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An Unexpected Pause

I’m pausing. It wasn’t, I hasten to say, my idea! However, after an interesting and stressful concatenation of events I’ve decided to embrace the opportunity to pause.

It all started with a wonderful post from one of my favorite Substackers, Lani Diane Rich. It’s titled “Emotional Ex-Lax.” Honestly, how could anyone not go look at that post?

Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

The post suggests an exercise in blind journaling. I journal daily, first thing in the morning, with my first cup of tea. I don’t go on line first. I don’t work in the house, or start breakfast, or make my bed, or clean the cat boxes. I feed the cats (because if I don’t I won’t be allowed to sit peacefully and journal). I pee. I turn on one low light. I heat water and make tea. Sometimes I put on very low music. Sometimes I light a candle or two. At 5:00 in the morning there’s nothing going on. Darkness presses against the windows. Nobody needs anything from me. I’m free, and something of the twilight of sleep lingers. I sit with my laptop, open a new document, and start typing. Every month I delete the last month’s journal entries. I never look back at them. They’re for no one else’s eyes. It’s an entirely private space.

If, for some reason, I miss this time with myself, I notice it immediately. I’m not as centered. I feel more anxious. I feel more stressed. If I can’t get to a word processor, I journal with pen and paper, and then destroy it.

I never thought of blind journaling, though.

I recognized resistance. As I peeled the resistance away, I discovered the roots of it: perfectionism. That made me mad. I’ve worked so hard to uproot that toxic growth, but I never seem to get it all eradicated. It’s like bindweed, that bane of gardeners. Out in Colorado, where I used to live and garden, bindweed choked the dry landscape. Its roots can grow 6 feet deep. Any attempt to dig it up or kill it above ground merely encourages it. It grows fast. Herbicides don’t work. Its folk name is ‘Devil’s guts.’ A perfect description.

I think about perfectionism as bindweed.

Even as I journal, I edit. I correct spelling. I make sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes I even cut and paste. For a journal no one else will ever see and I won’t read again. For a journal document I’m going to delete in four weeks.  If I blind journal I can’t edit as I write.

It won’t, God help me, be perfect. It won’t even kind of be perfect. I’m a good typist, but I make mistakes. Sometimes the cursor jumps around. Sometimes my sentence structure is poor.

Unacceptable.

So, naturally I made up my mind to try blind journaling, to challenge my perfectionism if for no other reason.

I chose a day off and journaled the usual way for a bit, then set a timer for 20 minutes, shut my eyes and blind journaled. I thought I was already emptied out, but wow. I was in full flood when the timer went off, and it felt like I’d only been doing it for five minutes. I loved it. I knew I was making mistakes (which I refused, by the way, to go back and fix!), but they didn’t interrupt my process. I just kept going, never looking back, never losing the thread of what I was saying. No visual distraction whatsoever.

I didn’t want to stop.

Well!, I thought. This will be a fun thing to blog about.

Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020

I picked up my 16-ounce cup of tea, pomegranate green this season. Our little calico cat, Izzy, who had been snuggled in her favorite position in my armpit, woke up and decided she wanted to be in my lap where the laptop was. I pushed her away. She came back. I pushed her away. She started chewing on the upper corner of the screen, an obnoxious habit she has. I pushed her away with more irritation this time. The tea I was holding slopped onto the keyboard. I cursed, wiped it away, tipped the computer and let it drip out. I got a couple of Q-tips and dried around the three or four keys that got splashed. I sat down again to go back to my peaceful morning journaling.

The computer died.

Shit!

I plugged it in in case the battery was run down, but I knew it wasn’t. I let it be for an hour, then tried to turn it on.

Nothing.

When the computer store opened, I got in the car and took it over. Mark, my computer guy, shook his head. I left it in his capable hands.

Now my quiet day off, in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything but noodle around at home, had turned upside down. My serenity fled. My excitement about starting a rough draft of a post on blind journaling withered. I couldn’t pay bills and deal with money, always a major stressor. Speaking of money, replacing my laptop would cost over $1,000. And what would repairs cost? And how much money do I have in savings? In checking? I couldn’t check! Panic until I remembered my cell phone is connected to the Internet. I couldn’t write, at least not with a word processor.

But none of that was the worst thing. The worst thing, and I’m completely mortified by this fact and would prefer to hide it from both myself and the world, was I couldn’t play solitaire!

Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash

This realization was so unwelcome I longed, craved, itched to play a few games of solitaire and “think about it.” Except that’s a lie. I wanted to play solitaire so I could numb out.

I roamed around the house, restless, wanting to crawl out of my own skin. The day I had looked forward to suddenly seemed dull and endless. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t know what to do with my anxiety. I started waiting for the phone to ring with news of my machine.

I did eventually get a grip but I recognized the symptoms of withdrawal from an addiction, and I didn’t like it. I kept myself busy with several tasks I’d been putting off. I cut greens I’d gathered with a friend a few days before and decorated for Yule. I pulled out a notebook and continued journaling, off and on, long hand. It gave me a sore hand, but it helped. I told myself I could rough out a blog post long hand, too. But it was probably not worth it. I’d have my laptop back by the end of the day. Probably. Maybe. Wouldn’t I?

I set aside the budget and a couple of bills I’d just received and weren’t due for a week or more. I tried not to think about money, or scarcity, or money.

Not thinking about money – la, la, la-la – fingers in my ears and eyes squinched shut.

I tried not to think about my email piling up. I read some of it on my phone, but the screen was so small it wasn’t much fun.

I thought and journaled about how busy I always feel, how often I hear myself say I’m tired, how overwhelmed I feel. I’ve been telling myself feeling overwhelmed is natural. I work; I run a blog and a Substack page, publishing on both every weekend; I’m writing another book; and now I’m co-manager of a long-distance situation in which a loved one is recovering from a broken hip and sinking into dementia. I anticipate making the long trip from Maine to Colorado and back again at some point during the holiday season, running the gauntlet of weather, travel complications, crowds, and various respiratory viruses. Oh, and spending money I don’t have. Especially if I have to replace my laptop.

Of course I’m overwhelmed.

Yes, said a snarky little voice in my head, “and how much time and energy does it cost you to play solitaire in all the pauses, cracks, and crevices of your life? What about visual stimulation? What about your problem with speeding? What about your anxiety? You’re not helping your anxiety, you’re feeding it!

The day passed and the computer guy didn’t call. The next day was a work day. Normally I would have been working on posts for the weekend ahead. I was beginning to feel behind. If I didn’t get the laptop back I wasn’t going to be able to post. Less than perfect. Inconsistent. Letting my readers down. Everyone would probably unsubscribe. Even if I got the laptop back, the weekend was going to be tight. Starting from scratch on Saturday morning for Harvesting Stones and on Sunday morning for Substack takes a lot of hours out of my weekend, when I also run errands, clean, do laundry, cook for the week ahead, and take care of business I haven’t had a chance to do during the week.

And I was already tired. Already wanting those two days off, not to fill up, but to relax in. Could the solitaire really be feeding my anxiety rather than calming it, I wondered?

Yes.

But –

Yes, your solitaire habit is feeding your anxiety. You know it.

Shit!

At the end of the day, I called my computer guy. He informed me my machine was disassembled and he’d been running a fan on it night and day. He didn’t know if it was a goner or not; he wasn’t going to put it back together and plug it in until he was sure every molecule of water was gone. He told me, rather pointedly, he’d call me.

OK, I thought. I won’t post this weekend. Nobody will care but me. I’m allowed to take a weekend off. I read all kinds of people who take frequent breaks and pauses. I don’t think any the less of them for it; in fact, I admire their self-care and confidence.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Friday happens to be my nine-hour day at work, so I wouldn’t have used the laptop much that day in any case. I gritted my teeth, used a computer at work to catch up a little, and tried not to worry too much. I never play solitaire at work, so it was my third day without it.

Meanwhile, I made and received long distance calls from the facility where my loved one is recovering physically and wandering mentally. I finished the book I was reading and started another. I journaled a lot in my notebook. I played with the cats, giving them my full attention, which felt nice. I noticed what I was eating and enjoyed the taste of my meals, unusual for me. I savored my tea more. I wrapped a few Yule gifts and got them in the mail. I did some cleaning. I exercised. I put on an old movie and did upper and lower body resistance training in front of it rather than playing solitaire.

I slept well. I felt less exhausted. The inside of my head was quieter. I even took a nap, a thing I don’t normally do, as playing solitaire is “resting.” (Uh-huh. Whatever you say.) My anxiety ratcheted way down. I had a couple of crying jags, but they passed and I felt relieved rather than more upset when they were over.

I had more time.

I have more time because I’m not writing without my laptop, I thought.

“No. You have more time because you’re not playing solitaire in all the cracks and crevices,” said the snarky voice.

On Friday, while I was at work, my laptop was resurrected and my partner brought it home. What saved its life, I am told, was there was no sugar in the tea. Who knew?

By Friday evening, when I returned home from work, I’d made some decisions:

  • No more solitaire.
  • No more liquid in close proximity to the laptop.
  • Take the weekend off. Really take it off. No pressure to post and publish. No solitaire. Embrace the pause. Make it last. Feel about things. Think about things. Be present.

All weekend I had the half delighted, half guilty feeling I was playing hooky. I ran several errands. I journaled on the word processor. I dealt with receipts, bills, accounts, the budget. I did some cleaning and laundry. I read. I listened to music. I watched a couple of movies and exercised. I played with the cats. I texted with a friend. I talked to my loved one and their nurse in Colorado. I made a new recipe for a pork shoulder in the crock pot which made the house smell like citrus, garlic, and herbs. I read several inspiring pieces from the Substackers and minimalists I follow. I started making notes for this post, which flowed into writing a rough draft.

It was a good weekend. It didn’t feel too short or too rushed. I didn’t feel pressure or anxiety. I slept well.

I’ve realized it’s time to make some changes. It’s a good time of year to reevaluate and do that, right? I didn’t set out to do it, but once it was forced upon me I realized I’ve been running a little faster every day for a long time, feeling a little more tense and anxious, and needing a little more numbing to manage it all. I’m grateful I was forced to stop. I’m going to start moving again, but in a different way, with slightly new priorities and without the damn solitaire!

(“You’ve finished the post!” says the snarky voice. “You’re way ahead this week. Wouldn’t you like to relax, play a game of solitaire, and celebrate?”

Oh, shut up!)

Questions:

What’s your favorite numbing activity?
On a scale of 1 (hardly any) to 10 (all), how much of your power does it have? Are you uncomfortable about the level of power your habit has over you?
Does your habit increase your anxiety?
Does your habit decrease your focus?
Have you ever formally kept track of the time you spend doing your favorite numbing activity?

Leave a comment below!

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

 

 

 

Witness

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.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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.

 

 

Paths

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.

 

Losing to Find

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.

 

Change

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

Grownups

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