by Jenny Rose | May 27, 2023 | Connection & Community
My partner tells me I “build bridges.” He’s right. I do. All the time. Building connection is the foundation of my life – connection with myself and with others. I also do what I can to support connection between others.
It’s no wonder I feel increasingly alienated in a culture focused so strongly on division.
Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay
Some people, and right now many people in power, are breakers rather than builders. I won’t pretend I understand such a priority, but it’s undeniably real and undeniably destructive.
As I’ve thought about building bridges, I’ve realized underneath the patterns of building or breaking is a larger issue: power.
If evil exists, I believe one of the first steps on the road to it is the willingness to steal power by any and all means. When individuals and groups of people lose their power, they’re easy to break, easy to disconnect and isolate. Easy to control.
Dedicated power-stealers are very, very skilled at what they do, so skilled they often present themselves as the marginalized or disempowered victims. In this guise, they infiltrate systems, organizations, and groups like a cancer, steadily breaking healthy connections and communities and appropriating power. By the time enough people notice, clearly identify what’s happening, and organize resistance, the balance of power is so skewed serious conflict becomes inevitable. Those addicted to stealing and hoarding power don’t give it up without a fight. This classic aggressor behavior is referred to as DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender. In this dynamic, when individuals and groups are forced to defend themselves from aggressors their defense is framed as bigotry and hatred. Brutal social sanctions steered by those who steal power are activated to stifle it.
Few see past the emotional rubble and wreckage of destruction to the offense triggering the defense, and even fewer see past all the drama and distraction and recognize a simple, savage power grab disguised as social justice, political correctness, compassion, empathy, etc.
This is not to negate the true problems of systemic and institutionalized racism and bigotry so many people stagger under every day. We all know power (and other resources) are not distributed equally – far from it. And why is that? Because there have always been people who are committed to disempowering others.
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash
I’m a builder, not a breaker. Not a breaker, I hasten to say, in the sense that I deliberately hurt others or injure healthy connection. However, I have more than once tried to build a bridge to nowhere. Worse, I have spent much of my life frantically maintaining my bridges to nowhere, a kind of counter-terrorist who never blows up a bridge but instead batters myself against a broken one as though my blood, sweat, and tears will magically build a solid, effective connection.
The thing I invariably forget is not everyone wants to build a bridge!
Sometimes, and I’ve done this, we blow up bridges accidentally. Some action or word becomes a catalyst and suddenly … BOOM! The bridge is destroyed and we’re left wondering what the hell happened.
Sometimes our bridges are sabotaged by others and deliberately destroyed. Unless both parties connected by the bridge understand what’s happened and work together to make repairs, the bridge becomes permanently weakened.
Sometimes, and I’ve made this choice, too, we deliberately walk away from a bridge we’ve built. It didn’t connect us to what we were hoping for, or it didn’t connect us at all. We built the bridge, it went nowhere, and we found no there there, so we leave it behind to fall into disrepair.
Saddest of all (to me) are the people who don’t value bridges, or can’t recognize them. Building is expensive. It takes time, patience, commitment, and cooperation. It takes emotional labor. For me, the rewards of good bridgework are enormous. Healthy connections enrich us and I believe bring joy and healing into a suffering world. Healthy connections enhance individual power and are productive and creative rather than destructive.
Anyone can destroy. How many can create?
At the same time, I accept and endeavor to respect that some people have no interest in building bridges, at least not with me. Some people are focused on other things, and the activity central to the meaning and purpose of my life isn’t in their field of view at all.
By Landsil on Unsplash
It’s probably unwise and unnecessary to take this personally, although I have a tendency to do so. On the other hand, I have no interest in coercing anyone to build a bridge between us. Forcing healthy connection is impossible, not to mention coercion is a power-over tactic I don’t employ or participate in.
Sometimes I build bridges to nowhere. I work hard, for a long time, because that’s my default. Eventually, however, I notice I’m the only one building. A little bit after that I wonder what would happen if I stopped building. Would the person I want connection with even notice? Would they pick up the work I left undone? Would they value our potential connection enough to meet me half way? Part way?
Honestly, in the case of most of my bridges to nowhere, once I stop building the building stops. I move on, looking for another place to build another bridge. Those abandoned bridges are, at best, picturesque ruins going … nowhere. Resting places for unrealized possibility and potential. Crumbling monuments to loss, heartbreak, letting go, and wisdom.
- Consider your life. Are you more of a builder or a breaker?
- When you struggle to connect with someone who’s just not that into you, how do you feel?
- If you can’t successfully build a connection with someone, do you leave quietly or blow up the metaphorical bridge you were trying to build?
- Who or what has sabotaged previously healthy connections in your life?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
by Jenny Rose | May 13, 2023 | Authenticity, Emotional Intelligence
I have written about dance here before. In the structure I use, the 5 Rhythms Wave by Gabrielle Roth, chaos is part of the wave. The music for chaos is fast but grounded. Think Pink Floyd’s Meddle.
As I lingered on the threshold between waking and sleep this morning, thinking about loss, the subject of my last post; thinking about my distressing inability to publish my usual essay on Substack last week, and thinking about the ways in which I’m reshaping my beliefs about my family and therefore myself, I recognized the chaos part of the dance.
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
To dance in chaos involves letting everything go except the beat. Chaos is about strength, not beauty. It’s about grounding and staying grounded even as the music flings us through space.
Chaos is the part where you dance till you drool.
The edge of chaos is fertile, regenerative, thick with possibility. It’s also powerfully disorganized and unpredictable. It’s exhausting, overwhelming. Too much is happening too fast. When dancing chaos, we give ourselves entirely to the music and follow it through the tumult however we can. As Margaret Shepherd said, “Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” Add music to that idea and you have the chaos part of the dance. The car has broken down. The planes are grounded. The train has derailed. The illusion we’re in control has shattered. Our routines and schedules fall apart around us. Our internal and external worlds begin to reshape in ways we can’t understand.
I’ve been troubled in the last couple of weeks by the violence of my rebellion against doing anything except work and play in the garden. I don’t want to write. I don’t want to think or reason. I don’t care about the damn housework. Beltane, May 1st, came and went without my usual ritual and practices. I don’t want to be brave, strong, organized, compassionate, tolerant, empathetic, or responsible.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve shut down like this. I/m unable to guilt or lash myself into being “productive.” I feel ashamed and scared. I don’t recognize myself.
It occurs to me this is my Beltane ritual this year. After all, Beltane is about fertility. Physical fertility, the cyclical fertility of the growing season, creative fertility. My ritual this year is being in the garden. There, with my knees in the dirt, the smell and feel of the soil, the texture of new weeds and old leaves and matted grass (we didn’t have a mower last year), I am peaceful. I know where I am. I am, literally, grounded. I don’t have my phone. Nobody needs anything from me. I bend, kneel, stoop, dig, rake and shovel compost mindlessly. I dream vaguely about new garden beds, rewilding with native shrubs and trees. Black flies come for their drop of blood. The sun shines down on me.
Right now I need to be in the garden. I don’t understand it entirely, but perhaps there’s no need to. What I do know is something in me refuses to engage with anything else. As the lilies and iris emerge, as the tulips bloom and the daffodils fade, as the lilacs bud and the magnolia blossoms fall and cover the ground, I mulch and prune and feel seismic forces beyond my control reshape me internally.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
So much of what I’ve learned and believed about my family and my place in it has crumbled into dust. Old family myths have exploded with fragments of evidence from Mom’s life, unearthed in the process of selling her estate. I didn’t entirely believe in some of those myths, but they were stable. They provided a family background I was familiar with. I built an identity from the identities family members who came before me created. If I am not the despised one, the broken one, the one who doesn’t belong, the cuckoo in the nest, who am I? Has all that been yet another family myth? Has any of it ever been about who I really am or my personal value, or have I been nothing but a faceless, nameless piece in a dysfunctional family pattern?
I long for freedom. Is this the beginning of freedom?
My recent inability to force myself to take care of business, to be responsible, consistent, and productive, is terrifying. I’ve always pushed myself through any resistance or fatigue. I’ve always known I must justify my existence with constant production, pleasing, and caregiving.
Am I free of that now? If I don’t have to justify my existence because that belief is a lie based on family mythology that’s at least part lies, is that freedom? Am I brave enough to take my freedom, walk away from all the burdens (too heavy for me, but I’ve carried them anyway), and simply choose what makes me happy? I have stood at this crossroad before.
Two weeks ago I wrote about loss. Now I’m watching glimmers of new beginnings, nebulous glints of what might come into the disturbed ground of my being. I pick up trash and find rich soil beneath it. I dig up dandelions and burdocks and discover little patches of old garden. The sun touches me without asking for anything in return. I rake away last year’s debris and mix it with compost to build new garden beds. This morning, the crab apple is in bloom. The tight buds on the white lilac by the porch door gather perfume.
Meanwhile, back in Colorado, strangers live in my mother’s house. Hospice tells me Mom can no longer ambulate independently, even with her walker. A call in the middle of last night reported yet another fall, as she doesn’t realize (or won’t admit) her own weakness. Appraisal revealed my wealthy and powerful grandmother’s gold, pearls, and gemstones were mostly costume, not real. A ladylike façade. A denial of her impoverished roots. A glimpse of shame and fear that rival my own, though I never knew they were there.
Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
It’s Mother’s Day weekend. A friend asked me yesterday how I felt about that, and I had no words.
What is real? What can I bear? The dirt on my knees, under my fingernails. The spectacularly itchy, burning welts of black fly bites. The egg shells, banana peels, and soggy segments of lemon in the compost pile. The lovely cupped double tulips I planted last fall, white, pink and purple. The thumb-sized bumble bee tumbling ecstatically among the pink blossoms of the crabapple. My own breath, heartbeat, sweat. The sun on my skin.
Gardens are made and remade. They die and are reborn. They go wild and survive until rediscovered. They adjust, adapt, take advantage of the edge of chaos according to their own wisdom and purpose.
For now, I’m in the garden, dancing with chaos, nurturing new life, hanging on.
- What is your experience of Mother’s Day?
- In the times during which you struggle to manage your life, are you fearful or do you allow yourself to follow your needs?
- Do you find chaos joyful and exhilarating or frightening?
- What opportunities have you had to reframe your family?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
by Jenny Rose | Mar 11, 2023 | Emotional Intelligence, Feelings
In January, my brother and I traveled to Colorado to transition our mother into memory care.
As some of you know and many can imagine, a journey into dementia is an unsettling one on good days, by which I mean relatively calm days. On bad days, days of panic and confusion, days of anger and restlessness, it’s heartbreaking.
One of the greatest challenges for me is the chaos of my jostling feelings, all mobbed together and struggling for attention. I can’t feel everything at once, and I can’t focus on one thing at a time. One minute I’m entirely relieved because I know she’s in a safe, protected environment being well cared for, which has not been the case for the last ten years. Knowing she was living alone, driving, walking her dogs, and slowly losing her ability to function and manage her own life and I could do nothing about it took a daily toll.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
The next minute empathy and compassion overwhelm me and I’m reminding myself to maintain boundaries. She is not me. I am not her. My attention needs to be on taking care of my own feelings. If I could have effectively helped and supported her, I would have started doing it when I was five years old. I never found a way because there is no way.
Then I’m angry. Angry because I tried to avoid this particular outcome. Angry because she wouldn’t help herself when she had the ability to. Angry because I’m still in the position of parenting and taking care of my parent, which has always been the case. Angry about her suffering and confusion, and mine.
At the end of every conversation we have on the phone, I tell her I love her. It’s true. I have always loved her, but was not allowed to say so. She would ignore such a statement, or dispute it. She says it back to me now. It always makes me a little bit mad. It was a thing she would not say outright before. She’d sign herself “Love, Mom,” but she wouldn’t say it. She’s not a person who offers or accepts any kind of touch. Does she really love me, or is she merely participating in the familiar ritual of the exchange? Did she feel it all along but couldn’t say it?
Even before her dementia onset, Mom wouldn’t have answered these questions. I will never know.
I’m also sad. It’s not a sobbing, tearing grief, but a gentle, diffuse one, like watching a teabag steep in hot water and gradually turn it into tea. I don’t feel it all the time. There’s resignation in it, and acceptance, and surrender.
Mom is receiving palliative care under a local hospice organization. They recommended a book to me, titled The 36-Hour Day, by Mace and Rabins. I bought a copy. It was hard to read because it stirred up uncomfortable feelings, but it’s also a goldmine of information, including the latest research and standards for dementia care. It’s enormously validating. I read about specific behaviors and the stages of dementia and realize I have been struggling with Mom’s gradual disintegration for years. Nobody else saw it, so I was alone with my fears and concerns, but I knew she was slipping and I suspected this time was coming.
What I was most hoping for from the book was a script for dealing with difficult questions and conversations. I have some professional experience with dementia and am comfortable with refraining from using logic or trying to bring anyone back to reality. Mom has always believed entirely in her narratives, which often were distorted, paranoid, and inaccurate, so I have a long and painful history of managing her stories and beliefs. However, now the briefest conversation is fraught with pitfalls I don’t know how to respond to or address. I spend a lot of time on pause, frantically trying to figure out the best way to engage with her.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The book didn’t give me a script, per se. What it gave me was a simple strategy for everything: reflect and validate feelings. Not the stories (thoughts), but the feelings. Emotional intelligence strikes again.
This was good news for me because I’m highly emotionally intelligent, even in this difficult personal context. I know how to recognize, name, and manage feelings. On the other hand, it seems like so little to offer. It’s hard to provide comfort in the context of dementia. Language feels pointless. Nonverbal communication is useless over a long distance and, in this case, in person. Mom has flinched away from me too many times for me to even think about touching her. On the phone, all I have is language. Following my impulse to reassure, to explain, to provide some kind of structure, only makes things worse for both of us. I measure my effectiveness by the level of her distress, which is eerily like measuring my effectiveness by the degree to which I can please her. Even that may not be accurate. Mom’s distress has always been extreme in the face of boundaries, limitations, the word “no,” and any questioning of her particular narratives and beliefs. It’s a personality trait having nothing to do with me personally. The mere fact of her feeling confined (which is accurate) may be the root of her distress rather than anything I’m saying or doing. Or not saying or not doing.
It occurs to me feelings live inside the just-born infant. Maybe before that. Certainly, we experience feelings long before we master language. I’m realizing intellect, logic, language, can all fall away at the end of life, too, but the feelings remain. I assume our need to be heard and validated remains.
Conversation with Mom is like wandering blind through a meadow filled with rabbit holes. Dementia is at once simple and extremely complicated. I never know how she will be or what she will say next. Sometimes she sounds down and depressed. Sometimes cheerful. Sometimes calm. Once she even told me she was “content,” a word I’ve never associated with her before. Sometimes she’s anxious, sometimes angry, sometimes groggy and hardly responsive.
When we talk, I work to set aside (temporarily) my own feelings, thoughts, memories, expectations, and predictions. I ask her how she is and listen to her response, looking for the feelings. When she tells me she needs to leave there because “everybody steals,” I sidestep the stealing accusations and acknowledge it must be an uncomfortable and discouraging way to live, and I can understand why she doesn’t like it. She perseverates on this theme off and on, and I enlarge on how difficult the feeling of losing things is, how unsettling to not be able to find our possessions. After all, she’s lost her whole previous life. Her feeling of loss, of things missing, is based in reality. On the other hand, her paranoia and fear of people (including me) stealing money from her was in place long before her dementia. I was never able to persuade her they did not reflect reality. I certainly can’t do it now.
Reflecting and validating her feelings back to her feels inadequate. It even feels condescending. But there’s nothing else I can do, nothing else to say. Witnessing her feelings is all I have left.
And, after all, maybe that’s a lot. We’re not very skilled with feelings in this culture. It’s not easy to find someone who will just listen without trying to fix or solve. Perhaps great healing lies in being heard with nothing added. I hope so.
Another constant theme is one of buying a car and going shopping when we visit. When I ask her what she needs, she can’t tell me. She needs “things.” When I ask her if she’s started a list, she never has. We are not sure she can read or write anymore. I realized when we went out to move her and worked in her house she’s a shopper. She has enough clothing for three women. Her closets were filled with shoes, both old and worn and newer. She had six or seven open bottles and jars of the same products. Her cupboards were packed with supplements and vitamins for both herself and the animals, many of them outdated. As her confusion grew, it appears she self-soothed by shopping and receiving packages in the mail. So, we talk about how much fun it is to take a day and shop for this, for that. We talk about having new things, buying special gifts for ourselves. She doesn’t want to make a list and have someone else get her what she needs. She wants to go on her own and play, buy what she wants, choose what she wants. She wants to feel free, independent, and empowered to give herself that.
She cannot understand that’s no longer possible. Even if she could, the feeling of wanting what she once had would likely persist. It breaks my heart.
Photo by Gemma Chua Tran on Unsplash
I have feelings, too. I turn to journaling, to writing. I’ve tried without success to find support groups in my area; then I found a mental health professional experienced in family trauma to speak with. I talk with Mom’s hospice team regularly; having worked for hospice, I know they want to support the whole family system. I extend to myself all the gentleness, support, and patience I extend to Mom. I hold my thoughts loosely and hug my feelings. They need comfort. They need expression. I think about boundaries and regulate my empathy. I’m newly appreciative of my own freedom and independence. I look for reasons to laugh, reasons to smile. I look for ways to connect to others. I intend to learn to receive as well as I give.
As I write this, an exuberant spring wind blows outside, pushing snow off roofs, tangling our wind chimes, shaking the lilac branches with their new, hard buds. One of the cats is stretched out on my desk in the sun. My desk calendar was in his way, so he kicked it off with his back feet. A glass paperweight pins down a card for Mom, the envelope addressed and stamped. Every Monday I put a card in the mail for her. I do it for me. She does not acknowledge them or remember receiving them. I hope they’re all displayed in her room, but I don’t know. I’m not sure she can read them. I imagine a staff person or hospice team member reading them to her. I’m not sure she can connect them with me at all. But it makes me feel better to make the gesture, and I enjoy picking out cards I think she’ll like. I’ll write a couple of lines about the weather, about the moment, about spring. I’ll sign it with the word love. I’ll put it in the mailbox and raise the flag, and the mail carrier will take it in an hour or so.
Feelings are pure. Feelings are simple. It’s our thoughts about our feelings that fester, tangle, entrap us. I want to soothe uncomfortable feelings, make the pain stop, dry the tears, turn aside the rage. All my life it’s been my role to take care of Mom, fix whatever was going wrong. I still feel her emotional dependence. I still feel the responsibility to solve every problem for her.
But Mom has traveled now to a place I can’t go and she can’t come back from. She can’t follow me, clutching at my clothing, needing, wanting, pleading, demanding, rejecting. I can’t walk beside her in a way she recognizes. We have separated. I am relieved. I am absolved. I grieve for her anguish. Witnessing her feelings without taking action to assuage them is perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done in a lifetime of hard things in caring for her.
But I cannot fix this. Neither of us can go back. There’s only feeling our way forward.
- What has been you experience, if any, with dementia in a loved one or family member?
- What are your thoughts and feelings about hospice care?
- What’s the hardest thing for you in supporting an elderly loved one?
- Do you worry about developing dementia yourself? Have you made a plan?
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
by Jenny Rose | Feb 25, 2023 | Connection & Community, Emotional Intelligence, Shadows
I found a brief offering in my Inbox from Seth Godin recently about bitterness being a wall we can lean against. The image caught my imagination. Since then, I’ve been thinking about walls … boundaries … supports … prisons … and the desperate, destructive choices we make to survive.
By Marc Pell on Unsplash
Walls. On the one hand, I like walls. I invariably position myself with my back against a wall when I’m in crowds or unfamiliar places. Nothing malignant can sneak up on me from behind. All my hypervigilance can go into watching my sides and front. I feel safe(er).
A corner is even better. Now two sides are covered.
A third wall, as in a blind alley or cul-de-sac, begins to feel more like a trap than a place of protection. What if I want to run away? I’m blocked on three sides.
A fourth wall? Now I’m in prison.
The thing about walls is they may keep danger out, but they keep everything else out, too. The good stuff. Love. Sunshine. Wandering children and butterflies. Inviting paths and trails. Possibility. Exploration. Views. Perspective. Wonderful surprises.
Walls, like everything else in life, can be taken too far. Built too wide and thick. Impenetrable. Too high to climb.
Shelter or dungeon?
What about metaphorical walls? What do we lean against because it’s familiar and we believe it keeps us safe from failure, from disappointment, from heartbreak?
Bitterness, certainly. We’ve risked. We’ve been vulnerable. It ended badly. We feel angry, disappointed, resentful. Never again, we tell ourselves. Things don’t work out for us. The world is against us. People suck. Life sucks. It’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. We’ve found a wall to lean on, a wall protecting us from trying again, risking again, feeling unpleasant feelings again.
By Hector J Rivas on Unsplash
But the wall is made of unpleasant feelings, isn’t it? Bitterness is the result of unresolved unpleasant feelings. So it’s really not protection. It’s reinforcement. It’s the thing closest to us pulling our focus from happier thoughts and feelings. It’s a constant negative reminder. It locks us in place with it, and it blocks any kind of relief.
As I’ve lived my life the last couple of weeks, interacting with and observing others, listening to the inside of my own head, I’ve made a list of walls we lean against:
Victimhood (closely allied with bitterness.)
Blame (oooh, this is a juicy one. “It’s not my fault. I have no responsibility, and therefore no power.”)
Denial (leaning on the wall, eyes squinched shut: “No, I won’t believe that! No, it’s not true! No, it’s not happening! It’s too scary! I’ll only accept what makes me feel good and in control!”)
Chronic health problems (“I would _________, but I can’t because I’m sick.” Sigh. Moan. Groan. Someone once said to me, “I don’t know what I’d do without my pain!” as though pain was her lover.)
Lack of money (“I can’t be happy. I can’t have/do what I want. I can’t experience abundance. I have no power.”)
Perfectionism (a personal favorite. “I would, but I’m afraid to because I won’t do it perfectly! So, no point in trying. I’m imperfect and therefore can contribute nothing of value, not even myself. Expect nothing from me. ‘Cause I’m so imperfect.”)
I don’t suggest we’re never victims, never have health problems, never experience financial scarcity. I don’t minimize the challenges of perfectionism or fear or the seduction of blame. However, constructing a wall out of such experiences and feelings and deciding to spend the rest of our lives leaning against it seems like a dubious choice. It may feel like it props us up and allows us to survive, but is survival the best we can hope for? Is leaning against a wall to stay on our feet the best we can do?
By Christina Botelho on Unsplash
Can a wall made of bitterness stand by itself? If we choose to step away from it, support ourselves, will the wall crumble? I wonder. What if the wall needs our support more than we need its support? It takes a lot of energy to maintain a wall.
What would happen if we just fell down instead of constructing walls to lean against? Better yet, what if we choose to lie down now and then, take a break, look at the sky, feel the world on our skin and beneath us? What if, when we feel hurt or despairing or sick or broken, we lay still and whispered, “Help!” and rested and waited for something or someone to come along and give us a hand back to our feet? If we’re not leaning (cowering) against walls, we’re in full view. Life can find us. Friends can find us. Help can find us. Hope, inspiration, and comfort can find us.
Walls can be useful. But they can also imprison us. They can be strong and organic and lovely, as in healthy boundaries. They can be poorly built and inadequate, too. Or just old and tired. Crumbling. Falling down. Gnawed away by Time’s tooth.
I ask myself, with all the world before me, why do I choose to lean against walls that separate me from it? Is that what I mean by safety?
- What walls do you lean against?
- Do you think of a wall as protection or prison?
- How have your walls let you down?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
by Jenny Rose | Feb 11, 2023 | Connection & Community, Parenting
Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash
February. A couple of days with -40 degrees wind chill here in Maine that felt apocalyptic. A dead car battery. At work, a broken pump in one of the pools, private swim lessons, ill team members, and an upcoming lifeguard recertification training this weekend, which I’m sure I’ll pass. Probably. A $250 “unscheduled delivery charge” on a $500 + propane bill, as though the brutal cold was somehow our fault. A possible estate tag sale on the contents of my mother’s untenanted house in Colorado, as she now lives in memory care.
The sound of the cardinal at the birdfeeder. The cats basking on my desk in the morning sun. Blueberry lavender tea. The scent of a lavender candle. Imbolc, when the wild maiden returns. The Ice Moon, or, if you prefer, the Storm Moon. Daylight arrives earlier and lingers later.
Through it all, I think about The Mother. The Mother the wild Imbolc maiden might become. The Mother who nurtures, creates, carries the possibility of new life and beginnings within us. I think of biological mothers who labor and deliver a new baby into the world. I think of foster mothers, substitute mothers, women who grieve for their empty wombs. New mothers. Struggling mothers. Mothers whose children have grown and gone, or just … gone.
Sisters and aunts and grandmothers. The long line of mothers who stand behind our own mothers.
Myself as Mother.
I wrote down a quote recently. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the source of the quote! I always think I’ll remember and then I don’t. Never mind. If it’s yours, let me know and I’ll give you full credit!
“A mother without fear of her own potential.”
There are so many ways to unpack this. A creator, an archetypal mother without fear of her own potential. Is there any artist or maker alive who doesn’t struggle with his or her fear of failure and success?
A young woman, simmering with hormones, discovering the power and potential of her sexuality in the context of rape culture and patriarchy; risking unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, violence, heartbreak, health, and even life.
A woman who longs to be Mother but cannot conceive, or carry, or deliver a living child. The yearning. The agony. The grieving and despair at being unable to fulfill such an overwhelming biological imperative. A woman who feels herself a vessel of death rather than a vessel of life.
Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash
A mother, the sweat of labor still on her face, swept with a ferocious love for the infant she’s just birthed, a love terrifying, passionate, transforming the landscape of her life irrevocably and forever.
A mother, lined, weary, anguished over her child’s unhappiness, ill health, addiction, behavior, wounds, choices, death. The passion of her pain equals the passion of her love. The passion of her rage and fear equal the passion of her love. How can this child we carried and cherished and loved so deeply, this child we would have defended with our teeth, our fingernails, our life, make self-destructive choices? How can they refuse to love themselves? How could we have failed to protect their health and happiness?
The ability to love like a firestorm, like a hurricane, like an earthquake, most would agree, is exciting and wild, a beautiful force of nature, perhaps the most powerful feeling in the world. But never forget passion cuts both ways. If we release and allow the potential of our love, we have opened ourselves equally to grief, loss, rage, unendurable pain.
I am a mother. I fear that potential.
Not that I had a choice. The feel of my newborn sons in my arms overcame me as powerfully as labor did. I was helpless before it. Their wellbeing and existence twined inextricably with mine in an instant. I made no conscious choice and had no conscious control enabling me to stand back from my potential as Mother.
I was Mother. They made me into Mother. I can never go back.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
Yes, I know, boundaries are important. Individuation is important, as are freedom, letting go, and a hundred other facets of emotional intelligence I’ve written about on this blog. But I’m not talking about the long road of motherhood here, where we learn and stumble, fall down to rest, weep, get up, learn and stumble again. I’m talking about the timeless primal bond, deeper than language, deeper than reason. The wild love that works through us. Divinity, perhaps. Some would say The Devil. Whatever it is, it’s bigger than us. Bigger than me, anyway.
Do we imagine our own mothers feeling about us as we do about our children? Can we imagine it?
I can’t. If my mother felt for me what I feel for my sons, the tempest of her passion was never expressed in a way I understood it. Not in words, not in touch, not in action. Now, as she drifts in her dementia, I wonder, though, if she did feel as I did, but some great wound or constriction in her heart, now loosened because she does not remember it, did not allow her to express it. Perhaps her fear of her own potential as Mother was too great to allow her to demonstrate the depth of her love.
If so, I can understand. I can forgive.
Can I forgive myself as Mother? Can I forgive the things I didn’t say and should have, the things I did say and shouldn’t have, the unintended hurts and consequences as I made choices and lived my life? Can I forgive my inability to keep them safe every minute of their childhoods? Can I forgive my ignorance, my lack of understanding regarding their needs and challenges?
I used to tell a story about an orphaned boy who was “so lonely and so hungry nobody wanted to be with him.” That phrasing always made me fight tears when I spoke it. More than my many imperfections as Mother, can I forgive the way I tried to abandon the Mother part of myself? As my sons grew into manhood and began to live their own lives and I saw their challenges and pain, the Mother in me was too lonely and too hungry. Too filled with pain and rage, grief and shame. I turned away from her for a time, walked on without her, left her alone in the wilderness to live or die, as long as I didn’t have to experience her hunger, her loneliness, her feelings.
With my first child, I claimed the potential for Mother within myself. I flung myself into it, holding nothing back, having no thought of caution or reserve. And then, years later, I rejected it, abandoned joy and love because I could no longer face the pain. I severed myself from my own mother. I severed myself from my experience of Mother. I sundered myself and lived for a time with a cleaved heart.
But my love is a blind thing, a feeling without reason or logic. No matter the distance between my mother and myself, my sons and myself, my love did not diminish. Nor did the suffering that goes with it. The internal Mother I evicted grieved and wept. She lit candles and raged and feared and prayed for peace, for all to be well. She scratched at the windows of my life, whispered dreams beside my pillow, followed me like an abandoned spirit. She is mine and I am hers, though I tried to cast her away.
I know I will never be whole without her. The child within me, the crone I am growing into – both need the Mother. I need her as I care for animals and people, as I nurture new life in the garden, as I teach children to swim, as I write, as I cherish my friends and family. As I cherish myself.
Perhaps I simply needed a break from the pain. Perhaps I could not learn to love myself while being battered by the needs and demands of my mother and my sons. Now, my ability to care for and nurture myself gives me a place to pause, to rest. Perhaps, as I age, I am growing in wisdom, losing not the depth of my love, but the frantic edge that cuts so keenly. Love, after all, endures. Motherhood endures. I am the sum of my parts plus a little more. I cannot decide to be less. I might as well accept all of myself, reclaim all of myself, be all of myself.
And so, I’ve returned, Mom. We were not a perfect mother and daughter, you and I. We each did our best, and now my best is better than that. Let there be peace between us now, at the end. I have never stopped loving you. And Mother of my sons, cease following me just out of sight. Come in. Let us soothe one another’s weary regrets and scars. We loved with everything we had. Those we gave life to were never ours to keep. They must walk their own paths. Let us find a way to release our love from our pain.
Let us reclaim one another.
- What was your experience of being mothered?
- What has been your experience of being a mother in the wide sense, as a creator, a biological mother, or a substitute, surrogate, or foster mother?
- What potential in yourself do you fear?
- Who in your life has been so hungry and so lonely nobody wanted to be with them? Have you ever felt like that person?
Leave a comment below!
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by Jenny Rose | Jan 28, 2023 | Emotional Intelligence, Feelings
As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.
The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.
Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:
Here in the Mountains
There is one memory deep inside you.
In the dark country of your life
it is a small fire burning forever.
Even after all these years
the embers of what you have
known rest contented
in their own warmth.
Here in the mountains,
tell me all the things
you have not loved.
Their shadows will tell you
they have not gone,
they became this night
from which you drew away in fear.
Though at the trail’s end,
your heart stammers
with grief and regret,
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.
My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.
Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.
But I thought about things I have not loved.
It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash
And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.
I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.
I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.
I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.
I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.
I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.
And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.
Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash
It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.
The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.
- Share three things you have not loved.
- Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
- What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.