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Give Your Best

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less  dropped this little spring blossom in my Inbox recently. I’m not on Instagram but she passed this on from @sierranwells from @theshineapp.

Paraphrasing, giving our all leaves us empty. It’s unregulated and indicates questionable boundaries. A better choice is to give our best.

Don’t give your all. Give your best.

What an amazing distinction! When I say that to myself, I feel as though a mountain has been lifted from my shoulders.

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I don’t have to give everything and everyone my all. I can choose instead to give certain people, situations, and efforts my best. My best financial donation. My best support. My best effort. My best investment. My best love.

My all is reserved for me and my writing.

The filter between my all and my best immediately clarifies life and choices. It frees me to recognize when I’ve done enough. I’ve given my best. I can stop now. I don’t have to give and give and give until I have nothing left, not even enough to crawl away. I have the power. I make the choices. I decide where the boundaries are. I make an offering of my best, and if it’s not wanted or useful, I move on.

After all, if my best hasn’t been good enough, likely my all won’t be, either. I know that intellectually, but I’ve lived my whole life with the firm conviction that my best is inadequate and withholding. What’s required of me is to give my all, every last penny, every last bit of my time, energy, patience, and love. Everything. No boundaries. No reserves. No personal needs. Boundaries, reserves, and needs are selfish.

Wait, says a little voice inside me. Doesn’t unconditional love mean giving it all continuously, no matter what?

Does it? Is that what unconditional love means?

Unconditional love means love without strings attached.

I don’t know if human love is limitless. I don’t know if mine is. I’ve loved several people with everything in me before, but today I don’t feel as though any of those loved ones found my love useful or even noticed it for what it was. Perhaps it was lost in translation.

Perhaps they never wanted it or needed it in the first place.

I still love some of those people, because they are woven into my flesh and bone, but we are not actively connected and for the most part my love is mute and suffering. I have not found an acceptable way to give it, which is to say I have not found a way to feel it’s recognized, valuable, received or even welcome. It’s unconditional, but it’s unwanted.

Yet I do know one person who longs for my best and my all – all my unconditional love, all my compassion and empathy, all my strength and wisdom, all my creativity and courage.

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Me.

As I approach my 60s, I spend less and less time thinking about how to give my all and waiting for scraps and crumbs to come back to me. Now I’m focused on how to connect with and unconditionally love myself. Because I deserve it. And it’s my turn. And I want me. I need me.

The people (and cats) in my life get my best. Sometimes that seems regrettably inadequate, but I’m intentional about giving my best to those I interact with, work with, and live with. I give my best to what I do in life, from cleaning the bathroom to teaching a child to swim. My best love, care, and effort are no mean contributions to my loved ones and my community.

But I don’t owe my all to anyone. Not at this point in my life. I’ve never yet given my all without subsequent emotional bankruptcy it took me years to recover from. I’ve never yet felt my all was reciprocated. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

I thought I had to give my all. I thought that’s what love was. I thought one proves love, commitment, loyalty, what have you, with an investment of one’s all. I thought that investment was guaranteed to provide rich returns.

So far, I’ve failed to reap rewards from that strategy. I’m rethinking my investment plan. Might it be that giving my all to me increases the quality of my best to others? Could it be that giving my best to others will prove a better investment than giving my all? Is this a case of working smarter, not harder?

Maybe our all is only useful when we give it to ourselves. Maybe it doesn’t work elsewhere because it’s not supposed to. Maybe our best is better for the people around us.

In any case, I feel lighter, freer, and healthier, both in myself and in my relationships, when I endeavor to do my best within healthy boundaries and reserve my all for myself and my writing.

Doing it For You

I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.

For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.

I told you the language was inadequate!

Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.

Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.

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I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.

Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.

Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.

Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.

When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.

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This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.

I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.

My daily crime.

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Adult Learners

When inspiration struck and I set out to build a new website for my blog and other writing, I assumed the process would move quickly. I could hardly wait to see the vision in my head become reality. I’m a happy and motivated independent learner and felt certain I could fumble with the design software and master it without much trouble, the way I did when I created Our Daily Crime.

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The software for Our Daily Crime is nearly ten years old now, a tech dinosaur. The new software requires a whole new level of skill.

I needed help. Scheduling a meeting with a professional took time. Then we had to reschedule due to a conflict. More time. I turned my attention to other things and practiced patience (not very successfully!).

In the meantime, we’ve hired a new team member at work to join us in lifeguarding, teaching, and working with patrons and patients in the pools. He’s older than I am, and he’s working hard on refining his swimming skills and learning new techniques. We’re giving him all the support and practice we can.

I admire adults who want to learn new skills. We’ve just begun to teach private swim lessons again after the pandemic, and I have two adult students. When I asked one of them what her goals were for her lessons, she said, “Not to drown,” which made me laugh.

I did eventually meet with my web designer using Zoom, and I spent an intense hour and a half taking notes, asking questions, and watching her use the design software. Since then, I’ve spent several hours working with it, and gradually I’m gaining mastery and shaping the website I dreamed of. I’m elated. Can’t wait to share it with you!

As a lifelong learner and teacher, I notice how varied our learning experience can be.

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Context matters. I was wretched during my public school years. My goals were to achieve good grades to meet the expectations of my family and graduate. Any pleasure in the learning itself, for its own sake, suffocated under the long nightmare of those years. Graduation meant nothing to me, and I would have ignored it if I’d been allowed. My reward was surviving.

College was no better. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t belong there. Once again, I went through the motions of pleasing others and living up to expectations, two hellish years of depression, social isolation, and suicidal ideation before I dropped out.

I still wince when I think of the money wasted.

Somehow the joy of learning has been distorted into competition, capitalism, and perfectionism. Everyone doesn’t have equal access to education and educational tools. Many people don’t complete high school, let alone higher education. We don’t talk about education in terms of enhancing our lives and making us bigger. We talk about getting a good job, making a lot of money (or not), and school loans. Capitalism defines success.

Worst of all, if we happen to be interested in literature, writing, religion, music, theater, philosophy – liberal arts, in other words – we’re steered away from those interests because “they” say we can’t earn a living pursuing them. I’ve got news for you. You can’t make a living as a librarian or medical transcriptionist, either.

Apparently, education is not valuable unless it leads to making a certain amount of money.

Photo by Brandon Wilson on Unsplash

On the other hand, many learners in our communities are in it for the fun of learning something new. Their goals are about real life, as opposed to the construct of consumerism. They don’t want to drown. They want to do a job they’ve never done before and so learn new skills. They want to use technology as a tool to support their passion. Adult learners know learning enhances life. They’re not coerced into learning; they seek it out.

It’s a lot easier and more fun to teach someone who wants to learn than it is someone who’s having learning thrust upon them.

Adult learners have lived long enough to know how to learn. Not how to compete, how to cheat, how to work the system, how to manipulate good grades and references, and how to create their own personal perfectionistic demons, but how to learn. Adult learners also know something about how they best learn, and are able to communicate their needs and goals.

Learning requires time, patience and practice. It takes courage to seek new skills. It’s messy. We make mistakes, flounder, and fail. Good adult learners persist anyway, pursuing their creativity or passion, satisfying their curiosity and desire for mastery.

I’ve had the good fortune to know and work with wonderful teachers who have inspired, encouraged, and challenged me. I’ve also known destructive teachers who permanently damaged my trust, confidence, and sense of self-worth. The difference between them, I’m convinced, has nothing to do with their level of education or training, but rather with their power management. Good teachers seek to empower their students. Destructive teachers not only refuse to share their power, they actively disempower their students.

Healthy communities support learning and teaching, not necessarily as a formal process, but as a natural one. As a teacher, I know my students give me at least as much as I give them. Teaching and learning are collaborative, a sharing of power. To teach is to learn. To learn is to teach. Passing on my love of swimming doesn’t change the world, but it’s a contribution I can make joyfully.

Everyone succeeds when we teach and learn together. My daily crime.

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The Blame Game

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

What Are You Up To?

Family time this Christmas took the shape of phone calls and e-mails. I don’t live near any of my family now, though they are often in my thoughts and prayers. I noticed, during one of these phone calls, a pattern I’d not been fully conscious of before.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

When someone asks me what I’ve been doing with myself, what’s occupying my attention and time, I’m tongue tied. Something about that question stops me in my tracks. I hear myself give a stilted what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation kind of report rather than a true, heartfelt answer. After these conversations, I feel like an idiot. I love hearing about what my loved ones are up to. Why can’t I give an honest answer to the same question? What’s in my way?

The answers to that (so far) are complicated, and interesting, and sad.

One thing I can say is that I much prefer listening to others rather than talking about myself. Talking about myself is embarrassing. Underneath the embarrassment is my persistent feeling of being a freak. All my life I’ve felt that I don’t fit in very well, and all my life I’ve endeavored to hide that fact. The best way to do that is to keep the focus firmly away from me!

Another obstacle has to do with schedule shaming. When I was younger, my days were filled to the brim with emotional labor, earning a paycheck, and taking care of others. I was busy all the time. I raced from one need to the next, none of them mine.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

Whoever or whatever I was existed only in a tiny cage in the center of an ongoing hurricane of necessity and demand. I could talk (a lot) about doing. I had few chances to just stop and be, and if I did, I felt ashamed for wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.

This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is that women with children, women with partners, women with family elders, live in just this way. It’s what women are for, and I asked for nothing better. It gave me great pleasure to take care of others, manage relationships, and live up to expectations, my own as well as everyone else’s.

What I didn’t realize until I stopped living that way was the terrible price I would pay for stepping out of that role and choosing to live for myself. Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, the true answer is NOT taking care of anyone else. NOT managing the lives of others. NOT burning myself out in unending emotional labor. I am able to choose Failing To Please anyone but myself.

Now I’m being. I’m meeting my own needs. I’m still busy, but not with running errands, doing housework, and general caregiving. I’m creating a life plan in the context of holistic decision making. I’m making a writing business plan as part of my life plan. I’m taking SEO tutorials and applying what I’ve learned to this blog. I’m taking tutorials on Excel and making spreadsheets as part of my writing business plan. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m herding cats. I’m looking out the window. I’m doing midwinter ritual and welcoming the returning light. I’m loving people. I’m loving myself. I’m exercising. I’m searching for an editor and agent. I’m submitting writing for publication. I’m looking through seed catalogs.

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The part of me shaped by the overculture is deeply ashamed by these honest answers to what I’m doing with my life.

I was not able to be responsible for myself while taking on responsibility for others. Maybe some women can balance successfully between self and others, but I couldn’t. The demands were too many and too great. For a long time, I chose to be responsible to others without counting the personal cost, but then things changed, my kids grew up, and I committed the ultimate act of selfishness and betrayal.

I chose to begin taking responsibility for myself and let go of managing others. Managing, not loving.

Doing more of what I want to do (and less of what I don’t want to do) seems to be unforgivably selfish.

When my kids moved out to live with their father and finish high school, I was completely lost. Being their mother was my biggest piece of identity. Without them, I collapsed like a wet paper doll. That collapse was also a rebirth. With the help of friends, time, and my community, I gradually began to excavate who I was apart from a single mother, a daughter, a sister, a romantic partner. I discovered a woman I’d never had time to get to know, a complete person in her own right. I liked that woman. I loved her. I wanted to share her, proudly, with my loved ones.

But somehow I couldn’t, and can’t. I struggle with a largely unspoken (directly to me, anyway) background vibe of disapproval, resentment and wounded feelings. For the most part, my needs and choices aren’t openly challenged, yet reclaiming my power to have needs and make choices is met with a feeling of subtle withdrawal and withholding of true connection from some of those who have known me for decades.

I’ve written before about Baba Yaga, a crone figure from Slavic European folklore. The world is full of women like me, an army of Baba Yagas. We are postmenopausal and no longer objects of sexual or procreative interest. We are a generation of grandmothers, either literally or figuratively. We’ve learned and suffered much, and have a storehouse of wisdom. At our best, we’re earthy, bawdy, rich in experience and texture, honest, and direct. We can laugh at ourselves. We take tears and tantrums in our stride. We’ve made friends with ebb and flow, cycles and seasons, life and death. We are largely invisible and frequently undervalued and underestimated. We’ve played many roles in our time, been many things to many people. We’ve finally reached a stage of life in which we’ve become a whole greater and more powerful than any of our previous single roles.

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We have paid the price and reaped the rewards of being emotional slaves to others. Those of us on the road to cronehood have also paid the price and reaped the rewards of insisting on the freedom to be more.

I hate my shame. What kind of a culture, which is made up of individual people, shames a person for self-care and rewards emotional slavery? Are any of us born solely to serve others? Is that the only meaningful contribution we can make? Are women worthy of love only in proportion to our caregiving?

The most evil twist of all in this is that caregivers, people pleasers, and performers of emotional labor are quite often overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted. I frequently felt unloved and unlovable in those roles, too. My choices were socially approved, but that was cold comfort. I want to be valued for all that I am, not just my socially-compliant roles.

So, what to do? Will I be less tongue tied now when someone asks me what I’m doing? Will my shame wither and die, now that I’ve examined it?

Probably not. I can commit to being more honest about what I’m up to in spite of the shame, but I suspect a part of me will always feel that I let everyone down in choosing to live my own life. It’s ridiculous to frame it in that black-and-white, either/or way, but we’re all shaped by our tribe and culture, and I’m well aware that many onlookers expect (even if unconsciously) women to stay in their place, which is to say remain as pillars of strength, support, and nurture for others to the end of their lives.

Even so, I won’t go back. I have Baba Yaga work to do now, work I was born to do, work life has shaped me to do. I earned my freedom and my own love and respect. My love for others has ripened into a powerful current, but it’s not slavish. It’s a gift I choose to give, not an entitlement or a duty. Loving others is not all I’m for and I won’t prostitute for reciprocity.

That’s what I’m doing with myself. Thanks for asking. My daily crime.

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