A few weeks ago I came across a quote: “Grief is just love with nowhere to go.” Backtracking through multiple sources, I ran it down to a woman named Jamie Anderson who wrote it in her blog, which is now gone. The quote went viral.
Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash
It hit me right in the heart.
I’ve written previously about my struggle with intense love that is not received. I don’t mean unrequited romantic love. I mean flesh-and-bone love, blood love, the helpless love and connection we feel for family.
My strategy all my life has been to divert the love I feel but can’t give to the intended recipient (at least not in a way I feel they receive and believe in it or even want it) to others who do need and want it. This practice relieves some of the pressure in my heart, but there are several ways it can go badly wrong. Plenty of people in the world will suck up all the love, attention, and support we give them, but have no thought, or perhaps no ability, of returning it. In this case, my painful, overfull heart becomes withered and empty and I have to detach the vampire I’ve attracted.
I’m not looking for a place to dispose of my love like it’s a worn-out sock. I’m looking for a place where it does some good. Because that’s at the heart of feeling love one can’t give – the futilityof it. What’s the point of love if we have no place to give it, if love has nowhere to go?
There are places where I feel my love has been useful. Animals. Children. Hospice work. Emergency rescue work. But, aside from animals and my own children, none of these are intimate relationships sustaining me day-to-day. Animals, sadly, have shorter lifespans than we do. Children, inevitably, grow up and find their own lives, which may or may not include us.
I’ve been thinking about this quote for several weeks, intending to blog about it at some point, but always turning away from it into other subjects. It hurts to think about it. I know intellectually writing about pain helps, but loyalty to those who refuse my love stops me. Or maybe shame? Or maybe guilt? (If a family member won’t accept our love, surely the logical conclusion is we’re a terrible person?) Also, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, or be unfair, or humiliate another person.
I can always find something to write about. I’ve been posting weekly for six years. But there’s much I do not write about. Too painful. Too intimate. Too risky. Too messy.
Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
Sometimes life is like a boxing match. I have good stamina, and I’m dogged as hell. I’m organized and efficient. I try to think clearly about my choices. I’m thoughtful. But every now and then life knocks me down. Hard.
Usually I cope with vigorous exercise, writing, getting a good night’s sleep, and processing with a friend. I get back on my feet and keep going.
But every few years the blows keep coming, hard and fast, unexpected hooks and jabs.
This has been one of those times. I’m nursing my third upper respiratory infection in four weeks. Not COVID, but one of the many other plagues circulating this fall. I’ve once again pulled out the essential oil, the powdered vitamin C, the elderberry and echinacea tea, the nasal spray, the cough and cold medicine. I don’t usually take medication of any kind, but on this third round I feel so bruised and battered I’m choosing to. I’m tired out.
In between this virus, which arrived Thursday night, and the last one, which departed Monday, we discovered our dirt-floored cellar was ankle deep in water due to several inches of recent rain which caused some flooding. It’s going to take more than a thousand dollars to fix it.
Then, yesterday (Can it only be yesterday? It feels like weeks.) I was informed about the illness and injury of a family member, one of those people I love most in the world who is unable to receive it and has amputated me from their life. Now, a long way away from me as I sit here in Maine with a Kleenex box, another family member (another of my dearly loved ones) is carrying the whole situation on their shoulders: the hospital, surgery, legalities, finances, paperwork. My presence would only exacerbate the situation and make everything worse. I know it. The family member managing the crisis knows it.
So here I sit, wretched, broke, sick, and I can do nothing – nothing. A lifetime of petrified love weighs like a stone in my chest. It has nowhere to go. It never has. It’s not useful. It’s not wanted. But I can’t stop feeling it. It’s part of me.
And I’m down for the count. I’m all the way down and nothing in me is ready to get back up. My eyes are swollen. I can’t stop crying. I don’t know where the cold begins and the grief ends. All this grief, a lifetime of grief. It feels endless, bottomless. I don’t think there are enough tears in the world to wash it away. I can do nothing but wait for news and try to be a long-distance support to the one who will accept my support. I can’t seem to get and stay well. I can’t fix the cellar. A plumber in hip boots with a new sump pump will do that early next week.
How can the truest, deepest love we feel be refused and rejected?
Rhetorical question. I don’t expect an answer. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever asked that question. Some things just can’t be understood. They’re not fair. They’re not explicable. They’re just life. I learned some time ago to cease arguing with what is.
And what is, right now, is grief. I can’t contain it, control it, avoid it, distract myself from it. I won’t share it, except in words. I’m simply letting it wash through me, surrendering to it. Maybe that’s what I need most today. Maybe the laundry, emptying the trash (all that soggy Kleenex), my usual weekend posting and publishing, raking leaves, dumping the compost, washing dishes, and all the rest of it doesn’t matter. Maybe I can’t get back on my feet until I’ve chosen to just stay down first.
How long do we have to cry to drain a lifetime of grief?
Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
This is not my usual kind of post, but it is a stay down, raw, naked one. It’s what I’ve got this week. It’s the best I’ve got.
On another note, I am expanding the site. I’m adding excerpts from my books to The Webbd Wheel page. Scroll down past the overview for the excerpts. If you’re intrigued, you can go to my Substack page and read for free as I serial publish my fiction. You’ll find extensive archives, so you can read from the beginning if you wish.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
Last week, Thursday approached, arrived and passed, and I had nothing. Nothing to post; no insights, inspiration or coherent questions. No journeys, organized notes, serenity or discipline.
What I did have was the feeling I was inadequate, ridiculously undisciplined and failing to manage my stress and anxiety. I had a collection of entirely made-up apocalyptic stories about the future and a migraine headache. I had worries about friends and their families, people who were sick and couldn’t get seen or tested for coronavirus or anything else. I had rumors about numbers of infected community people that couldn’t be either confirmed or denied. I had pacing, restlessness, climbing the walls, apathy, and a feeling of futility and disconnection I called depression. I had hours invested in online Mahjongg solitaire.
I also had squirrels in the ceiling of my attic aerie, scampering, wrestling, playing, gnawing, and making soft sweeping noises that sounded very much like making a nest. By day, the noise was distracting, even if I did smile in sympathy because it sounded like they were having so much fun. The gnawing, however, was maddening, as we could neither locate the exact location of the animal(s) or the access point(s). It sounded like they were going to come through the wall into the room any minute.
By night, their noisy activity was beyond distracting. As I lay staring up at the ceiling over my bed, I thought bitterly they were having much more fun this spring than I am. They also had a lot more energy than me. Nice for some people to have a night of romance, play and planning for a family in a cozy, sheltered place.
Squirrels are rotten roommates.
My partner and I missed walking for a few days due to weather (cold, windy, and more snow — Aargh!), and just feeling out of sorts in general.
When we finally did get out again during a breezy but reasonably mild sunny afternoon, as we walked up the hill my partner asked me a question:
“Have you ever felt yourself to be a good girl?”
Wow. What a terrific question. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I had never asked myself that question before.
It didn’t take any thought.
One of the first things I knew about myself is that I was not a good girl. I am not a good girl. Not in any sense of the word. I’m not a good female. I wasn’t a good daughter, sister, mother or wife (especially wife!).
After that immediate knee-jerk response, though, I really thought about the question, at which point I wondered what, exactly the definition of good is. A little bell began ringing in the back of my head. Hadn’t I written about good and bad in some other context lately?
As we walked that day, my partner and I played with the concept of being good or bad, how we form such pieces of identity, and how we are shaped and influenced by our self-definition. My partner said that being a “good girl” means being an obedientgirl.
Well. If that’s true, no wonder I’ve never been a good girl! My best friend couldn’t truthfully call me obedient. I noticed I immediately stopped feeling hopeless, worthless, tearful and miserable, thoroughly distracted by the conversation. In fact, I suddenly felt amused.
Somewhere inside me is a three-year-old who equates being good with feeling loved. I know, intellectually, that’s nonsense, but evidently I can’t quite get it emotionally. I keep thinking I’ve dealt with this thing as I’ve worked on my pernicious habit of people pleasing and deconstructed so many old beliefs and patterns, but a certain kind of stress and experience dumps me right back into my three-year-old self before I know what’s happening.
At that point, I temporarily forget every step of the long journey I’ve made in reclaiming myself and my power.
I went back and found my post about good and bad creative work. It made me smile, because as I wrote it, it never occurred to me to take the concepts of good and bad a step further and think about them as they apply to who we believe we are as people.
Here’s a brief review of the definitions of good and bad from Oxford Online Dictionary:
Good: “To be desired or approved of,” “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.” Bad: “Of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”
So what have we got? Two entirely subjective black-and-white descriptors, that’s what we’ve got. Furthermore, neither have a thing to do with unconditional love, which is the only kind worth giving or receiving, as far as I’m concerned. “Love” predicated on compliance and obedience isn’t love at all, it’s a toxic mimic and a control tactic.
If being good is being obedient, I have no interest in it. Neither do I have interest in being bad. Both are non-concepts. Good and bad have no power unless I have no power.
Goodness and badness are as impotent and limiting as compliance and obedience. There is no there there, no wildness, no creativity, no complexity, no gravid chaos, no resilience or flexibility, no authenticity, and no personal power.
Am I a good girl?
God, no! My whole life I’ve been so much more than that!
In 2018, I wrote about making offerings. This morning I looked at my list of possible topics for this week’s post, but realized none of them really grab me at the moment; I’ve been thinking again about making offerings.
The reason offerings are in my mind is because I’m struggling, like so many of us, to find new routines and priorities without expiring from boredom, losing my mind, or allowing futility to paralyze me. It occurred to me, as I did my daily wipe down of our kitchen with bleach wipes while the bacon was cooking this morning, to think about what seems like endless disinfecting as an offering, or perhaps even a prayer, for my loved ones and for all of us on the planet.
As I go about my days, fear for my loved ones, near and far, dogs me. I know it’s not useful. I know watching what’s happening in Montana, Colorado and New York, as well as here in Maine, is not helping them. But what do we do with our love for others, near and far, during times like these?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who already feels that they never want to clean, wipe or disinfect anything ever again. I’m sure I’m not the only one marveling at how many thousands of things we touch a day (including ourselves) and feeling overwhelmed with trying to avoid this tiny, invisible, persistent, deadly virus.
While I cleaned the counters with the smell of bleach in my nose, while I rubbed away at the fridge, the freezer, the washing machine, the microwave, the toaster oven, the coffeepot and the teakettle, I imagined millions of people all over the world at home, at work, in hospitals, in businesses, doing the same thing, day after day. I imagined all those people with fearful and heavy hearts for their loved ones, doing their best, taking whatever steps they can for themselves and those around them, day after day.
Later, after breakfast, I disinfected surfaces in the bathroom, another new daily chore. Then I came up to my attic aerie and here, too, I will wipe down every surface I can with bleach wipes before I go to work.
At work, though only staff have used the pool for the last couple of weeks, I will don gloves and pitch in to do our daily disinfecting of chairs, benches, handles and knobs, light switches, soap and hand sanitizer dispensers, keyboards, telephones, counters, desks, chairs, fans, remote controls, pens, handicapped door buttons . . . We did that yesterday. We’ll do it today. It will be done tomorrow.
Is there any point? Is it helping? Will it keep us and those around us well?
So many questions, and no answers.
I know some people can shrug and say whatever will be will be. I recognize the truth in that, but I can’t not try. I must do what I can, even with no guarantee it’s useful, even without support from others (emotional labor, anyone?), even though I myself sometimes wonder why I’m working so hard. It’s simply what I can do.
And I’m not alone. There are people in Montana, New York and Colorado, people just like me, perhaps with loved ones in Maine (!), who are making their best effort, dogged, determined, and putting one foot in front of another. Or perhaps I should say disinfecting one thing after another, washing their hands, and social distancing. They undoubtedly are asking the same questions: Is there any point? Is it helping? Will it keep us and those around us well?
So, today, as my choice is to once again disinfect surfaces here at home and this afternoon at work, wash my hands over and over again, and social distance from my partner, my friends, my colleagues and strangers, I’m allowing myself to dwell on my loved ones as I disinfect and wash and distance, to remember their faces; to pray for their safety and health; to love them as hard as I want to; to cry, even.
Perhaps in the moment I’m washing my hands in Maine someone in Montana is washing hers, thereby sparing my asthmatic adult son. Perhaps in the moment I’m social distancing in the line in the grocery store, another person is staying six feet away from someone I love in Colorado.
Let my fear be an offering, and my tears. Let my work be an offering. Let my chapped hands and the smell of bleach and disinfectant be an offering. Let my love, my reverence for the cycles of life and death, my faith and my hope be an offering. Let my self-care be an offering. Let my willingness to do whatever it takes be an offering.
Like so many clichés, “Oh, no, not another ‘growth’ opportunity!” is obnoxious, in large part because it’s true.
Opportunity, or a set of circumstances that make it possible to do something (Oxford Online Dictionary), does not guarantee a positive outcome, and is most definitely a gift with strings attached.
I would go so far as to say the greatest opportunities are likely to be hidden under paralyzing layers of fear, dread, and pain.
Opportunity demands responsibility. No wonder we so often avoid it! It takes a determined effort to excavate opportunity, an effort requiring time, honesty, and dealing with our emotions, defenses, habits and denial.
Hence, the cliché. Growth is frequently uncomfortable and expensive.
I suspect every one of us has a secret list in our heads of events and possibilities we simply cannot face. Usually, we feel that way because we’ve already lived through them and they were so traumatic we’re determined to never go there again. In essence, we’re afraid of ghosts. We think we’ll die if we have to face another loss, another attack, another rejection or another battle, forgetting we’ve obviously survived the first time(s), and thus are older and wiser.
What to do when we fear we’ll have to revisit some traumatic setting or situation? Freeze? Fight? Flee?
Probably all of those, in one form or another. Yet there is another choice. It’s not an easy choice, but it’s an option.
Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.
Setting aside for a moment our history, our memories, our stories and scripts about what did happen and what will surely happen again, setting aside our fear, rage and pain, wiping the blood out of our eyes, taking a deep breath and searching for opportunity is the work of heroes. Such a choice feeds our power, rather than diminishing it.
If we can catch even a glimpse, a whisper, a rumor of opportunity, the next step is to identify what we might do with the circumstances we dread most. What is that dread about? What has not healed?
What, in fact, do we need, and how do we turn the circumstances we most fear and wish to avoid into an opportunity for hope, healing, closure, forgiveness, letting go, or whatever it is we need to do?
Now, there’s a mighty question.
Some things in life are inevitable. We can kick and scream, deny and avoid, distract and pretend, but we know some things are inevitable. I’d rather figure out how to think about inevitabilities before they occur. I can’t think when I’m shaking with dread. Dread is a dead end. It fills my mind with a dull roar, it overwhelms my senses, and it hangs out with despair, depression, powerlessness, futility and a lot of other bad actors I don’t want to have anything to do with.
Dread makes me want to run like a panicked rabbit. Opportunity embraces me like a mother.
It is possible to insist our emotions, like fear and dread, sit quietly on a bench (with beer, bubble gum and baseball cards to keep them occupied) while we interview Opportunity. It takes some practice and self-discipline, but we can succeed in feeling our feelings and setting overwhelming emotion to the side unless we’re being actively hurt in real time.
Here are some interview questions for Opportunity:
I just made a note in my daily abbreviated journal: “Don’t think. Just do it!” Yesterday was a day off, and I spent it feeling futile because of what I experience as financial limitations in every direction.
Interestingly, and hilariously, if I could only look at it from that angle, this day of futility was perfectly illustrated by a tiny wasp.
In this house we rescue most insects and put them back outside, even knowing they’re probably back in the house before we are. This is especially true for pollinators, and we believe this particular species of wasp is solitary and does help with pollination. The problem is I have severe reactions to most insect venom, and a sting means a course of steroids and weeks of pain, swelling and itching.
When I saw the wasp in my upstairs attic space, my partner came up and caught it and released it outside. Twenty minutes later, a tiny wasp buzzed by me, making for the window I sit next to as I write. We caught it and released it. Twenty minutes later … you get the picture.
I got a roll of duct tape and started putting tape around the window air conditioner unit I’m using, as well as around every widening gap and crack in the old window trim, and tears in the screen.
In spite of my efforts, every twenty minutes or so a single wasp came from the direction of the window with the AC unit in it and headed toward the other window. Was it the same determined wasp, or a different one? Impossible to tell. It was certainly the same species.
I found and taped a gap in the ceiling where the chimney from the wood stove below my workspace rises through the attic. After the next flyby, I noticed a wide gap between the bottom of an exterior wall and the floor. We thought maybe there was a nest in the wall (this has happened in the past with yellow jackets in that place). My partner found an old piece of trim in the barn and we blocked that gap.
A few minutes later, another little wasp appeared.
It was surreal. It was maddening. Given the day I was having inside my head, it was bitterly funny.
It went on all day, as I spun my wheels and tried to get back on track and do some good writing, some submissions, draft this post — anything productive creatively. After the first three times, I caught the damn things (thing) myself. We released them (it) in different locations, thinking that might make a difference. I even tried shutting them (it) between the window and screen, at which point they (it) disappeared, either finding their (its) way out through the many gaps in the screen or coming back into the attic through cracks in the window frame.
You’re probably asking why we didn’t just kill them (it). When a stinging social insect is killed, it often releases a pheromone alerting the colony to defend itself. We were pretty sure this little creature was solitary, as we only saw one at a time, but if there is a nest in the wall and we killed the wasp inside the room, we didn’t want the whole colony boiling into my workspace.
Aside from that, we the people will not survive if we continue to wipe out all the pollinators.
It’s easy to take a life. I routinely smear mosquitoes and black flies with great glee, and we never meet a tick without taking its head off or drowning it in soapy water. I’m also not a fan of fleas, another ubiquitous little bloodsucker here in Maine that lives in the grass but is more than happy to relocate into the house via shoes, socks, pant legs and pets. We cherish our bat colony and our bug-eating birds, as well as the dragonflies and other creatures that help keep the insect population down.
That being said, these small stinging wasps are not aggressive, nor are they looking for blood. They don’t carry disease, as far as we know. They do pollinate and many species help clean up rotting tissue and offal. I don’t hold my sensitivity to their venom against them, and they sting as self-defense, not for fun, the way a yellow jacket will. It just didn’t seem necessary to kill them. It.
As the day ended, so did the flybys. I never did get going creatively. Some days are like that. I did some cleaning, some laundry, some reading, and went through an exercise routine. I thought about futility. I wondered what mysterious instinct was guiding those little wasps, or the one. How were they, or was it, getting in, and why did this seem like such a good place to be? Why the persistent action that took them (it) from the freedom of the summer world to buzz fruitlessly in an attic against a pane of glass?
Further, why do I myself so often feel sunk in futility? How do I step off into that mental morass, and how do I pull myself out of it? Dealing with the wasp(s) all day made visible the fruitlessness I occasionally feel internally. Hearing and seeing a wasp. Catching it with a plastic cup and a piece of cardboard. Going down the stairs and outside. Releasing it. Coming back up the stairs. Rinse and repeat every 20 minutes. There was something seductive about the inevitable futility of it all. Or do I mean the futile inevitability?
It seems to me I’m just as ineffective at times as that (or those) determined little insect(s), and just as mindlessly driven.
This morning I started by writing myself that note: “Don’t think. Just do it!” About twenty minutes into my submission process, a little wasp buzzed by me. I opened the window for it and trapped it between the closed window and the screen. Refusing to be distracted, I continued working. About twenty minutes later, a wasp flew by me, buzzed around the window for a couple of minutes, and then headed back towards the window with the AC in it. I stayed in my chair and went on working.
Sometime later I came to the surface, got up, and looked for the wasp(s). No sign of one, either trapped in the window or in the room. I have met my daily goal for submissions. It is not a day of futility. I hope the wasp(s) are on to better things as well. I still have no idea how they’re coming in. Or getting out.