We’re having a rainy summer here in Maine. I don’t mind. In fact, I feel grateful when I’m reminded how many billions of people are suffering extreme heat conditions and other severe weather around the planet.
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
It does make it challenging to get outdoors, however. When a day off coincides with no rain, I disappear into the garden.
This was my first spring in our new house. Last spring and summer were necessarily about surviving the move. Outdoor work consisted of picking up trash and getting to know our little piece of the world.
This spring I went to work as the snow melted, raking, pulling weeds, thinking about where to put a compost system, laying out new beds. A morning here, an afternoon there, a snatched few hours in between work and life’s other demands.
I notice when I do put everything aside to play in the garden I’m filled with toxic shame at the end of the day. Certainly, I dug and weeded, knelt and stooped, barrowed and raked, pruned and planted and trimmed until I was sore and exhausted as well as renewed by my time under the sky on the earth’s body. In proportion to my joy I feel self-hatred. I did not work in the house. I did not pay bills. I did not do laundry. The sink is full of dirty dishes. The cats didn’t get my attention. I didn’t work on my blog or fiction. Instead, I ground dirt into my hands and nails, into the knees of my old jeans. My filthy clothes stink of bug spray. I’m sweaty, sunburned, and thirsty. I’m happy.
And there’s the rub.
Happiness is Not Allowed. If it makes me happy, I shouldn’t be doing it. If it makes me happy, I shouldn’t get paid for it. The only truly productive way to live is to do what is not joyful. Happiness is selfish and lazy.
The first commandment of life is Make Yourself Useful. Happiness doesn’t come into it.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
This internal voice has always been with me. I’m sure I wasn’t born with it, but when my memory starts the voice was already deeply rooted in my mind. The only things worth doing in life were repetitive, obligatory, dutiful activities. Responsibilities. Bonus points if the tasks were in service to someone else. An activity done for personal pleasure was a threat, a disobedience, a terrible betrayal.
Other people in my world were not happy; therefore, I had no right to be. Ever.
I recognize the lies, the rebellion and resentment, and the sinking heart accompanying this twisted belief. I know where the belief comes from. But still, still it triggers painful, cringing shame.
Yet I continue to snatch what hours I can to be in the garden. As I work, I think about my shame, the sadness of people who cannot allow themselves or anyone around them to be happy, and all the ways this particular belief has limited and inhibited me. So many of my passions are muted and hidden in the privacy of my own heart: Dance, writing, gardening, swimming. Oh, people know they’re activities I enjoy, but I hide my absolute, blazing passion for them behind a casual demeanor. Because I’m ashamed.
We have a corner lot, so a comparatively large garden space. I frequently clear patches of earth that lie bare under the sky, soaking in rain, sunshine, and receiving whatever seeds come. Sometimes it’s weeks before I get back to that same little patch, and I’m always delighted and surprised by how quickly new things come to grow wherever I’ve made a clearing. Some would call it all weeds. I call it life.
I’ve been thinking about the hard, muddy work of clearing, walking away, and then the miraculous return of life while we’re looking in another direction. I came across an article recently entitled “We are Defined by the Things We Don’t Do.” I’ve been thinking about that, too. Am I defined more by my choice to garden during a sunny afternoon or the fact that I didn’t clean the kitchen?
Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash
My hours in the garden, in the pool, dancing, writing, clear the ground of my being. Into that cleared ground come words, inspiration, delight, peace, rest, freedom. Without those hours to nurture and refresh me, my soil would grow hard and compacted, unreceptive and sterile. I cannot sustain myself with an endless round of housework and taking care of business. It’s not enough. No amount of efficient, effective housework gives me the joy I feel in the garden, or in typing words onto the page.
In short, my understanding of what it means to be “productive” does not make me happy or healthy.
So, what does it say about me as a person that my joy comes from such “selfish” and “lazy” activities? What kind of a terrible person chooses to grub in the garden rather than do the dishes and emotionally labor for others? What kind of a terrible person accepts payment for doing her heart’s delight?
A person like me, readers. A person like me.
I read a lot about mindfulness. I practice it in many different ways. It occurs to me, however, that my best moments and hours are spent mindlessly. The rhythm of swimming. The wordless seduction of music liberating me into dance. The sweat and texture and smell of working in the garden, the feel of the tools in my hands, the itch of a mosquito bite, the sear of sunlight on the tender skin at the nape of my neck. I’m not thinking. I’m not planning. I’m not trying or worrying. I just am. I have truly disappeared into the garden. And in that cleared ground of being the rest of my life, the necessary, the daily, the trivial things like wiping the counters and making the bed, are deeply rooted.
It’s in mindlessness that I find mindfulness. Mindlessness is a cleared patch of earth, dark, moist, rumpled, with seeds and roots and microbes and insects hidden below and the sky above. What will come to grow and live in that space? What will I weed out, and what will I nurture? What gifts, what treasures will come into the ground I have cleared?
The answers to those questions are none of my business now. The ground is cleared. Now I walk away, look in another direction, clear a patch on another side of the house, under the magnolia, maybe, or alongside the old well. Rain will come, and sun. Birds will come, insects. Roots and seeds. I will go inside, scrub the first layer of dirt out from under my nails, off my skin and cuticles. I’ll strip down and wipe insect repellent and sweat from my skin, treat bug bites. I’ll rehydrate, change into clean clothes. I’ll feel the tension between my pleasure in my outside work and the shame and reproach of the undone inside work.
And somewhere, when the time is right in some future moment, I’ll go back to the memory of that patch of earth, still chilly from winter when I cleared it, now thick with new life that crept in when I wasn’t looking, and I’ll find meaning and mindfulness. I’ll find creative inspiration. I’ll find words and peace and clarity.
I’ll find joy.
Where do you do your most joyful work?
How successful do you feel at balancing the necessities of your life with private pleasure right now, today?
Do you have an active, nasty, mean-minded internal critic? How do you shut that voice up? Do you recognize the voice as belonging to some person in your life?
Leave a comment below!
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Probably every child is told we all have to do things we don’t want to do.
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Children are concrete, and I was no exception. When I heard we all have to do things we don’t want to do, I thought it meant that’s what life was supposed to be about, a kind of slavery to all those things we don’t want to do. No one talked to me about balance, or doing the things we do want to do.
It made life seem like an unhappy business, years and years of unending duty, responsibility, and doing what I didn’t want to do. No recess. Or maybe what I really wanted to do was bad and wrong? Maybe I should want to do what I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure. A part of me went underground. I didn’t want anyone to know how bad I was, how flawed. I worked hard at the things I didn’t want to do and hid the things I did want to do, in case they were wrong.
But I couldn’t conceal the feeling of wanting and not wanting from myself. I used to make hidey holes in whatever house we were living in at the time and go to ground with a book, but I always felt guilty. I wanted to read. Doing what I wanted to do was bad. I should have been helping my mom do all the things she didn’t want to do.
The pronouncement that we all have to do things we don’t want to do is stated as a Cosmic Truth, especially as an adult tells it to a child. It’s loaded with feelings and experience a child can’t possibly understand, but the subtext was clear to me:
Life is not much fun.
I can’t resist picking apart Cosmic Truths as an adult, and as I think about this one it occurs to me it really has to do with personal power more than wanting or not wanting. It’s not framed in terms of personal power because our emotional intelligence is so low. Making choices based on whether we want to do something or not is childish. Power resides in the act of choice, not in the wanting or not wanting.
Steering our lives solely by our desires is hedonism, a belief that satisfaction of desires is the purpose of life. Desire, though, is so shallow, so fleeting. And it’s never permanently satisfied. No matter how well and pleasurably we’ve eaten, we’ll be hungry again. Desire is a treadmill we can never get off.
This is not to say we shouldn’t ever choose something we want or say no to something we don’t want, but our desire is easily manipulated. That’s why advertising works. If we can be easily manipulated, we’re not standing in our power. Addiction is based, at least in the beginning, on wanting and not wanting.
A more useful question than What do I want to do? is What would be the most powerful thing to do? We might want to eat a carton of ice cream, but a walk feeds our health, well-being, and thus personal power much better. After all, one carton of ice cream leads nowhere but to another. Personal power can lead us to joy and experience a carton of ice cream never dreamed of.
If we don’t choose to do difficult, frightening, or new things, we’ll never grow.
If we don’t choose to take care of our bodies, they won’t function well.
If we don’t choose to be self-sufficient and resilient, we’ll be dependent.
If we don’t choose to learn anything, we’ll remain ignorant.
If we don’t choose to plan ahead, prepare, or manage consequences, we diminish our choices, waste resource, and weaken the contribution we’re capable of making.
If we don’t choose the responsibility of commitment and making choices, someone else will make our choices for us.
And so on.
I’m changing the frame. I’m less interested in what I want and what I don’t want and more interested in how my choices affect my power, and the power of those around me. I’m willing to do what I don’t want to do if it’s a step on a road leading to integrity, power, healthy relationship, or anything else important to me. At the same time, I can exercise my right to say no to things that won’t take me where I want to go.
It’s about power, not desire. Any three-year-old can want and not want. It takes an adult to manage a healthy balance of personal power.
This piece from Leo Babauta hit my Inbox recently, and I’ve been turning it over in my mind.
Before I go any further, I need a moment to sit here and shudder. Because walking away is hard. It’s devastating. It’s an atomic bomb.
At least it’s felt that way when I’ve done it in my personal life, probably because I’ve waited, dithering, denying, distracting, hanging on and trying harder, so long for things to change. For me to change. For the other person to change. For divine intervention. For some event or person to rescue me.
By the time I do walk away I’m utterly exhausted and used up, and I hate myself far more than those affected by my walking away, though they, of course, don’t understand that. The relief inherent in walking away, the freedom, the reclamation of personal power, have only made me hate myself more.
Babauta’s article doesn’t start with the interpersonal stuff, though. He comes at it from a minimalist perspective. Can you walk away from an unhappy job? From a new car? From a deal or negotiation? From a tempting but unethical situation in which you might gain? From a new gadget or toy you really want but don’t need and can’t afford? From being too busy, too noisy, too tired, too stimulated?
Can you walk away from what the neighbors think, or your family? Can you walk away from the belief you need any particular person in your life to be happy? Can you walk away from your hopes and the beautiful dream you know is never coming true? Can you walk away from a toxic situation you’re deeply invested in? Can you walk away from the things and/or people destroying you?
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash
If you can’t walk, can you crawl away? On your belly, clawing at the ground, sobbing, naked and alone, can you crawl away?
It’s more than that, though. Will you?
Most of us can walk away if we have to. Many of us have had to and have done it. But who hasn’t felt stuck, unable to walk away, no matter how dark and dirty our fantasies are of leaving it all behind?
(Come on, I know you’ve had that fantasy at some time or another. Get in the car and drive until … until you’ve reached the edge of the world, of your life. Until you’ve run out of money or gas. Until you hit the ocean. Until you can stop.
Or go out the front door and start walking without looking back. Disappear. Vanish like a drop of water in the desert. Become nameless, faceless, rootless, homeless.)
But sometimes we feel stuck. Forever. Or what might as well be forever, because in this moment we’re so tired, so drained, so empty, there’s no comfort in the thought that things will change someday. One day.
One day is too far ahead. We’re not sure how to get through this day. But we have to. And the day after that. And the day after that. We made promises. We have responsibilities, loyalties, duties to others. We’re the keystone, the essential piece, the glue holding it together. It depends on us. If we’re not there … what? What would happen? Would everybody die? Would their lives be ruined? Would the sky fall?
Would they stop loving us?
That’s the worst fear, isn’t it? They’ll stop loving us. We love them and we have to walk away and then they’ll stop loving us. How can anyone love us when we’ve walked away? How can we love ourselves? How can anyone ever understand?
Does love require we allow ourselves to be destroyed? Are we supposed to love others more than ourselves?
Or are we allowed to walk away if we must to save our own lives? But what if no one believes us?
(For God’s sake, stop whining! Stop making such a big deal out of everything! You’re so dramatic!)
The terrible, inescapable truth about walking away is if we can’t do it, we’ve given away part of our power. If we choose to do it and reclaim our power, the price can bankrupt us financially, mentally, and emotionally.
On the other hand, sometimes the simple act of walking away sets us free in extraordinary, joyful ways we can’t even imagine.
Sometimes (perhaps hardest of all) we face annihilating consequences and experience freedom.
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.
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 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 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!
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 of wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.
This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is 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.
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.
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 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 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 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.
Last week’s post was inspired by the work of R.D. Laing in his book, Knots. The first page of this book gave me so much to think about I worked with it for several days before reading all the way to page 3:
“It is our duty to bring up our children to love, honour and obey us.
If they don’t, they must be punished, otherwise we would not be doing our duty.
If they grow up to love, honour and obey us we have been blessed for bringing them up properly.
If they grow up not to love, honour and obey us either we have brought them up properly or we have not: if we have there must be something the matter with them; if we have not there is something the matter with us.”
In my experience and observation, family ties are the most inescapable and powerful connections in our lives, regardless of our feelings about them. However we view our parents, they’re the only ones we have and nothing can change that. Those of us who have biological children must come to terms with the intimacy of conception, gestation and birth leading inevitably to loss as our children grow up and fly away into places we cannot and should not follow. Each of us must deal with these blood-and-bone connections as best we can; there is no escaping the shadow of one’s parents or the ghosts of one’s children, alive or dead. They are our greatest and most powerful teachers.
When I was a young woman, it was all so simple. I would find a good man to love and be loved by. I would get married and have children. I would love my children and they would love me.
Now that we’ve all finished laughing (or crying), let’s think about duty, just one of the thousands of hidden landmines in parent-child relationships. It’s hidden because we all talk about it without ever agreeing on what it means or questioning its role. Laing was writing in the 70s, so his language is a little outdated. Even so, is it true it’s our duty to bring up our children to love us? Can we coerce love, even from a child? Is it more important to teach them to love us as their parent or to love themselves?
Do we deservetheir love? Have we earned it? Are we entitled to it? Does our love for them obligate them to reciprocate? For that matter, does a child’s love for his or her parent oblige the parent to return that love in kind?
The point I’m trying to make here is these knots we get ourselves tied up in, these eternal loops of bad logic, are so often based on a questionable statement we don’t think to question. Breaking down the statement loosens the knot.
What does it look like, to love, honour and obey? Does it mean keeping secrets? Never asking questions? Being unfailingly compliant? Is a child to have no viewpoint, opinion, need or desire independent of his or her parent? What happens when love is lost in translation? What if what my child or parent calls love is something I call enabling, and refuse to give — out of love?
Punishment. What a great incentive for love! No wonder it works so well. On the other hand, are healthy boundaries punishment? Is refusing to lie for someone punishment? Is telling the hidden or unpalatable truth punishment?
Who gets to define all these terms? Who has the power in any given parent-child dynamic? Is there a desire to share power, or is someone determined to come out on top?
None of this is what really caught my eye on page 3 of Knots, however. What stopped me in my tracks was the endpoint, the either/or conclusion. If our children don’t love, honor and obey us in the manner in which we expect or feel entitled to, either something is wrong with us and the way we raised them, or something is wrong with them.
I freely admit this is the same either/or conclusion in my own mind regarding both my parents and my children. Either I’m a total failure and fuck-up, or they’re unhinged. I’m like a dog with a smelly old bone. I dig it up, chew on it for a while, cry, rage, hurt, feel confused and regretful, hate myself, rehash old scenes and stories, feel sorry for myself and generally carry on until my mouth is bleeding from bone chips and I’m sick to my stomach, and then I bury the bone until something brings it all up again and I dig it up to gnaw some more.
It’s not just me, either. Every single woman I know does this, either trying to come to terms with her parents or her children. Or both.
I’ve always had a talent for untangling knots. I’m not sure why it is, but I really enjoy picking them apart. Mental knots are even more fun. I think for some this endless bone-chewing provides a kind of payoff, but it doesn’t for me. I hate chasing my tail. There’s no way I’m ever going to come to any kind of conclusion about my parents, my children or myself in relation to them. What I do believe is each one of us has in every moment done the best we could do with the information and resources we had in that moment. As far as I’m concerned, we all get a pass.
The first time I read the above page, I recognized that twisted knot of pseudo logic can be undone with good questions.
What if there’s nothing wrong with our kids and there’s nothing wrong with us or our parenting? What if love, honor and obedience are beside the point and not important? What if punishment doesn’t enter into it because it’s not useful or effective and nobody’s done anything wrong?
In short, what if we’re all just fine, not broken, not failures, not fucked up, not unhinged? What if we were good enough children, good enough parents, and our kids are good enough people, each one of us whole, loved and loving?
What if we just stopped all these contorted and painful mental gymnastics and loved ourselves, our parents and our kids as best we can, or our memories of us and them?
Then I picked up the next book in my current stack, and read this, and smiled.
“Why would I be embittered? It is far too late. A month ago, after a passage of many years, I stood above her grave in a place called Wyuka. We, she and I, were close to being one now, lying like the skeletons of last year’s leaves in a fence corner. And it was all nothing. Nothing, do you understand? All the pain, all the anguish. Nothing. We were, both of us, merely the debris life always leaves in its passing …” Loren Eiseley— All the Strange Hours