Regular readers will know I struggle with money. The first time I wrote about it was here. About three months ago, I came across a creative prompt suggesting inviting Money to dinner and seeing what happened. I wanted to engage with it. I didn’t want to engage with it. I didn’t delete the article. It’s been sitting in the bottom of my Inbox sneering at me all these weeks. Finally, I decided to play with it …
I’ve unwillingly invited Money to lunch. She suggested it three months ago because she wants to see my new house. I’ve avoided it, tried not to think about it, even forgotten about it for days at a time, allowing the layers of my life to gently cover it, but then it shows up again, a small piece of grit in my psyche.
Finally I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to get it over with. She’s not going to get tired of waiting for me. She wants to see my new home, and she wants to have lunch. I can’t deal with the silent demand and the weight of her expectations any longer.
After all, it’s only a lunch, right? Two hours at the most.
Having made up my mind, I decide what will work best for me. I feel resentful, railroaded into doing something I don’t want to do. Why can’t I just say no and feel okay about it? Why do I feel I have to do this? I hate the feeling of being pushed, being badgered, being emotionally manipulated. Most of all, I hate how much I care about what she thinks. I hate my fear of her judgement.
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash
I don’t want to do this. I really, really don’t want to do this.
But I feel I have to. I can’t possibly tell the truth. It’s lunch, for God’s sake. Why do I make such a big drama out of everything? What’s with the dread? Why can’t I just be a normal person, get it over with?
I eat alone, so my round, glass-topped table is small and there’s only one chair. I’ll bring another chair in. Which would be most comfortable for Money? She’s a small person. The second chair is an antique, but it’s not as sturdy or large as the one I always sit in. Would it be a subtle compliment to give her that chair, or is it too old-fashioned to be comfortable and welcoming?
I can’t put flowers on the table because the cats will destroy them.
I have cloth napkins that match the tablecloth I’m using; that’s good. That looks nice.
My kitchen, where the table is, needs work. We haven’t been in this house long. The kitchen is outdated and battered, the formica countertops stained and pitted. The stainless steel sink has old drips of paint in it I can’t scrub away and haven’t taken the time to tackle more resolutely. The refrigerator is too big and partially blocks the pocket door into the bathroom. The litterboxes are tucked under a bench along one wall near the door leading to the entry; I don’t yet have a good place to set up the cats. Their food and water are on a boot tray on the floor in the kitchen. The floor is lovely old pine with wide boards, scratched, scarred, stained.
I try and fail to see my home, my kitchen, my kitchen table, through another’s eyes. It so clearly needs work, but, to my shame, I don’t have the money to get the work done. I may never have the money to get the work done. Yet I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, and this lovely old house as a refuge from the world. I love it. I don’t want to have to defend it or feel ashamed I can’t give it the care it needs right now. It’s clean, at least.
New Home, May 2022
Since this invitation was not my idea, and Money is not a friend, I don’t feel I must make a meal. I basically eat meat and high-quality animal fat. I don’t have the time, skill, or money to make an elaborate meal. I’m afraid to make something simple, like a big beef stew. Whatever I do, I’ll feel it’s not good enough. We agree, Money and I, to get a to-go order from a local restaurant. That way, if she’s disappointed, it’s got nothing to do with me. I make sure to insist I pay for my own order. I don’t want any favors from her.
I know the cats are going to be on the kitchen counter, in the sink, walking across the stovetop. It’s what they do. There’s no way to keep them off the counters. Believe me, I’ve tried it all. One of them will probably choose the time we’re sitting a few feet away to have a big, stinky BM in one of the litter boxes with lots of noisy scraping and covering while we’re eating. Then they’ll jump out, scattering litter across the floor, come into the living room adjacent to the kitchen, and scoot their dirty bottom across the carpet and try to cover that. I’m mortified, just thinking about it. Do I pretend it’s not happening, like when you’re talking to a cute guy and your leashed dog squats to take a dump? Do I get up from the meal, scoop out the litter box, spray the scoot mark with stain remover and sponge it away while it’s still fresh and visible? I can keep them off the table, at least, while we’re sitting there eating. But there might be cat hairs.
Who am I kidding? There will definitely be cat hairs.
What will we talk about? That one is not so hard. I’m good at drawing people out. Most people love talking about themselves. A few good questions can get the ball rolling and I can stay safely concealed.
When Money arrives, I greet her at the door, hoping she doesn’t notice the rotted sill and threshold, the damaged door frame, and the fact that the outside door has gaps underneath it large enough to admit a squirrel in search of winter housing. I take her through the lovely, shabby, wood-lined sun porch, another door that has clearly been kicked in at some point, and into a narrow little hallway leading to the kitchen door. Everything is clean, swept, mopped, scrubbed. I give Money the tour of my living space. The cats come to investigate. (Does Money even like cats? I don’t know. I don’t want to know in case the answer is no. If she doesn’t like cats, one is sure to jump in her lap.)
Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020
Money has picked up our order. I gather cutlery, plates, glasses. We sit down to eat. I am nervous, tense. The last thing I want to do is eat, but I do. I ask a couple of questions to get her talking and we chat in between bites. I wait for the curled lip, the sneer hidden within polite words, the fleeting contemptuous expression on Money’s face I know will be coming.
Money’s fingernails are unpainted. She’s wearing plain gold hoops in her ears. She’s dressed in unmatched leggings and a sweater. No makeup. I realize I expected something quite different …
And then my flow dried up and I came to a sudden stop, realizing I expected, in fact, my late maternal grandmother, who was always made up, bejeweled, well-coiffed, and wore little designer or custom-tailored (in Hong Kong) skirts and jackets and high heels. I expected her gold watch, expensive perfume, perfect manicure, and big, heavy rings. I expected her vivacious social cocktail chatter (gold monogrammed cocktail napkins). I expected her small brown eyes to turn mean, to tell me to act like a lady, to use my napkin, to keep my knees together. I expected the Jekyll-and-Hyde experience of watching her flirt, even when well into her 80s, and smile, and bat her nearly denuded eyelashes, still thick with mascara, with every male in the room and then the sharp little knife buried in a smiling comment or an aside about my looks, my conversation, my choices, and my behavior.
Gram, as we called her, had money. A lot of it. She was widowed young, inheriting considerable wealth from my grandfather. When her daughter, my mother, was divorced with two young children, Gram financed the family. By which I mean she demanded invoices, receipts, and bills, and gave Mom just enough to cover things and no more. No allowance. No lump sum. Mom had to ask specifically for every penny. Gram made her grovel. It was an exercise in humiliation. When Gram came to visit she hounded Mom about her marriage (Gram hated my father), her divorce, her stupidity and bad judgement. Mom went back to school to get a degree in order to get a job and support her children. We became latch key kids. I was assigned to care for my younger brother; we both were assigned to care for the animals, though the horses were sold during the divorce, taking the core of Mom’s happiness with them and leaving only bitterness and grief behind.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
Every night, after I went to bed, I listened to Mom cry while she sat at her desk in her bedroom down the hall and dealt with the bills and finances or did coursework. I was often hungry because I felt guilty about eating food Mom would have to ask Gram to help pay for. I was 11 years old. Yet Mom remained loyal, thanking Gram for her grudging support, telling everyone how lucky we were to have her mother, who loved us, to help out. I don’t think she dared do anything else. Mom cared for her mother until the end of her life, when she died in a nursing home in her 90s.
Only one time did Mom break down in front me. “I’ve never pleased that woman one single day in my life,” she sobbed. It was true. She didn’t. And she tried every single damn day. I never pleased Gram a day in my life, either, but I didn’t try. I did not love my grandmother.
That moment of truth was never referred to again. By either of us. I’m sure, had I tried to talk about it later, Mom would have denied saying it. The world, especially her male relatives, saw Gram as charming, entertaining, gregarious, and generous. She could be all those things. But could also be abusive, toxic, selfish, and manipulative. She became (I discover), in my mind, the face and personification of Money. Money weaponized. Money withheld. Money rather than love or true connection. Money as a tool for power, control, and shame.
Every dollar of “help” Gram gave us was, as far as I was concerned, soaked in Mom’s blood and tears.
So, I’ve had a difficult relationship with money. Surprise, surprise. This exercise revealed to me the roots of my self-sabotage and conflicted feelings about “success,” which in my family meant plenty of money. In many ways I feel very successful, but I’ve always struggled financially. The work I’ve done and loved (being a librarian (yes, I have a degree); working with animals, children, the elderly; teaching swimming; lifeguarding; working in the public school system; working in hospitals; storytelling; and medical transcription) are not high-paying jobs in terms of money. The work of my heart, writing, has so far not earned me a single penny. All this contribution, all this creativity, all this love and care for animals and people and books, doesn’t count and is a matter of shame because I haven’t made much money. How sad and messed up is that?
My car is falling to pieces. My house needs work. I buy clothes at thrift stores. I’m a minimalist. I could use more money. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. It would help. A lot. But it wouldn’t fix everything I struggle with in life. I’m clear about that, too. And money is not love or success. Money is a tool, one I’ve mostly refused to consider learning to use. So I haven’t. What’s the point? I don’t have any! I’ll never have any. I don’t want Money to come to lunch because it’s wrong to need it and I do. I’m certain I don’t deserve it, because I’ve failed the family expectations, but I need it. Convoluted. Tricky. My personification of money in this exercise exposes a lifetime of shame about needing money, or any other sort of support or resource, to be honest. Which is ridiculous. Because the less money I have, the more I need it. And the more ashamed I feel. And so on.
At the same time, I’m proud of my contributions to the world. I’ve loved all the jobs I’ve had. I like to work. I like to volunteer. I have no plans to retire. I’ve been richly rewarded for my service in far more important and meaningful ways than monetarily. I’m proud of my self-sufficiency.
But those things won’t pay down the equity loan or fix the car. They won’t pay my bills.
Maybe I’ve never clearly seen Money at all, because I can’t look past my grandmother. Maybe Money doesn’t wear her face, but another I’ve never glimpsed. Maybe it’s time to grow up and out of that old anger and rejection of anything Gram stood for …
So this is the story of when Money came to lunch.
If you imagine an issue or feeling you struggle with as a person, what would that look like? What issue or feeling would you start with?
What feelings are attached to your experience of money?
How do you define success?
What contribution are you most proud of? Is it the one that made the most money?
Leave a comment below!
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Violence, self-destruction, despair and human rights violations are rampant in our world. We can choose our favorite flavor: Climate change, racial and ethnic problems, gender ideology, immigration issues, terrorism, food production and diet, religion, capitalism and the economy, and a multitude of other issues clamor for our attention.
Who is to blame?
Everyone? No one?
Our global social problems overwhelm me. They’re too big for one person to deal with.
As I explore blame, I’ll zoom in to an example from my own life.
A long time ago I married an abusive man, and he abused me. (Big surprise, right?) My experience of abuse was quite real. I realized his behavior was not okay. I realized domestic violence is a huge problem, and I realized it can happen to anyone.
I found a way out, and I could have stopped there and just carried the identity of a victim of domestic violence and an abusive man. It’s a big club. I could find validation, support groups, therapy and other assistance. I could compare stories with other victims, seek revenge, stalk his Facebook page, bad mouth him, have bad dreams and feel ashamed every time I flinch away from a sudden movement a man makes in my vicinity.
I could have turned my experience as an abused woman into a demon, a chronically bleeding wound, a source of darkness, fear and impaired trust. I could run from it, avoid it, try to forget it and stay stuck in power loss. I was victimized. It was unfair. That’s how the world works.
But what’s underneath that reality of being an abused woman? Why was I an abused woman?
Because men prey on women, men are entitled, it’s a man’s world and women are not granted equal power, recognition or rights.
It wasn’t my fault. I was a victim. End of story.
A victim is a person harmed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action. Notice that powerlessness is not part of that definition, which is paraphrased from Oxford Online Dictionary.
I was an abused woman because I thought that’s what I was worth. That’s my truth. I don’t shame myself over it, but I own it. All men do not prey on women. All men do not feel entitled. Men do not define the world unless women allow them to, and the only person who can give away my power and ignore my rights is me.
And, at various times in my life, I have.
Blaming is easy, and we all do it. Managing personal power is a lot of work, a daily practice if we want our lives to work well. Blaming is quick and socially acceptable, especially in this age of hyperreaction to any hint of victim shaming.
The problem is that blame is a dead end. It keeps us firmly fastened in what has befallen us rather than what we’re going to do now. We can blame all we like, but it doesn’t bring us justice, resolution or healing. It doesn’t help us understand the complexities of our situation. We can’t learn from blame. It’s not useful or productive in any way. Blaming is an abdication of responsibility, power and resilience.
This is even more true when we blame ourselves. Blaming myself is what put me in an abusive relationship in the first place. I am not responsible for the behavior and choices of the man I was with, but I chose to be with him – for a time. I believed it was what I deserved because of my guilt and shame over previous choices.
If we are victimized by a crime, accident, or other event or action, and all we can do is blame, we’re effectively embracing a victim mentality, and that kind of thinking goes nowhere.
Sooner or later, we’re all victims of something. Sometimes our own choices lead to our victimization, sometimes we get hurt through no fault of our own, and often the situation is a complex mixture of choices, actions, and events that’s impossible to disentangle.
It’s what we do with our experience that counts. Are we going to blame someone or something and stay stuck, or take appropriate responsibility for ourselves and problem-solve?
We’re not responsible for what other people do or random events we’re caught up in, but we’re always responsible for what we do in response. Healthy boundaries help us discern the difference between the places we have power and the places we have none.
Taking responsibility is not the same as blaming. Responsibility is a powerful tool for problem solving. It’s forward-focused. Blame is backwards-focused and solves nothing.
Being or feeling victimized is no fun, and it’s not a place I want to pitch a tent and call home. I refuse to identify as a victim, and I don’t victimize myself or others. When I catch myself blaming, I know I’ve stepped out of my own power.
Being victimized is a teacher for me. It’s not about blame and shame. It’s about using the feelings and discomfort of the experience to learn, to grow, to find new resources and to reach out to other victims in a supportive, constructive way. Making a healthy contribution out of our experience of victimization heals our wounds and helps other victims find their way to healing. It helps us reclaim our dignity and power.
It’s a lot more work than blaming, which any toddler can do.
Blaming signals disempowerment, and I refuse to go back down that road. In a perfect world, we’d all be held accountable for our victimization of others, but it’s far from a perfect world, and the only choices I’m in charge of are my own.
I may be, at times, a victim, but I’m always in charge of my own power.
On Monday, I drove my old Subaru to work and parked. It was unusually warm, so I decided to leave my insulated winter gloves and parka in the car. I got out, used the key fob (as always) to lock the car, put the key in my right-hand pants pocket, and walked into the building.
I went down the stairs and entered the pool, met by the bright light and lovely (to me) smell of a clean and well-maintained indoor pool. I exchanged greetings with my coworkers, set my bag down on a chair (a bag with a couple of handy outside pockets the hospital gave to every employee), removed my jewelry and put it in a small pouch, and took off my boots and socks while chatting with my friends.
I went into our small “break room,” which consists of a towel rack, a handful of lockers, a sink, a fridge, and a microwave, and set my bag on the floor between a plastic chair and a crate in which we collect bottles for recycling. I fingered the key fob and key in my pocket. I usually keep that key in my coat pocket, but I hadn’t brought my coat in. We only have one key to the Subaru, so I’m careful with it. I could leave it in my pants pocket, but things frequently slide out of my pockets as I change in and out of my clothes at work, so that didn’t seem safe. I decided to put the key in an outside pocket of my bag. I tossed it into the pocket, stripped off my clothes, folded them hastily, and dropped them onto my bag. I put on my lifeguard shirt and shorts, got my gear out of my locker, and went to work.
During the following five hours, I taught a private lesson, contributed money towards buying flowers for a recently bereaved colleague, lesson planned for my group swim lesson later in the week, lifeguarded, worked at the desk, did some cleaning, and checked chemicals.
It was a good day.
We had a couple of late families come in, so closing was a little chaotic. We went through closing procedures, put on our street clothes, clocked out … and I couldn’t find my key.
I couldn’t find my key.
Where was my key?
I emptied everything out of my bag (not much). No key. It wasn’t in my pants. It wasn’t in my coat, because my coat was in the car. It wasn’t on the floor.
Where was my key?
I remembered tossing it into the outside pocket of my bag, which I hadn’t moved all shift. Nobody but staff had been in the break room. I know with absolute certainty none of my colleagues would ever deliberately take anything that didn’t belong to them. However, most of us do use the same bag, although we’ve personalized them in small ways with pins, colored carabiners, etc.
My colleague checked his bag, which hadn’t been near mine. No key.
It was late. I was tired. We wanted to go home. My coworker has a long commute and had worked a much longer shift than I had. He offered to take me home, but it would have added miles and time to his already lengthy drive, which I was unwilling to do.
There was nothing for it but to call my partner and ask him to come and get me.
What, you’re asking, is the point of this long, rambling, boring story? We’ve all lost keys.
The point is that losing the key sent me right over the edge so completely and so quickly it wasn’t until hours later that I realized losing the key was a trigger for a much deeper upset.
For much of my life I’ve doubted my own perceptions and experience. I’ve internalized a lot of gaslighting and projection. I’ve accepted I’m hypersensitive, dramatic, attention-seeking, too intense, too curious, too imaginative, too sensual and too passionate.
My second husband (not the father of my children) was abusive. During that marriage, when I was in my 30s and the kids were pre-teens, I reached a point of despair and desperation that led me to find a therapist, ostensibly for marriage counseling. My deeper, more honest agenda was I wanted a professional assessment of my parenting.
My husband had me convinced that I was bad with money, I fantasized and made up stories about things that never happened (like being abused), I was frigid and/or a nymphomaniac (he could never make up his mind), and I was impossibly difficult to live with. I got a lot of the “you’re an unfit parent” routine from the boys’ father and his family, too.
My own experience of myself was quite different, but it didn’t matter, because I’d given up trusting my own experience in childhood.
In spite of being an “unfit parent,” I loved my children more than anyone or anything, and I was willing to give their father full custody if that was best for them.
I didn’t think that was best for them.
But I couldn’t trust what I thought, or felt, or remembered. I knew that.
So, I thought I would get an objective, professional evaluation.
We went to the therapist. We went. Once. My husband spent 50 minutes telling the therapist how difficult and crazy I was. I said I wanted an evaluation of my parenting and some guidance in healing our troubled marriage.
The therapist told my husband he need not return, (implying I was clearly the problem), and rescheduled with me. I spent the week steeling myself, finding a lawyer to draw up paperwork to transfer custody, and otherwise trying to wrap my head around losing my boys and whether it was worth it to try to help myself. Could I be healed? Was I worth fixing? Did anything matter anymore? What would I say to the boys? How in God’s name could I go on without them?
When I walked into the second session, the therapist was angry. I deserved it. People were frequently angry with me. He pointed to a chair, sat knee-to-knee with me, and demanded to know why I was with a man who was destroying me.
I was blinded by the realization he wasn’t angry with me. He was angry for me. He actually cared. About me!
“Do you want to live or die?” he asked brutally.
“I want to live,” I said without thinking, the warrior in me suddenly coming to life. I hadn’t known until then that it was true.
We spent the next six weeks planning an exit strategy from my marriage, and then he cut me loose. He told me I was fine; I didn’t need his services. What I needed was to get away from my abuser.
From the moment I lost that key at work, I went obsessively over every move I’d made from pulling into the parking lot to the realization the key was gone. I thought I knew exactly what I’d done. I could remember it, see it in my mind’s eye. I’m a creature of habit. There was nothing new or different about that day and my routine. I wasn’t tired, sick, or distressed.
Yet the key was gone.
I was at once plunged back into that old feeling of madness, that I live in some kind of sick alternate reality others don’t inhabit. I remembered every mocking or contemptuous comment I’d ever heard about my sensitivity, my intuition, my imagination, and my drama. I thought about how disconnected and isolated I’ve often felt; crazy people are, after all, impossibly difficult to deal with. I remembered the terrible confusion of having a clear memory but being told it never happened, I made it up. And what kind of a monster would make up such disloyal, ugly lies?
All the work I’ve done in the last decade; my creative life; the processing, healing, and reclaiming of myself and my power, were swept away as if they’d never happened. I was not to be trusted, and I couldn’t trust myself. In fairness to my coworkers, students, pool patrons and patients, and most of all my partner, I should crawl away, institutionalize myself, disappear.
Because I lost my car key.
While all this emotional chaos was going on, my partner and I made complicated plans to get a new key programmed for the Subaru (towing the car to the nearest dealership an hour away, dealing with the $100 cost for said programmed key, etc.), and my teammates scoured the office and break room at work looking for the key. Meanwhile, a major winter storm looms on the horizon, adding more pressure around timing, scheduling, and the necessity for winter driving.
All the while I watched myself, wondering if my memory is to be trusted, if my intention is to be trusted, if any of my perceptions are to be trusted. How could I remember every step of what I did, and yet the key was not there? What did it mean? What had I done? Do I have black holes in my memory and don’t even know it? Did I make up a story about what I did that had nothing to do with reality? Was the key still in the car after all? Had I not locked it, though I remembered doing so?
Had all those voices in the past been right, and I’ve been living in a fantasy for the last few years, believing myself to be rational, sane, even well-balanced and intelligent?
Maybe I should have given up the kids, after all? Maybe I was (am?) an unfit mother. Perhaps I shouldn’t be working with children.
Yesterday afternoon, my partner drove me to work. I went to the Subaru and stood by the locked driver’s door. The key was not in the car. My partner verified it, as I no longer trusted the evidence of my own senses. The car was locked, just as I remembered. My parka and insulated gloves were on the passenger seat, just as I remembered. My partner and I walked across the parking lot, exactly as I’ve done hundreds of times before, with me reciting each action along the way. We went in the building, down the steps and into the pool.
No one had found the key. Everyone was concerned. Nobody seemed to understand that I was crazy; no longer to be trusted. We talked about where we’d looked. People asked questions. We looked in various places again. Wearily, I said that I’d thought I’d thrown the key into the outside pocket of my work bag. Everyone rummaged in the outside pockets of their work bags without much hope.
A shriek from one of my colleagues. Unbelievably, she held out the key on its fob in her palm.
For a moment, I had an intense sense of vertigo. It seemed unreal. What was real? Was that my key? Was I really seeing it? Or was I making this up, too? But every face around me was filled with relief. They were all smiling. They saw it, too. I took it, held its small, familiar weight in my hand. The key was there. It was found. It was real.
So, maybe, I thought dazedly, I’m not crazy? I’m okay?
We realized my coworker’s bag had been sitting on a chair in the break room. I had tossed my bag onto the floor next to the chair. In a moment of non-crazy but very normal human inattention, I tossed the key into the outside pocket of her bag rather than mine. The bags, as I said before, are identical. I got in the pool for a private lesson, my coworker went home with her bag, and that was that.
The key wasn’t there because the key wasn’t, in fact, there. I didn’t make anything up. My memory was true. My reality was real. I simply tossed the key into the wrong bag.
Today I feel exhausted, vaguely embarrassed, and relieved beyond words. I’m not crazy. I can trust myself. My perceptions and experience are real. I’m rational (most of the time — but I recognize my own irrationality when it’s happening!) I know the difference between reality and fantasy.
I’m okay. Again. Still.
On the other hand, it didn’t take much to knock me over — hard. It’s difficult to overestimate the power of our old wounds. My confidence is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be.
My partner was the first person who ever told me to trust myself. It sounded cruel the first time I heard it. Any number of people could have told him I’m not to be trusted. I certainly didn’t trust me. I could speak in detail about my perceptions and experience, but I didn’t, because to do so resulted in an emotional beating, and I believed the people around me could see ugliness and abnormalities in me I was too (stupid? crazy? arrogant? confused? cowardly? mean? selfish? disloyal?) to identify. Yet my partner (fool that he is) stubbornly persists in trusting me, even after living with me for five years.
In his eyes, all I misplaced was a car key. I felt as though I’d permanently lost myself.
Last evening, I was part of a remarkable conversation about hugs.
I’ve written before about my hunger for touch and the shame that goes with it. A longing for touch is always with me to some degree, ebbing and flowing with my social context, but I hide it and rarely speak of my need. Keeping it secret is, of course, self-protective. I’m ashamed of my need and what others will think of it, but we also live in a culture that distorts much of our rightful and healthy sexuality and sensual expression. A woman who craves physical affection and reassurance is exceedingly vulnerable and very likely to be misunderstood.
I’m also respectful of the boundaries of others; unfortunately, many people are badly wounded around unwanted and/or inappropriate touch. I myself am confused about the interaction of abuse, touch and sex, and I know many others are as well.
Yet I maintain touch is one of the core needs we all have, and I know touch deprivation is a condition that has been extensively studied. As human beings, we don’t develop normally if we’re touch deprived or otherwise dislocated from our neurobiological need for skin-to-skin contact.
This is an issue I deal largely with inside my own head, although I have mentioned it in writing. I haven’t discussed it among friends. If we reveal how ugly and pathetic we are, we won’t have friends, right?
Sigh. No. Not right. We all have secrets like this, and true friends don’t turn away from our warts and scars. Also, I get bored by my own fear and the tension between being real and being accepted. To hell with it.
Last night, I found myself standing outside in the early winter evening with two others talking about, of all things, hugs. The harsh light at the apex of the barn roof fell on us, making strange, stark shadows on our faces,
I was stunned (first) and amused (later) to discover a hug meant something entirely different to each of us. I’m constantly poking at the different meanings we have for words and concepts, and I’m acutely aware of the confusion and conflation of things like respect and agreement. Why should the experience and interpretation of either giving or receiving a hug be any different?
I suppose it’s such a deep, painful and private issue I’ve simply never given it enough airtime to realize touch, too, has many different meanings. The only meaning I’ve been able to see is my own, and I realize now my meaning is very unsophisticated and black and white:
Touch means love. If there is no touch, there is no love. If my touch is rejected, my love is rejected, which I take personally and make into a rejection of me, naturally!
So there we stood in the icy driveway, having just disembarked from the car. I said (and realized as I said it how true it is, though I never expressed it this way before) a hug is the best “I love you,” I can express. I’ve always been able to say (and hear!) far more physically than I can with words.
My friend (another woman) said she learned to think of hugs as a sign of weakness.
Another friend (a man) said to him a hug, or most other kinds of physical contact, are a threat of pain, violence or abuse.
Wow. The three of us stood there, looking at each other. I was reminded of how little we know or guess about what goes on below the surface of others, even others we know and care about. I was humbled by their honesty, touched by their vulnerability, grateful for the reminder we all carry around pain and confusion over something in our heads and hearts. I wanted (of course!) to take them both in my arms, but refrained (also of course).
It’s amazing to understand the best, most compassionate and loving gift I can give another might feel to the recipient like a threat, or endanger their sense of strength and independence. My intention may be completely lost in translation.
When I think about the times I’ve felt rejected or rebuffed as I interact with people who aren’t comfortable with touch, I suddenly realize their discomfort is likely not about me at all. I no longer get to be the star in my soap opera (nobody loves me, I’m old, I’m ugly, I’m untouchable). Maybe, in fact, others don’t want to make me feel weak, or threatened, or who knows what else!
I can’t help but giggle about this.
I can’t say more about my personal thoughts and feelings right now. It was one of those brief but amazing conversations I can’t stop thinking about. It didn’t lead me to a grand and glorious conclusion, it just revealed aspects of touch I hadn’t been aware of before.
Social touch is extremely complicated and essential to healthy human functioning. I discover, as I research, the discipline of psychotherapy is beginning to look at the importance of touch as a tool for connection and emotional healing. We know touch can play a role in physiological healing. Touch is an essential part of nonverbal communication. Different cultures have different social rules about touch. A couple of generations of American parents were taught to avoid holding or cuddling infants and children (don’t spoil your child); thankfully, we are changing our beliefs about that now, but that doesn’t help the generations of disbonded and attachment-disordered children who are now adults and struggling. Skin hunger and touch deprivation are a huge problem for elderly populations.
We also live in a #MeToo atmosphere in which the previously hidden pain of thousands of victims of inappropriate touch is becoming visible. As healing and validating as our recognition and outrage over this kind of abuse is, it leaves many people nervous about giving or receiving any kind of touch from anyone unless it’s sexual (as in consensual between two adults), making us ever more isolated, ashamed, and skin hungry.
I wish I had answers for myself and others, but I don’t. Somehow, we have to find a way forward with healthy boundaries, consent, communication and respect as we honor our deep physical, emotional and neurological need for nonsexual touch.
Crystal Casket by Rowan Wilding
Innocent, yet somehow run afoul of a jealous queen A sly drop of poison introduced A taint that can never be erased. So polluted, then, they built me a crystal casket, Protecting the world from my touch. I rise and clothe my outcast body, day by day Concealing shameful curse But at night I return naked to my crystal casket. The moon bathes me in her cool silver milk Ebbing and flowing like a slow heartbeat in the ravishing night. I lie with my hands folded on my chest (Their small warm weight comforts my empty heart) And watch the sky storm with stars Galaxies in my eyes. Neither shroud of rain nor quilt of snow can touch me, shut away But I love them from within my crystal casket. No faithful guardian watches over me, a lighted lantern at his feet. No prince arrives, seeking a poisoned kiss. I was never black as ebony, red as blood and white as snow. Now I’m spiderwebbed with age and moon-milk Cool inside my crystal casket while midnight passions wheel around me Dark flowers and fruits, musk and nectar, texture and taste and scent
I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.
One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.
I was wrong.
Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.
But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.
You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.
Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite — conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.
In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.
Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.
A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”
Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.
Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.
When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.
On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!
I don’t want to admit unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.
When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.
My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now after receiving some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!
Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.
Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.
Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.
Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.
My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.
Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.
As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.
We stand on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.