Losing Touch

My work team and I are always on the lookout for new ways to work with our pool patrons. We look for new moves and songs for water exercise classes and new ideas for working with swim lesson kids.

A few weeks ago, a team member remembered an old book she’d seen titled The New Games Book. She remembered it as a resource for non-competitive games focused on play and teamwork rather than winning and losing, and we wondered if we could adapt some of the games to the water. I was interested, as I’m notoriously noncompetitive, to the point where a competition of any kind feels traumatic. Fortunately, we have a local librarian as a pool patron; she found a copy of the book. The copyright is 1976. The Dark Ages.

It is indeed filled with a variety of games, as well as black-and-white photos of people playing.

People playing. People in parks and other common outdoor areas, people of all ages, laughing, smiling, playing, and … touching. Dogs, too. It was like looking at a different world. I paged through the book, marveling, feeling sad about how much we seem to have lost. In the end, we concluded we couldn’t adapt any of the games to the water because they all involve touching.

We can’t adapt noncompetitive, team and community-building games for kids from this book because they all involve touching. It seems unbelievable.

I don’t blame the pandemic. It didn’t help matters, for sure, but social physical contact began to diminish before that. We’ve been gradually turning away from each other to look at screens for decades now, and as that’s happened social touch has become vilified.

When was the last time you went to the park to walk your dog (or just yourself), maybe with your kid(s), your mate, or a friend, met other people from your neighborhood there, and you all (dogs, too) played a silly game, or even something like frisbee?

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

Yeah. Me, too.

People play video games online together. My sons do that, one in Colorado and one in Montana. They’ve been doing it for years, even when they both lived in Colorado and could have gone to the park together.

Culturally speaking, we’ve never dealt well with touch. How could we in the context of patriarchy and rape culture? I’ve been raped, and I’ve been hit. I knew it wasn’t okay for a man to hit me, but at least it was some kind of touch. Believe me, I know how terrible that sounds, but I have always been so skin hungry because of infancy and childhood touch deprivation, even getting hit was better than no touch at all. It made me feel real. Blood and bruising are real. It made me feel alive – for a moment.

Can any of us be fully healthy without appropriate social touch? I know I can’t.

I have several friends who are uncomfortable with touch. Two were raised in the Catholic church, a fine patriarchal and shame-based system. One was sexually abused as a child.

Social touch is so complicated. How do we mandate appropriate touch? What do we do with adults who believe nonconsensual sexual contact with children is healthy and natural? How do we address boundaries, self-respect, sexuality, and family planning? What do we do about rape? How do we protect children whose parents believe physical abuse is the best way to discipline them? How do we know when it’s safe to touch someone and when it’s not? How do we incorporate the idea of consent back into our lives?

Now AI looms over us. Every day I read predictions about its influence, about those who are experimenting with it. I hear from people who predict AI is the end of all creative culture and people who believe it will support and nourish creativity.

One thing I know: No technological immersive experience, no matter how well crafted or engineered, can replace living, breathing physical interaction. Physical intimacy (not just talking about sex) is sensual – it involves all our senses, including the marvelous, taken-for-granted organ we call our skin. Human physicality is not a sterile algorithm. It’s not a porn film. It’s not filtered, airbrushed, photoshopped. A human being is a mass of contradictions, of scents, sounds, and textures. We’re unpredictable. We’re illogical. We’re beautiful and hideous, sacred and profane. Interacting in healthy, useful ways with other humans is challenging, offensive, and often dangerous. Also hilarious, fascinating and, increasingly, necessary if we want to survive. Human relationships are not fairytales, rom coms, TikTok videos, or roleplaying games.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

I don’t believe we can make a substitute for human touch. Our bodies and perhaps our souls cannot thrive without it. Yet we are steadily eroding our ability to exchange or even recognize healthy touch, to the extent that the documented behavior of one of our most powerful political influencers is a clear demonstration of rape culture in action, and his followers, many in the top tiers of power, either don’t care or actively support his misogyny.

Touch, like climate, like food, like political systems, is unbelievably complex. At the same time, we must have a planet that supports our physical needs, we must eat to live, and unless we’re the last person on the planet we must figure out how to make decisions with others. If we don’t do those things, our species will die. Life and death as a binary are not complex at all.

If we lose touch, how much meaning, pleasure, and health will we lose from our lives? As our ability and willingness to exchange appropriate touch diminishes, are we healthier and better connected or increasingly divided and unhealthy? Note the present mental health crisis among young people. Most agree enforced isolation during the pandemic did not support our social needs, especially the health and development of children. At the same time, we deliberately and cheerfully offer ourselves every day to technology that actively and purposefully isolates us from living, breathing, face-to-face interaction with the physical world and other people without even noticing.

When I try to imagine a world without the feel of my cats, the earth and plants outside my window, supple bread dough rising in its greased bowl, the laptop keys under my fingers, a cup of hot tea between my hands, cool water against my body as I swim, the energetic little bodies of children I teach to swim, and all the other countless things I touch each day, I can’t. I don’t want to. My brain might be fooled by an immersive AI experience, but it’s hard to believe my body could ever be nourished and satisfied by one.

As I was thinking about this post, I came across an essay from a poet I follow on Substack, Anagha Smrithi, titled “In the Age of AI, Poetry Matters More Than Ever.” In it, she wrote:

“Our hands need something to hold onto. Our fingers need something to touch.”

I’m glad it’s not just me who values touch.

Questions:

  • How do you feel overall about human touch?
  • Who in your life are you able to exchange healthy touch with?
  • Do you prefer your social life to be online or in person?
  • What’s a favorite tactile sensation or texture?

Leave a comment below!

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

Group Decision Making, A.K.A. Politics

I’ve always said I hate politics. In hindsight, what I was really expressing was discomfort with divisiveness and conflict, lies and deceits and power games. Talking about politics feels like pinning Jello to the wall. People throw labels and jargon around. Terms are not defined and agreed upon. True intent is obfuscated. Actions and words don’t line up. Contempt and outrage rule.

The last eight years have been brutal in the political arena. I have an internal list of words that send me into immediate flight from conversations and interactions. If I can’t flee, for example if I’m at work, I put on a neutral face and withdraw, leaving a robot to carry on until the subject has changed to vacations, or family, or gardening, or even the same personal health stories I’ve heard from patients and patrons many times before. Anything but politics.

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

Yet everything feels politically charged right now. Every aspect of our culture, our basic needs, our planet, our economics, our bodies and our minds, winds up in an increasingly bleak morass of hatred, violence, fear, isolation, and manufactured confusion.

Interestingly, in my own fictional work, I’ve been stuck for some time in writing about a small egalitarian community whose harmony is disrupted by a member who actively seeks more power. The de facto leader, a woman, doesn’t know how to combat this aggression because I don’t know how to combat it!

Last winter my partner talked with me about a video series he’d found on YouTube called What is Politics? Before he was finished talking I was shaking my head. I wanted nothing to do with it. The words and terms are meaningless. It’s all just hate. It’s impossible to talk sensibly about and I don’t want to know more than I know; I don’t want to wander around in a toxic wasteland during my free time. Besides, I want to read, not listen to and watch YouTube.

(Yes, I am a bit of a snob that way.)

My partner sent me a link anyway. He’s persistent like that. I was duly annoyed. For some reason, I didn’t delete the link. One day when nothing in particular was going on I clicked through and watched it.

Irritatingly, I was impressed. The presenter (I think his name is Daniel) is smart, by which I mean he’s incredibly knowledgeable, well read, well spoken, and he’s a synthesist. He understands complexity. He has a sense of humor. He was not hateful and he did not speak in jargon. He pushed no ideology. He defined every single term he used. In fact, the very first thing he did was define politics as “anything related to decision making in groups.”

That simple, clear definition hooked me. I saw at once that politics are everywhere because politics are everywhere. My perspective widened from our current shameful global and national politics to include home, school, work, and neighborhoods. When two or more people are together anytime, anywhere, politics are in play. My resistance dissolved. I wanted to learn more. I sensed I was on the edge of figuring out how to solve my creative fictional dilemma.

My partner sent all the links to the video series and I settled down to go through the videos, one at a time. I use a split screen, taking notes on one side and watching the video on the other.

Politics is about power, the power to make decisions. It’s ridiculously simple. Without understanding it, I’ve been writing about politics for eight years on this blog as I explore choice and personal power. Power is something we all need to understand and master; it’s the cornerstone of emotional intelligence and living effectively.

This series has been the most valuable piece of learning I’ve engaged with since I learned emotional intelligence, more than ten years ago. I understand now why I’ve never been able to get a handle on politics, and why I’ve been so repulsed by the whole subject. Subconsciously, I’ve recognized the language games and manipulations, and I won’t deal in language games and manipulations. I don’t trust ideology, including my own. I don’t trust “news.” I don’t trust all the “worbs,” Daniel’s term for meaningless language no one defines clearly and correctly. Just about the only thing I do trust is that following the money behind every ideology, whether it be food, climate, aspects of gender and sexuality, geopolitics, religion, or elections, invariably uncovers corruption and reveals the puppet masters.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

And we are the puppets. Nicely divided along manufactured lines. Emotionally manipulated into defensiveness, distrust, hate, and fear so any kind of unity against the powerful elites who have a stranglehold on the vast majority of wealth and decision-making becomes increasingly improbable. The economic inequality most of us stagger under, the thing we all have in common, cannot be clearly seen because we’re captivated by a thousand tempting but ultimately meaningless ways to hate and fear one another.

That’s just the way the people at the top of the hierarchy want it. We’re good little “patriots,” incapable of unifying.

I don’t usually choose willful ignorance. It’s not a useful choice, but until now I hadn’t found a clear, concise, pragmatic way to become educated about political terminology and history. I’ve never before recommended a video series. I hope you will check out What is Politics.

Questions:

  • What are your current reactions to the subject of politics?
  • What aspect of politics do you find particularly troublesome or uncomfortable?
  • Do you feel more or less connected to family, friends, neighbors, and community than you did ten years ago?
  • Would you prefer to live in a political context of economic equality or economic hierarchy (our current state)?

Leave a comment below!

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

Once Upon a Time a Woman Walked Through the Woods …

… and she met a bear. She froze, watching it watching her, seeing the long claws, the muzzle raised to sniff the air, the marvelous deep pelt. She thought about everything she’d ever heard about dealing with bears. She stood still, attempting to convey the energy of no-harm.

The bear let out a “whuff” of breath, turned, and shambled away.

THE END

Once upon a time a woman walked through the woods and met a man she did not know. He made no eye contact, said nothing, and walked on. The woman followed his lead and ignored him, continuing on her way in a direction well away from his. She was conscious of a new alertness, a slight acceleration in her pulse. Her peaceful walk, her gratitude and appreciation of the balm of nature, her healing solitude, now took on the aspect of carelessness and risk. She knew some would say she was asking for trouble to walk in the woods alone. Was her comfortable clothing provocative? Were her jeans too tight? Did they send a signal that she wanted sex? Where, exactly, was she? If she called for help, could she be found quickly? Was she sure what direction she was walking in? She didn’t want to catch up to the man, didn’t want him to think she was following him or trying to get his attention. She didn’t want to linger in case he’d doubled back and was behind her. How fast was too fast? How slow was too slow? What was the fastest way back to her car?

She stopped, hesitating, sheltering behind a thick tree. Maybe the man was harmless. Maybe he had come to be alone and quiet, too. Maybe he’d hardly noticed her. Maybe he was a good man like her brother, her friends.

Maybe he was parked near her car and would wait for her to come out of the woods …

TO BE CONTINUED

Once upon a time a woman walked through the woods and met a man she didn’t know. He made eye contact with her, smiled, said, “How are you?”

The woman made her face smooth and calm, but inside she shrank and adrenaline kicked through her. Should she smile? She’d been told not to smile at strange men, lest it be misread. Should she reply to his greeting? Should she walk on without acknowledging him, or would that make him mad? Or hurt his feelings? (Probably he was a perfectly nice, harmless man.) Did she have anything she could use as a weapon? She’d seen no other cars when she parked; was anyone within earshot?

Her thoughts raced. Her steps slowed while she considered what to do. She smiled slightly without meeting his eyes. She didn’t speak and didn’t stop. As she walked away, she listened for sounds of him behind her, but all she could hear was the hammering of her heart. She didn’t dare look over her shoulder in case he was behind her and took it as encouragement. She felt naked. Were her jeans too tight? She wanted to take off her jacket and tie it around her waist, but she didn’t want to do anything to make him think she was afraid of him. She forced herself not to run. She lengthened her stride, standing tall, trying to project assertiveness.

She began to circle widely, back to where she’d parked her car …

TO BE CONTINUED

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

I’m not on TikTok (God forbid), but I’ve been hearing about a recent viral sensation around the question of whether, as a woman, we’d rather meet a bear in the woods or a strange man. The vast majority of women would much prefer to meet a bear. The question was posed to me with no context and I didn’t need any time to think about it. I’d rather meet a bear, of course. A bear isn’t going to rape me. Bears don’t carry guns, abduct women, or hurt women for pleasure. I’ve often had brief interactions with black bears, both here in Maine and in Colorado. I’m not food. Any food I’m carrying can be tossed aside. As long as I don’t inadvertently get between a mom and her cubs, I’m not a threat, not something that needs to be attacked. If I am attacked and mauled, I’d far rather be hurt that way, or even killed, than fall into the hands of a twisted man. Bears are predictable. They don’t stalk, torture, lie, manipulate, kidnap, use substance, or terrorize for the fun of it.

A man might do anything.

A bear would recognize me as a human being. A man might not.

I’m told there’s a lot of anger from men about this answer, to which women respond with, “Thanks for illustrating the point so well. See? That anger, that language, that defensiveness and denial are exactly why we’d rather meet a bear than a man.”

And around and around we go.

Interestingly, an article I found that talked about this said when a man was asked if he’d rather his daughter met a bear or a man while walking alone in the woods, he eventually chose a bear.

I think about these things more than I have in years. I think about them every day at work, where I interact with all kinds of people as a professional, and every day as I walk the few blocks to and from work. I’m angry about it, because I assumed by the time I was 60 this sort of thing would be behind me. I forget this kind of behavior and threat really has nothing to do with my age and attractiveness; merely being a female is enough. For some men.

Photo by Sam Burriss on Unsplash

There’s no point is saying “not all men” because everyone knows that. Of course not all men are a threat to women; that’s not the point. The point is all men might be a threat and women can’t tell. We have to assume “all men,” for our own safety until we’re satisfied the man we’re interacting with is OK. Sadly, we’re often wrong. The vast majority of male violence against women and children is perpetrated by someone known, either a close connection or an acquaintance.

Men close to me who I trust have told me I’m “too nice.” I’m too warm. I’m too empathic. It’s infuriating. All my life I’ve worked with people. I like people (mostly). It doesn’t occur to me commiserating with a (overweight, completely unattractive, past middle-age old hippie with six strands of hair in a ponytail) patron over chronic back pain (beer belly) could possibly be seen as a come-on, an invitation to flirt and step over boundaries. Until it happens. And then I’m furious with myself, with him, with a world where a 60-year-old female lifeguard can’t say, “Jeez, sorry about your bad back,” to a male patron without having to spend the next month acting like a stone-cold bitch in order to reclaim boundaries.

It’s exhausting, and nearly impossible to explain to a man. It’s simply not in their experience and most of them can’t imagine living this way. But every woman knows exactly what I’m talking about. The divide between women and men gets deeper and deeper, fills with resentment and even hatred, because some men can’t or won’t understand our reality. It breaks my heart. Healthy men and women need one another. I don’t think we can effectively address the problem of male violence against women and children without healthy men.

I’m also thinking about this because we’re about to embark upon a major remodeling project in our home, which means we’ll have some months of workmen coming and going. I like men and I love watching men at work, learning about structure and building, observing, chatting. I would also like to occasionally make cookies or muffins, buy pizzas, and find other ways to show appreciation for the hard and expert work these guys will do. I want to communicate clearly and assertively with the contractor to make sure we’re on the same page and we understand one another’s expectations. I want to make healthy, respectful professional connections.

But I’ll probably let my male partner do most of the interfacing. He’s the one at home all the time anyway. It’s safer for him. I will connect with the contractor and write checks, but otherwise I’ll make myself small, stay out of the way, and try not to attract attention, including refraining from expressing “too much” gratitude or warmth. Whatever the hell that means.

It makes me sad. This is a big adventure for us. I’d like to have fun, embrace the chaos and change, enjoy the process and get to know the people who are making it possible. But the risk is too great.

This bear versus man viral question is important because of the spotlight it shines on female experience. Instead of an opportunity for further male outrage and denial or stoking more hatred for men among women, it could be a moment to foster a better understanding of the experience of having to live defensively every single day as a woman, knowing even that may not save us from male violence, and if we do fall victim to male violence, we’ll be blamed for it. (Our jeans were probably too tight. Or we shouldn’t have been walking alone.)

Or we could just go talk to the bears.

Questions for women:

  • Would you rather meet a man you don’t know or a bear while walking alone in the woods?
  • When a strange man is friendly with you in person (and you’re not looking for a date or a lay), what do you do?
  • What do you routinely do in an effort to avoid male violence?

Leave a comment below!

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

 

 

The Value of a Heartbeat

I have felt, for a period of some years and more frequently since 2016, that the planet would be better off without human beings. I’ve said it, I’ve thought it, and this is the first time I’ve written it. I would be happy to be the first in line, gladly give up my life in the certain knowledge that without us, Earth could heal, cleanse itself, and nurture all the countless species we have failed to notice, value, and cherish. Let the rape stop. Let the wide-scale poisoning stop. Let the brutality, suffering, stupidity, greed, and criminal disregard for others stop.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

I freely admit to the pessimism and bitterness inherent in my view. I’m also aware of how paradoxical it is. I truly care about most people. Put a single human soul in my path, and I rarely fail to make a connection and feel some kind of empathy and kindness for them. I’ve spent my life caregiving, supporting, and teaching people, taking great joy in my contribution.

In my last few posts, starting with “The Locked Room,” I’ve thought a great deal about self-love and self-trust. It occurs to me my despair over human behavior as a whole must include me. My willingness to see us all wiped out includes a willingness to be wiped out myself. If other humans are capable of the atrocities happening all around us every day, so am I. If I want to see that dark potential destroyed, if I’d be glad of it, even, my self-love is seriously incomplete.

I’m not sure I’d call it self-hate. I don’t hate myself, you, the stranger on the street, or friends and family, but I hate what we are capable of. I hate what we can (and in some cases choose to) do. I believe some of us are willing to heal, grow, change, unite, and make better choices, but right now most of the human power in the world (as we understand power) lies in the hands of a few louts nobody seems to be able to overcome. Indeed, many cheer them on.

And that could be any of us, cheering them on. In the right context, with the right ideology, it could be any of us. I am too old to tell myself fairy stories about how I would never fill-in-the-blank. Easy to say as I listen to my sheets rotating in the washing machine, drink clean water from my tap, notice the old copper pipes rattling as the furnace comes on, and type on my laptop in my fully electrified, clean, intact house in a peaceful neighborhood on a Saturday morning with my feet propped up on my desk. I am sane. I am healthy. I am well-fed, housed, and employed. Most people do not have the luxuries I take for granted, the safety, the peace. People do terrible things out of terrible pain and dysfunction. I am not immune. None of us are. I’ve been fortunate, and that’s through nothing but luck.

A few weeks ago I read a piece by an author on Substack, Anna Kay, who writes a newsletter called The Hinterlands. I stumbled across her “A World Without a Heartbeat” by chance. She was not a writer I was familiar with, though I have since subscribed to her. She turned me inside out. I wept. I was comforted. I was awed and envious of her evident belief in human goodness. I was softened. I was challenged.

Most of all, I was challenged. As I read her words, I glimpsed a different frame, a frame of hope rather than bitterness.

I could not possibly paraphrase her words and I wouldn’t dare try to give you a synopsis. It’s not a long piece, and if you only follow one link out of the hundreds I’ve posted here in the last eight years, let this be the one. Please.

By Photoholgic on Unsplash

What moved me most was a world without humans would be a world without stories. A world without stories, a world without music, a world without art. A world without reverence and gratitude for nature. A world without human appreciation. Somehow, that seems like a terrible loss. I’m not sure why. Wouldn’t the planet be every bit as rich and beautiful if no one enjoyed it? Surely it would. Yet the loneliness of feeling unseen and unappreciated hurts because I’ve lived in the heart of that feeling.

The question I ask myself is am I willing to allow some or all of my bitterness to dissolve in order to deepen my ability to self-love? Bitterness is a heavy burden and there’s plenty in the world. Do I need or want to add to it? Is it useful?

It’s true we humans are capable of terrible things. Isn’t it also true we’re capable of remarkable courage, generosity, intelligence, creativity, and love?

Couldn’t we each make a list of human teachers, guides, beloved ones who have inspired us, protected us, and made us smile as well as a list of those who have done us wrong?

Our choice is which list to make, which to dwell on.

I’ve become deeply involved with the Substack community. I follow several other creatives simply because they inspire me. They make me feel better about the world, about life, about myself. They balance some of my despair and horror regarding the state of the world with beauty and hope. I’d like to introduce you to some of them:

Questions:

  • Do you believe humans have value as a species? Why or why not?
  • What human-driven activity gives you hope?
  • Do you see humans as part of a healthy planet or an invasive species, wiping out all competitors?

Leave a comment below!

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

Vacation

Years ago I came across a tip somewhere for getting to know new people in a meaningful (versus social media, digitally-altered images, and dating apps) manner with good questions, one of which is “What would your ideal vacation look like?”

At the time I thought it a great question and I still do. I tried it once without success. Not only was I not asked in return, I received a kind of non-answer along the lines of “I don’t take vacations …” (I wondered why, but it felt intrusive to ask) which didn’t help me get to know the party in question any better! Connection dead on arrival, the story of my life. I retired, abashed.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Ever since then, I’ve thought about my answer to the question nobody has ever asked me!

I’m thinking about it again because I just picked up Drinking the Rain by Alix Kates Shulman for the first time. It’s a memoir about a woman, about my age, who spends a summer alone in a primitive cabin on an island off the coast of Maine. Primitive means no telephone, no running water, no electricity. She has no transportation aside from her own legs. She finds the experience so satisfying and remarkable she begins to spend all her summers there, for the most part alone.

It also happens to be school vacation week here in Maine, and I hear lots of talk at the pool where I work about planned trips right now. A good friend is taking the week off with her daughter and partner to go to Florida.

Online Oxford Dictionary defines a vacation as “an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling.”

Hmmm.

I looked it up because all my life I’ve heard people use the word ‘vacation’ to describe trips and adventures that sounded exhausting and stressful rather than like ‘leisure and recreation’. Of course, it’s not a one-size-fits-all definition. That’s why it’s such a great getting-to-know-you question.

I cannot remember a single vacation I’ve taken with others as a child or adult that wasn’t fraught with tension and stress, and from which I didn’t return far more exhausted and burned out than when I left home.

When people talk about vacations, I shudder.

But once I had a perfect vacation. An incredible period of leisure and recreation away from home. I’ll never forget it.

I was a struggling mother of two school-age sons in an abusive marriage, living in a small town about three hours’ drive from my sons’ father, who was too busy and important to drive to us. For the sake of my boys I therefore drove to their dad twice a month for years and years. A six-hour round trip. This effectively took care of two full weekends a month. I had chronic pain and was always exhausted. My husband had isolated me socially and controlled our finances. My mother and adoptive father had just moved to the small rural town where we lived so I was once again caring for her and my significantly older adoptive father. As Mom was also abusive, I had no respite childcare. I did not trust my husband and tried to keep the kids away from him. I solved the childcare problem by working at their little school, so we had the same schedule.

Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

A friend of mine had a family cabin in the mountains west of town and she offered it to me one summer. I carefully planned for a period of time when the boys would be with their dad, and I went.

The cabin was in an isolated community, mostly of summer places. Here in Maine, it would have been called a “camp.” It had been built on a hill amidst pine trees. No road or other building was in sight. It had running water, but no electricity and no phone. These were the days before cell phones. My friend’s family used oil lamps and candles for light. The hot water heater ran on gas; I had to light the pilot light. The cabin consisted of one large room and a bathroom, with four twin beds in the main room, a fireplace, and a simple open-concept kitchen. The small fridge was also gas, as well as a rudimentary stove. Outside was a large outdoor fireplace and seating area.

I packed a couple of books, a journal, some food and minimal clothes. Nobody but my friend knew the exact location. I was alone.

I was alone! No one could interrupt me. No one could make a demand, tell me I was doing it wrong, hurt me. No one could telephone. No one could have a crisis that only I could solve. I did not have to be responsible for anyone but myself. The relief was indescribable.

It was a beautiful Colorado mountain summer. No bugs, clean air, cool nights, dry weather, abundant sun. I lit pilot lights, unpacked, put a chair in the sun, and undressed.

Yes. I undressed. I wanted to soak up every bit of sun and privacy I possibly could. I got myself a cold drink and went outside with my book, naked as the day I was born. I read for a while. I was reading Elizabeth George at the time, the author of a magnificent mystery series, each book big and fat and long.

I got sleepy in the sun and realized I could take a nap!

I went inside, chose a bed, opened it, cuddled down, and slept for almost two hours. When I got up I was hungry, so I ate. Then I went back out, moved my chair into the afternoon sun, and read some more. When the sun went down I put on clothes for warmth, lit candles, ate again.

It went like that for three blissful days. I took a shower once, and brushed my teeth when I thought of it. I ate and drank when I wanted to. I paid no attention to the time. My hours were bounded by the sun’s movement across the deck. I slept naked and spent the days naked, dressing only in the cool early mornings and evenings. I wrote and read and slept around four hours a day. When it got dark, I slept again. I had never slept like that before and I haven’t since. There seemed no end to my exhaustion and my relief at knowing I was somewhere they couldn’t find me. Nobody needed me. I didn’t have to respond. I was safe. I knew my friend would never tell my husband where I was. The kids were with their dad. It was the first time I’d ever been inaccessible to everyone.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

No amount of money could have given me such a respite. No exotic destination could have suited me better than the utter privacy of that old cabin in the pine trees. I have never again experienced that kind of freedom to do nothing, be nothing, and know I would not be interrupted. For me, the word ‘vacation’ will always mean those three days.

I suppose some people would find this pitiable. The thought makes me smile, as it was one of the peak experiences of my life. And that’s my point; that’s why imagining (or remembering) an ideal vacation is so interesting to share with others. Such an exercise points to our longing, and what we wish to escape. I know people who love to travel and go on adventures, enjoy getting away with friends or family. I listen to their plans and stories and marvel at how different we all are, how unique our ideas of fun and what we choose to do with our leisure.

I know other people who are perfectly content at home, who have no desire to get away at all. That’s not me. I love my home, but I’d go somewhere like that cabin in a flash. I’m not so exhausted now, but I’d welcome the same feeling of being out of touch, unavailable, free of the necessity of emotional labor, not because I don’t love my friends, my job, my cats, but because I also love my solitude and one can’t do things like sit naked in the sun and read all day in company! I couldn’t, anyway. I’ve never been able to be all of what I am unless I’m alone.

Questions:

  • What would your ideal vacation look like?
  • What’s the best vacation you’ve ever had?
  • Do you return from vacations rested and renewed or exhausted?

Leave a comment below!

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

Echoes and Ghosts

For me, February 1st is the first day of spring. I know it’s early. I like it that way. I like the anticipation, the half-intuited first stirring of life under the soil, under last year’s debris, the slow, cold wakening of seeds, stiff in their dormant shells but quickening, murmuring, “Is now the time …?”

The birds are the first harbingers for me. Here, in this place, a small city in central Maine, it’s the crows, the jays, the cardinals, and the little tufted titmice. The crows and jays complain in harsh voices of salt-encrusted pavement, tired snow over lumpy ice, the steely cold. Cardinal pairs flit in my bare, bedraggled forsythia, and visit the feeders, a startling splash of color in the grey and bone landscape.

The titmice sing. Joyful, bursting little songs of nests and eggs, of green growth and warming light. The first spears of bulbs, the budding lilac, the luscious magnolia petals are in their song, though those things are only memories and hopes in the February garden.

(As I edit this, the first goldfinch outside the window.)

(On the morning of the day I publish this, at dawn, the chickadee’s two-note spring call.)

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

I have been feeling quiet. I’m burning down the last two Yule candles, gradually bringing out those of white and ivory, scented with lavender and herbs. Midwinter festivities are packed away, red table linen and warm-colored throws washed and folded for another season. I’ve been spring cleaning, making glass shine, mopping the scarred old floor, washing cupboards and doors. I walk to and from work bundled up in wool and fleece, the cleats on the bottoms of my boots clicking on the bare pavement and keeping me anchored in the ice and snow. The cold makes my eyes water, my nose run, and my ears hurt. At night, after closing the pools at 6:00, I drop a fluorescent sash around my backpack and chest and hold a small flashlight in the hand closest to the traffic, a white LED light shining ahead, a red flashing light showing from behind.

At times sleep has been thin and wrinkled this winter. In other periods of ebbing sleep I’ve felt frantic and exhausted, but this time I don’t mind. The long cold nights are restful whether I sleep or not, lying comfortable and warm in my chilly room, cocooned in linen sheets and a down comforter. I think of stars overhead, the moon on her path, ebbing and flowing, the tides lapping against the stony coast not so very far away. The hot water pipes in the radiators pop and click reassuringly.

I remember ice skating as a child, gliding smoothly over frost and snow, soaring over magically transformed water, cold biting like the crystalline sound of the sharp-edged skate blades, but warm in body from the rhythmic thrust of my legs. I haven’t skated in more than 50 years, but I remember it now, the freedom, the rhythm, the pleasure, the sense of inconsequence, as though nothing mattered, all was easy and graceful and flowing.

As the old year and winter inch over thresholds into something new, I am companioned by memories. This time last year is a constant whisper in my mind, because this time last year my mother was dying. I am not preoccupied with any time before that. After a lifetime of striving to understand and repair family history and relationships, I have surrendered to what was and what is now over. My battered empathy lies tranquil, not ravaged and torn but manageable, docile, turning over the pieces of last year with gentle intention.

In the clarity of cold winter, in my internal peace, I am alive, aware, receptive in new ways. I learned much in the last year, but intellectually. There was not time for more. The intensity of the situation, the constant crises, the long distance management, the anguish, the helplessness, the impossible tasks, the planning, demanded everything I had. I did not have time to process, to think long and deeply. I did not have the strength for it.

But now, now the past year echoes within my bones and flesh and memory. The ghosts of my feelings and experiences are miraculously without anguish, without horror, whispering a half-remembered story from childhood in which everything works out in the end.

Mom herself does not haunt me. She wouldn’t come back to me in any case, but even before that thought has formed I realize she wouldn’t come back to any person. If she is in a place we can call somewhere, she’s with her animals. No one who knew her well or loved her could doubt it. She wouldn’t come back to anyone, not just me. I knew it before, but now I feel it, and the feeling is gliding, no friction, just freedom and clean, cold air. I can picture her face, laughing, joyful, with manes and tails, paws and shining coats, flopping tongues and pricked ears all around her. And I’m happy for her happiness.

A year ago I was home again after my first trip back to Colorado. I wrote on the ice, on the surface of things. I think without that I might not have stayed the course. It was my lifeline. I was surviving.

A year ago I noticed but did not feel the presence of the birds. The first weeks of Spring came and went; I was focused on the next trip to Colorado, on arranging an estate auction, on supporting my brother in finding renters for Mom’s home, on maintaining communication with Mom’s community, her caregivers, and family. I had no attention for anything but calls and texts as her condition and behavior worsened.

I was not here in April when the magnolia tree began to bloom. I did not kneel in the cold mud of the garden, rejoicing in the chilly sun as the bulbs first thrust up through the softening soil. We were dismantling Mom’s life in Colorado, reading the intimate stories of her history, her loneliness, her fear, and her private struggles. Revealing and releasing stories she never meant anyone to know, casting her life’s possessions and debris into the world, one way or another.

My brother was heroic. The community was stalwart. One step at a time, one item at a time, one mile and minute at a time, we got through it. Somehow.

Home again in May, and back to my life, but only in the motions. Some intuition kept my focus narrow, looking only at the next task, the next step. I gave myself time in the garden, time in the sun. I moved my body. I ate, and worked, and showered, and wrote, releasing my razor-sharp feelings and experience gingerly in words, like so many chips of ice. Now and then I found a moment of peace, a small oasis in between calls and texts, in between Mom’s querulous voice and caregiver check-ins, in between broken nights. But I did not try to plumb the depths of myself. I knew it was not time and I hadn’t the strength to stay safe.

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Summer bloomed fiercely and slowly withered as Mom did, until she was released in August.

She was released, but the work of wrapping up a life went on and on, the majority falling on my brother’s shoulders. He soldiered on. We signed and notarized papers, transferred ownership, sold the house, thought about taxes. I dealt with family jewelry and wrote an obituary, and chose a picture for the local paper.

Autumn came. On Halloween, I thought a year ago today she fell and broke her hip and it all began to end …

Winter came, and passed.

Spring is on the threshold. It feels like my first spring in this new house of ours. And now the ice begins to melt. Now I am not skating on the surface of things because the surface softens and melts, warms into depth and movement, into living water, cleansing and healing. The broken edges, the shards, blunted in the sun before melting away.

Water has ever been my strength and my safety. I take off my skates and float in my depths, my memories weightless, my ghosts drifting quietly, the echoes of the past fading away into peace as I allow them to brush against me, perhaps not for the last time – who knows? I will not be afraid if they visit me again. They are familiar now, and will melt again, as winter melts into spring.

“Ice holds memories … great islands of ice … hold many stories, but they’re just the fragments. Most of the stories are gone.”

James Roberts at Into the Deep Woods

Questions:

  • What signals spring to you?
  • What intense experiences have you had to unpack slowly, over a long period of time?
  • How do you manage your intense feelings?

Leave a comment below!

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