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:

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:

Simplicity

I’ve been resting in this pause between solstice and the new year. Although I made a conscious choice to set aside everything I could, it was uncomfortable to let this blog lie fallow. On the other hand, I have not been inspired to do much more than manage day-to-day life.

I’m grateful to have moved into new holiday routines after decades of feeling imprisoned by obligation and duty to my fractured family and making Christmas meaningful and fun for my children. Gone are the days of huge, exhausting meals, tight schedules, trying desperately to please everyone at my own expense, spending much of the holidays in the car traveling between homes, and tired, overstimulated children. Not to mention tired, overstimulated me.

Now I focus on Yule, on the deep, introspective peace of winter and long nights, withdrawing into my cozy home. I engage in rituals I love: candles, simple decorating, making a double batch of Spritz cookies with my cookie press to share, and welcoming the return of the light.

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

This year we had a tropical storm the week before Christmas with high winds and torrential rains that flooded our town and, indeed, the whole state. We were without power for 48 hours. The lack of electric light (or electric anything else) fit in well with Yule, though we got very cold. We were also trapped; every bridge in the area was closed and the Kennebec River, which winds through our town, rose 30 feet, which is 15 feet above flood stage. Between flooding and downed trees, we were unable to leave our immediate neighborhood. Most businesses closed. The ones that stayed open (with generators) quickly ran out of everything. Our neighbors loaned us a butane camp stove so I could heat water for hot drinks.

As soon as the power was restored I ordered a propane camp stove.

Life rolls along, whether I’m posting or not.

This morning, as I lay in bed waking, I heard snow plows in our neighborhood. We’ve had more rain here, and clearly sometime during the night it had changed to snow. As I moved around the kitchen, watching the sky lighten and the snow fall, cooking breakfast, sipping my first cup of tea, enjoying glowing candles, my thoughts drifted.

Impossible to avoid end-of-year lists and reviews and new year resolutions, hopes and fears this time of year. I generally am uninterested. I’m content to let the old year diminish and recede, particularly this one, which was especially difficult personally. I don’t enjoy new year resolutions, mine or anyone else’s. None of us know what the new year will bring and many of us look ahead with some trepidation and anxiety; I don’t need to exacerbate mine by making or consuming predictions. What will come will come and we’ll have to cope with it.

I will be 60 this month. Impossible. Incredible. For the first time in my life, I’m daunted by a birthday. Generally, I hardly notice them. I’m annoyed by my discomfort this year. I’m determined not to focus on it, but I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye.

I asked myself a question as I moved around the kitchen this morning. If I could have anything for my birthday, if I could make one intention for the year ahead, what would it be?

It’s easier to think about what we don’t want, isn’t it? I reviewed my current challenges and anxieties, watching the pewter sky and the snow becoming less rain and more flakes as the temperature dropped. I flipped the bacon, gave the cats another half a can of food so they would get out from under my feet. The pipes in the radiators creaked and popped as the furnace turned on.

The word ‘simplicity’ came into my mind. I turned it over. I thought about what brings me joy. I thought about candles, reading a good book, the warmth and weight of a cat in my lap. I thought about a cup of hot tea. I thought about music, the rhythm of swimming, being with people I love and trust. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my weighted blanket, just breathing. Peace. Stillness. Light and shadow. Long nights. My warm bed. Hot showers. Solitude. Privacy. I thought about my current laptop background. A perfect illustration of simplicity:

I thought about what I don’t want. The endless complications of being nice, pleasing others, fawning to stave off violence and pain. Clutter. Bright lights, noise, demands. Busyness. Obligation. Duty. Feeling hounded, imprisoned, criticized, judged by myself and others. Too much talk. Racing the clock.

I thought about boundaries. Inconsistent boundaries, badly maintained, easily breached; and strong, smooth, tough boundaries, well-maintained and consistent. Unapologetic.

I thought about the simplicity of ‘No’ and the complications of ‘No’ followed by five minutes of cringing apology and justification, or the inability to say ‘No’ at all.

‘Simplicity’, I decided, named my longing.

When I consider the first 60 years of my life I mostly see the unending labor and anguish of caring for others, the years of trying and trying, as only a woman who loves can understand, to love them all. To please them. To make them happy and healthy. It was complicated. Noisy. Chaotic. Bloody. Painful. Extremely expensive in terms of my own health and happiness.

And frequently thankless. Rarely reciprocated.

That’s what I thought I was for, to live that way. I was taught that was what I was for.

In the last few months I came across a little mantra which has become something like a prayer permanently nestled in my consciousness:

I am enough.
I choose my life.
I trust myself.

Sixty is a nice, round number. How would it be if I chose to begin again, now, with just myself; my own self-care, which is simple and easy? What if I chose to embrace the discomfort and power of maintaining strong, consistent boundaries and let people react to them however they need to, making their feelings none of my business? What if I stopped apologizing for what I need because it’s not what they need or understand or want?

What if I made up my mind to choose the simplest thing, the most direct, honest answer, the clearest communication in any given situation? What if I stood up for myself the way I stand up so readily for others?

Maybe 60 years of responsibility for everyone around me is enough and I could choose to spend the next 60 years (!) being responsible only for myself.

What a relief!

I don’t tell myself living more simply will be easy. It won’t. Boundaries, (I’m never allowed to forget) are invariably heavily challenged and battered by those who have the most to gain by us having none. Maintaining boundaries means conflict, a thing I dread and have always avoided as much as possible. It means emotional manipulation, the most painful (and successful) weapon those close to me can wield against me. It means Failing To Please. It means controlling my natural empathy, focusing it inward rather than outward, being more present with my own internal state rather than that of others.

Simplicity. What a lovely intention.

Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash

Here’s a deep winter wish for you all:

May You Grow Still Enough

May you grow still enough to hear the small noises earth makes in preparing for the long sleep of winter, so that you yourself may grow calm and grounded deep within.

May you grow still enough to hear the trickling of water seeping into the ground, so that your soul may be softened and healed, and guided in its flow.

May you grow still enough to hear the splintering of starlight in the winter sky and the roar at earth’s fiery core.

May you grow still enough to hear the stir of a single snowflake in the air, so that your inner silence may turn into hushed expectation.

by Brother David Steindl-Rast

Questions:

  • How did you spend your holidays? Did you spend them the way you wanted to or the way you had to?
  • How do you feel about new year’s resolutions?
  • What single word names your deepest longing?
  • In your view, how do self-care and selfishness differ?

Leave a comment below!

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

 

 

 

One Tribe

My work team and I provide services to patients and the public in our aquatic rehab facility in Central Maine, which means it’s impossible for me to live in a bubble. Thank goodness.

I’ve been complimented, praised, flirted with, yelled at, accused, and blamed. I’ve listened to a wide range of political and religious viewpoints with a polite face on. I’ve dealt with tears and tantrums (not talking only about the kids here). I’ve heard about medical and family history in excruciating detail, often repeatedly. I’ve watched patrons and patients get better, and I’ve watched them get worse. I’ve watched them lose weight and gain weight. I’ve met grandchildren and siblings when they visit Maine. I interact with people who are confused, struggle with memory loss, or are affected by dementia, either their own or a loved one’s.

I’ve seen a variety of sexual identities, gender presentations, and body dysmorphia (and no, I’m not conflating body dysmorphia with homosexuality.) My team has served patrons who are listed on our state sex offender registry.

We serve deaf patrons, autistic patrons, anxious patrons, mentally ill patrons, special needs patrons of all kinds and ages. We serve an occasional minor who gets dumped in our emergency room and lives there for a time while the authorities try to find placement.

Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay

People. All kinds of people. All colors, shapes, ages, and sizes. All different.

People just like me.

I notice a thing in the present cultural discourse. People who browbeat others about inclusion and tolerance invariably are the least inclusive and tolerant.

Talk (and typing) is cheaper every day.

As a writer and lover of words, I notice a deluge of new terminology and labels, many of which strike me as ridiculous, redundant, and/or meaningless. Their sole purpose appears to be to increase the ways we can despise and exclude one another. At the same time, there’s an ominous drumbeat in the background about ideas and words some person might find offensive and therefore must be forcibly eradicated. A few months ago one of my adult sons said to me, “Mom, you can’t use the word science in public,” as though explaining socially acceptable language to a child. All I could do was look at him in disbelief.

Science is not a dirty word. Disagreement is not hate, and respect and tolerance do not equal agreement. Asking questions is not a call to arms.

The Word Police are out in force, trolling online and hijacking us in public places. Virtue signaling has begun to take the place of authentic discourse. We’re harshly and instantly judged and labeled by the language we use and the ideas we express.

Toni Morrison said, “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” I think about that every day. Another phrase frequently in my mind is “I’m okay with your disapproval of me.” People have been disapproving of me since the day I was born. I’m used to it. The sky hasn’t fallen yet and somehow I manage to continue to exist.

I’m not the slightest bit interested in disapproval, labels, or sweeping generalizations, which are increasingly idiotic as labels proliferate.

I’ve been reading lately about the “tribe of one,” the logical endpoint to the cultural mandate to divide ourselves into ever-decreasing groups until we’re each completely isolated, believing no one can possibly understand our particular experience as a self-defined ______, _____, etc. Therefore, the world is against us, we’re marginalized and oppressed victims, and we’re owed power, respect, and tolerance no matter how egregious our behavior is. No one is included in our little bubble. Everyone is excluded. Yet we expect and demand inclusion, which is to say, accommodation.

Who benefits from this solipsistic isolation? Is this the kind of human experience we want for ourselves, for our children? Is this social justice?

There are other paths to take. We could focus on our similarities, on the common human experiences binding us all together. We could build a new lexicon of connection rather than division. We could stop using labels, even in the privacy of our own heads. We could value curiosity more highly than outrage, confidence more than a constant state of offense. We could value authentic expression more than virtue signaling.

We seem to have forgotten the real world is not a set of disconnected bubbles. An infinite number of labels (including pronouns) cannot describe the entirety of a human being. Experiences define human beings. Birth. Death. Connection. Feelings. Living in a body. These bind us together. The life we are living defines us, not labels.

Every single one of us in this moment is included in the human family. We all have that in common. Why are we so determined to slash that root into pieces? I ask again, who benefits from this brutal severing? Why are we participating in it? How have intelligent, well-meaning, compassionate people become machete-wielding destroyers, all the while mouthing words like ‘inclusion’ and debating pronouns?

At work (and elsewhere), I’m focused on people. Of course I notice skin color, sometimes eye color, hair, body type, spoken language, cognitive and physical ability. I also notice tattoos, scars, stretch marks, skin tags, moles, and the occasional blood-bloated tick! Swimming suits are revealing clothing. None of these details define anyone, however. For me, they’re value neutral. I don’t connect or disconnect because of someone’s appearance. I can’t make valid generalizations about anyone based on the way they look. We treat everyone who comes in the door with the same respect; our expectations in terms of adhering to our safety rules are the same for everyone. We accommodate differing physical abilities and needs without fuss.

Wheelchairs, walkers, prostheses, oxygen, health status and injury are details, not definitions.

Now and then I interact with someone I hardly know who makes it plain they disapprove of something I said, or wrote, or chose. They were triggered. They were outraged. They were offended. I’m met with a curled lip, judgement, and criticism. I’m made to understand I’m hateful and bigoted, which I don’t take too seriously, as I’m neither. Anyone who knows me at all knows that.

By Landsil on Unsplash

In short, I’m immediately excluded, and there is no court of appeals. There’s no mutual bridge-building. Because of a word or an expressed point of view I’m entirely rejected, now and forevermore. Most of the time I consider the source and shrug off this kind of interaction. In certain circumstances, however, it’s destructive and hurtful in a more personal way. We can’t always choose the people in our lives. I can’t build connections alone.

Situations like this invariably catch me off guard. When someone expresses a view or belief I disagree with, I simply step around it. I change the subject, probing for connection points. I don’t concentrate on our differences or potential disagreements. I don’t expect others to fall in line with my beliefs. I don’t shame or shun others because they have a different point of view. I don’t think of myself as being on higher moral ground, and when others come at me with moral indignation, it makes me smile inwardly. Good grief! Get over yourself already.

I’m willing to include you. Will you include me? I ‘ll give you tolerance and respect. Will you give them to me? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Will you give it to me?

I’d rather be curious than outraged. I’d rather have confidence in myself and my experience than maintain a hair trigger on my sense of offence. Most people don’t mean to be offensive. If they do, it’s best to ignore it. Life is too short to spend my days in a constant state of outrage and offense. It doesn’t change anything and nobody cares. Cultivating a sense of humor is more fun.

We’re not entitled to have our triggers, sensitivities, and ideology accommodated.

If we’re all especially vulnerable, broken, or traumatized, none of us are. If we’re all oppressed victims, none of us are. If we’re all vile haters and bigots, none of us are.

What we all are is … human beings. As human beings, not a single soul is excluded. Isn’t it enough to simply be the best human beings we can be and allow those around us to do the same?

Questions:

  • When you think of a person in your life, do you think of a list of labels or do you think of a human being? Once someone is labeled, do you ever feel you’ve mislabeled, misunderstood, or misjudged them? If so, do you admit it and eradicate the label?
  • Can you describe someone you know without using a single label? Try it!
  • In the first five minutes of contact with a stranger, are you seeking to build connection or mentally applying labels to them? Which labels do you check for first?
  • Do you turn away from anyone who disagrees with or questions your particular ideology or belief system? Do you view such people as hateful? Is it possible to disagree with you or question you and still be a good person?

Leave a comment below!

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

An Antique Land

I’m living inside this poem right now:

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

–Percy Bysshe Shelley

I want to escape this haunted place, walk away, never look back, forget, and wander among green trees, feeling their breath on my face. I want the blessing of the rain on my skin, to plunge my hands into rich soil, lie open to birdsong and the sun’s touch.

I want to be free.

Yet, again and again, I find myself crouching in front of that shattered visage, tracing the frown, the wrinkled lip, the sneer of cold command, unable to leave it or look away. I remember, and weep, and try to understand how something so mighty, so powerful, can fall and break apart, become nothing more than a colossal wreck in a desert in an antique land, unvisited, unremarked, nothing but time’s debris.

I was born in the shadow of those stone legs. I watched the sculptors at work, perfecting, shaping. I learned to worship Ozymandias, to make myself small before him, to endure his stony displeasure and indifference.

I did not know his name for a long time, not until I read this poem in high school. He was called Money. He was called Status. He was called Power. He was king of kings – that I never doubted. He required unceasing sacrifice; though I sacrificed everything I had, the sneer and wrinkled lip looked down upon me in infinite contempt. I looked upon his works and saw destruction and anguish. I saw lies and shattered lives and I despaired.

By Wei Gao on Unsplash

I left. I crawled away under the weight of my own inadequacy and unworthiness, across the lone and level sands, feeling his stone gaze upon me. I left, and one day I got to my feet and walked, and then I remembered how to dance, and swim, and the world opened up for me, showing me friendship, healing and joy.

Then, across the years, across the miles, Ozymandias fell, and the ground of my being has shuddered and convulsed with the impact ever since.

Understand, when he fell it all fell. Secrets lay revealed. Lies tumbled naked in the desert sun. Ozymandias, so carefully sculpted by generations before me, disintegrated. I understood then what I was taught to call Money was really named Fear. Status was in fact Shame. The wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command were not love, were never love. The king of kings lay forgotten, impotent, slowly wearing away to sand.

“Look on my works … and despair.”

It’s all gone, the gods of my childhood, the king of kings, the money, the status, the false power.

All gone.

Except for me. I am not gone.

In Maine, I eat and sleep. I journal and write. I walk to work, talk to people, laugh, teach. I sweat on the elliptical and exercise in the pools. I pay bills, make plans, file papers. I buy groceries and cat food. I do laundry and clean. I work in the garden. I’m distracted and absentminded, prone to sleeplessness and unexpected fits of tears welling from some deep unaware place. Or, on the other hand, maybe that place is all I’m truly aware of right now.

I talk and text and email to staff at the memory care center in Colorado where my mother resides, to her hospice team, to people at the agency we’ve now hired by request to provide extra caregiving. I hear about dementia, combative behavior, falls, sabotaged bed alarms, incontinence, sleeplessness, anxiety, medication adjustment. I am called to calm Mom down as though that was ever possible, as though she trusts me or ever took any comfort from me.

And part of me kneels in the desert, watching the family money (a mere pittance, judged by today’s standards rather than those of 100 years ago) and pride, that towering edifice more important than love, more important than health and happiness, more important than anything, sink into the desert like water. Is the desert powerful enough to cleanse it? Shattered Ozymandias still frowns, wrinkles his lip, sneers his cold command, but his works have disappeared even as he himself wears away.

Do I grieve or rejoice? I try to understand. I try to feel something more than despair at the waste of lives, at the dearth of love.

One thing I know: I will not stay here, beside Ozymandias. It’s a cursed place, a dark place. I will leave it to the circling vultures, the sun, the wind, and the silence. I will leave it to Time to wear away the sneer, the frown, the wrinkled lip, the trunkless legs. I left once, and I will leave again. I know this desert is a small place and the world is wide. I know who I am now. I know what love is, and that I’m capable of it. I am no longer alone.

I would have saved my family if I could have, but my gifts have no monetary value. What I have to give, what I am, cannot be bought or sold. I do not accrue a good rate of interest. I was not judged a sound investment. I did not increase my family’s status. Ozymandias, king of kings, was incapable of seeing or knowing me, being far too dazzled with his mighty works, dissolving now into sand while I myself, still vital and alive, pause to find absolution and mourn, groping for a way forward, watching it all decay.

Questions:

  • What idols have fallen in your life?
  • What family secrets have you discovered?
  • Do you find comfort in the eventual fall of what once seemed all-powerful, or does it frighten you?
  • How have you challenged your family’s definition and expectations of you?

Leave a comment below!

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