In the online Red Cross Lifeguard Course, there’s a segment titled “When Things Don’t Go As Planned.” Every time I come across it, I smile.
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Yes, indeedy. Because things often don’t go as planned.
Learning, in a real or virtual classroom, from text or videos or slideshows or YouTube, is necessarily simplified. The situations are controlled. Even the blood looks like cherry-flavored candy.
As a blogger, I ruminate, explore, define, proceed logically, and research. I’ve touched on so many different topics over the years here on Harvesting Stones. I’ve examined needs and boundaries, reciprocity and connection, contribution and authenticity.
However, this kind of intellectual exercise, learning at a remove, is not where the real mastery is.
The mastery comes when we put it all into action in real life. And real life is unbelievably messy. Real life is a loose cannon on a rolling deck. Real life does not go as planned.
We are occasionally plunged into chaos, into complicated experiences involving a lot of feelings and requiring all our skills. Our predictable routines and schedules turn inside out. We are not able to care for ourselves or anybody else as usual. We become exhausted. Our personal demons crawl out of our subconscious attics and cellars and play with us. Our physical weaknesses take advantage of our stress. We lose track of our power. We lose track of ourselves.
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I would avoid such times if I could. I believe most of us would. Few people enjoy living in a maelstrom. The thing is, the maelstrom holds gifts, insights and growth we would never realize if we always lived serene, well-controlled lives.
I’m writing this on Wednesday morning. A week ago today, less than 24 hours before closing on the house we’re selling and the house we’re buying, closing was cancelled. Well, “extended.” I’m not sure there’s a difference, but my hope is pretty frayed right now, so I’m inclined to be pessimistic.
I thought I had been living in chaos before that abrupt last-minute change of plans, but those far-off days seem like a cake walk compared to what the last seven days have been like for me.
When our lives fall apart in painful ways, part of the stress of it is the rest of the world goes right on without giving us space and time to process, remember our resilience, and get back on our feet. I still needed to figure out how to get the car in to get the studded snows changed. I still have bills to pay. I still have a job. I still need to search the stores for cat food. I still have family birthdays to remember. The bed still needs to be made, the dishes washed, the laundry done. I want to remain consistent in my writing.
Autoimmune disease is highly opportunistic. I have not had this amount of stress since I moved to Maine seven years ago, and within a few hours of the cancelled closings my back went into spasm, which means I need all the love, rest, and care I can give myself right now, in the middle of the shit show. My body would feel better if we could close and get this move over with. And I can’t possibly move with this level of pain.
Meanwhile, the world turns. I feel guilty about my struggle when I know people in Ukraine are losing their homes, lives, loved ones, and perhaps their country. I tell myself I’m being dramatic, I’m whining, I never deserved for things to work out in the first place, etc., etc.
I told you about the personal demons crawling out, right?
So what do we do during times like these? How do we get through them? How do I turn the concepts of letting go, courage, detachment from outcomes, and emotional intelligence into tools to help myself? It’s all so clear, logical, and neat on the page/screen. I believe every word I write. It’s all organized and categorized.
When things don’t go as planned, nothing is neat, organized, or categorized. We can’t think well. Our feelings sweep us from fear to fury to despair and back again.
In my old dance group, we used to say when you feel overwhelmed, dance small.
Dancing small is focusing on breathing in and out. It’s making small movements. It’s wrapping your arms around yourself, facing a wall or a corner, closing your eyes, and concentrating on the floor under your feet. It’s deliberately sinking into yourself and letting everything and everyone else go as best you can. It might be the healing release of tears.
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This strategy doesn’t make the chaos go away, but it does give us a small resting place within the chaos. It allows us to find and hold onto ourselves. It gives us a tiny bit of power. It allows a little space for rational thought, for us to remind ourselves of what’s true:
This week, though in many ways painful and difficult, has also provided me with valuable practical experience in using some of my newer skills. It’s given me a chance to stay in my own power, always a worthy practice. I’ve had an epiphany about a longstanding destructive pattern in my relationships which has emotionally freed me in significant ways. Paradoxically, the current chaos has brought me clarity.
I’ve also been touched and humbled by the support I’ve received from friends and other members of my community. I am not alone.
Most of all, it’s given me a chance to deal with my feelings. It occurs to me the word “stress” is misleading. I don’t need to deal with my stress. My feelings need attention. They need to be named, welcomed, fully experienced, and released, no matter if they’re in my head, heart, or back. Managing my feelings will take care of my stress and my physical discomfort.
By the time you read this, things will have changed. Perhaps we’ll have a new closing date. Perhaps I’ll have decided to make a different plan. Perhaps we’ll still be in limbo, but it will be a different day in limbo. Today, we’ve taken my car in to get the tires changed, so that’s something taken care of. At some point, the muscles in my back will unclench and I’ll move freely again and be able to resume exercise.
Meanwhile, frogs boom, chuckle, and peep in the pond. The birds are busy and the spring dawn chorus gladdens each morning. The phoebe has returned and hunts from the barn roof. Rain falls and the sun shines. The mud is gradually drying up. I will feed the cats, play with them, clean their boxes. I’ll go to work, teach swim lessons, wipe down the locker rooms, read the pool chemicals, guard lives, answer the phone. I’ll feed myself, drink cups of tea, rest, write, read, and sleep. Time will pass. Days will pass.
It will all pass, the things that go as planned, and the things that don’t.
I have a friend at work who, in the moment of an unexpected event, says, “This is happening!” as he copes on the fly. The phrase (and my friend) makes me smile, and it keeps running through my head as our world changes.
We’re all affected, and we’re all saturated with news, statistics, opinions, thoughts, predictions and our own feelings about current events. We’re all sick of the subject (no pun intended), but it’s hard to talk about anything else.
The headlines are grim. The maps are grim. The future is uncertain. I’m writing this on Saturday, March 15. What will Monday bring? Where will we be on Thursday, when I publish this?
Last week I wrote about making choices, and discerning between the places we have power and the places we don’t. It was a timely post.
We can choose to see our current situation as an opportunity.
Before you start throwing rotten food at me, understand I’m in no way minimizing our stress, anxiety, fear or loss. I’m very concerned, more for others than myself, but for myself, too. I don’t want to get sick and die. I haven’t finished my books yet, for one thing.
On the other hand, I admit to a sort of horrified fascination when it feels like everything is falling apart, either for me, personally, or on a larger scale. Chaos, in my experience, is filled with possibility, with sudden shifts and changes, with unexpected twists and outcomes. When we surf the edge of chaos, we’re in terra incognita, and anything might happen.
We’ve all been hearing about restrictions, limitations, cancellations, curfews, lockdowns, and other draconian measures as the pandemic sweeps across the globe. It’s not a good time to travel, have elective surgery, spend money frivolously, run out of toilet paper, or do a thousand other things.
It is a good time for … what?
I work in a hospital rehab center in a nonessential position. We currently have 30 confirmed cases of Coronavirus in Maine. I suspect there are actually many hundreds of cases by now, but testing is limited up here, so it’s hard to say. The hospital has put protocols in place, and we are now closed to the public and serving rehab patients only. I’m an hourly worker, so if (when) we shut down the rehab center, I won’t get paid.
My partner is at high risk due to his age and health history.
Just like everyone else, I’m anxious about how fast things are happening and what might happen next, and I have the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that says we’re freewheeling, out of control. ‘Normal’ is MIA.
I always have my eye on power dynamics. We could make a long list of everything we can’t control right now, all that’s not in our power.
But what about what we can control? What is in our power? Again, I think of my post last week, and how many of us honestly feel we don’t have time to engage with what matters most to us in our normal lives. But now we’re living not-so-normal lives, and we may spend some time doing that.
In my own life, when it’s all fallen down and I find myself wandering through the rubble, I’ve always found transformation. Pain, grief, tears, terror, yes, all of those. And transformation.
We each have the power to reach out to loved ones. We can’t choose who gets sick or who recovers, but we can communicate with the people we care about heartfully and honestly. It’s easy to lose touch, or interact superficially on social media and call it good. It’s easy to drift apart and become disconnected. Quarantine, isolation and lockdown are opportunities to strengthen connections.
Don’t forget it’s spring. We can choose to enjoy the return of the birds, the lengthening days, the sunshine, and the abundance of new growth and life around us. We can take a walk. We can make it a daily habit.
We have an opportunity to enjoy creativity. Listen to music. Read a book. You have time now, all you TLDR (too long, didn’t read) people! We can forget the toilet paper and buy ourselves a new box of crayons or some finger paints. Here’s our chance to nurture our creativity. If we’re in quarantine or lockdown we have time to play. No more excuses. Creative folks are reaching out to others in all kinds of nontraditional and beautiful ways right now.
Have I mentioned it’s spring? It’s a great time to clean and declutter our homes. Not only can we make daily cleaning of all surfaces we touch easier right now, we can lighten up our lives and homes for the future. Let’s open the windows and let the sun come in. Let’s get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter. Let’s clean our cars, our phones, our keyboards.
While we’re out walking, we can wave to our neighbors. We can smile. We’re all scared and worried. This is where our power is — with the people around us. We can check up on neighbors. If we’re at less risk than an elderly friend or neighbor, we can offer to run errands for them when we have to go out. We can find a dog to walk. We can practice social distancing and still connect with and care for those around us. We’re all in this together.
We can do ourselves and our immune systems a favor and rest. Relax. Laugh. When was the last time we checked in with ourselves? Are we happy? Are our needs being met? Are we pleased with the shape of our lives? We can take naps, or sleep in. We can exercise, eat good food, drink lots of water. We can challenge an addiction or a time-wasting habit. If not now, when?
When did we last give our intellect a fun thing to do? We could explore something that interests us, learn a new skill, play with critical thinking. We could exercise our brains. We could take on a daunting project we’ve been procrastinating about.
How’s our spiritual life? It’s a great time for prayer, ritual, or to begin a meditation practice. We could create a daily gratitude practice and focus on that instead of fear and anxiety.
Resilience equals survival. Resilient people make conscious choices about how they use their resources, especially in the face of unexpected disaster. We’re faced with a lot of unknowns right now, but let’s not obsess over the unknowable, including the future. Our power lies in our ability to choose in the present moment and let the rest go.
We know how to work, spend money, distract and be busy. Life is about more. Now we have an opportunity to simply be with the moment, with the world as it is, and with ourselves. Let’s remember how to live. Part of living is the necessity to come to terms with death.
Take good care, everybody. Love yourself and your people. Stay with your power and surrender the rest. We’ll get through this.
What if you thought of it as the Jews consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of times? Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling. Give up, just for now, on trying to make the world different than it is. Sing. Pray. Touch only those to whom you commit your life. Centre down.
And when your body has become still, reach out with your heart. Know that we are connected in ways that are terrifying and beautiful. (You could hardly deny it now.) Know that our lives are in one another’s hands. (Surely, that has come clear.) Do not reach out your hands. Reach out your heart. Reach out your words. Reach out all the tendrils of compassion that move, invisibly, where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love— for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, so long as we all shall live.
I came across a prayer to Baba Yaga recently. I’ve spent a lot of time with Baba Yaga, who is a supernatural female figure out of Slavic European folklore. I’ve told stories about her for years, and she’s an important character in my book. She’s a powerful life-death-life-death figure and has many names, among them Storm Raiser, Primal Mother, Lady of Beasts and Mother of Witches. In spite of our long acquaintance, I’ve only lately begun to love her.
Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash
Sometimes I think the most important thing to understand about life is power. It structures every single relationship, most of all our relationships with ourselves. Power creates wars, cults, murderers, abusers, tyrants, rebels and perhaps angels.
I believe we have a great longing for our individual mislaid power, such a longing that we’ve lost track of what it is or how to recognize it in our hunger and desperation. I don’t know how else to explain our mindless obedience to the media, to our culture, to our religions, to the almighty “they” who instruct us how to live, how to eat, what to believe, how to look, how to buy and how to be.
At this time in my life, and at this time in my country’s history, I cling to Baba Yaga, because she represents sanity in a world becoming more insane by the day. The prayer reminds me of what true female power is — and is not.
True female power wastes no time on despots and bullies who conceal their fear and impotence behind dishonesty and the willingness to use force. It’s not her business to prop them up. They have nothing she needs and they’re not worth her attention, for they shall not endure.
True female power is real. It’s authentic. It’s not bound by chains of political correctness, manners, fear or ideology. A woman in her authentic power is, according to need and whim, a child, a wild woman, a bitch, a seductive temptress, a crone, and a creature of magic. Obedience and compliance are not in her nature.
True female power seeks the hidden thing, within and without. She pares away layers, stories, masks, facades, dreams, visions, expectations, and shoulds. She’s a persistent poker, prier and meddlesome busybody in holey tennis shoes. She opens drawers, boxes and jars, looks behind forbidden doors and never stops asking questions. She refuses to shut up, close her eyes or pretend, and views everything by the stark light of a fiery skull without flinching. She doesn’t need anyone to agree with her, and she doesn’t need everyone to agree with her. She doesn’t argue with what is. The truth cannot escape her.
True female power doesn’t prostitute for love and validation. Baba Yaga eats sulfur to make her farts more momentous and fertilizes her body hair to make it grow more abundant. She’s hairy legs and iron-tipped fingers and teeth sharpened on bones. She takes a lover when she feels like it, but she kicks him out of her bed before dawn and doesn’t offer breakfast. Her body is not for sale, her hair is the color it wants to be, and she has no use for a painted mask over her face.
True female power is a teacher of magic. She teaches the sorting of one thing from another, cleansing, lighting a fire, the alchemy of cooking. She’s the power of the cauldron, the cup, the womb and the growing seed. She’s the wisdom of bone and blood, seed and water, life and death. A woman in her authentic female power learns to feed and nurture the magic of her intuition and creativity. She knows they are the most priceless jewels she will ever have.
True female power feels huge, deep feelings of rage, grief, joy and lust. When fear accosts a woman in her power, she spits in its eye and knocks it down on her way forward. An authentically powerful woman knows how to cause earthquakes with her dance, bring rain with her tears, melt rocks with her passion and sow stars with her joy. She allows no one to make her small.
True female power expresses all her fine feelings. She shrieks, curses, cackles, stomps, grumps, slams and mutters. She will not be silent. She stays up all night drumming and dancing if the mood takes her, and sleeps all day when she wants. She collects secrets, stories, marbles and insults with equal enjoyment. In fact, she says and does exactly what she wants to do and say.
(Yes, I said marbles.)
True female power is ancient and enduring. It’s coarse silver hair, aching bones, pearly stretch marks, lumpy thighs, scars and wrinkles and cracks and crevices. A woman in her power bleeds, first red and then the invisible silver blood of wisdom that arrives when the children of her body have become ghosts living only in her memory. A woman in her full authentic power smiles kindly on the young and beautiful, because they are not yet capable of her wisdom.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
True female power knows how to live through the night alone, how to wander in the desert, how to go underground and live in a cave among the roots of life when necessary. She survives the conflagration, the invasion, the prison sentence, the betrayal, the loss, the beating, the chaos, the flood. A woman in her authentic power is rooted in the stars, in the trees, in the mountains, in the sea and in the earth. She welcomes cycles and seasons. Change is her strength. She knows how to bide her time and let die what must, because she knows her power will endure in women who come after her.
A woman in her power is not confused. She knows there’s no authentic power in money or position, youth or beauty or hairless legs. She knows her wellspring of power is internal and if she can’t find it, no one will. True feminine power defines her own success, her own goals, her own agenda, her own spiritual practice, her own beauty and her own rules.
Baba Yaga’s specialty is too-good maidens of all ages. That’s how I met her. When the Baba is finished with such a maiden, she’s either saltier and wiser or dead. Baba Yaga eats the dead ones with vinegar to cut the sweetness.
It’s a good time for prayers. Perhaps it’s always a good time for prayers. Here’s mine:
Baba Yaga, Grandmother, we offer you our sweat, tears, blood, milk and urine. Initiate us into life and death with our own blood and bone. Lead us back into love for ourselves, our bodies and our earth. Help us, your daughters, find our authentic feminine power again.
I’ve been thinking about this week’s post for a couple of days now. There’s a lot more to say about boundaries than I’ve discussed here and here, and maybe someone else can shape the many complex pieces into separate, coherent posts, but that person isn’t me. I can sort out a few points, but the rest is chaos containing all kinds of inflammable issues, such as parenting, corporal punishment, our justice system, religion, sexuality, morals, ethics, rape culture, racism, entitlement and patriarchy.
There’s no doubt in my mind that these are important discussions and ideas for all of us, but the purpose of this blog is not to have a shouting match or explore the different ways we can criticize, judge and belittle one another.
Photo by Andrew Loke on Unsplash
I suspect most of us agree boundaries are necessary, but after that point I see potential for endless violent disagreement about how and why we create and manage them. I believe it’s safe to say our understanding of boundaries is heavily influenced by our childhood experience, our culture and family, and technology and media.
I have no answers. I notice what I call my boundaries don’t work very well at times. I notice the conflict between what works for me, what others expect, and what I’ve been taught. I notice a generation gap around boundaries. My 20-something sons see the whole issue differently than I do. I think some of this is due to differences in our relationships to technology, but I don’t know how much.
I also notice a lot of my boundaries are around fear. As a single woman, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of being hooked into GPS and map information via technology. It doesn’t feel safe to me. Likewise, I’m uncomfortable discussing my spirituality, my parenting beliefs, my political beliefs, my dietary choices and the color of my underwear. I’m not ashamed of who I am — I’m afraid of being victimized. I don’t want to deal with mean, hateful or dangerous people. I don’t want to attract the attention of a psychopath or a sociopath. I don’t want to lose connections and relationships over something like religion.
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash
Then there’s the part of me that simply isn’t interested in what I call oversharing. I mind my own business — why can’t everyone else mind theirs?
On the other hand, surely we have a right to be who we really are. But where is the line — the boundary, if you will— between that right and violating someone else’s boundary?
A highly topical example of this is the debate over Native American team names in the public school system. Many Native Americans find this offensive and racist — and say so. The other side hotly denies they’re racist and cites tradition and their intention to honor the Native American people. It’s a ding-dong argument. I’m hurt and offended and this feels racist versus I am not a racist, back and forth, on and on, with both sides becoming further divided with every iteration. Broken connection, broken relationships, divided communities, hurt and rage are the result.
At bottom, it seems to me these are all boundary issues. Our boundaries don’t appear to work well. What can we do about that?
This very morning, I had an interesting discussion with one of my sons about this. We were talking about privacy in regard to technology, and he suggested that soon we may have to accept the idea of 0% privacy because of our increasing reliance on and use of technology. Everyone (at least in this country) will be equally exposed and we’ll have to figure out how to live with that exposure as a culture and move on, or we’ll simply self-destruct. I’d never considered this point of view and I’m fascinated with it, as well as slightly appalled.
Perhaps the chaos around boundaries is present because, as my son suggests, we’re in transformation. Transformation is inherently chaotic, after all. Maybe my generation’s ideas and beliefs about boundaries aren’t working because they’re outdated. Our world, our culture, our understanding of life, technology and science are dynamic, always changing, always correcting and expanding. Perhaps the world we live in today requires different boundaries and we’re struggling to shape them.
At the risk of sounding like an old granny, however, I think healthy, effective boundaries must contain elements of respect, compassion, authenticity, dignity and kindness, not only for others but for ourselves. I think it’s important to remember that boundaries are about ourselves and what works and doesn’t work for us. It’s not our job to choose boundaries for others. We may have to defend our boundaries and others will certainly try to violate them, but that’s the only place our power is.
Interestingly, I’m reading a book right now that relates to this. It’s called Being Wrongby Kathryn Schulz. It’s a great book — well written, funny, intelligent and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it. The reason I mention it is that so many of our rules, expectations and yes, boundaries, are based on our beliefs and we have a tendency to make our beliefs universal laws. We all do this, one way or another. But take one of your central beliefs, a hot one like politics or diet or religion, one you argue about on Facebook, block and unfriend people for disagreeing with. Now just imagine, if you can, for one minute, only 60 seconds, that you’re wrong.
Pretty uncomfortable, right? Now everything changes, including your rules, expectations, stories and, inevitably, your boundaries.
Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash
In other words, effective boundaries need to flex and change as we learn and grow. Otherwise, all we create is a jail cell for ourselves. We can’t change, we don’t admit new information and we keep ourselves small and rigid.
On the other hand, if we have inadequate boundaries our power is leaking all the time. We fall prey to dysfunctional relationships, our integrity breaks, we fail to take care of ourselves, and our lives don’t work well.