winter? Will electrical costs spike as much as predicted? Will it be a cold winter or a mild one?
Always, this question in my mind: “Will I be able to manage economically?”
Enlarging my own personal bubble, I ran errands this morning. A haircut from a friend, during which we talked about the coming winter, how costly it might be, how cold it might be, how effective foam and cloth barriers like rags and old blankets might be in chinks and cracks around doors and windows. How can we hold in the heat, keep out the icy fingers of cold reaching for our paychecks?
I went to the town dump with the recycling, plastic and cans. Does all this material really go for recycling, or is it quietly disposed of in earth or ocean somewhere out of sight? I try to have faith that is really is recycled. Eggs are cheaper when I buy 18 in a carton, but the carton is plastic. But the plastic is recyclable. Maybe. If they actually do it.
This is the kind of thing that preoccupies my mind. A lot.
The furnace clicks on again. How much would I save if I turned it down just 2 degrees?
After the dump, I went to the store. I bought a couple extra jars of salsa, a couple extra pounds of butter. I’ve read about the climate-change decimated tomato crop this year and to expect shortages. Ditto butter. I bought a turkey on sale. It’s early, but I’ve read turkeys will also be in short supply. Every time I go to the store, I’ll buy a tomato product for my pantry, a pound of butter for the freezer.
Enlarging my small city bubble, maybe the projected shortages aren’t real. Maybe it’s all hype, designed to keep people spending as recession fears rise and prices climb. Maybe we can’t believe anything we read or hear from anyone. It’s like standing on the beach in bare feet, feeling the waves pull the sand away from beneath my soles, the sand of common sense, the sand of objective reality, the comforting, warm sand of sanity and critical thinking. Maybe the tide is too powerful, the waves too forceful for most people to withstand. Maybe, by the end, we will really believe in … nothing. Our individuality will be erased. Art, science, and thought will be exterminated. Our lovely sexuality will be neutralized and sterilized. Our magnificent bodies will be surgically altered according to our whims or the dictates of the totalitarians in charge and, if possible, amputated altogether from our increasingly narcissistic and developmentally arrested minds.
From the bubble of my chair in this moment of solitude with my fingers on the keyboard to the world. It’s a grim journey.
I feel increasing pressure to bring in more money. More hours are not possible right now at my job. Another job? Two other jobs? I’ve sold everything I can. I budget every penny. How much of my anxiety is based in real conditions and how much is my longstanding fear of scarcity and tendency to catastrophize? Is it not a job I need, but to GET A GRIP?
I can’t tell. Ask me when heating season is over.
Of course I could get a side job. It’s what a normal person would do. Need more money? Find more work. But is that the right thing for me to do? (I do still claim the right to think for myself.) Would the extra money be worth the time, the energy, the fatigue? I don’t want to live to work and earn. I’ve never wanted that. I’m nearly 59 years old. If I don’t take care of my excellent health, I may not get it back. Is an extra couple of hundred dollars a month worth the strain?
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
I’d love to earn my living writing, but I believe it’s a less and less realistic dream. Traditional publishing is dying. Soaring costs and shortages, not the least of which is paper, are forcing change. Very few writers live by their writing alone. Very few. Many do earn some income from it, however.
I love books. I also love trees. If I must choose between a book in my hands and a tree, I’ll read on a digital device for the sake of the tree. Even now I never buy a new book, only used. I write – and people read what I write – on two digital platforms, this WordPress blog and Substack. Should I be monetizing those rather than searching for another job?
I’ve been having that internal conversation for years.
Would I rather avoid asking for donations or putting up a paywall and clean houses or something like that? Anyone can clean. No one but me can write what I write.
I recently picked up a couple of used books of David Whyte’s poetry. The first poem in the first book I opened contained the above excerpt. I was sitting outside in the weakening sun when I read it a couple of days ago. I put the book down and cried.
Oh, Mr. Robert Frost and his road not taken. The well-traveled roads. The less well-traveled roads. The once travelled but now overgrown roads. The paths we tread, following others, and directed by others. The faint game trails that peter out in the wilderness. The well-paved roads and paths that lead to Hell. And now Whyte asks if it’s time to leave the path altogether. Not only that, but to have faith when I have none. Faith in the no-path.
And aren’t we there, at the no-path? Civilizations have collapsed before, but not as the planet was undergoing its own collapse. Well, maybe that’s not right. Maybe in eons past it’s all happened before – relatively abrupt climate change, enormous die-off, cataclysmic geological and oceanic reshaping, and reemergence into a new normal, healthy, planetary system.
If there were paths humans could tread through all that, they’ve been lost.
But let’s make the bubble smaller again. I can’t choose your path, or anyone else’s. Is the right path for me the no-path? The money path is clear. Work more, spend less, have more money. We all know it. Most of us have walked it. It’s well-signed and well-traveled. There’s an equally well-signed and well-traveled path into theft, fraud, extortion, etc., but none of those are options for me, so let’s not complicate matters.
What’s the no-path? Oh, that would be the writing. Always. Whatever our creative work is, it takes us on to a no-path, because creativity is unique. We’re always breaking trail, one way or another. We may follow, for a time, the paths of others, or intersect their trails, but we’ll make our own unique track, worn by our footsteps as we go along, unrolling in front of our feet, existing only because we turned off the main road into a no-path … and made a path.
Faith in a no-path when there is no faith at all. What a strange, dream-like, impressionistic phrase, balancing on the edge of holy foolishness and divine wisdom. It would take a poet of Whyte’s caliber to – well, to take that path.
Right now I’m pausing, considering my options, thinking, feeling, reading and writing my way forward. I don’t have a map for these times. Does anyone? Perhaps faith isn’t necessary, just determination and choosing the next step.
Wherever we go
we can only take a step from here.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
It’s good to be reminded of the no-path. The six-lane highway we’ve been following has led to climate change, increasing political and social tensions, and worldwide social and economic instability. Who knows where a no-path might take me; it could hardly be much worse. At least it would be my own path, chosen by me. My feet would define it, my choices shape it. My sweat. My challenges. My journey. No guarantees, but no lies, either. Lonely, perhaps, but I’m no fan of doing what everyone else does, just for the sake of it.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Or maybe it’s not a question of travel at all, at least not all the time. Maybe it’s a question of standing still, like a mountain, like a tree. Standing still is an art we’re losing as a species. Maybe there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do; everything is just as it should be, no matter how uncomfortable or fearful. Maybe I have enough.
Maybe I am enough.
And standing still,
saying I, and the small vision I have
-is enough, becomes the hardest path of all.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
As I’ve thought about this post, I realize the theme of being lost and found is a thread running through my life and my writing. Years ago, when I was first introduced to Clarissa Pinkola Estes and devouring everything I could find by her, she used a phrase I’ve never forgotten: everything lost is found again.
Everything lost is found again.
The possibility of that truth gave me deep comfort, something I badly needed in those days.
Maybe we don’t find all the things we lose in our lifetimes, and maybe not in our deathtimes. But maybe someone else finds what we lost. Or maybe what we lost comes back to us looking so different we don’t recognize it. Or maybe what we lost is not truly lost at all. We carelessly leave things behind, or we amputate them, or we deny they were ever there in the first place. We fear we’ve lost them. We try to lose them. But maybe they never really leave us, they just hide somewhere in the attic of our minds until we need them. We ascend the stairs, enter the musk and debris of years, all the broken, aging, outdated and rejected parts of our lives and ourselves mouldering together in cobwebs and dust.
I like to imagine that.
I’ve posted before about being lost and found. I went back and read it as I worked on this post, so as not to be repetitive. That post was a seasonal meditation on the nature of change. I didn’t explore it quite from the angle of losing to find.
I came across a quote recently from Kristin Martz: “We lose ourselves in the things we love. We find ourselves there, too.” It made me smile, and think about the parts of my life so deeply absorbing I am self-forgetful as I live them. My head is empty. I am pure being, without self-consciousness or anxiety. Time does not exist. I feel a kind of boundary ecstasy, an awareness of connection to everyone and everything, an essential and lovely part of some greater whole.
Perhaps during such times we lose all the crust, the armor, the accumulation of useless and punishing junk we’ve somehow picked up or been taught, and are pared down to who we really are in our souls and spirits.
Many of us don’t want to let go of our junk, though. It’s been with us so long it forms part of our identity, part of our story, and we don’t want to let it go. Then who would we be? How would we recognize ourselves? What might change? What different or challenging things might we be required to do? We don’t take the leap into anything we might lose ourselves in, so we never fully find ourselves, either.
Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash
Maybe the times in life when we truly feel we’ve lost it all are also the times we’re finding unimaginable grace and meaning.
It’s a circle, a natural life cycle, an ebb and flow of experience.
Another thing I came across somewhere years ago is the idea of an older, wiser version of ourselves, always at our shoulder supporting, advising, guiding, and cheering us on as we journey through our lives. I often make a picture of it in my mind, myself as an old (well, older!) crone, holding my hands out to a younger, struggling self the same way I hold my hands out to children I’m teaching to swim.
“You can do it. I’m right here. I won’t let go of you. You’ve got this! Now … swim!” Or jump. Or put your face in the water.
“Risk,” my elder self says, “dare, follow your heart, do what you need to do for yourself. Go ahead, write, it, dream it, imagine it, enjoy it. Be happy. Play. Rest. This is the way forward.”
And, “I believe in you.” That’s what I most long to hear.
I know it’s terribly cliched, but lately I’ve been thinking about what life means. Does it mean anything? Can anyone say what it means, or must we all make our own meaning? I lean toward the latter. I’ve wondered before what life is for, what I am for, but always in soul-dark times. This is not a dark time for me. In fact, I’m gradually coming back into the light. Now the question is a curiosity, a toy, and my answers are not concrete, not a vehicle for getting through another day, but more intuitive and less formed into language.
I keep going back to that quote: “We lose ourselves in the things we love. We find ourselves there, too.”
Losing everything to find something. There’s some kind of deep truth in that my intellect can’t quite grasp, but my spirit does.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I wonder, with an inward smile, if that’s not my answer for the meaning of life. Finding myself, however that happens. Paring away all the scar tissue and junk, losing and losing and losing the people and places I thought were part of my identity, along with objects, money, youth, innocence, and countless other small, ordinary losses we all experience until the best, most extraordinary me is revealed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the meaning of life is nothing more than to immerse ourselves in it, cherish our physical experience and pleasures, give ourselves to those activities in which we lose ourselves …
… and find ourselves?
No philosophy. No agonized handwringing or intellectual labyrinths. Just body, soul, joy, and loss. And discovery on the other side of loss.
Maybe the meaning of life is simply to live.
After years of hesitation, I have given up my landline and transitioned to my cell phone.
Many who read this will shake their heads in amazement at my tardiness, but I know others will understand.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
When I think back about why I hesitated for so long, the simple root is I’ve always had a landline.
I’ve always had a landline, and it’s served me just fine. Why fix something that’s not broken? Why do I need some kind of new high-tech toy? (Okay, I know they’re not new new. But I grew up with rotary phones with curly cords, so in my personal context they’re pretty new.)
Another big reason was my internal protest against habits and technology which break connection. The TV is my most hated object under this heading, but when I watch people in the world bent over their screens, I feel angry, sad, and scared. Why can’t we make human, face-to-face, real connections anymore? Why can’t we actually watch our child while they’re in a swim lesson, or at a gymnastics meet, or at their horseback riding lesson? Why can’t we talk to each other without constantly being interrupted and distracted by our stupid phones? Will the world stop turning if we let the call go to voicemail, or let the text wait until we’re not engaged with the human being in front of us? Is it necessary to take the cell phone everywhere we go and never turn it off? I don’t want to be that available. Living a life, here!
Refusing to participate in cell phone usage was my resistance. They can, but I’ll never be like that! Right. And my children would never say or do that. (They did.) And I would never kill an animal for food. And I would never use a gun. Etc., etc. We all want to stand on high moral ground. Good luck with that.
It’s not as though refusing to buy and learn to use a cell phone made any difference at all to the perils of social media and screen addiction or fixed our social and cultural dynamics around connection and communication.
We just moved house, and I realized I was paying quite a bit for a landline I rarely used. My friends all use cell phones. My kids use cell phones. My workplace uses cell phones, including an app for a daily COVID check. I wondered why I was paying for a landline and a cell phone which I rarely used.
I did some research. I found landlines are on the way out, probably in the next 10 years. We were moving to a small city with good cell phone infrastructure and excellent access to WIFI and Internet.
I talked to my friends, who were supportive and kindly did not laugh at my hesitation, at least not in front of me. None of them have landlines.
As I cancelled and transitioned our utilities during the move, I let go of the landline.
Everyone knows the chaos of moving. I was uncomfortable with the cell phone at first. It was a learning curve. But boy, was it a great tool! My partner and I could stay in touch about timing, U-Haul rentals, where that important box was, scheduling the electrician, dumpster, and plumber, and who was going to have the key to the old house and the new house at any particular time. Quickly texting back and forth was a huge help. It didn’t take long to get comfortable with the device. I had to. It was all I had.
Somewhere along the learning curve I remembered the cell phone is my tool, not the other way around. If I don’t want to take it everywhere I go, I don’t have to. If I want to turn it off, I can. If I want to ignore a call or text, that’s my choice. It can’t disempower me unless I allow it to do so. I’m perfectly free to continue to prioritize my relationships and myself over answering or playing with my phone.
The whole thing has made me think about change in general. I’ll never be a person who immediately welcomes the latest gadget and technology. I’m a traditionalist, and I’m nearing 60. I want to live a simple life. I don’t want to buy or own a lot of objects. I’ll always enjoy a good book more than any kind of technology. I’ll always prefer a face-to-face interaction with my loved ones to a text or phone call.
On the other hand, new technology can be amazingly useful. I’ve discarded most of my music CDs at this point, because almost everything I want to listen to is on Spotify. Less stuff. Less storage. Less to move. All I need is – you guessed it! – my cell phone!
Not all change is bad. Not all change is good. I deliberated for years about getting an iPod. I never did, and then Apple discontinued them and I was glad I didn’t have one. I clung to a large computer with a tower, keyboard, and mouse (with a cord) for a long time. Then my brother talked me into getting a laptop, and it’s all I want to use now. It’s so much easier and more streamlined in every way.
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
Change is always with us. The pandemic has been a notable catalyst for change in the last two or three years. Some of the changes it imposed and continues to impose were unwelcome, but we notice at work it forced us to create some more effective procedures we’ll probably retain even after the current restrictions are over.
Sometimes big problems require change, and often we’re resistant. However, on the other side of our discomfort and resistance we might find a better, safer, more equitable world. Those who don’t want a better, safer, more equitable world exploit our discomfort around change by making dramatic predictions and distorting and polarizing our choices, playing on our fear, playing on our entitlement. We’ve seen a lot of that with the pandemic, and now we’re seeing it again after the latest tragic school shooting in Texas. Red flag laws and sensible gun control do not mean everyone (including teachers) has a gun, and they don’t mean some malign alien superlizard overlord running the government will take away everyone’s guns, either. Get a grip, people!
Most change takes time. For a couple of years I had both a cell phone and a landline. Things happened, I reevaluated my phones, and I was ready to make a complete transition, so I did. Change is neither the enemy nor our One True Love. Maybe it’s just a new friend who could make our world a bit better if we allow it to. And who doesn’t want to see a better world?
Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash
As I unpack and gradually shape new routines after moving earlier in the month, I keep having a strange thought about this old colonial house we’ve bought.
This house is a grownup.
What does that mean? I ask myself.
New Home, May 2022
Traditionally, colonials were built with high ceilings, wood floors, tall windows, a single staircase to the second floor just inside the front door, and a simple layout with pleasingly proportioned rooms. Colonial style includes iron, pewter, brass and copper; handmade textured fabrics; the rich, muted colors of milk paints; and dark accents and trim. Brick and exposed wood beams were common. We have a tin ceiling in the living room and kitchen.
When I sit in the living room, as I am now on a cloudy morning, I’m struck by the clean, classic lines, the elegant but unfussy trim, the cool morning light coming in the windows. The house, in spite of its condition, has dignity. It’s stately. It knows what it is. It’s not fresh and perfect and new, but it endures. The bones are clear and strong beneath some unfortunate modern décor and updates, but the house has not allowed the surface disturbances to change its essential character.
As I’ve played with this perception that the house is a grownup, I’ve thought about other places I’ve lived in the last 15 years.
Maine Farmhouse and Barn
The old farmhouse we just moved out of had dementia. Aged, deteriorating, badly planned in terms of layout, inconvenient, disorganized, and unkempt, it rambled and wandered, sagged and groaned, leaked and creaked. It was unfocused. It didn’t make sense. There were bats in the belfry and screws loose all over the place. That house needs experienced 24/7 caregivers, which is what it has now in its new owners.
The log cabin I lived in before I came to Maine was an immature house, a teenaged house. It wasn’t nearly as old as this colonial, which is 100 years younger than the farmhouse, but it wasn’t new, either. It was the first home I ever made for just myself, though I was well into my 40s when I bought it and remodeled it. The woman I was then was still, in many ways, immature, and the choices I made in using the space reflected my immaturity.
It’s popularly said we become who we hang out with. Are we also influenced by the spaces we spend our time in? Do our spaces reflect us, or do we reflect our spaces, or both, a kind of reciprocal reflection? We’ve just barely moved into this house, but from the first night I was here I was aware of the dignity of the place, and the contrast to the feel of my cabin in Colorado and the farmhouse.
Some people go through life like a piece of heavy equipment, immediately imposing themselves on their environment without ever noticing the feel and character of the place first. But history matters to me. I like to get to know places and spaces without imposing myself on them immediately. These old houses have sheltered many lives over decades, and have seen lots of changes.
Possessions and habits I used and loved in both my Colorado cabin and the farmhouse are simply not at home here. I don’t need them. I don’t even want them. Somewhere in the 15 miles between the farmhouse and this new address, I outgrew them. Strange. In those empty spaces, the new house suggests different habits and fewer possessions. I thought I would gradually rebuild my old routines, but in fact I’m shaping new ones, and the house itself influences the shaping in many ways. It suggests ways to live within its walls that align with its inherent simplicity, grace and dignity.
Our relationships to our places are complicated. Some people never leave their home place. Others of us transplant into entirely new soil under new skies. The adjustment is uncomfortable, but we discover things about ourselves and our possessions. Packing every single item we own, physically moving it, and unpacking and finding a new place for it is an opportunity to reevaluate and update our priorities and values.
I’ve always been a late bloomer. I finally seem to have grown up, and as this house and I get to know one another we’re scraping old layers of debris, trash, beliefs and habits off one another and helping each other stand tall and proud and peaceful, experienced and wise adults in an uncertain world.
And an old white lilac is blooming by the porch door.
Lilac, sun porch, May 2022