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On the Other Side

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

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am different.

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

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

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

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

 

When Things Don’t Go As Planned

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

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance. Small.

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

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by henry fournier on Unsplash

What I Learned

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

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

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder what I will learn.

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

Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash

The Tower

In the Tarot, there’s a card called The Tower. It’s traditionally illustrated with a tower falling. The meaning of the card is destruction, chaos, danger, crisis, and unforeseen change. And liberation.

Liberation.

By K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

Some years ago, in the months before I moved from Colorado to Maine, my life unraveled in several painful ways. During those months, I pulled The Tower card from my Tarot deck (78 cards) time after time, though I always shuffle and cut the deck thoroughly before I draw cards. I couldn’t get away from it.

It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I felt for a time as though my life would never be anything else. I would never escape the falling tower. I didn’t think much about the liberation part, because when our lives are toppling we don’t think about anything except surviving the collapse.

I had a crate of odds and ends of wood from building a privacy fence and a deck. I pulled it out of my shed and built a tower on a table on the covered deck outside my front door. I hadn’t played with blocks since my children were young. The chunks of wood were in all kinds of odd shapes, and building the tallest tower possible was an absorbing task.

When my tower was finished, I left it standing for a few hours or a day or so, enjoying it as I went about my life and in and out of my little log cabin. Then, when the time was right and I needed an outlet for my fear and frustration, I would knock it down. Hard. Loudly. I would obliterate it, sending the pieces of wood flying, sweeping the tabletop clear. It was a practice of surrender. If the tower was inevitably going to fall, I wouldn’t try to prop it up. I’d create a glorious, earth-shaking, no-holds-barred collapse. I wouldn’t look away or pretend it wasn’t happening or try to escape or soften the situation. I would face my fear.

After a while I built it again.

And again.

And again.

I did that for months. I built and knocked down more than 100 towers while I pulled the card over and over again.

I had a dream a couple of weeks ago about wandering through a field of rubble from a fallen tower. In spite of the destruction, it was a peaceful, sunny, summer landscape. I felt no sense of dread or doom. There had obviously been a violent and frightening collapse, but it was over now, and all was serene. I found some scattered objects amongst the stone rubble. Some things were intact, but others were smashed to pieces. I was thinking about sorting through the wreckage and salvaging material for a new tower and a new life.

I wasn’t scared. I was peaceful.

I was starting again. I’ve done that before. The fear and anxiety, the feeling of oncoming disaster, were past. The worst had happened and now I was on the other side of it.

I was excited about piecing together a new tower.

When I woke, I thought, “That damn tower!” and smiled to myself.

We are now working with a fifth contract for the sale of this property. That’s right. Number 5. Gas has more than doubled from last year’s price. The cat food shortage goes on and on. Prices for everything are skyrocketing. I just received our power bill, which has doubled from last month, though our usage is slightly less. We are on the edge of war, thanks to Russia.

I remember this feeling of the tower falling.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

But I also remember the liberation on the other side. I remember starting afresh. I remember taking a long journey into health and healing, into creativity, into an entirely new life. In some ways, for the last seven years I’ve been working in a field of rubble, carefully salvaging and sorting the usable from the discards. I’ve thought long and hard about the kind of life I want to build now, and about my needs and resources.

I’m not on the other side yet. One of these days I will be, and I feel that day coming closer, though I don’t know how or when. I lie awake on windy nights and wonder if, metaphorically speaking, the wind will knock down the tower. Or will the rain take it down in the end? Or a spring ice storm? Or a completely unlooked-for earthquake, fire, or flood?

Or will it gently collapse, stone by stone, falling quietly into ruin around me?

Whatever happens, there will be debris and rubble. Some material will be salvageable.

I will start, as I have before, with what I have, with what remains, with myself.

When my last tower fell, I learned two important things. One is that a home, no matter how beloved, is not a life. It cannot keep me safe, happy, and secure for the rest of my days. It cannot substitute for my connections, contribution, or self-love. The place I live does not define me.

The second is that I am not my things. My security, identity, memories, strength, courage, and creativity do not reside in objects around me, the clothes I wear, the furniture I use, or the dishes I eat off of.

Many people new to the Tarot fear The Tower card. Few of us welcome destruction, chaos, danger, crisis and unforeseen change. However, change does come. Towers do fall. And once the terror and tumult have passed, we find ourselves in a new world with a chance to make a fresh start.

We might not have wanted to be liberated from anything. Or, on the other hand, we may have longed for liberation. In any case, we are suddenly dropped into a different life. The tower fell. We take some time for recovery.

Then it’s time to rebuild.

By K Mitch Hodge on Unsplash

New Script

I’ve written before about rewriting our personal narratives. I’m revisiting the idea, this time in terms of rewriting the past.

Pete Walker’s material on complex post-traumatic stress disorder suggests revisiting old traumas remaining in our memory as painful, nonhealing wounds, and rewriting. He talks about it in terms of time travel. One goes back, as an adult, into memories of childhood and enters the scene as a new character, creating a new and different narrative. Our adult selves can defend our child selves, shield them, help them explain themselves, provide comfort to them, and, if needed, remove them before whatever terrible experience occurred.

Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

Intrigued, I tried this method, and I was shocked, though I know the power of stories, at how well it worked and how much fun it was. Not only has it helped me heal from past trauma, it also strengthens my ability now to automatically stay on my own side and defend myself.

Seth Godin also talks about this concept. His language is “rewriting the script.” Same idea, slightly different presentation. Godin is business oriented, while Walker is psychology oriented.

Godin suggests, instead of saying to ourselves “here we go again,” we simply rewrite the script this time, which means we throw away our expectations and take each experience as a fresh one, rather than another terrible iteration of something in our past.

This is powerful for me as we navigate the process of moving house. I’ve done it more times before than I want to count, and I’ve always found it deeply traumatic, but this time is different. In spite of broken contracts, changing timelines, obstructions and reversals, and the usual financial and physical stresses, I’m managing to stay grounded and balanced. It feels like a rough patch, for sure, but I don’t feel traumatized. I have moments of amusement and even more moments of curiosity. What on earth will happen next? How will this all work out? Where will I be sitting in 6 months?

Old traumas and wounds are just that – old. We don’t have to insist new, similar experiences cut as deeply. It is a choice, although not an obvious one. We could just tear up our old scripts, the ones that hurt us, the ones that never work out for us, the ones filled with fear and heartbreak, and write a new one. Now does not have to be the same as then.

In yet another way to think about this, I came across advice from a writer on how to appreciate one’s progress. She, too, suggested time travel. If we feel stuck and as though we’re making no progress, and never have, and never will, and what person X told us way back when we were children, that we’ll never amount to anything, seems a curse we can never lift, we can sit quietly with ourselves and think back a year, or five, or ten. Stepping back helps us gain perspective and see exactly how far we’ve come, how much we’ve learned, how much we’ve grown. What if we went back, in imagination, to cheer on the self we were a year ago, whispering to them of all the wonderful progress ahead?

Scripts and storylines can be changed. We don’t have to give them our power. It’s so easy to forget that. It takes an act of presence and will to change the script and reclaim our power, but we can let go of our limiting expectations and beliefs and allow ourselves a different kind of experience. Not here we go again, but here’s a new experience – I wonder what will happen?

Sometimes all we need to do is shift our gaze from the hopeless and frightening places where we have no power and focus on the places we do. If we can stay there, rest there, live there, the chaos and tumult, though unpleasant, won’t knock us down and trample us. Such times pass by, pass over without traumatizing us, and we’ll come out on the other side more resilient than ever.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Moving Again

All my life I’ve felt traumatized by how frequently I’ve moved house. My general insecurity makes uprooting myself a fearful ordeal.

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

This time, as we go through the process of selling this old farm and searching for a new place, I’m realizing for the first time how valuable my experience of moving is. My resentment about it is falling away.

I know most people approach finding a new home from the will-this-place-suit-me direction, and that’s probably practical and sensible. I can and have done that many times, but I also spend a lot of time thinking about whether I will suit the new place, and being curious about how I might fit my life into it rather than forcing it to accommodate me.

I do this because, as I’m realizing now, every place I’ve lived has changed me, challenged me, and shown me new aspects of myself. I’ve never had much money and therefore been unable to have a wide choice or completely renovate, so I’ve learned to adapt and adjust to wherever I am. For the first time in my life, I’m seeing what strength and power lie in that kind of resilience.

I’ve lived in homes, apartments, dorms, a trailer, a log cabin, and my parents’ home (as an adult). I’ve rented and I’ve owned, bought and sold, and been a landlady. I’ve lived with husbands, my kids, assorted animals, and friends. I’ve lived by myself. I’ve lived in large places with ample storage and closets and small places with one closet in the entire house.

Now, as I approach my 60s, I think I know a lot about what I need, what’s important, and how adaptable I am. Of course, I thought that at 50 when I came to Maine, but this old farmhouse taught me a great deal more. And the new house will teach me yet more. During my time in this house, I also became a minimalist, which has had a huge impact on my priorities and the amount of stuff I manage.

Leaving the place I know, no matter what this house’s challenges, is hard. I am, at least, familiar with the current problems and challenges. But I also know what I love; I’m already grieving the loss of this beautiful 26 acres, the gardens, the wildlife, the views out the windows, the way the sun comes into my little attic aerie, and the shrill spring song of the peepers in the pond.

I realize, however, that the next place I live will present me with new joys. I don’t know what they will be. They won’t be exactly like what I’m leaving. But a new space holds new possibilities and new discoveries, along with fresh challenges.

The thing about limits and challenges is the opportunity they hold. I’m excited by the prospect of creatively solving problems I encounter. One of the good things about having little financial resource is that I’ve been forced to rely on creative, low-cost solutions. If one doesn’t have money to throw at problems, one has to find another way.

Finding another way has always been a journey worth taking for me, a journey into my own power, ability, and creativity. Without the help of abundant money, it can seem like a long, slow, journey, uncomfortable and occasionally even tortuous, but filled with discovery and satisfaction. The new space and I will work together to make something functional and beautiful. We’ll find out about one another. We’ll take care of one another.

We’ll make a new home together.

Jenny’s attic is waiting for her. Fall, 2014