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 of neglect 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, in this final night you will lean down at last and breathe again on the small campfire of your only becoming.
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 continuing to play with blind journaling. It’s most useful when I notice physical and emotional signs of anxiety and speeding but am not sure what’s triggered them. Taking off my glasses, turning off the light (I journal early in the morning while it’s still dark), and concentrating on feeling out the roots of my symptoms leads me to the source of my distress. Doing this when I first notice symptoms interrupts the spiral of anxiety that might otherwise follow and increase during the day.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
It works much better than distraction, like playing solitaire, which I’m still refraining from doing.
I think it will also be a great tool for concentrated writing time when I want to explore a prompt or address a specific scene or exchange of dialog.
I’ve been wondering this week how things might change if we were blind. All of us. A blind world.
A significant part of our brain is tied to interpreting the endless barrage of information coming through our eyes. Not only does life spool before us every waking hour, we add unmeasurable visual information as we look at our screens and consume media.
I notice how much simpler, less stimulating, and less distracting life is when I shut my eyes. There is a cool, spacious space between sleep and eyes open. It’s quiet in that space. I’ve written about visual noise before, which I’m particularly sensitive to. When I close my eyes, I immediately feel quieter. My attention is not demanded by visual input. I can come into presence with myself more easily. No surprise we meditate with our eyes closed.
My favorite sense is touch. Vision can lie, as can words we hear, but touch is honest. I can read pain in the way a friend holds her body, in her skin color, in a thousand subtle nonverbal visual signs if I pay attention, but touch, oh, touch gives me a flood of information that cannot be faked or hidden. When I practice healing touch, I often do it with my eyes closed. As a lover, I prefer no visual input, not because I’m hiding or uncomfortable with intimacy, but because touch is for me the most powerful and ecstatic love language. Readers of my fiction will see that reflected clearly in my writing.
It is through touch I have communicated my love and affection for animals; for children, lovers, and friends; for the natural world. My empathy and compassion flower with touch, as do tolerance and respect. In touch, in breath, in heartbeat, we are all connected. Flesh over bone. Hair. The landscape of a living body. Texture of stone, wood, water, earth, ice, plant.
Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash
Though blind, we would still hear. We could speak and listen. How uncluttered would our hearing be if we couldn’t see who we were speaking to, and if they couldn’t see us? No more written social media. No more selfies and digitally altered pics. No more dating profiles with pics. We’d be forced to actually speak to one another, whether on the phone or face to face. I suppose speech recognition AI would immediately fill this gap, though. No emojis – we’d have to communicate our feelings in real words. Barring AI, our jokes would sound like jokes. Our scorn would sound like scorn. Our sympathy would sound like sympathy. Our speech patterns and intonation would convey meaning in a way words on a screen never can.
It would be a world in which guns were useless.
We would be unable to see clothing, MAGA hats, skin color, tattoos, piercings, or anything else to which we attach sweeping generalizations or bigotry. We could assess only voice, touch, scent.
Scent is so much subtler than vision we often ignore it, but this sense can give us lots of information. We might smell of food, alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, unwashed skin and clothes, urine or feces, sweat, sex. Sometimes sickness has a smell. Poor dental hygiene has a smell. A clean, healthy, vigorous person smells different than a dirty, ailing person. Smell, like touch, doesn’t lie. A closet drinker or smoker would be obvious, in spite of their words of denial. Ironically, without vision much of our cover would be blown.
If the whole of humanity was struck blind, capitalism as we practice it would come to an end. We would no longer be bombarded with images of products or people (or people as products). We would no longer compare houses, cars, things, body shapes, eye colors, hair colors. Most of the ways we proclaim our identity to the world would be swept away. Many of our perceived differences would literally vanish. We would no longer be burdened with visual standards of ugliness or beauty. In one stroke we would be pared down to our shared humanity: our choices, our behavior, our ability to cooperate and socialize with others, our skills, our integrity, our feelings. Visual pretense and presentation would no longer shield us; we would cease to be manipulated and our power to manipulate others would diminish significantly.
Photo by Frank Okay on Unsplash
No more NFT trading cards.
What a shame.
As I work with this exercise of imagination, I feel sad. Vision is such a miraculous gift, and beauty so nourishing. But we don’t always use it as a gift. We use it as a tool with which to make money, with which to hurt others, and with which to hurt ourselves. Most of us take our visual-oriented culture for granted and never give it a thought at all.
I also feel afraid. Our visual sense is so chaotic, so inexorable and powerful; we rely on it for most of our choices and beliefs. But vision lies. Increasingly, it misleads. AI is becoming more effective. Deep fakes are harder to spot. Advertising is ever-more powerful. And we nestle more and more deeply into the matrix, seduced and shackled to the surface of things, the presentation.
What would it be like if the world was blind? Would we then access deeper levels of our shared humanity and connection to one another?
Imagine My Surprise
Imagine my surprise,
sitting a full hour
in silent and irremediable
fear of the world,
to find the body
its own fear the instant
it opened and placed
those unassuming hands
on life’s enduring pain,
and the world for one
closed its terrifying eyes
“This is my body, I am found.”
On a personal note, I’ve decided to transition to posting on Harvesting Stones biweekly rather than weekly going forward. I’m working on recording these posts for those who prefer listening to reading, as well as expanding the site in other ways. I’ll continue to serial publish on Substack weekly.
What is your favorite sense? Why?
What sensory input do you trust the most?
How would you feel about your body if you had never seen yourself?
How would you feel about your body if you had never seen another’s?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
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.
I noticed a social pattern last week I’ve never seen clearly before.
I was involved in a situation at the pool facility where I work in which a distressed person (person #1) needed support. The situation did not arise in a private place, and there were onlookers. It continued for about 30 minutes, which is a long time when someone is visibly and audibly struggling with pain and grief.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
The situation resolved, of course. We cannot fix the challenges and difficulties others face, but we can be with them while they feel their feelings and lend our strength, compassion, and energy until they can move forward. My team and I provided the needed support.
A few minutes later, a witness to the interaction (person #2) attempted to monopolize my attention and monologed about their pain, medical history, and personal difficulties.
I had completely different reactions to these two circumstances.
I have never known the first person to engage in attention-seeking behavior. On the contrary, in spite of significant disability person #1 is generally upbeat and determined, working very hard to gain strength and independence and supporting those around them who also face physical limitations and challenges. When things fell apart it was an anomaly, my empathy arose immediately, and I stepped in without hesitation or thought. I entered into their experience as fully as I could with nothing held back, completely focused on support.
In the second case, person #2 was no better or worse than usual, and is much more able than person #1 at baseline. While other witnesses had expressed compassion for person #1 (“that could be any one of us”), person #2 did not, but launched into a harrowing personal account that felt both competitive and demanding. I was wet (I’d gone into the pool in my clothes), cold, and emotionally worn out, as well as sad about the difficult experiences some people go through. I felt I was expected to supply more emotional energy, not as a temporary support on a bad day, but as a continuing source.
I silently declined, putting my empathy behind a boundary to rest and recover, and employed my usual level of compassionate listening. After a few minutes, I politely excused myself and moved away.
We’re all familiar with the adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. These interactions made me consider the failing wheels that do not squeak. Years ago, when I did fire and rescue work, I learned the loudest victim of an accident is probably not the most seriously injured. The person in hysterics clearly has an airway and a pulse. It’s the quiet victims one needs to assess first. This is true of drowning victims, as well. If a drowning victim is yelling for help, they’re in less immediate danger than the one sliding silently below the surface.
Photo by whoislimos on Unsplash
I’m one of the quiet ones. Stoic, mistrustful, often blaming myself for my own distress, I conceal it as best I can for as long as I can. I’m much better about asking for what I need than I used to be, thanks to my extraordinary group of friends, but I can relate to the one who is in deep emotional trouble and needing the most support and never asking for it. Pain and grief build up in the silence of our own heads and hearts. Our wordless anguish swells until it finds some kind of an outlet, and that outlet can be messy and humiliating.
I vividly remember being a school kid in a classroom. I was frequently bored. Some teachers allowed me to read or gave me extra credit or advanced assignments when I’d finished the assigned work, but some did not. I watched the clock while students who struggled with reading read aloud. I gritted my teeth. I daydreamed. I did my homework. I refrained from raising my hand, even though I generally knew the correct answer. I ignored the whispers about being a “goody-two-shoes” and a “teacher’s pet.” I continually defended against my neighbors trying to copy my work. I watched in resignation as the “squeaky wheels” acted out, floundered academically, and otherwise consumed all the teachers’ energy and attention. If allowed, I read a book. If not allowed, I read ahead in my textbooks. Anything to make the time go by. Of course, if I read ahead I only invited more boredom in the weeks ahead. My teachers said I was a “good kid,” I was a “pleasure to have in the classroom.”
I was not and am not a squeaky wheel. I was invisible. I could have learned so much more. I wanted to learn so much more. But there was no leftover grease. The squeakers and squealers got it all. Every day.
I know people who are comfortably well-off financially (comparatively) and are always talking about money, trying to make more money, dreaming what they would do with lots of money, blatantly pinching pennies to save money, gloating over the money they have, using their money to manipulate others. I know other people who are quite financially distressed and never complain. All their energy goes into working to earn more and doing without to spend less, but they don’t talk about it. If I didn’t know, I’d never know.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
It’s an interesting social paradox that those among us who are most in need are sometimes the quietest about it, while attention seekers fight to remain center stage under the brightest spotlight. Yet the attention seekers frequently are the least able to utilize support and validation in such a way as to build self-reliance and independence. They crave the attention, but it doesn’t satisfy. They can’t use it effectively. It only feeds their hunger.
Others can transform with a little bit of care and attention. They use every kindness and expression of support to move forward and grow. They don’t want to be dependent on external attention.
We all need support sometimes. Any wheel can develop a squeak. Some people want support all the time and some wheels squeak continually no matter how much grease they get. As we make choices about investing our time and energy in our relationships, it’s important to know the difference.
As I implemented the holistic planning process earlier in the year, the first step was defining the whole I was trying to manage. I continue to feel challenged as I remember to include my needs in the whole. My default has always been to work harder in pursuit of goals, but now I recognize the wisdom of working smarter instead.
Last week I read a post titled ‘Do You Like the Person You are Becoming?’ by one of my favorite minimalists, Joshua Becker. His piece doesn’t focus on needs, but on how we feel about who we are in the context of our lives and projects.
Something about his language cut right to the heart of my struggle to hold my own hand as I go forward into the future.
I feel a lot of movement right now. The season is part of it, with its new growth and hope. Pandemic limitations are relaxing and human affairs flow more “normally.” Personally, I’ve had some new opportunities, some of which I engaged with and some of which I didn’t. I’m involved with an exciting new creative project (more about that later).
At the same time, balance is hard. I squeeze the last minute out of every hour and berate myself when I feel unproductive. The gardens and yard cry out to me, but I haven’t spent more than an hour playing with them. If I work hard creatively all day, I feel too drained to exercise. If I exercise and choose to be more active, I’m unhappy with my creative progress.
Now, more than ever before, I simply can’t do it all.
Writing has made me confident, authentic, joyful and playful.
Which woman do I like better? Whom do I want to live with and see in the mirror?
The fact is I could meet all my needs and still not like myself. I could have chosen to make more money, but I would have liked myself less.
Learning to love myself has been an incredible journey, one that saved my life.
I have no intention of going backwards.
Another tenet of minimalism is understanding the feeling we don’t have enough space and time doesn’t mean we need more space and time. It means we need less stuff and fewer things to do. We need to find a way to make our lives easier, not harder.
We need to love ourselves enough to create a meaningful, joyful life with plenty of space and time.
Maybe, as I begin my day, the question is not what I want and need to accomplish, but what choices will make me like myself better than I did the day before.
Can it be done? Is it possible to lead a balanced, vibrant life, full of texture and joy, keep an adequate roof over my head, and create a more secure future while doing the work I love, all while loving the person I am?
(I finally know what I want to be when I grow up! Not only what I want to do, but who I want to be!)