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Same, Same, But Not Really

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

I’m having a hard time keeping track of the date and day of the week. The shape of my time has changed, and my life now feels uncomfortably uncontained. I no longer navigate by my old landmarks and routines.

I notice, as I intentionally reach out to friends, that our interactions no longer revolve around weekend plans, leisure activities and local events and opportunities. I want to hear their voices, talk with them, be with them, but I have no real news, nothing that seems exciting or interesting to say. We all have projects to help us feel productive and give ourselves something to focus on, but my projects don’t feel important enough to share in any detail. In fact, after the initial question, no longer a casual politeness, but THE question: How are you? — I don’t have any sparkling conversation to offer.

Not that I’m usually a sparkling conversationalist.

And what about that question? How to answer? Yes, I am well physically and grateful to be so. Sometimes I’m scared. Sometimes I despair. I don’t feel safe out in the world. I’m infuriated and appalled by conspiracy theories, protests, misinformation and willful ignorance. I’m anxious about the future. I’m loving being outdoors and having so much time to write. I’m horrified by the sense of inescapable slow-motion collapse that I have no power to stop or alleviate.

I love all this unstructured time.

I hate all this unstructured time.

How are you? Same, same. Same as you. Same as yesterday.

But not really.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

Not really, because life is not a brightly colored video game with music, sound effects, fast action and a replay button. We know that, of course, but we forget that we know it as we move faster and faster, consume more and more, race to keep up. So many of us structure our time with various kinds of instant gratifications, even if that’s just an alert that we’ve got a text message or an e-mail.

Now, all of a sudden, the plug on our video game is pulled and we’re reintroduced into a slower, more natural flow and rhythm. Events unfold subtly and sometimes invisibly. Deep forces are at work that we can only intuit.

We were informed yesterday that one of our best local long-term care facilities has a resident who has tested positive for COVID-19. Central Maine, so far, has been comparatively lucky in terms of numbers of infections and deaths, partly because we have a low population and are mostly rural, and partly due to the dedicated teamwork of our governor and CDC representative. My partner and I are very careful when we are in public, wearing masks and gloves and observing social distancing. Many others are, as well.

Some are not.

During all those same, same days last week, coronavirus was incubating, invisibly and silently, in that nursing home. It wasn’t identified until yesterday, but it was there, replicating, infecting, and probably spreading. We just didn’t know it yet.

Today, the whole facility, staff and patients, will be tested. If there are several positive tests, we’ll have an outbreak and widespread community transmission will have come to our small city.

I often have the thought, as I rake, help my partner stack firewood, plan for gardens, clean the bathroom, wash out a mask or cook a meal, that all this busyness is pointless. What’s it all for? Who’s it all for? What is the shape of the future?

Is there a future distinct from these times, or will we go on, same, same, day after day, until we grow old and die, or get sick with coronavirus, whichever comes first?

At this point in my thoughts, I find myself leaning on my rake, staring blankly at the next patch of ground to clear, or standing staring out the kitchen window with a soapy plate in my hands, and with a click time and I begin moving again.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

I remind myself that of course there is a future. I simply can no longer predict the shape of it. I’m too small and too limited. Time, life, the cosmos, never stop. Change is always with us, but we’re not big enough to see or understand most of it, or it happens too slowly for us to discern, so we assume it’s not happening. We feel stuck in some unchanging, endless stasis.

There’s so much we don’t know. Sometimes all that we don’t know terrifies me, and other times it comforts me.

And there are things I do know. Life is change. Change itself is neutral. We can welcome it and work with it, or we can resist and fear it, a chocolate or vanilla choice. The small choices we’re each making in this moment are shaping the future in ways we’ll never know about or understand. The future is literally built on this moment, and we all influence it.

Raking won’t fix coronavirus, or the economy, or the terrible damage our national leadership is inflicting. It won’t shape a future I can look forward to and invest in. It’s not fast and sexy and addictive; something I’ll post on Instagram or Facebook with a selfie and get “likes” or thumbs-ups or hearts. On the other hand, it makes me happy to be outside working on the land. It keeps me strong and healthy to be in the sun and fresh air. It satisfies me to be clearing the ground for mowing. It’s an activity that’s keeping me going right now, providing fuel for my love and creativity, the best offerings I can make to others and to life.

How are you, who are reading these words? Same, same, but not really? I hope you’re well in mind, spirit and body. I hope you stay that way.

I’m raking and stacking firewood. I’m writing. I’m holding tight to my friends. I’m picking up seedlings, buying local eggs, transplanting a rose. I don’t know when I’m going back to work. I don’t know what work will look like when I do go back. I don’t know what my economic future looks like, or if we’ll be able to buy the food we need. I don’t know anything about the deep, invisible changes and currents that are always present in life and mostly hidden from my awareness. This day blurs into all the others since the day I stopped working. I have to look at the calendar to know the day of the week and date. I’m not even sure what time it is.

Outside my window, the wind is blowing, stirring the budding trees and buffeting against the house. Things are happening, visibly and invisibly, here at home, in the community, in the state, in the country, in the world. This day is different than yesterday, and tomorrow will be different again, in spite of this long, weary grind of being stuck at home and uncertain about everything. It looks the same as yesterday. It feels the same as yesterday. But it’s not the same.

How am I? Same, same. But not really.

My daily crime.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Easter Weekend: Aftermath

April 10, 2020

After a devastating storm on Thursday, April 9, 2020, by the weekend we were pulling ourselves together. We closed off parts of the house in order to preserve what heat we had from the woodstove. We had several buckets of snow melting for flushing the toilet. Our wood stove sits in an old fireplace, which limits our ability to cook on it, but we had a shallow, wide pot for heating water, a small skillet in which to cook eggs, and another shallow pot to heat or simmer food in.

We shut the kitchen away from the heat, trying to keep it near refrigerator temperature to spare our food, opening the freezers only when absolutely necessary.

We assembled flashlights and candles. We filter our drinking water in a big five-gallon bucket. Our water comes from an old hand-dug well, and it’s sweet and good, but we’re careful to filter. The bucket had not been filled before the power went out, and our pump is electric, so we knew we’d need water. Bottled water has been very difficult to find in the stores and if it is available, we can only buy a gallon or two at a time.

Our laptops had nearly full charges, but our cell phones were low. We figured out how to make a hot spot with my partner’s phone, but it drained the battery quickly, so we hastily made calls and sent e-mails to our loved ones and shut it all down. We called the power company again. This time the recorded message gave no estimated time of the power coming back up and advised us to “prepare for a multi-day event.”

I was desperate for a hot shower. My hair, never civilized in the first place, is badly in need of a cut, which I can’t get right now because of coronavirus restrictions. I felt like a dirty, disheveled steel wool poodle. Yikes!

We made a plan for me to go to a friend who still had power on Sunday, take a shower, get some water, and charge our laptops and cell phones.

Two friends showed up with their kids to take a walk with us on Saturday, and we went up the hill, our usual approximately 3-mile walk. For the initial few yards the road is paved, but then reverts to dirt. We saw tree damage everywhere, and evidence of large downed trees having been cut up and removed from the road in several places. Many trees were suspended on the lines, and there were long stretches of line draped around and over the road and ditches, snarled up with tree debris. We saw no sign of power or tree service trucks.

Every other house had a generator running.

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Shortly after our friends left, one of them called to tell me that four staff in the rehab building at the hospital, where we’ve all been working, have tested positive for COVID-19, and we’re all on a mandatory 14-day quarantine, after which we are furloughed until further notice. The building is shut down.

This was sobering news. I’ve been turning myself inside out trying to get hours at work, doing shifts in screening tents, working at a screening table, even doing things like putting together trauma packs—whatever needed to be done. In a way, it’s a relief to just be out of work. At least I can count on it! On the other hand, I felt concerned about my colleagues in the building. We don’t know who is sick.

How the hell was I going to keep the house clean and protect my partner without power and hot water? And if I’m in quarantine he has to go out and buy groceries and expose himself.

Shit.

In addition, we heard of another storm coming, this one with heavy rain and high winds. More than 200,000 people lost power during the snowstorm, and most of us were still down. Countless damaged and leaning trees were balanced precariously, held up by their neighbors, branches and crowns tangled together.

We read as long as we could by daylight, and had another early night in bed.

Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash

On Sunday morning (Easter Sunday) I loaded up the car with water jugs and our tech and went to my friend’s house. On the way, I saw one lone power truck from an out-of-state company with one lineman in the truck and another in a personal vehicle. They were trying, I knew, but coronavirus has complicated everything.

My friend was ready for me, and we plugged everything in to charge. I had a wonderful hot shower, washed my wild hair and felt much better. I sat on her living room floor drinking tea and dealing with my e-mail, looking at the weather forecast and headlines. We filled various containers with water and loaded them into the car.

On the way home, about a quarter of a mile from our house, I came across a tree service truck taking a tree off the line. Out here in Maine, when the power goes down the first responders are the tree service people. When they start working, we know the power company is not far behind them. I felt like cheering.

As we unloaded the water, my partner told me he’d been seeing both tree and power trucks going back and forth, and we dared to hope we might be up and running sooner rather than later. We decided to take a walk. When we returned, I wandered over to look at our shattered maple while my partner went in the house. He stuck his head out the door and called to me that the power was back on.

We discovered we still had no Internet. We called our Internet provider and got a recorded message: “If you’re calling from Maine, please hang up. If you’re calling from other service areas, please stay on the line.”

Great.

A few minutes later, the friend with whom I’d spent the morning called to say she was achy and feverish and going into the ER to get tested, per hospital staff protocol.

Shit.

We turned on the hot water heater and I got to work. I was determined to get done what I could before the next storm arrived. I put on a mask, as I’d been exposed to my friend so closely, knowing it was probably too late to protect my partner, but feeling I must do what I could. As I scrubbed and scoured and wiped with bleach, I worried about my friend being alone, sick and scared. I worried about my partner. I worried about other friends and coworkers and their families.

I worried. And cleaned. And worried.

By the end of the day, the house was in order, everything was fully charged, we had lots of extra water, and we were set to deal with another outage if it came.

That night, before I slept, I read by electrical light and was grateful. As I drifted off to sleep, I wondered what Monday would bring.

Photo by Rachael Gorjestani on Unsplash

 

Touch

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

Last evening, I was part of a remarkable conversation about hugs.

Yes, hugs.

I’ve written before about my hunger for touch and the shame that goes with it. A longing for touch is always with me to some degree, ebbing and flowing with my social context, but I hide it and rarely speak of my need. Keeping it secret is, of course, self-protective. I’m ashamed of my need and what others will think of it, but we also live in a culture that distorts much of our rightful and healthy sexuality and sensual expression. A woman who craves physical affection and reassurance is exceedingly vulnerable and very likely to be misunderstood.

I’m also respectful of the boundaries of others; unfortunately, many people are badly wounded around unwanted and/or inappropriate touch. I myself am confused about the interaction of abuse, touch and sex, and I know many others are as well.

Yet I maintain touch is one of the core needs we all have, and I know touch deprivation is a condition that has been extensively studied. As human beings, we don’t develop normally if we’re touch deprived or otherwise dislocated from our neurobiological need for skin-to-skin contact.

This is an issue I deal largely with inside my own head, although I have mentioned it in writing. I haven’t discussed it among friends. If we reveal how ugly and pathetic we are, we won’t have friends, right?

Sigh. No. Not right. We all have secrets like this, and true friends don’t turn away from our warts and scars. Also, I get bored by my own fear and the tension between being real and being accepted. To hell with it.

Last night, I found myself standing outside in the early winter evening with two others talking about, of all things, hugs. The harsh light at the apex of the barn roof fell on us, making strange, stark shadows on our faces,

Photo by Erika Giraud on Unsplash

I was stunned (first) and amused (later) to discover a hug meant something entirely different to each of us. I’m constantly poking at the different meanings we have for words and concepts, and I’m acutely aware of the confusion and conflation of things like respect and agreement. Why should the experience and interpretation of either giving or receiving a hug be any different?

I suppose it’s such a deep, painful and private issue I’ve simply never given it enough airtime to realize touch, too, has many different meanings. The only meaning I’ve been able to see is my own, and I realize now my meaning is very unsophisticated and black and white:

Touch means love. If there is no touch, there is no love. If my touch is rejected, my love is rejected, which I take personally and make into a rejection of me, naturally!

So there we stood in the icy driveway, having just disembarked from the car. I said (and realized as I said it how true it is, though I never expressed it this way before) a hug is the best “I love you,” I can express. I’ve always been able to say (and hear!) far more physically than I can with words.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

My friend (another woman) said she learned to think of hugs as a sign of weakness.

Another friend (a man) said to him a hug, or most other kinds of physical contact, are a threat of pain, violence or abuse.

Wow. The three of us stood there, looking at each other. I was reminded of how little we know or guess about what goes on below the surface of others, even others we know and care about. I was humbled by their honesty, touched by their vulnerability, grateful for the reminder we all carry around pain and confusion over something in our heads and hearts. I wanted (of course!) to take them both in my arms, but refrained (also of course).

It’s amazing to understand the best, most compassionate and loving gift I can give another might feel to the recipient like a threat, or endanger their sense of strength and independence. My intention may be completely lost in translation.

Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

When I think about the times I’ve felt rejected or rebuffed as I interact with people who aren’t comfortable with touch, I suddenly realize their discomfort is likely not about me at all. I no longer get to be the star in my soap opera (nobody loves me, I’m old, I’m ugly, I’m untouchable). Maybe, in fact, others don’t want to make me feel weak, or threatened, or who knows what else!

I can’t help but giggle about this.

I can’t say more about my personal thoughts and feelings right now. It was one of those brief but amazing conversations I can’t stop thinking about. It didn’t lead me to a grand and glorious conclusion, it just revealed aspects of touch I hadn’t been aware of before.

Social touch is extremely complicated and essential to healthy human functioning. I discover, as I research, the discipline of psychotherapy is beginning to look at the importance of touch as a tool for connection and emotional healing. We know touch can play a role in physiological healing. Touch is an essential part of nonverbal communication. Different cultures have different social rules about touch. A couple of generations of American parents were taught to avoid holding or cuddling infants and children (don’t spoil your child); thankfully, we are changing our beliefs about that now, but that doesn’t help the generations of disbonded and attachment-disordered children who are now adults and struggling. Skin hunger and touch deprivation are a huge problem for elderly populations.

Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

We also live in a #MeToo atmosphere in which the previously hidden pain of thousands of victims of inappropriate touch is becoming visible. As healing and validating as our recognition and outrage over this kind of abuse is, it leaves many people nervous about giving or receiving any kind of touch from anyone unless it’s sexual (as in consensual between two adults), making us ever more isolated, ashamed, and skin hungry.

I wish I had answers for myself and others, but I don’t. Somehow, we have to find a way forward with healthy boundaries, consent, communication and respect as we honor our deep physical, emotional and neurological need for nonsexual touch.

 

Crystal Casket by Rowan Wilding

Innocent, yet somehow run afoul of a jealous queen
A sly drop of poison introduced
A taint that can never be erased.
So polluted, then, they built me a crystal casket,
Protecting the world from my touch.
I rise and clothe my outcast body, day by day
Concealing shameful curse
But at night I return naked to my crystal casket.
The moon bathes me in her cool silver milk
Ebbing and flowing like a slow heartbeat in the ravishing night.
I lie with my hands folded on my chest
(Their small warm weight comforts my empty heart)
And watch the sky storm with stars
Galaxies in my eyes.
Neither shroud of rain nor quilt of snow can touch me, shut away
But I love them from within my crystal casket.
No faithful guardian watches over me, a lighted lantern at his feet.
No prince arrives, seeking a poisoned kiss.
I was never black as ebony, red as blood and white as snow.
Now I’m spiderwebbed with age and moon-milk
Cool inside my crystal casket while midnight passions wheel around me
Dark flowers and fruits, musk and nectar, texture and taste and scent

But not for me.

Being Social For Social Beings

On the heels of last week’s post about unplugging, I had a conversation with friends about social media and what, exactly, it means to be social. What is a healthy balance of social and solitary? How do we determine if our social lives are appropriate?

Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash

Predictably, I want to start this exploration with definitions, all provided by Oxford Online Dictionary:

Social: Relating to society or its organization; needing companionship and therefore best suited to living in communities.

Society: The aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community; the situation of being in the company of other people.

The root of social and society is Latin, and it means companionship.

Companionship: A feeling of fellowship or friendship.

The other starting point for me as I consider this issue is what I learned from emotional intelligence coaching. We humans are motivated by three primary needs: Connection, authenticity and contribution.

We are not normally taught to identify our needs, beyond the obvious survival needs of air, food, water and shelter. Most people believe what we need is money. If we had enough money, everything would be happy ever after. We believe that because our capitalist culture depends on our believing it and continuing to fuel the economy with our spending.

Almost none of our true needs can be bought, however. Here’s a link to the best resource I’ve found online for thinking about needs.

Photo by Juan Pablo Rodriguez on Unsplash

Being social creatures, we also depend on those around us to demonstrate or tell us what we should need, what’s normal to need, or what’s appropriate to need. We’re neurobiologically wired to blend in with the herd, which probably helped us survive another day in the beginning. Individuals who could not or would not adhere to the collective lost the power and protection of the community. That’s why tribal shaming continues to be such a powerful and annihilating weapon.

I observe around me a vast continuum of social abilities and needs. Some people are quite extroverted and social. Others are positively hermits, and most of us fall somewhere in between. We also know some people have differently wired brains than the majority, and struggle with social cues and skills. Still others of us are more sensitive than the norm (whatever that is) and are easily overstimulated and overwhelmed in social situations.

So what does it mean to be appropriately, healthily, normally social?

The answer depends on the individual asking the question. The happiest and healthiest balance between connection, authenticity and contribution for each individual is as unique as our fingerprint, and it changes. What we need at 20 may not be what we need at 40, or 60. Life changes, we change, and our needs change.

it’s fascinating to remember Facebook was created by a brilliant young college man who struggled with social skills; specifically, finding sexual partners. In the beginning, Facebook was, in essence, a prehistoric dating app, and just about as sensitive and romantic! Of course, most college men aren’t looking for sensitivity or romance. They’re looking for sex.

In 15 years (isn’t that amazing?) our social intercourse has been entirely transformed. Some say our amazing connectivity is an enormous step forward. Others are beginning to ask important questions about the effectiveness and/or appropriateness of social media. Is it a useful tool we can master and control, or is at weapon that steals our power? Is it a positive advance that enlightens, informs and connects, demonstrably creating a happier, healthier, more compassionate society, or is it manipulative, divisive, addictive, and destructive?

It seems to me social media is exactly like a gun. It’s a neutral entity that can be used for either good or ill, depending on who is wielding it and why.

Social media is huge. I doubt anyone would disagree with that. However, people still form societies or communities around shared values, activities and belief systems in the real world. Social media, however, has changed face-to-face interaction as well; we’ve all observed people inhabiting the same room or even the same couch, each engrossed in the small screen and keypad in their hand or on their lap. Families do it. Married people do it. People do it on dates. Friends do it. Parents do it while ostensibly watching and supporting their children during swim lessons (a particular pet peeve of mine), or other activities. Is social media making these relationships healthier?

One of my problems with social media is the emphasis on external validation. This circles the conversation back around to authenticity and pseudo self. If we rely on external validation to tell us we’re okay (whatever that means to us), we’re not in our power. We’re focused on what others think of us rather than what we think of us. We’re wound up in external expectations of what our needs should be rather than what they actually are and figuring out how to meet them.

I wrote recently about normalizing obesity. Giving our power to social media is normal. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy or effective. Popularity does not mean valuable, desirable or useful.

Photo by Freddie Marriage on Unsplash

Technology in general and social media in particular are deliberately designed to be addictive, because our participation fuels marketing and consumerism via the data we provide with everything we do on social media platforms and the Internet. As so many people are now realizing, including me, the constant compulsion to check our social media accounts, dating apps, e-mail accounts, etc. means we are no longer making conscious choices. We’re driven by addiction.

Let’s go back to companionship, defined above as a feeling of fellowship or friendship. Consider Facebook. Remember, the creator of the platform struggled socially. He developed, as part of the platform, the ability to form a group of “friends.”

What did he mean? Was he describing a group of people who shared and reciprocated feelings of companionship and fellowship? Or was he describing a group of college men, not necessarily having ever met one another, joining together to figure out how to get laid more effectively and efficiently?

Facebook “friends” redefined friendship, and I’m not sure anyone really noticed or questioned it.

A friend is a person whom one knows. What does it mean to know another person?

When we look someone up on Facebook and scroll through their posts, pictures and conversations, can we conclude we “know” them? The obvious answer is no, of course not. The beauty of social media of all types is we get to present to the world the person we wish to be, or at least the person we wish others to believe we are. Our pseudo self, in other words.

Authenticity and intimacy require honesty. Honesty requires risk and trust. Honesty and trust build healthy friendships. Healthy friendships demand we have the ability to befriend ourselves first. Our real selves, not our pseudo selves.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

When was the last time you saw a photo of a party on Facebook in which everyone is posed and smiling and it looks like a great time, but the post says the party was a waste of time, somebody got drunk and threw up behind the couch, Bob and Sue had a screaming match, Debbie brought her loathsome homemade snack mix, and the dog peed on someone’s coat? Even the people who were there, know what happened and didn’t enjoy themselves are gratified to see the picture posted so everyone else can see what a great party they went to on Friday night.

After all, if they had spent a quiet evening at home in saggy sweat pants with a glass of wine and a book, everyone would think they were pathetic. Or lonely. Or boring. Or not social enough. What’s the point of a selfie depicting that? And if our activity (or lack thereof) is not worth a selfie, then it must not be worth anything at all, because no one can give us a heart or a thumbs up or a like. No one can see how okay, happy, healthy and popular we are.

If no one can see and validate us, we must not be real. If we want or need something we can’t post about, take a picture of or share with the world (something like privacy, for example!), we must be bad and wrong. Shamefully broken. Facing a lonely, embittered, loveless and friendless future.

I’m not necessarily saying either pseudo self or social media are inherently bad. I don’t think they are, unless we believe they represent authenticity.

Can we form healthy societies and relationships, including with ourselves, if we are unwilling or unable to be authentic? Can intimacy (I’m not talking about sex. Forget about sex.) exist without honesty?

I can’t see how. If you think the answer is yes, convince me!

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Is interacting with others via social media actually social at all, or is it a toxic mimic for friendship and companionship? Again, I think this depends on the user and his or her intentions and needs. I know people who are active, to one degree or another, on social media and also have authentic, satisfying and supportive relationships and connections in the real world. I reiterate I don’t think social media is some kind of a demon. We don’t have to give it our power. We don’t have to buy the infrastructure that supports it, and we don’t have to use the platforms on which it takes place. We don’t have to allow it to control us.

What we do need to do is to wrest ourselves from the hypnotic, mindless influence and compulsion it holds over us and be present with the way we use it. Are we numbing out, scrolling through Facebook, because we’re bored, hungry, tired, worried, having a pity party, depressed, lonely, or anxious? Are we taking selfies and posting them feverishly in order to hide behind our pseudo self? Are we needing the validation of others, and if so, why?

Here are some good questions we can ask ourselves as we consider our social/emotional needs:

  • What energizes me?
  • What am I grateful for?
  • What’s not working for me, and why?

If we can’t answer these questions, we’ve lost track of our authentic selves. We can find ourselves again, but we need to be quiet and undistracted in order to do it. Calling ourselves home is not a selfie activity. That’s only the beginning, though. We need to answer these questions honestly, even if we never admit the answers to another living soul. Well, maybe a cat or a dog. Or a goldfish. We need to consent to know our own truth. Then, we have to build strength and trust in ourselves, in our needs and desires, in our scars and mistakes, in our resilience and wisdom. Only then can we dwell in our own power, which allows us the presence to notice when we’re stepping out of it.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

This is a good time to review and explore our social needs and lives. Winter is coming. Whose fire do we want to sit around, and who do we want to invite to our hearths? Which of our social interactions leave us renewed, enlarged, comforted, and feeling loved and supported? Which leave us drained, diminished and doubting ourselves? Is our time with social media truly social time, or is it something else in disguise?

You’re the only one who knows the answers to these questions.

 

The Breakdown Lane

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

I’ve been sitting in the breakdown lane this weekend, watching traffic pass me by, (all their cars work!) and wondering why my car, which has been just fine, has suddenly stopped functioning.

We’ve probably all done this at least once, literally speaking. Metaphorically speaking, we’ve all done it many times. We go along in our small world, and as far as we know everything is status quo and just what we expect, and then, suddenly, it isn’t. Things go off the rails and all we can think is WTF?

Sometimes I’m the one who has suddenly gone off the rails. Except, looking back, I realize it wasn’t sudden at all. Sometimes the breakdown was years in the making, but I wasn’t present enough with myself and my feelings to notice the gradual fraying and come up with a plan. Grimly, I hung on, hoping, waiting, hurting myself, arguing with what was, denying my experience, trying harder, drowning in shame, crippled by fear, until I absolutely could not hang on any longer and my last fingernail tore out.

Then I let go, after it was far too late to problem solve or help myself or anyone else involved.

I still regret I have not always had the support or resources to make different choices. I hurt myself, and I hurt others. I take responsibility for my behavior and clean up what I can, but some things just can’t be fixed — and perhaps shouldn’t be in any case.

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

I think a lot about these sudden moments where things fall apart, either within us or between us. The breakdown lane is like a time out, an enforced pause. In a moment or two, the whole aspect of the day, the future, and my plans have changed. I realize I’m not in control. All I have is an unpleasant snarl of disappointed expectations, thwarted intentions, frustration, anger and a need to blame someone or something, including myself.

A broken car or piece of equipment is one thing. An interpersonal breakdown is another.

Few things are more painful than feeling unloved, unwanted or rejected by someone we care about. Hell, it’s painful when we feel those things from someone we don’t care about. Imagine being an immigrant in this country right now.

I have felt unloved, unwanted and rejected. I’ve also had loved ones tell me they feel unloved, unwanted or rejected by me. As I know that’s not how I feel about them, I question my certainty that others feel that way about me. If they’re misinterpreting my actions, words and choices, perhaps I’m doing the same thing.

Our feelings are real. The stories we make up about them may not be. In other words, I might feel rejected when the person I’m interacting with has no intention of sending that message. The way I express love and affection may be so different from someone else’s idea of how to express it that it’s lost in translation.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

That doesn’t mean it’s not present.

I focus a great deal on language in this blog. I do that because words matter. They have layers of meaning. It seems to me nearly every interpersonal breakdown can be traced to a misunderstanding over a definition of terms. Getting at the bottom-line meaning of a word is as easy as looking it up:

Friend: “A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.” (Oxford online dictionary)

Pretty simple, right? We all know what it means to be a friend and have a friend.

Except we don’t. We might agree on that basic definition, but I suspect we each assign a whole world of additional personal meaning to the word friend, and that world contains longings, memories, hopes and fears, expectations, deep needs, beliefs, and old scars and wounds.

I’ve been thinking about that. When I talk about, think about and participate in friendship, what does that mean to me? What is a friend, besides someone I know and with whom I have a bond of mutual affection?

It’s a great question. I wish I could ask everyone I know. I won’t, because for some reason this kind of question seems to make most people uncomfortable, but feel free to volunteer an answer!

At this point in my life, I’m not interested in constructing relationships out of expectations and an attachment to outcomes. I’ve always operated in a framework of both of those in my relationships, and it’s never worked. In the last four years I’ve taken a clear, cold look at my previously unconscious expectations of self and others and the myriad ways in which I’ve sabotaged myself and others with attachment to certain agendas and outcomes.

What I do instead (and a joyous, fascinating, loving process it is) is observe with curiosity and interest as relationships form and change. Viewed from this perspective, it’s like nurturing a child, a garden where we’ve planted seeds, an animal, or a piece of land. Freed from my extremely limited and limiting expectations and agenda, I can watch and appreciate all the unexpected, magnificent ways we are — and life is.

It’s the difference between saying: “This is who I (or the other) must or must not be,” and “Who are you?” or, even better, “I want everything you are and nothing you’re not.” Say that (and mean it) to yourself or someone you love every day and I guarantee your relationships will change for the better.

So, now, what do I mean by a friend?

A friend is someone with whom I can laugh, explore new information and ideas, excavate less-than-useful beliefs and patterns, learn and unlearn. A friend is someone with whom I engage in a contest of generosity. I want to ask questions, pull things out from under the bed and let the cat sniff at them, be wrong, problem solve, consider options. I want to practice boundaries, tolerance, respect and being real. I want to allow and be allowed. I want relationships that make my life bigger. I want to share reading, movies, music, memories, silence, work, nature, my truths. I want someone who says, “make yourself big!” while pursuing that same goal themselves.

(Not coincidentally, this is the kind of friend I strive to be to others.)

When I consider the above paragraph, and imagine each of us could write an equally long but different paragraph, the concept of friend goes rapidly from a simple one-sentence definition to something much more complicated and personal. This wouldn’t be so problematic if we were aware of it, but we’re not. We say friend, knowing exactly what we mean, and never considering the person we’re talking to, who’s also using the word, means something different.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Then, one day, these two invisible sets of definitions, expectations and desired outcomes collide and we experience hurt, outrage, betrayal, anger, disappointment, rejection, fear, and disconnection.

I admit I have no fix for this ubiquitous problem. Even being aware of how differently we define terms doesn’t save me from ending up sitting in the breakdown lane. It would be good if the problematic words in any given relationship had a tag warning us of problems ahead if we aren’t careful to understand one another from the beginning.

On the other hand, that would take out the part where we sit in the breakdown lane trying to understand what just happened, how and if to fix it, and how our choices led to it. Uncomfortable as it is, I value that opportunity.

Sitting in the breakdown lane with my heartbeat and breath. Feeling my feelings. Curious about what will happen next. Confident that when it’s time to move on I’ll know it and do so. Considering what I might learn in this space. Getting bigger. Getting bigger. Getting bigger.