The Center

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
–From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats

The line “the centre cannot hold,” has been running through my mind for several weeks, through all the time I’ve been sick with COVID and whatever nasty virus followed in its wake, and my slow recovery. “The centre cannot hold.” I found a quiet moment and looked it up. I knew it was poetry, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it or what the poem was. Thank you, Google!

W.B. Yeats, of course.

I suppose it’s a common experience to feel we’ve lost our center, our groundedness, when someone significant in our life dies, as my mother just has. I’ve fought against the feeling because over the years I’ve worked so hard to individuate from my mother, to reclaim my right to center my life around something other than her. If she was not the center of my life, why do I feel things have fallen apart since she died in August?

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Did I fail to reclaim my power, define myself and my value apart from our relationship? Has all my work been for nothing? Are my healing and growth an illusion?

I have been afraid of answering these questions.

When I reread the first three lines of the poem, I first imagined myself as the falconer and the falcon as … my soul? My joy? My wisest self? My intuition? All those and none of those, exactly. The falcon seemed like a piece of myself I lost a long, long time ago when I was child, a piece I struggled through many years and miles to find and reclaim, and now is lost again. It can’t hear me, and I can’t hear it. It feels unbearable. My center didn’t hold. Why didn’t it hold? Did I do something wrong? How do I call it back to me?

And I want to call it back, not haul it back by its jesses. In fact, why is the falcon restrained at all? If it’s truly mine and we belong together, why is it leashed? The idea disturbs me. I want it to be free. I’ve worked too long and hard for my own freedom to relish restraining any other creature. I note I assume the falcon is leashed. The poem doesn’t explicitly say so. Interesting.

Maybe my assumption of leash and jesses reflects all the ways I’ve restrained myself. As a child I internalized restraint. I had to. Everyone else felt free to throw self-control to the winds. Is my feeling of my center not holding asking me to release myself further? Is it time for deeper faith and trust in myself?

As I typed those three lines onto the page to begin this post, I imagined another picture in which my mother was the falconer and I the falcon. She no longer holds the leash. I am free. I have flown away from the only center I was allowed to have and now I’m overwhelmed by my freedom. I don’t know how to be wild. I don’t know how to live without the restraining leather jesses around my slender legs. What if I can’t? What if I perish? Must I find a new falconer to hold the end of my leash? What if my freedom is a mistake and I’m not fit to be free? What if I’ve lost the ability to fly free?

Ugh. Goosebumps.

Don’t get carried away, I say to myself. Slow down. We’re talking about emotional freedom versus physical freedom. You’ve been flying in an ever-widening gyre for years.

What’s changed is that leash, woven of blood and bone and love, woven of years and empathy and need, guilt and shame and obligation, too strong to ever be severed … except, it turns out, by Death.

What do we center around?

Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

It changes, doesn’t it? In my first 20 years I centered around my family of origin. When I was in my 20s and beyond I centered around a man and my children. Work was in there, too. And my family of origin, particularly my mother, who was not pleased to be sharing the center. The proverbial 3-ring circus. It went on like that until my children emancipated and, to be honest, for some time after. Then, as they slowly faded out of my center, being far away and engrossed in their own lives, I centered around some man (but not the same one; I’m a slow learner) and my mother. Slowly, writing began to nudge for a place in the center as well.

This created real problems. Mom could never tolerate sharing. I was used to her competition with the kids and whatever man I was involved with but the writing would have created a real threat, so I hid it. The more I hid it, kept it inviolate and safe from outside sabotage, the more I centered around it, and the more I centered around it the more threatened she felt, though I’m not sure her reaction was conscious and she had no idea what she was fighting against. She just knew she didn’t have all of me anymore.

She was right to feel threatened, because writing eventually tore me away from her physically and geographically, a thing that had never happened before and a last betrayal she never forgave.

In the stresses and strains of the last couple of years, I lost writing out of my center. Oh, I still did it. I blogged and serial published. I journaled. But as Mom’s health and sanity crumbled, she became my center once again, this time to the exclusion of everything else. Work (generally part of the center for all of us) competed, keeping me sane, physically fit, and anchoring me into a community of friends, but Mom once again became the primary gravitational pull in my center. My days and nights were full of her. I had less and less respite and the intensity increased daily, winding around my life more and more tightly, and then …

She died. In the middle of the night, a night in which I lay awake in Maine while my brother sat vigil with her halfway across the country in Colorado.

When I write it all out like this, I can understand why I’ve felt so dazed. I can feel some grace for myself.

The one thing that’s always been in the center is gone.

“The centre cannot hold …”

Being too old to have any desire to put a man back in the center (been there, done that), and loving my job while realizing it’s not big enough to define me, I turn once again to the truest, most joyful, wildest part of my life: writing.

And that’s scary. If I let writing take all the space, time and energy in the center, what will happen? I don’t even make money with it!

I make joy with it instead. Joy, connection, contribution, authenticity. Writing is not a black hole of failure. It does meet my needs. When I write, I actually feel good enough and sometimes even better than that! No wonder I feel bewildered.

As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time to not only allow things to fall apart, but to participate actively in the falling away, falling down, falling apart. To dance in the ruins, even as I weep. I’m reminded of a Rumi quote:

Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

Things fell apart. The center did not hold. Change, in other words. Life. Which is to say Death.

So, an unexpected ending to this post. Things are falling apart. I’m ready to stop trying to hold them together. It’s time to let go. Mom already has. Now it’s my turn. What lives in our center changes as we change. It’s time now for me to choose my center, choose it freely without guilt or shame.

Sometimes things fall apart and the center cannot hold.

So we find a new one.

Questions:

  • What’s in your center?
  • If you were free to choose your center, what would you chose?
  • How many things compete for your center? Could you reduce the gravitational pull of your center?
  • If your life changed in some dramatic way and you were forced to find a new center, how would you go about doing that?
  • Is your center all about others, or do you have something there for yourself, too?

Leave a comment below! To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Reclaiming Mother

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

February. A couple of days with -40 degrees wind chill here in Maine that felt apocalyptic. A dead car battery. At work, a broken pump in one of the pools, private swim lessons, ill team members, and an upcoming lifeguard recertification training this weekend, which I’m sure I’ll pass. Probably. A $250 “unscheduled delivery charge” on a $500 + propane bill, as though the brutal cold was somehow our fault. A possible estate tag sale on the contents of my mother’s untenanted house in Colorado, as she now lives in memory care.

The sound of the cardinal at the birdfeeder. The cats basking on my desk in the morning sun. Blueberry lavender tea. The scent of a lavender candle. Imbolc, when the wild maiden returns. The Ice Moon, or, if you prefer, the Storm Moon. Daylight arrives earlier and lingers later.

Through it all, I think about The Mother. The Mother the wild Imbolc maiden might become. The Mother who nurtures, creates, carries the possibility of new life and beginnings within us. I think of biological mothers who labor and deliver a new baby into the world. I think of foster mothers, substitute mothers, women who grieve for their empty wombs. New mothers. Struggling mothers. Mothers whose children have grown and gone, or just … gone.

Sisters and aunts and grandmothers. The long line of mothers who stand behind our own mothers.

Myself as Mother.

I wrote down a quote recently. Unfortunately, I didn’t write down the source of the quote! I always think I’ll remember and then I don’t. Never mind. If it’s yours, let me know and I’ll give you full credit!

“A mother without fear of her own potential.”

There are so many ways to unpack this. A creator, an archetypal mother without fear of her own potential. Is there any artist or maker alive who doesn’t struggle with his or her fear of failure and success?

A young woman, simmering with hormones, discovering the power and potential of her sexuality in the context of rape culture and patriarchy; risking unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, violence, heartbreak, health, and even life.

A woman who longs to be Mother but cannot conceive, or carry, or deliver a living child. The yearning. The agony. The grieving and despair at being unable to fulfill such an overwhelming biological imperative. A woman who feels herself a vessel of death rather than a vessel of life.

Photo by Laercio Cavalcanti on Unsplash

A mother, the sweat of labor still on her face, swept with a ferocious love for the infant she’s just birthed, a love terrifying, passionate, transforming the landscape of her life irrevocably and forever.

A mother, lined, weary, anguished over her child’s unhappiness, ill health, addiction, behavior, wounds, choices, death. The passion of her pain equals the passion of her love. The passion of her rage and fear equal the passion of her love. How can this child we carried and cherished and loved so deeply, this child we would have defended with our teeth, our fingernails, our life, make self-destructive choices? How can they refuse to love themselves? How could we have failed to protect their health and happiness?

The ability to love like a firestorm, like a hurricane, like an earthquake, most would agree, is exciting and wild, a beautiful force of nature, perhaps the most powerful feeling in the world. But never forget passion cuts both ways. If we release and allow the potential of our love, we have opened ourselves equally to grief, loss, rage, unendurable pain.

I am a mother. I fear that potential.

Not that I had a choice. The feel of my newborn sons in my arms overcame me as powerfully as labor did. I was helpless before it. Their wellbeing and existence twined inextricably with mine in an instant. I made no conscious choice and had no conscious control enabling me to stand back from my potential as Mother.

I was Mother. They made me into Mother. I can never go back.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Yes, I know, boundaries are important. Individuation is important, as are freedom, letting go, and a hundred other facets of emotional intelligence I’ve written about on this blog. But I’m not talking about the long road of motherhood here, where we learn and stumble, fall down to rest, weep, get up, learn and stumble again. I’m talking about the timeless primal bond, deeper than language, deeper than reason. The wild love that works through us. Divinity, perhaps. Some would say The Devil. Whatever it is, it’s bigger than us. Bigger than me, anyway.

Do we imagine our own mothers feeling about us as we do about our children? Can we imagine it?

I can’t. If my mother felt for me what I feel for my sons, the tempest of her passion was never expressed in a way I understood it. Not in words, not in touch, not in action. Now, as she drifts in her dementia, I wonder, though, if she did feel as I did, but some great wound or constriction in her heart, now loosened because she does not remember it, did not allow her to express it. Perhaps her fear of her own potential as Mother was too great to allow her to demonstrate the depth of her love.

If so, I can understand. I can forgive.

Can I forgive myself as Mother? Can I forgive the things I didn’t say and should have, the things I did say and shouldn’t have, the unintended hurts and consequences as I made choices and lived my life? Can I forgive my inability to keep them safe every minute of their childhoods? Can I forgive my ignorance, my lack of understanding regarding their needs and challenges?

I used to tell a story about an orphaned boy who was “so lonely and so hungry nobody wanted to be with him.” That phrasing always made me fight tears when I spoke it. More than my many imperfections as Mother, can I forgive the way I tried to abandon the Mother part of myself? As my sons grew into manhood and began to live their own lives and I saw their challenges and pain, the Mother in me was too lonely and too hungry. Too filled with pain and rage, grief and shame. I turned away from her for a time, walked on without her, left her alone in the wilderness to live or die, as long as I didn’t have to experience her hunger, her loneliness, her feelings.

With my first child, I claimed the potential for Mother within myself. I flung myself into it, holding nothing back, having no thought of caution or reserve. And then, years later, I rejected it, abandoned joy and love because I could no longer face the pain. I severed myself from my own mother. I severed myself from my experience of Mother. I sundered myself and lived for a time with a cleaved heart.

But my love is a blind thing, a feeling without reason or logic. No matter the distance between my mother and myself, my sons and myself, my love did not diminish. Nor did the suffering that goes with it. The internal Mother I evicted grieved and wept. She lit candles and raged and feared and prayed for peace, for all to be well. She scratched at the windows of my life, whispered dreams beside my pillow, followed me like an abandoned spirit. She is mine and I am hers, though I tried to cast her away.

I know I will never be whole without her. The child within me, the crone I am growing into – both need the Mother. I need her as I care for animals and people, as I nurture new life in the garden, as I teach children to swim, as I write, as I cherish my friends and family. As I cherish myself.

Perhaps I simply needed a break from the pain. Perhaps I could not learn to love myself while being battered by the needs and demands of my mother and my sons. Now, my ability to care for and nurture myself gives me a place to pause, to rest. Perhaps, as I age, I am growing in wisdom, losing not the depth of my love, but the frantic edge that cuts so keenly. Love, after all, endures. Motherhood endures. I am the sum of my parts plus a little more. I cannot decide to be less. I might as well accept all of myself, reclaim all of myself, be all of myself.

And so, I’ve returned, Mom. We were not a perfect mother and daughter, you and I. We each did our best, and now my best is better than that. Let there be peace between us now, at the end. I have never stopped loving you. And Mother of my sons, cease following me just out of sight. Come in. Let us soothe one another’s weary regrets and scars. We loved with everything we had. Those we gave life to were never ours to keep. They must walk their own paths. Let us find a way to release our love from our pain.

Let us reclaim one another.

Questions:

  • What was your experience of being mothered?
  • What has been your experience of being a mother in the wide sense, as a creator, a biological mother, or a substitute, surrogate, or foster mother?
  • What potential in yourself do you fear?
  • Who in your life has been so hungry and so lonely nobody wanted to be with them? Have you ever felt like that person?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

Manufactured Distrust

Trust: Firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something (Oxford Online Dictionary)

Mistrust: General sense of unease towards someone or something

Distrust: Specific lack of trust based on experience or reliable information

Leo Babauta recently published a piece on practicing trust which has given me much food for thought.

Trust is an uncomfortable subject for me. For most of my life I’ve considered myself to be shamefully distrustful. As I’ve learned emotional intelligence, I’ve realized I have plenty of good reasons for my mistrust and distrust, but there’s still a part of me that feels I should be more trusting, more willing to give others a second, or third, or hundredth chance, less guarded, more open, more forgiving.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

Except I know intellectually forgiveness does not mean an automatic reinstatement of trust.

In my heart, I feel like a bad person, especially a bad woman, because throughout my life people who say they love me have appeared to be hurt by my lack of trust. Yet those same people have given me reasons not to trust them.

When I wind up in these confusing emotional cul-de-sacs, I blame myself. I’m being too dramatic (again). I’m being a bitch. I’m mean. I can’t love, or let anyone love me. (Does trust = love? Does all love automatically come with trust?) When I explain the specific events leading to my mis- or distrust, I’ve frequently been told the other party doesn’t remember saying what they said or doing what they did. This implies I’m nitpicking, ridiculously sensitive, keeping score, or even making it up. I wonder if I’m being gaslighted, or if I’m just not a nice person.

Years and years ago I made a rule for myself: give every situation or person three chances before deciding not to trust. It still feels fair to me. Sometimes things happen. We have a bad day. We say hurtful things, or don’t keep our word, or make a boneheaded choice, breaking trust with someone. I know I’ve done it, and I’d like to be given the benefit of a doubt.

The benefit of a doubt is fair, right?

I still follow that rule. It feels appropriately kind to others and like good self-care. Yet I feel guilt nearly every day over the people in my life who I want to trust, feel that I should trust, and don’t trust.

Babauta’s article specifically addresses signs of distrust of ourselves, and some ideas about practicing self-trust. I never connected problems with focus, fear or uncertainty, procrastination or indecision with lack of self-trust, but I can see they might be. If we don’t trust our priorities, resilience, or choices, it’s difficult to be decisive or take risks with commitments and problem solving.

If we don’t trust ourselves to cope effectively with sudden changes and reversals and frightening situations, uncertainty and chaos disable us, making us vulnerable to anyone or anything promising relief, certainty, or help.

The boundary between trust in ourselves and trust in others is permeable. If we define ourselves, as I do, as “having trust issues,” presumably that includes issues with ourselves as well as others.

It makes me shudder to imagine living with no feeling of belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of anyone or anything. How could anyone sustain such an emotionally isolated condition, not only from those around them but from themselves?

I do have people in my life I trust. Is it possible I don’t have trust issues? Is that just a polite, apologetic, and roundabout way of avoiding a direct “I don’t trust you?”

Do I have to answer that?

It’s true I trust far fewer people than I distrust.

But it’s also true I give people and situations a chance. Three chances, in fact. At least.

Why does it seem so cruel to tell someone we don’t trust them?

Trust, as I experience it, is not all or nothing. I might trust a person to be kind and caring but never allow them to drive me anywhere. I might trust a person with money but never trust them to be on time. I trust myself to be there for others, but I haven’t trusted myself to be there for me.

Consumerism is about distrust. We’re actively groomed to distrust ourselves. Yesterday I was laughing with a friend about articles on MSN. There was an article about trends and fashion in decorating, as though it matters. Shiplap is out. White kitchens are out. Accent walls are out. Then there was an article about how to properly fold plastic grocery bags. I’m not kidding. Did you know you’ve been storing plastic grocery bags the WRONG WAY all these years? How could you be so incompetent? A capitalist culture only survives as long as people buy things, and advertising (and a lot of other media) is about the ways you need to improve, do it right, be better.

Advertising is manufactured distrust. We’re inadequate, but a widget would make us better. We buy, and we discover we still don’t feel good enough, and another ad tells us we need a nidget. So we buy that, but then we see a gidget on sale that will make us even better …

Who benefits most from our lack of trust in ourselves?

I believe information is power. I believe education is power. I believe in science, data, and critical thinking. I trust those things.

Who benefits most from the breakdown of public education, the demonization and gutting of scientific organizations and communities, manufactured misinformation, manufactured disinformation, and “alternative facts?”

Photo by roya ann miller on Unsplash

The Center For Nonviolent Communication says trust is a human need; it’s listed under connection needs. When our needs aren’t met, our health (mental, physical, emotional) suffers. If we are unable to trust we’re wide open to conspiracy theorists, ideologues, authoritarians, and other abusers and manipulators. Predators happily gorge off the results of manufactured distrust.

This is a big, big, problem, because it stands between us and managing things like climate change. Which, depending on who you talk to, isn’t even real because science has been the target of so much manufactured distrust.

One day, sooner rather than later in the Southwest, a switch won’t deliver electricity and a faucet won’t deliver water. Scientists have been talking about consequences of climate change and drought in the area for decades. It was one of the reasons I left my lifelong home in Colorado and came to Maine nearly eight years ago. A combination of manufactured distrust, denial, and the misplaced priority of winning the next election have effectively stopped any kind of collaborative or cooperative problem-solving around water usage throughout the Colorado River watershed, and here we are, on the brink of multi-state disaster that will affect the whole country.

Trust is a choice we make many times a day. Do we trust our families, coworkers, and friends? Do we trust the headlines we read, the news anchor we hear, or the algorithms providing us with “information” on social media? Do we trust what lands in our Inbox or the unfamiliar number calling us? Do we trust the oncoming car will really stop so we can safely walk across the busy street?

More importantly, do we trust our own instincts, feelings, and capability? Do we actively teach our children to trust theirs? Do we encourage our friends and loved ones to trust themselves? Or do we tell people they have it wrong, it didn’t happen, they’re being ridiculous, they don’t understand?

Choice comes with consequences and responsibility. Choice is dynamic; do we trust if we make a choice that doesn’t work out the way we hoped, we’ll choose again? Do we trust ourselves to be wrong and learn something before we choose again? Do we trust our ability to problem solve, bounce back, and do the best we can most of the time?

I suppose somewhere between having no trust at all and trusting everyone and everything lies a fine line of willingness to trust. We could approach new situations and people with curiosity and an open mind, be big enough to give the benefit of the doubt, and have healthy enough boundaries and the self-trust to disengage when we have evidence and experience indicating our trust is misplaced.

The first step in rejecting manufactured distrust is building trust in ourselves and demonstrating our own reliability, truth, ability and strength as we engage with others.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

Enough

When we teach Parent and Child swim classes, most of what we teach is for the parents. Holds, encouragement, how to demonstrate skills, the importance of trust, safety, and initiating lots of play are among the highlights. One of the things we talk about is the “Terrible Toos.” Too far. Too many repetitions. Too tired. Too scared. Too hot or cold. Too hungry. Too thirsty. Too much sun. All of these impact a child’s ability to learn.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

I begin lessons with a lesson plan, but I’ve worked with children all my life, and I know one never knows how a session will go. Every time is different. One day they’ve napped, and another day they haven’t. One day they have a tooth coming in, or they’ve just had a doctor’s appointment, or they’ve been to school. Sometimes they’re getting sick. Sometimes they’ve just gotten a new puppy.

Sometimes they’re up for learning, and sometimes they’re not. When they’re not, I need to set aside my agenda and work with where the child is. It’s surprising, how many skills we can practice during 30 minutes of “play!”

Recently I read this article about figuring out what is enough from Becoming Minimalist, and it made me think about the “Terrible Toos.” We know so much about more, and so little about too much and enough.

Enough. As much or as many as required for satisfaction.

There’s a problematic definition! Satisfaction is entirely subjective. We are taught from babyhood to consume, to want, to desire more. Our culture is structured around appeals to our longing for belonging, connection, and more than we have. More clothes. More food. More friends. More tech. More money.

I wonder how many people know what enduring satisfaction feels like.

Enough is a boundary. It’s a destination. It’s power.

Unlimited More is a black hole.

Enough is reality.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Unlimited More is addiction, or perfectionism, or pleasing. It never ends. It never stops. It’s never satisfied. It’s based on the fantasy that if only we had more _______, our lives would be better. If we were only more ________, we would be loved.

Enough is a choice to say yes or no. No, I don’t need that. No, I don’t want that. No, I have enough.

Unlimited More is not a choice. It’s yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes, I need more.

When are we good enough?

When have we tried hard enough?

When do we have enough?

When have we suffered enough?

When have we given enough?

When have we loved enough?

When have we forgiven enough?

When have we tolerated enough?

When have we accommodated enough?

When are we fast enough?

When are we busy enough?

When are we enough?

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 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!

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 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.

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

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.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

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. 

Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash