As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.
The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.
Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:
Here in the Mountains
There is one memory deep inside you.
In the dark country of your life
it is a small fire burning forever.
Even after all these years
the embers of what you have
known rest contented
in their own warmth.
Here in the mountains,
tell me all the things
you have not loved.
Their shadows will tell you
they have not gone,
they became this night
from which you drew away in fear.
Though at the trail’s end,
your heart stammers
with grief and regret,
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.
My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.
Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.
But I thought about things I have not loved.
It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash
And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.
I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.
I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.
I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.
I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.
I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.
And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.
Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash
It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.
The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.
- Share three things you have not loved.
- Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
- What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
I’m sitting at my desk this morning, the sun shining on the wet grass scattered with wrinkled leaves outside my window. I’ve just been running errands. My desk, unusually, is piled high with scraps of paper, notebooks, my calendar, receipts, to-do lists, and a new binder and paper I just bought to help me organize. My big grey tabby, Oz, is busily knocking everything off the desk and chewing on a new plastic package of AAA batteries because I won’t let him lie on the keyboard.
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
I was sick most of October. I’m finally on antibiotics; I can breathe, and consequently think, more clearly. A week ago an aged family member living halfway across the country with whom I have a lifelong troubled history became openly unable to manage their life and then fell and broke their hip in quick succession.
Sometimes life requires us to muster every bit of learning, wisdom, strength, courage, insight and experience we have in a catastrophic practical test, like a nightmarish pop quiz. This is one of those times. It helps to look at it that way, because I know I have (somewhere) everything I need to manage this situation with all my considerable compassion and clear-sightedness.
This last week I let go of everything. My living space needs to be cleaned. I desperately want to change my sheets after so many nights crying, coughing, and trying to breathe adequately enough to snatch some sleep. I’m longing to escape my phone and laptop, sit in the sun, read, relax, do some gentle gardening (still like late summer here in Maine). I haven’t even started on this post yet, a thing I usually do during the week.
I made it to work. I made it to the doctor for antibiotics. I stayed hydrated. Aside from reactive crisis intervention and coming to terms with what’s happening long-distance, that’s about all I can say for myself. But now, at last, I’m beginning to stir feebly into some kind of normal experience again.
It’s a relief.
I opened this document and started typing without any plan whatsoever. I don’t have to post today on this blog. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. I suppose I’ve grown used to the opportunity to organize my life into words every week.
For nearly a decade I’ve worked intensively on boundaries. Ten years ago I knew nothing about personal boundaries. My life was accordingly dysfunctional. It was hardly my life at all, in fact. It was everyone else’s life. I’ve written extensively about boundaries on the blog, and the concept of the difference between your experience and mine is woven heavily into my fiction. I’ve practiced building and maintaining healthy boundaries in the last years, though I’m still far from perfect in working with them.
But I’m getting better all the time.
When we are prevented from building appropriate psychological boundaries as children, we never create an internal world in which we can rest, center, and ground. We become an image in someone else’s mirror, a paper doll, a nonperson.
Nonpeople have no needs, no credibility, and no permission to express themselves as individuals. It’s worse than no permission, though. Nonpeople are severely punished for any independent feeling, need, or expression. Nonpeople have no private life. They’re not allowed to say no.
This kind of relationship, sadly, is often invisible to onlookers. From the outside, such connections look bonded and mutually adoring. The public view never sees the anguish involved in a relationship without boundaries.
Anguish on both sides. Those who seek to prevent others from having boundaries are deeply damaged, insecure people whose own boundaries were likely brutally violated and torn down. They are terrified of being alone, and a boundary makes them feel utterly outcast and rejected.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
But for me, boundaries are sanity. They’re safety. They allow the power to choose and respect to flow both ways. They say, “My self is worthy. Your self is worthy. We can choose to love one another as well as ourselves.”
Reshaping a primary relationship with no boundaries into one with healthy ones is excruciating. It may not be possible. I haven’t decided it is impossible, but I wonder. One of the hardest things about it is how it looks to outsiders, who don’t understand why all the harsh edges and corners are suddenly showing in such a perfect, loving relationship, the kind we all want, the kind we should feel lucky to have.
Another feeling I’m present with just now is the nauseating swing between relief and guilt. All secrets, painful family secrets included, have an uncomfortable way of being revealed. Even if everyone involved conspires to keep the secret, eventually, often in a you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kind of way, someone or something like a terrible series of events exposes it.
I’ve posted about such ideas as loyalty, responsibility, duty, gaslighting and projection. The bars of prisons built by family systems are forged out of concepts and strategies like these. But when a secret escapes the bars melt away and we’re suddenly free. We’re not alone in solitary anymore.
Some stranger says to us, “Oh, yes. I’m familiar with that dynamic. I’ve observed that behavior. I understand,” and we realize we are not crazy. We are not mean and ugly. We are not hateful.
We are not alone.
The relief of validation is indescribable. So is the guilt accompanying the relief. When we guard secrets, literally with our lives, for the sake of protecting the dignity of a loved one and the secrets are revealed through no fault of our own, we also feel exposed. The mere fact that we were the designated secret keeper means we failed.
Our love and the cost of bearing the secret’s burden for so long doesn’t matter. The least we can do, the least we can do, is remove all the boundaries we’ve erected so carefully and painstakingly and once again give up our lives, our freedom, our selves. Our loved one’s anguish should become our anguish, their pain our pain, their limitations our limitations. If necessary, their death should be our death. Because we betrayed, we let them down, we failed.
The secret got out.
I can’t see very far ahead. It’s not useful to gaze at the road behind. I’ve already walked it and everything is different now, the people involved and the situation. Right now I know where I am. I can see the next steps. This is a new path, one I’ve never taken before. It’s a new script, a new experience. I’m working on releasing my assumptions. I don’t know what will happen next. I can predict, but predictions make me tired. What I have is right now, today. I know what I will do today, both in my personal life and to manage my loved one’s situation.
This time I will find a way to inhabit my boundaries and support my loved one without sacrificing one for the other. I will make phone calls, send emails, get myself organized to do whatever I can long distance and prepare to travel in case of need. I will grieve.
I will also write, get outside, do some laundry, maybe take a nap, and work on recovering my health, because mine is the only life I can live.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
As I’ve thought about this post, I realize the theme of being lost and found is a thread running through my life and my writing. Years ago, when I was first introduced to Clarissa Pinkola Estes and devouring everything I could find by her, she used a phrase I’ve never forgotten: everything lost is found again.
Everything lost is found again.
The possibility of that truth gave me deep comfort, something I badly needed in those days.
Maybe we don’t find all the things we lose in our lifetimes, and maybe not in our deathtimes. But maybe someone else finds what we lost. Or maybe what we lost comes back to us looking so different we don’t recognize it. Or maybe what we lost is not truly lost at all. We carelessly leave things behind, or we amputate them, or we deny they were ever there in the first place. We fear we’ve lost them. We try to lose them. But maybe they never really leave us, they just hide somewhere in the attic of our minds until we need them. We ascend the stairs, enter the musk and debris of years, all the broken, aging, outdated and rejected parts of our lives and ourselves mouldering together in cobwebs and dust.
I like to imagine that.
I’ve posted before about being lost and found. I went back and read it as I worked on this post, so as not to be repetitive. That post was a seasonal meditation on the nature of change. I didn’t explore it quite from the angle of losing to find.
I came across a quote recently from Kristin Martz: “We lose ourselves in the things we love. We find ourselves there, too.” It made me smile, and think about the parts of my life so deeply absorbing I am self-forgetful as I live them. My head is empty. I am pure being, without self-consciousness or anxiety. Time does not exist. I feel a kind of boundary ecstasy, an awareness of connection to everyone and everything, an essential and lovely part of some greater whole.
Perhaps during such times we lose all the crust, the armor, the accumulation of useless and punishing junk we’ve somehow picked up or been taught, and are pared down to who we really are in our souls and spirits.
Many of us don’t want to let go of our junk, though. It’s been with us so long it forms part of our identity, part of our story, and we don’t want to let it go. Then who would we be? How would we recognize ourselves? What might change? What different or challenging things might we be required to do? We don’t take the leap into anything we might lose ourselves in, so we never fully find ourselves, either.
Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash
Maybe the times in life when we truly feel we’ve lost it all are also the times we’re finding unimaginable grace and meaning.
It’s a circle, a natural life cycle, an ebb and flow of experience.
Another thing I came across somewhere years ago is the idea of an older, wiser version of ourselves, always at our shoulder supporting, advising, guiding, and cheering us on as we journey through our lives. I often make a picture of it in my mind, myself as an old (well, older!) crone, holding my hands out to a younger, struggling self the same way I hold my hands out to children I’m teaching to swim.
“You can do it. I’m right here. I won’t let go of you. You’ve got this! Now … swim!” Or jump. Or put your face in the water.
“Risk,” my elder self says, “dare, follow your heart, do what you need to do for yourself. Go ahead, write, it, dream it, imagine it, enjoy it. Be happy. Play. Rest. This is the way forward.”
And, “I believe in you.” That’s what I most long to hear.
I know it’s terribly cliched, but lately I’ve been thinking about what life means. Does it mean anything? Can anyone say what it means, or must we all make our own meaning? I lean toward the latter. I’ve wondered before what life is for, what I am for, but always in soul-dark times. This is not a dark time for me. In fact, I’m gradually coming back into the light. Now the question is a curiosity, a toy, and my answers are not concrete, not a vehicle for getting through another day, but more intuitive and less formed into language.
I keep going back to that quote: “We lose ourselves in the things we love. We find ourselves there, too.”
Losing everything to find something. There’s some kind of deep truth in that my intellect can’t quite grasp, but my spirit does.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I wonder, with an inward smile, if that’s not my answer for the meaning of life. Finding myself, however that happens. Paring away all the scar tissue and junk, losing and losing and losing the people and places I thought were part of my identity, along with objects, money, youth, innocence, and countless other small, ordinary losses we all experience until the best, most extraordinary me is revealed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the meaning of life is nothing more than to immerse ourselves in it, cherish our physical experience and pleasures, give ourselves to those activities in which we lose ourselves …
… and find ourselves?
No philosophy. No agonized handwringing or intellectual labyrinths. Just body, soul, joy, and loss. And discovery on the other side of loss.
Maybe the meaning of life is simply to live.
It’s in the moment we take our eyes off the road and the car in front of us to reach for our water bottle that it happens.
It’s in the moment we’re preoccupied with our distress over a fight we had with a loved one before we came to work that we miss something key in the meeting.
It’s the moment of emotional reaction, the moment of distraction, the moment in which we’re trying to manage our feelings that provides an opening for accident, miscommunication, injury, even violence.
Windows are openings in boundaries, in walls and barriers and closed, airless cells. They allow egress and entry, movement. Sometimes air, sunshine, and birdsong come in and our best selves go out. Sometimes monsters and demons crawl in and our worst selves go out.
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash
Predators of all kinds look for windows, openings in our defenses, in our boundaries. Windows that can be cracked, wedged, broken, pried. Their tools are ideology, lies, personal attacks, misdirection, denial, silencing, and threats.
If our emotions can be controlled, if distrust and drama can be manufactured, if we can be put on the defensive, our windows become open holes. We are no longer able to open and close them at will, control what comes in and what goes out.
When our ability to think critically and be proactive is overwhelmed by our reactions and defenses, we cannot make thoughtful choices. We no longer have the energy and presence to look, listen, feel, and think about what we’re hearing or seeing. Our emotions hold us captive, and whoever controls our emotions has our power.
Emotional manipulation is seductive. We become attached to exercising our outrage. Our fear is addictive, so addictive we employ denial and cling frantically to what we want to believe, what we want to hear.
Predators need not show their work, cite their sources, or back up their assertions. They need not tell the truth or undergo the tension of collaboration and cooperation. They don’t need to waste their time with civil discourse, learning new information, or considering other points of view.
All they need is a lust for power and an open window. Like the screen you’re reading this on.
Oppositional energy and inflammatory language are short cuts, toxic mimics for true discourse and contribution. They provide a hiding place for those hunting for power and control, those unable to think critically or master information.
If we’re busy arguing, defending, and being distracted by our emotional hijack, we can’t evaluate situations and people clearly. If we can’t get a grip on a situation, perhaps somewhere in the background a predator has jimmied a window or two and successfully invaded our house.
Toss them out.
And then let’s repair our windows.
Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash
A little over three years ago I wrote a post titled “Questions Before Engagement.”
Since then, the world has changed, and so have I.
I’m not on social media, but my biggest writing cheerleader is, and he tells me people are talking about how to recognize red flags. He suggested I post again about problematic behavior patterns.
A red flag is a warning sign indicating we need to pay attention. It doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost, or we’ve made a terrible mistake, or it’s time to run. It might be whoever we’re dealing with is simply having a bad day. Nobody’s perfect.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
A persistent pattern of red flags is significant. Ignoring problematic behavior sets us up to get hurt.
The problem with managing red flags is we may be flying several ourselves, and until we figure out our own behavior we’re going to struggle to deal effectively with others.
We all have an excellent built-in system alerting us to possible danger. We call it intuition, going with our gut, or having a hunch or a feeling. We may not know why we feel uneasy, but we subconsciously pick up on threatening or “off” behavior from others. The difficulty is we’re frequently actively taught to disregard our gut feelings, especially as women. We’re being dramatic, or hysterical, or a bitch. We’re drawing attention to ourselves, or making a scene. What we saw, heard or felt wasn’t real. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, we brought it on ourselves.
We live in a culture that’s increasingly invalidating. Having a bad feeling about someone is framed as being hateful, engaging in profiling, or being exclusive rather than inclusive. Social pressure makes it hard to speak up when we feel uncomfortable. Many of the most influential among us believe their money and power place them above the law, and this appears to be true in some cases. In the absence of justice, we become apathetic. What’s the point of responding to our intuition and trying to keep our connections clean and healthy when we can’t get any support in doing so?
If we grow up being told we can’t trust our own feelings and perceptions, we’re dangerously handicapped; we don’t respond to our intuition because we don’t trust it. We talk ourselves out of self-defense. We recognize red flags on some level, but we don’t trust ourselves enough to respond appropriately. Indeed, some of us have been severely punished for responding appropriately, so we’ve learned to normalize and accept inappropriate behavior.
So before we concern ourselves with others’ behavior, we need to do some self-assessment:
- Do we trust ourselves?
- Do we respond to our intuition?
- Do we choose to defend ourselves?
- Do we have healthy personal boundaries?
- Do we keep our word to ourselves?
- Do we know how to say both yes and no?
- Do we know what our needs are?
- Are we willing to look at our situation and relationships clearly and honestly, no matter how unwelcome the truth might be?
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash
Once we’ve become familiar with our own motivation and behavior patterns, we can turn our attention outward and focus on the behavior of those we interact with.
Red flags frequently seem too bad to be true. In intimate relationships with partners and family, the anguish of acknowledging toxic or dangerous behavior and setting limits around it cannot be overstated. Those we are closest to trigger our deepest and most volatile passions. This is why it’s so important to be honest with ourselves.
The widest lens through which to examine any given relationship is that of power-over or power-with. I say ‘lens’ because we must look and see, not listen for what we want to hear. Talk is cheap. People lie. Observation over time tells us more than words ever could. In the case of a stranger offering unwanted help with groceries, we don’t have an opportunity to observe over time, but we can say a clear “no” and immediately notice if our no is respected or ignored. We may have no more than a minute or two to decide to take evasive or defensive action.
If we are not in an emergency situation, or dealing with a family member or person we’ve known for a long time, it might be easier to discern if they’re generally working for power-with or power-over. However, many folks are quite adept at using the right words and hiding their true agenda. Their actions over time will invariably clarify the truth.
Power-over versus power-with is a simple way to examine behavior. No labels and jargon involved. No politics. No concern with age, race, ethnicity, biological sex, or gender expression. Each position of power is identifiable by a cluster of behaviors along a continuum. We decide how far we are willing to slide in one direction or another.
- Silencing, deplatforming, threatening, personal attacks, forced teaming, bullying, controlling
- Win and be right at all costs
- Gaslighting, projection, DARVO tactics (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender)
- Fostering confusion, distrust, disinformation, and violence
- Poor communication and refusing to answer questions
- Emotional unavailability
- High-conflict behavior
- Blaming and shaming of others
- Refusal to respect boundaries
- Refusal to discuss, debate, learn new information, take no for an answer
- Lack of reciprocity
- Lack of interest in the needs and experiences of others
- Encouraging questions, feedback, open discussion, new information, ongoing learning, critical thinking
- Prioritizing connection, collaboration, and cooperation over winning and being right; tolerance
- Clear, consistent, honest communication
- Fostering clarity, trust, information (facts), healthy boundaries, reciprocity, authenticity, and peaceful problem solving
- Emotionally available and intelligent
- Taking responsibility for choices and consequences
- Words and actions are consistent over time
- Respect and empathy for others
We don’t need to be in the dark about red flags. Here are some highly recommended resources:
- The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
- Bill Eddy’s website and books about high-conflict personalities
- Controlling People by Patricia Evans
Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay