Elizabeth Gilbert is on Substack, and I follow her. Best known for her breakout novel, Eat, Pray, Love, she’s a journalist, speaker, and writer. Her Substack is called Letters From Love and more than ten thousand subscribe.
Letters From Love is the most uncomfortable Substack I read. I write that statement with wry humor. The premise is writing love letters to oneself.
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When I first came across it, I was equally horrified and attracted. I poked around, reading here and there, and realized quickly Elizabeth and I share certain experiences. I already knew this, because years ago I came across her brilliant piece on tribal shaming, which I immediately blogged about.
It takes one to know one.
When I found Gilbert on Substack I subscribed, so her newsletter comes regularly into my Inbox. Sometimes I ignore it for days, but sooner or later I open it and read. She posts love letters she’s written to herself. Publicly! She also has a podcast, does interviews, and posts love letters others have written to themselves.
I can’t help but notice my violent reactions. Me being me, I don’t choose to turn away and read something more comfortable. I have questions. What is my deal? I’ve been working for more than ten years on self-care and self-love, on reparenting myself and healing old trauma. Why am I not delighted with the idea of a practice of writing love letters to myself?
My first reaction is to crawl through the screen and beg her not to expose herself like this. Beg them all not to expose themselves. Don’t they understand how dangerous it is? Haven’t they learned that a display of this kind of vulnerability will attract destroyers with stones and blades and (worst of all), terrible, terrible words of contempt? Oh, and don’t forget lethal indifference.
(If you’re not paying attention, I’ve now told you everything you need to know about the way I grew up.)
Except clearly the sky is not falling. More than ten thousand people are reading Gilbert’s love letters, and she goes on writing and publishing. The discussions within her community are neither indifferent nor contemptuous. On the contrary, they’re supportive and tender.
Which leads me to conclude my red alert reaction is about me rather than the practice of writing love letters to oneself.
How can they do this? I wondered.
Could I do this?
No, no, no, not to publish! I reassured myself. Just for me. Like my journal. My eyes only. A delete key. No one ever needs to know.
But there was a problem. Elizabeth writes to herself with endearments. Creative, funny, quirky endearments, like “my glinting little piece of foil from a gum wrapper.”
OK, now that’s fun! Words are so much fun!
What kind of endearments would I address myself with?
I’ve had pet names for my kids and my animals. No one else, really. Certainly not myself. My tone with myself has mostly been the harsh, hectoring, contemptuous, cold voice I internalized from the adults around me as a child.
But, words … If I had a child just like the child I was, what endearments would make her giggle and feel loved and seen?
So I started a list of whimsical endearments. A very private list. So don’t ask! I was a little ashamed of myself, but no one else need ever know …
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The list was fun, because it was a creative exercise. I can do creative exercise. It occurred to me part of my resistance to love letters (either giving or receiving) has to do with my disbelief in words. (Ironic.) Words can say anything. People say anything. The proof is in action. The older I get, the less interested I am in words, and the less I believe them. Demonstrate. Act. Show me, don’t tell me. As I’ve worked to heal I’ve developed routines for self-care, for eating well, for exercise, for sleep, for writing. I’ve been successful, and take much better care of myself than I ever have before. I take better care of myself than anyone ever has before, in fact.
But I haven’t written love letters to myself. I would have told you I could do so, if I wanted to. If I thought they’d have value. If I thought I’d believe them …
I grew up with emotional withholding. I’ve believed I’ve broken that pattern with my own children and my loved ones, including my animals. But now I wonder. Isn’t demonstration of love with no words a little sterile? I know the mixed message of loving words and abusive actions is devastating. Is active demonstration of love without words also confusing? Am I withholding from myself? Obligation, responsibility, duty – all these I’m very good at. But those are stony words. Where is the tenderness, the humor, the generosity? How about compassion? I feel those for others. I’ve spoken them from the heart; written love poems, love letters, notes, and cards – for others. Could I learn to feel and express them for myself?
Then I got sick with COVID, the events of the last couple of years (traumatic, protracted move; my mother’s decline and death) caught up with me, and I felt miserable. At once, I began putting pressure on myself to get back to writing, get back to work, get back to exercise, take out the trash, do the shopping, and generally pull myself together, because, after all, the world is full of bleeding, suffering people and I have a good life, a privileged life, and don’t deserve to feel sorry for myself and be lazy.
Not a love letter, in other words.
In the middle of the week during which I sat on the couch, alternately shivering and burning and blowing my nose, I wrote myself a love letter.
Well, maybe a let’s-see-if-I-can-tolerate-you letter.
It was an extremely strange experience. In fact, it made me cry, which didn’t help my congestion. Or my cough. At the time I had no sense of taste or smell, and I reflected that it was like that. When I tried to turn toward myself with love, tenderness, affection, whatever you want to call it, there was nothing. Just … nothing. A thick, numb shell between me and myself.
It made me so sad. Immediately upon the heels of that, I was ashamed. Because, you know, self-pity.
Almost as bad as self-love.
Wait now, what?
It’s bad to love yourself … if you don’t deserve it.
And, readers, I thought I’d left that belief far behind in the dust.
Then I began to feel angry, and I told myself I was going to start practicing writing love letters to myself. Because I deserved and deserve love as much as anyone else. I’m not important enough to be the most loathsome person in the world.
- How does the idea of this practice make you feel? Can you write a love letter to yourself? With endearments and everything?
- If you could write a love letter to yourself, how would you feel about making it public?
- What do you most need to hear from someone who loves you? Would it have power if you wrote it to yourself?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m living inside this poem right now:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
I want to escape this haunted place, walk away, never look back, forget, and wander among green trees, feeling their breath on my face. I want the blessing of the rain on my skin, to plunge my hands into rich soil, lie open to birdsong and the sun’s touch.
I want to be free.
Yet, again and again, I find myself crouching in front of that shattered visage, tracing the frown, the wrinkled lip, the sneer of cold command, unable to leave it or look away. I remember, and weep, and try to understand how something so mighty, so powerful, can fall and break apart, become nothing more than a colossal wreck in a desert in an antique land, unvisited, unremarked, nothing but time’s debris.
I was born in the shadow of those stone legs. I watched the sculptors at work, perfecting, shaping. I learned to worship Ozymandias, to make myself small before him, to endure his stony displeasure and indifference.
I did not know his name for a long time, not until I read this poem in high school. He was called Money. He was called Status. He was called Power. He was king of kings – that I never doubted. He required unceasing sacrifice; though I sacrificed everything I had, the sneer and wrinkled lip looked down upon me in infinite contempt. I looked upon his works and saw destruction and anguish. I saw lies and shattered lives and I despaired.
By Wei Gao on Unsplash
I left. I crawled away under the weight of my own inadequacy and unworthiness, across the lone and level sands, feeling his stone gaze upon me. I left, and one day I got to my feet and walked, and then I remembered how to dance, and swim, and the world opened up for me, showing me friendship, healing and joy.
Then, across the years, across the miles, Ozymandias fell, and the ground of my being has shuddered and convulsed with the impact ever since.
Understand, when he fell it all fell. Secrets lay revealed. Lies tumbled naked in the desert sun. Ozymandias, so carefully sculpted by generations before me, disintegrated. I understood then what I was taught to call Money was really named Fear. Status was in fact Shame. The wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command were not love, were never love. The king of kings lay forgotten, impotent, slowly wearing away to sand.
“Look on my works … and despair.”
It’s all gone, the gods of my childhood, the king of kings, the money, the status, the false power.
Except for me. I am not gone.
In Maine, I eat and sleep. I journal and write. I walk to work, talk to people, laugh, teach. I sweat on the elliptical and exercise in the pools. I pay bills, make plans, file papers. I buy groceries and cat food. I do laundry and clean. I work in the garden. I’m distracted and absentminded, prone to sleeplessness and unexpected fits of tears welling from some deep unaware place. Or, on the other hand, maybe that place is all I’m truly aware of right now.
I talk and text and email to staff at the memory care center in Colorado where my mother resides, to her hospice team, to people at the agency we’ve now hired by request to provide extra caregiving. I hear about dementia, combative behavior, falls, sabotaged bed alarms, incontinence, sleeplessness, anxiety, medication adjustment. I am called to calm Mom down as though that was ever possible, as though she trusts me or ever took any comfort from me.
And part of me kneels in the desert, watching the family money (a mere pittance, judged by today’s standards rather than those of 100 years ago) and pride, that towering edifice more important than love, more important than health and happiness, more important than anything, sink into the desert like water. Is the desert powerful enough to cleanse it? Shattered Ozymandias still frowns, wrinkles his lip, sneers his cold command, but his works have disappeared even as he himself wears away.
Do I grieve or rejoice? I try to understand. I try to feel something more than despair at the waste of lives, at the dearth of love.
One thing I know: I will not stay here, beside Ozymandias. It’s a cursed place, a dark place. I will leave it to the circling vultures, the sun, the wind, and the silence. I will leave it to Time to wear away the sneer, the frown, the wrinkled lip, the trunkless legs. I left once, and I will leave again. I know this desert is a small place and the world is wide. I know who I am now. I know what love is, and that I’m capable of it. I am no longer alone.
I would have saved my family if I could have, but my gifts have no monetary value. What I have to give, what I am, cannot be bought or sold. I do not accrue a good rate of interest. I was not judged a sound investment. I did not increase my family’s status. Ozymandias, king of kings, was incapable of seeing or knowing me, being far too dazzled with his mighty works, dissolving now into sand while I myself, still vital and alive, pause to find absolution and mourn, groping for a way forward, watching it all decay.
- What idols have fallen in your life?
- What family secrets have you discovered?
- Do you find comfort in the eventual fall of what once seemed all-powerful, or does it frighten you?
- How have you challenged your family’s definition and expectations of you?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Delayed closure is a wound treatment strategy in which complex wounds with extensive soft tissue damage and high levels of possible contaminants are treated with initial control of bleeding, cleaning, and debridement, and then left open for a period of time during which the possibility of infection is treated proactively. At the time of delayed wound closure, further debridement of scar tissue or dead tissue takes place.
As I count down the days and prepare for my second trip out to Colorado this year to manage my mother’s recent admission to memory and hospice care, the phrase ‘delayed closure’ reverberates through my mind.
Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash
I have recognized for some weeks the significance of this second return to the place I called home for more than 20 years and my frail, confused, aging mother. At least, I have begun to recognize the significance. Every day brings added clarity. Awe is not too strong a word for what I feel.
When we flee people, places, or situations (and my flight from Colorado to Maine eight years ago was all three), it’s not an elegant, dignified process. It’s a frantic life-or-death flailing and thrashing, a single-minded determination to survive, whatever it takes.
The process leaves wreckage behind, a lot of unfinished business, a lot of rending and tearing, misunderstanding and hurt. It leaves, in other words, a complex psychic wound, not a clean laceration.
When I found myself in Maine, I thought I would not survive the trauma. I had torn myself up by the roots and gone to ground in a strange place I’d never been before. I felt like skin and hair wrapped around a suppurating wound of such longstanding duration and composed of so many different kinds of damage it didn’t seem possible it would ever heal. I didn’t think of healing. I didn’t hope for healing. I was a feral creature in survival mode.
I had no idea I had in fact saved my own life and taken the first steps to transformation, and I wouldn’t have cared if I’d known.
All I was doing was surviving.
In medical care, part of the strategy of delayed wound closure is giving the body’s natural defenses a chance to overcome infectious bacteria rather than sealing them in.
What were my natural defenses?
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Water. My home in Colorado had been enduring a years-long drought. The wind blew all the time. Gaunt, dusty cattle stood sunken-eyed on plots of hard-baked ground. The wind blew relentlessly, scouring the land with flying sand, dust, and debris. We prayed for rain as we hauled grey water to our gardens. The city imposed restrictions on outside watering, car washing, any outside fires. Trees died. Fires consumed the land. It was apocalyptic, a hellscape with no relief in sight. Our water bills went up and up for simple household use. The rain didn’t come, year after year.
Maine was a revelation. Water. Big water, like I’d never seen before. The Kennebec River. Puddles everywhere, each with a duck. The people here call an enormous lake (to my eyes) a pond. Huge trees. Hip-high ferns. Moss.
Rain. It rained. It actually rained. Measurable rain falling for hours, sweet, cool, life-giving. Mist. Fog. To breathe was to absorb water like a desiccated sponge. My cracked skin healed, drinking in the moisture. I lived in a house with a hand-dug well. No water bill. Free water! I trained myself to flush the toilet every time! My hair curled, growing out rather than down.
I lived in the country in Maine. No one knew me. No one knew I existed or any member of my family. For the first time in my life I escaped everyone’s expectations. No one demanded anything from me. No one watched me with critical eyes. No one told stories about me. I had no reputation. I was free, untethered from everyone and everything. I could think my thoughts and feel my feelings in safety and privacy. I could read, or work, or sleep, or take a walk, or garden without interruption or someone telling me I was failing. No one demanded anything from me. I had no emotional labor to do. I rested in the healing solitude of nature, laying my hands on trees, sitting on rocks watching little spring streams trickle, sitting in the sun listening to the birds, lying in bed listening to the owls, coyotes, and spring peepers in the pond.
Writing. In 2016, a year after I arrived, I began this blog. I had no expectations. My sole intent was to write my truths in my own uncensored voice without trying to please anyone, in spite of my fear. I had done some writing in Colorado, but always with a sense of guilt and shame, always with the fear of what others would think. I knew everything I wanted to write would be looked upon as unforgiveable betrayal or wildly shameful.
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
In Maine, so far away in a new life, I discovered my courage and started, week by week, recording my journey from a broken, cringing creature, filled with self-loathing, to a strong, confident woman. At the same time, I pulled together my scrawled notes and the stories I’d written in the dim, hidden edges of my life and finished a book. Then I started another one. Then I finished the second book and started a third one.
These were my natural defenses: water, nature, and writing. Slowly they overcame the infection in my ravaged soul.
Yet the wound did not close. It stopped stinking and bleeding. Scar tissue formed. But I had lost too much to pull the edges together and make a neat closure. I had saved my life. I had survived and gone on to thrive. But I knew I was not done.
I know an old story about amends; it says only the hand that dealt the wound can heal it. Sometimes we must flee in order to live to fight another day. I fled, and I was right to do so, but flight leaves no time for closure. For closure sometimes we must go back.
The first time, in January, I was afraid to return. Afraid of judgement. Afraid of old pain. Afraid of what others would think, or say. I was afraid to have my memories stirred up. I was afraid my wound would tear open again, and this time I would not survive.
What happened instead was acceptance and love in the arms of old friends. My love for them was met by their love for me. The place, dear and familiar, welcomed me, though I no longer call it home. I found changes, of course, but not painful changes. Natural changes. I realized my fear had kept me from the closure I need, and my fear, once faced, amounted to nothing. In reclaiming my power, I was able to gain perspective. I’m just a part of that little town in the way it’s a part of me. I’m not the most important part of it and never was. It’s not the most important part of me and never was.
Having reclaimed my power, I felt and expressed my honest love and affection for the place and the people without needing anything in return, although I received much in return with gratitude and, I hope, grace. I examined the wound again, debriding scar tissue, cutting away necrosis, until my soul was healthy and vital once more. Some lines. A few silver scars. But free of infection, free of pain.
Still, when I came home to Maine again, I knew I was still not finished. Closure was not complete. I knew one day I would return once more to the place I had left.
In less than a week I’ll be there again, this time for a longer period. We must prepare for and hold a living estate sale: clean, sort, sell, discard, donate, and perhaps store a house full of, not my mother’s life, but her stuff. The things from which she constructed her identity. We must see to repairs and the business of welcoming renters in.
We will also visit my mother in memory care. If she’s well enough, we’ll take her out for a meal or a little gentle shopping. Perhaps we can sit in the sun with her. Or, perhaps she’ll be angry and bitter, refuse to sit in her wheelchair, demand to go buy a car, or some other wildly inappropriate and impossible thing.
I will see her again, though, speak to her, tell her I love her. I’ll check to be sure she has everything she needs. I’ll speak to the staff, to her hospice team. I’ll buy some books for her from the Friends of the Library bookstore she herself created and helped run for years. If she can’t go out, we’ll bring food in, perhaps a flower in a vase, and sit in the dining room where other residents can see her with her family, give her the dignity of being loved and cared for rather than forgotten and discarded.
It will be hard, or it will be easy, or it will be both. Dementia is like that. However it is, though, I won’t take anything to heart. Her power to hurt me has unraveled, along with her memory and cognition. She’s physically safe at last. Her physical and emotional wellbeing are no longer my responsibility. They never were, of course, but I didn’t believe that until recently.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
I’m free. Free of my painful memories, free of old stories and narratives, free of the fear of what people will think of me. Free of fear, most of all. Freedom fills in that old wound and now, at last, I can pull the edges together, stitch them with words, with love, with wisdom, with forgiveness of her and myself. I have traveled a long, long road through darkness, despair, self-hatred, and trauma, but I still love. I still care. I still dance, and laugh, and write, and thrive. I still belong to Life.
I did the very best I could every step of that journey. I was blessed with guidance and friends and teachers. My wounds were not mortal.
Now, journey’s end. Delayed closure. New beginnings.
- What is your experience of going to a place you called home after a long absence?
- What open wounds do you still have?
- How have you closed longstanding wounds?
- Do you see a living estate sale as a cruel betrayal or an appropriate business choice?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I found a brief offering in my Inbox from Seth Godin recently about bitterness being a wall we can lean against. The image caught my imagination. Since then, I’ve been thinking about walls … boundaries … supports … prisons … and the desperate, destructive choices we make to survive.
By Marc Pell on Unsplash
Walls. On the one hand, I like walls. I invariably position myself with my back against a wall when I’m in crowds or unfamiliar places. Nothing malignant can sneak up on me from behind. All my hypervigilance can go into watching my sides and front. I feel safe(er).
A corner is even better. Now two sides are covered.
A third wall, as in a blind alley or cul-de-sac, begins to feel more like a trap than a place of protection. What if I want to run away? I’m blocked on three sides.
A fourth wall? Now I’m in prison.
The thing about walls is they may keep danger out, but they keep everything else out, too. The good stuff. Love. Sunshine. Wandering children and butterflies. Inviting paths and trails. Possibility. Exploration. Views. Perspective. Wonderful surprises.
Walls, like everything else in life, can be taken too far. Built too wide and thick. Impenetrable. Too high to climb.
Shelter or dungeon?
What about metaphorical walls? What do we lean against because it’s familiar and we believe it keeps us safe from failure, from disappointment, from heartbreak?
Bitterness, certainly. We’ve risked. We’ve been vulnerable. It ended badly. We feel angry, disappointed, resentful. Never again, we tell ourselves. Things don’t work out for us. The world is against us. People suck. Life sucks. It’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. We’ve found a wall to lean on, a wall protecting us from trying again, risking again, feeling unpleasant feelings again.
By Hector J Rivas on Unsplash
But the wall is made of unpleasant feelings, isn’t it? Bitterness is the result of unresolved unpleasant feelings. So it’s really not protection. It’s reinforcement. It’s the thing closest to us pulling our focus from happier thoughts and feelings. It’s a constant negative reminder. It locks us in place with it, and it blocks any kind of relief.
As I’ve lived my life the last couple of weeks, interacting with and observing others, listening to the inside of my own head, I’ve made a list of walls we lean against:
Victimhood (closely allied with bitterness.)
Blame (oooh, this is a juicy one. “It’s not my fault. I have no responsibility, and therefore no power.”)
Denial (leaning on the wall, eyes squinched shut: “No, I won’t believe that! No, it’s not true! No, it’s not happening! It’s too scary! I’ll only accept what makes me feel good and in control!”)
Chronic health problems (“I would _________, but I can’t because I’m sick.” Sigh. Moan. Groan. Someone once said to me, “I don’t know what I’d do without my pain!” as though pain was her lover.)
Lack of money (“I can’t be happy. I can’t have/do what I want. I can’t experience abundance. I have no power.”)
Perfectionism (a personal favorite. “I would, but I’m afraid to because I won’t do it perfectly! So, no point in trying. I’m imperfect and therefore can contribute nothing of value, not even myself. Expect nothing from me. ‘Cause I’m so imperfect.”)
I don’t suggest we’re never victims, never have health problems, never experience financial scarcity. I don’t minimize the challenges of perfectionism or fear or the seduction of blame. However, constructing a wall out of such experiences and feelings and deciding to spend the rest of our lives leaning against it seems like a dubious choice. It may feel like it props us up and allows us to survive, but is survival the best we can hope for? Is leaning against a wall to stay on our feet the best we can do?
By Christina Botelho on Unsplash
Can a wall made of bitterness stand by itself? If we choose to step away from it, support ourselves, will the wall crumble? I wonder. What if the wall needs our support more than we need its support? It takes a lot of energy to maintain a wall.
What would happen if we just fell down instead of constructing walls to lean against? Better yet, what if we choose to lie down now and then, take a break, look at the sky, feel the world on our skin and beneath us? What if, when we feel hurt or despairing or sick or broken, we lay still and whispered, “Help!” and rested and waited for something or someone to come along and give us a hand back to our feet? If we’re not leaning (cowering) against walls, we’re in full view. Life can find us. Friends can find us. Help can find us. Hope, inspiration, and comfort can find us.
Walls can be useful. But they can also imprison us. They can be strong and organic and lovely, as in healthy boundaries. They can be poorly built and inadequate, too. Or just old and tired. Crumbling. Falling down. Gnawed away by Time’s tooth.
I ask myself, with all the world before me, why do I choose to lean against walls that separate me from it? Is that what I mean by safety?
- What walls do you lean against?
- Do you think of a wall as protection or prison?
- How have your walls let you down?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.
The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.
Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:
Here in the Mountains
There is one memory deep inside you.
In the dark country of your life
it is a small fire burning forever.
Even after all these years
the embers of what you have
known rest contented
in their own warmth.
Here in the mountains,
tell me all the things
you have not loved.
Their shadows will tell you
they have not gone,
they became this night
from which you drew away in fear.
Though at the trail’s end,
your heart stammers
with grief and regret,
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.
My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.
Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.
But I thought about things I have not loved.
It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash
And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.
I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.
I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.
I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.
I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.
I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.
And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.
Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash
It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.
The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.
- Share three things you have not loved.
- Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
- What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?
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