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:
I have written about dance here before. In the structure I use, the 5 Rhythms Wave by Gabrielle Roth, chaos is part of the wave. The music for chaos is fast but grounded. Think Pink Floyd’s Meddle.
As I lingered on the threshold between waking and sleep this morning, thinking about loss, the subject of my last post; thinking about my distressing inability to publish my usual essay on Substack last week, and thinking about the ways in which I’m reshaping my beliefs about my family and therefore myself, I recognized the chaos part of the dance.
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
To dance in chaos involves letting everything go except the beat. Chaos is about strength, not beauty. It’s about grounding and staying grounded even as the music flings us through space.
Chaos is the part where you dance till you drool.
The edge of chaos is fertile, regenerative, thick with possibility. It’s also powerfully disorganized and unpredictable. It’s exhausting, overwhelming. Too much is happening too fast. When dancing chaos, we give ourselves entirely to the music and follow it through the tumult however we can. As Margaret Shepherd said, “Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” Add music to that idea and you have the chaos part of the dance. The car has broken down. The planes are grounded. The train has derailed. The illusion we’re in control has shattered. Our routines and schedules fall apart around us. Our internal and external worlds begin to reshape in ways we can’t understand.
I’ve been troubled in the last couple of weeks by the violence of my rebellion against doing anything except work and play in the garden. I don’t want to write. I don’t want to think or reason. I don’t care about the damn housework. Beltane, May 1st, came and went without my usual ritual and practices. I don’t want to be brave, strong, organized, compassionate, tolerant, empathetic, or responsible.
I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve shut down like this. I/m unable to guilt or lash myself into being “productive.” I feel ashamed and scared. I don’t recognize myself.
It occurs to me this is my Beltane ritual this year. After all, Beltane is about fertility. Physical fertility, the cyclical fertility of the growing season, creative fertility. My ritual this year is being in the garden. There, with my knees in the dirt, the smell and feel of the soil, the texture of new weeds and old leaves and matted grass (we didn’t have a mower last year), I am peaceful. I know where I am. I am, literally, grounded. I don’t have my phone. Nobody needs anything from me. I bend, kneel, stoop, dig, rake and shovel compost mindlessly. I dream vaguely about new garden beds, rewilding with native shrubs and trees. Black flies come for their drop of blood. The sun shines down on me.
Right now I need to be in the garden. I don’t understand it entirely, but perhaps there’s no need to. What I do know is something in me refuses to engage with anything else. As the lilies and iris emerge, as the tulips bloom and the daffodils fade, as the lilacs bud and the magnolia blossoms fall and cover the ground, I mulch and prune and feel seismic forces beyond my control reshape me internally.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
So much of what I’ve learned and believed about my family and my place in it has crumbled into dust. Old family myths have exploded with fragments of evidence from Mom’s life, unearthed in the process of selling her estate. I didn’t entirely believe in some of those myths, but they were stable. They provided a family background I was familiar with. I built an identity from the identities family members who came before me created. If I am not the despised one, the broken one, the one who doesn’t belong, the cuckoo in the nest, who am I? Has all that been yet another family myth? Has any of it ever been about who I really am or my personal value, or have I been nothing but a faceless, nameless piece in a dysfunctional family pattern?
I long for freedom. Is this the beginning of freedom?
My recent inability to force myself to take care of business, to be responsible, consistent, and productive, is terrifying. I’ve always pushed myself through any resistance or fatigue. I’ve always known I must justify my existence with constant production, pleasing, and caregiving.
Am I free of that now? If I don’t have to justify my existence because that belief is a lie based on family mythology that’s at least part lies, is that freedom? Am I brave enough to take my freedom, walk away from all the burdens (too heavy for me, but I’ve carried them anyway), and simply choose what makes me happy? I have stood at this crossroad before.
Two weeks ago I wrote about loss. Now I’m watching glimmers of new beginnings, nebulous glints of what might come into the disturbed ground of my being. I pick up trash and find rich soil beneath it. I dig up dandelions and burdocks and discover little patches of old garden. The sun touches me without asking for anything in return. I rake away last year’s debris and mix it with compost to build new garden beds. This morning, the crab apple is in bloom. The tight buds on the white lilac by the porch door gather perfume.
Meanwhile, back in Colorado, strangers live in my mother’s house. Hospice tells me Mom can no longer ambulate independently, even with her walker. A call in the middle of last night reported yet another fall, as she doesn’t realize (or won’t admit) her own weakness. Appraisal revealed my wealthy and powerful grandmother’s gold, pearls, and gemstones were mostly costume, not real. A ladylike façade. A denial of her impoverished roots. A glimpse of shame and fear that rival my own, though I never knew they were there.
Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash
It’s Mother’s Day weekend. A friend asked me yesterday how I felt about that, and I had no words.
What is real? What can I bear? The dirt on my knees, under my fingernails. The spectacularly itchy, burning welts of black fly bites. The egg shells, banana peels, and soggy segments of lemon in the compost pile. The lovely cupped double tulips I planted last fall, white, pink and purple. The thumb-sized bumble bee tumbling ecstatically among the pink blossoms of the crabapple. My own breath, heartbeat, sweat. The sun on my skin.
Gardens are made and remade. They die and are reborn. They go wild and survive until rediscovered. They adjust, adapt, take advantage of the edge of chaos according to their own wisdom and purpose.
For now, I’m in the garden, dancing with chaos, nurturing new life, hanging on.
- What is your experience of Mother’s Day?
- In the times during which you struggle to manage your life, are you fearful or do you allow yourself to follow your needs?
- Do you find chaos joyful and exhilarating or frightening?
- What opportunities have you had to reframe your family?
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:
We moved into this house a little less than a year ago.
New Home, May 2022
The chaos of the transition gradually ebbed away, leaving me beached with all my things and a sometimes fearful, sometimes eager curiosity about what this new chapter of my life would bring. This move, for me, was not random, but intentional. I felt it as an important step in my journey to an unknown destination. At this point in my life I’m not much interested in destination; my fascinated gaze rests on my inner and outer landscapes as the days come and go. I travel in the direction of freedom, space, and simplicity.
These last months I have spent time sitting in various places in my space dreaming, imagining, listening to the whispers of this old house, audibly exploring the surge of the neighborhood outside my windows and walls. I have watched the garden leaf out and bloom, then wither and die. I’ve learned the slant of the sunlight coming through the tall windows. From the chaise where I sit writing this morning I can see a patch of eastern sky through the bare branches of a neighbor’s tree outside the kitchen window; from here I watch the dawn come during my early morning journal time.
We have updated the electrical system. We have updated the plumbing. We have invested in a hybrid hot water heater, shaving our electrical costs. We have bought and installed a sump pump in our wet cellar. I have brought home innumerable paint chip samples, pinned them to walls and woodwork in every room, watching them glow and dim as hours and seasons pass across them.
I have refrained from adding anything to my space, filling it instead with a mist of dreams and imagination. Indeed, I subtract objects as I clean and scrub and mop the scarred, stained, pine floor. I’ve lived with the gouged trim, the slapdash paint, decades of nails, rusting staples, and screws in the plaster walls which, when pulled, leave large, crumbling holes.
When I first saw the house, in pictures on a real estate site online, my bedroom was being used as a dining room. It remained a dining room the first time we were here, New Year’s Eve 2021. Our attention was drawn to the exposed original tin ceiling in the living room next to it; we were told the same ceiling was above a newer suspended ceiling in the adjoining kitchen.
In the then-dining room, now my bedroom, another suspended ceiling was installed, the kind with a metal grid supporting ceiling panels seen in office spaces. Some of the panels were painted in lavender curlicues.
Bedroom ceiling 03/23
It was laughably hideous. I laid in bed and looked up at the ceiling, wondering what was above the curlicues. Another tin ceiling? Plaster? The naked underside of the floor above? One day I would find out.
That day was a couple of weeks ago. One morning my partner and I took the tall steps into my room and pushed up one of the panels, revealing an old plaster ceiling that had been wallpapered and then painted. We could see ancient water staining and cracks.
Once I knew, I couldn’t wait to get the suspended ceiling down. I gathered tools and ragged sheets to throw over my furniture and went to work.
Some of these old houses have plaster made with asbestos. Wallpaper and glue contained arsenic to discourage rats. Older paint often contained lead. As I worked, I uncovered at least two layers of wallpaper and three of paint. I opened a window for ventilation and, wincing, pulled nails and screws out of the plaster, which created the most damage. I used a putty knife to peel up the curling loose edges of wallpaper and flaked paint, leaving what is firmly adhered in place. I worked for a couple of hours, absolutely happy. It took another hour to clean up the mess and get the debris into the dumpster.
I’ve taken out two thirds of the suspended ceiling now. The room remembers its former elegant lines. In some places the plaster walls are stripped naked. As I lie in bed, I wonder what this room has contained. How have others who lived here used this space? Who chose the first layer of wallpaper, and the second? Whose hands glued, papered, painted? Who put in this screw and that nail, and why?
Some might find the room austere, bleak. I don’t have much in it right now, because it’s just more to cover, move, and clean as I go. I have a single bed, small but as luxurious as I can make it. The high ceiling soars above the ragged walls like a cloudy autumn sky soars above tattered trees.
All my life something in me has rejoiced in bareness, in spareness. The space between and around objects means more to me than objects themselves. Color, light, air, and music, ever-changing, pure, without form, sustain me more than things.
In this bedroom, in this house, I’m conscious for the first time in my life of a longing for expansion, not to contain more things, but to contain more life, more being. I’m awed by my own freedom, my release from so many burdens I carried in earlier years.
Peeling away flaking wallpaper, brushing away crumbling plaster, I feel like a sculptor. Gentle-handed, I pry and pull. I’ll fill holes, patch, spread joint compound. It will take time. It will make messes. Plaster dust will float out my open windows. One day walls and ceiling will be ready for new coverings of color and texture. I’ll throw sheets over piled furniture, work, clean, move it all back, one wall at a time. I’ll replace the two tall, elegant windows. I’ll glue up faux tin ceiling tiles, honoring the house’s colonial period and aesthetic. The days and hours will pass. Light will move across the walls and ceiling. I’ll open the curtains in the morning and close them at night. I’ll eat and sleep, work and write, swim and walk while the seasons turn around me.
As I stroke the house, uncovering, reducing, baring, and finally reclothing its lines, my own skin loosens, cell by cell. My eyebrows and lashes diminish. My skin thins and dries, stained by sunshine, silver-rippled by the full moon of long-ago pregnancy. My flesh softens.
Neither the house nor I will again be firm-fleshed, new, perfect. Repaired plaster has a variable, subtle landscape. I have lived in my body for nearly 60 years. Life shapes us and makes us its own. Many lives have had their being within these walls, but I am comfortable with their ghosts.
I think of my own ghosts, too, as I work. Life and time have molded the house and me. The ghosts we call memories stay within us, haunting or blessing, as the case may be. As I chip away at painted-over screws and staples, remove panels and pull away pieces of metal grid, I release the house from the past as I release my own excrescences, recognize and mitigate my own toxic layers of what others expected and how they defined me.
I did not know how captive I was until I found myself free.
- What has held you captive in your life?
- Do you find more joy in stripping down (subtracting) or layering on (adding)?
- Are you more likely to repair flaws or cover them cosmetically?
- Are you distressed by “imperfections” in your environment and/or your body and cover or hide them, or do you honor them?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m sitting at my desk this morning, the sun shining on the wet grass scattered with wrinkled leaves outside my window. I’ve just been running errands. My desk, unusually, is piled high with scraps of paper, notebooks, my calendar, receipts, to-do lists, and a new binder and paper I just bought to help me organize. My big grey tabby, Oz, is busily knocking everything off the desk and chewing on a new plastic package of AAA batteries because I won’t let him lie on the keyboard.
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
I was sick most of October. I’m finally on antibiotics; I can breathe, and consequently think, more clearly. A week ago an aged family member living halfway across the country with whom I have a lifelong troubled history became openly unable to manage their life and then fell and broke their hip in quick succession.
Sometimes life requires us to muster every bit of learning, wisdom, strength, courage, insight and experience we have in a catastrophic practical test, like a nightmarish pop quiz. This is one of those times. It helps to look at it that way, because I know I have (somewhere) everything I need to manage this situation with all my considerable compassion and clear-sightedness.
This last week I let go of everything. My living space needs to be cleaned. I desperately want to change my sheets after so many nights crying, coughing, and trying to breathe adequately enough to snatch some sleep. I’m longing to escape my phone and laptop, sit in the sun, read, relax, do some gentle gardening (still like late summer here in Maine). I haven’t even started on this post yet, a thing I usually do during the week.
I made it to work. I made it to the doctor for antibiotics. I stayed hydrated. Aside from reactive crisis intervention and coming to terms with what’s happening long-distance, that’s about all I can say for myself. But now, at last, I’m beginning to stir feebly into some kind of normal experience again.
It’s a relief.
I opened this document and started typing without any plan whatsoever. I don’t have to post today on this blog. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. I suppose I’ve grown used to the opportunity to organize my life into words every week.
For nearly a decade I’ve worked intensively on boundaries. Ten years ago I knew nothing about personal boundaries. My life was accordingly dysfunctional. It was hardly my life at all, in fact. It was everyone else’s life. I’ve written extensively about boundaries on the blog, and the concept of the difference between your experience and mine is woven heavily into my fiction. I’ve practiced building and maintaining healthy boundaries in the last years, though I’m still far from perfect in working with them.
But I’m getting better all the time.
When we are prevented from building appropriate psychological boundaries as children, we never create an internal world in which we can rest, center, and ground. We become an image in someone else’s mirror, a paper doll, a nonperson.
Nonpeople have no needs, no credibility, and no permission to express themselves as individuals. It’s worse than no permission, though. Nonpeople are severely punished for any independent feeling, need, or expression. Nonpeople have no private life. They’re not allowed to say no.
This kind of relationship, sadly, is often invisible to onlookers. From the outside, such connections look bonded and mutually adoring. The public view never sees the anguish involved in a relationship without boundaries.
Anguish on both sides. Those who seek to prevent others from having boundaries are deeply damaged, insecure people whose own boundaries were likely brutally violated and torn down. They are terrified of being alone, and a boundary makes them feel utterly outcast and rejected.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
But for me, boundaries are sanity. They’re safety. They allow the power to choose and respect to flow both ways. They say, “My self is worthy. Your self is worthy. We can choose to love one another as well as ourselves.”
Reshaping a primary relationship with no boundaries into one with healthy ones is excruciating. It may not be possible. I haven’t decided it is impossible, but I wonder. One of the hardest things about it is how it looks to outsiders, who don’t understand why all the harsh edges and corners are suddenly showing in such a perfect, loving relationship, the kind we all want, the kind we should feel lucky to have.
Another feeling I’m present with just now is the nauseating swing between relief and guilt. All secrets, painful family secrets included, have an uncomfortable way of being revealed. Even if everyone involved conspires to keep the secret, eventually, often in a you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kind of way, someone or something like a terrible series of events exposes it.
I’ve posted about such ideas as loyalty, responsibility, duty, gaslighting and projection. The bars of prisons built by family systems are forged out of concepts and strategies like these. But when a secret escapes the bars melt away and we’re suddenly free. We’re not alone in solitary anymore.
Some stranger says to us, “Oh, yes. I’m familiar with that dynamic. I’ve observed that behavior. I understand,” and we realize we are not crazy. We are not mean and ugly. We are not hateful.
We are not alone.
The relief of validation is indescribable. So is the guilt accompanying the relief. When we guard secrets, literally with our lives, for the sake of protecting the dignity of a loved one and the secrets are revealed through no fault of our own, we also feel exposed. The mere fact that we were the designated secret keeper means we failed.
Our love and the cost of bearing the secret’s burden for so long doesn’t matter. The least we can do, the least we can do, is remove all the boundaries we’ve erected so carefully and painstakingly and once again give up our lives, our freedom, our selves. Our loved one’s anguish should become our anguish, their pain our pain, their limitations our limitations. If necessary, their death should be our death. Because we betrayed, we let them down, we failed.
The secret got out.
I can’t see very far ahead. It’s not useful to gaze at the road behind. I’ve already walked it and everything is different now, the people involved and the situation. Right now I know where I am. I can see the next steps. This is a new path, one I’ve never taken before. It’s a new script, a new experience. I’m working on releasing my assumptions. I don’t know what will happen next. I can predict, but predictions make me tired. What I have is right now, today. I know what I will do today, both in my personal life and to manage my loved one’s situation.
This time I will find a way to inhabit my boundaries and support my loved one without sacrificing one for the other. I will make phone calls, send emails, get myself organized to do whatever I can long distance and prepare to travel in case of need. I will grieve.
I will also write, get outside, do some laundry, maybe take a nap, and work on recovering my health, because mine is the only life I can live.
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