(Due to a technical glitch, most of you were not notified when I last posted. You can follow this link to read the post if you missed it. I think the problem is fixed now!)
As so often happens, several threads came together to weave this post. The first was a suggestion from Seth Godin to follow our wandering mind, as that’s where our heart might be.
On first read, I smiled and thought “of course,” because following my imagination is one of my greatest pleasures.
As I considered it over a period of days, however, noting where my mind wanders, I discovered something.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
I happily follow my wandering mind as long as I feel undisturbed about where it goes. The minute I start to get uncomfortable, however, I shackle it. Brutally. This might be with distraction, compulsive productivity, or starting to speed. A lot of people eat, overexercise, or get trapped in substance abuse. Let us count the ways!
I have rules about where my mind is allowed to go. I enforce my rules without mercy, in collaboration with draconian internal voices. My rigidity is not so much about my thoughts wandering as it is the feelings I have about my thoughts. This is emotional intelligence 101, and I’ve written about it before.
Thoughts and feelings are not the same thing.
In essence, then, I’m putting a lid on my feelings. Again. Still.
It doesn’t work. It never works, and I know this, but I do it anyway.
I do it for the same reason we all attempt to avoid painful feelings. They’re painful! Avoidance is easier than allowing ourselves to feel them, find healthy ways to express them, and let them go.
How many thoughts do we have in a day? I suspect most of us chew on the same preoccupations day after day, whether our thoughts engender feelings of rage, grief, fear, or shame, or a combination du jour. Uncomfortable territory. Also highly addictive territory. I’m chagrined to admit my own attraction to struggle. It’s so easy! Which is ridiculous, because it makes everything much, much harder than it needs to be, physically, emotionally, and generally.
Maybe what I mean is it’s so familiar!
As humans, we have an irresistible compulsion to notice, emphasize, and dwell upon the negative rather than the positive. That’s why so many people find relief in a gratitude practice, including me. Switching from a negative to positive focus requires mindfulness and mental effort, but the relief from anxiety and stress is immediate.
I should do it more often. Like ten times a day.
Understand, I’m not suggesting we avoid our feelings. I’m suggesting we take control of our thoughts, especially the negative kind. Feelings rise and fall inescapably. They’re biochemical messages from our physical bodies. We were made to have feelings. What we do with them, of course, is well within our control. Thoughts, however, are ours to steer.
Feelings, though arising naturally, are contagious and easily manipulated. That’s why advertising and social pressure work so well. Our feelings can be deliberately manufactured to serve those who would control our money, our votes, and our humanity.
On the other hand, this means we can to some degree manipulate our own feelings with our thoughts.
I came across an article by writer and speaker Rob Henderson, who I follow on Substack. He wrote a piece listing lessons he’s learned during a challenging life, beginning in the foster care system. One of the lessons is “you are what you do.” Not what you feel, but what you do.
I thought immediately of my writing community on Substack, where each of us struggles with what it means to be a writer. I don’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve called myself a writer ever since I began writing. Writers write. That’s what I do.
I like to keep things simple (even though I often don’t, which is a perfect example of what I say versus what I do!)
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
We are what we do. I agree. We are not entirely defined by what we think and feel. I’ve known that ever since I went through emotional intelligence training. We’re also not defined by who we say we are, or who others say we are. We are not our highly polished and desperately maintained identity. Our true thoughts and feelings, the private stuff no one else can see or hear, steer our choices and actions, and those are what truly reveal our most authentic selves.
It follows if we want to change, we must do things differently. As many others have discovered long before me, true change comes from the inside out. If we manage our thoughts and feelings in healthy ways, our actions change. That’s why short-term strategies like diets often fail. A temporary diet does not address our broken relationship with food, a much harder proposition to tackle.
We seem to be on a giant rack, ever widening, between who we think we should be or must be and who we really are. The struggle and tension threaten to tear us apart, yet we cling to our rack, desperately holding ourselves together, too afraid to relax into who we really are and make peace with our true selves.
In a constant state of tension, we don’t let our minds wander. We can’t afford to. We don’t have access to the peace and quiet or even boredom a wandering mind requires. Our technology has erased the fertile ground of boredom, particularly for our children. We feed our hearts a diet of distraction, manufactured drama, busyness and productivity; a hunger for more, bigger, better, newer things, and expect it to be satisfied. We ignore or numb our feelings, or turn them into destruction of ourselves and others.
I often think of this Chinese proverb:
Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.
Toxic positivity is not an effective coping mechanism. Nor is a state of deep depression and withdrawal, as in addiction. I want to find a path between the two.
Perhaps my wandering mind knows the path and will point the way if I allow it to. Perhaps our minds know exactly where our hearts are but we’re too afraid to know.
- When your mind wanders, where does it go?
- How do you feel about where your mind wanders?
- How do you think an inability to focus (distractibility) might in some cases be connected to a refusal to follow the guidance of mind and heart?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.
The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.
Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:
Here in the Mountains
There is one memory deep inside you.
In the dark country of your life
it is a small fire burning forever.
Even after all these years
the embers of what you have
known rest contented
in their own warmth.
Here in the mountains,
tell me all the things
you have not loved.
Their shadows will tell you
they have not gone,
they became this night
from which you drew away in fear.
Though at the trail’s end,
your heart stammers
with grief and regret,
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.
My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.
Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.
But I thought about things I have not loved.
It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash
And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.
I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.
I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.
I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.
I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.
I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.
And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.
Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash
It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.
The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.
- Share three things you have not loved.
- Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
- What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I once saw the movie 50 First Dates, about a young woman who had no memory. Every day she woke up as a clean slate with no past.
The movie gave me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll never watch it again. In several close relationships, both family and romantic, I’ve experienced the devastating grenade of “I forgot,” or “I don’t remember that.”
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
In chronically abusive and dysfunctional family systems, “I don’t remember that” effectively shuts down any way forward into mutual responsibility, understanding or healing. Our traumatic memories suddenly waver. Did we, after all, make it all up? Did we misunderstand for years and decades? Are we unforgiving, mean and petty of spirit, hateful? Most frightening of all, are we crazy? If we’ve been chronically gaslit, we certainly feel crazy.
In “romantic” relationships, this memory failure is equally damaging. It blocks conflict resolution and discussion. If it’s true, it means the forgetful partner is unable to learn and adapt to the needs of the relationship and the other partner. There can be no learning and growing together. Nothing can change.
Most of all, this kind of response feels to me like an abdication, code for “it’s not my fault and I refuse to take responsibility.” It’s a signal I’m on my own with my questions and my need to understand.
It’s like a door slammed in my face, and I don’t beat on doors slammed in my face, begging for entry. I walk away.
Now I have a relative with dementia, and it’s extraordinary. I have never felt able to get close to this person before, though I have loved them deeply all my life. I’ve also never felt I was anything but a disappointment and a burden to them. I couldn’t find a way to get past their lifetime of accumulated trauma and pain, bitterness and rewritten narratives. As a truth seeker, I’ve been continually stymied and suspicious, believing I could not trust them to ever tell me the plain truth about anything.
Most painful of all, the fullness of my love has been rejected, over and over, for decades. Nothing I am or have to give was welcome; most of it was distinctly unwelcome.
Now I am witnessing a kind of metamorphosis. Gradually, gently, like leaves falling from trees in autumn, my loved one is letting go of their memories. And in some elemental way, as I walk beside them (because I have always been beside them), I am releasing the pain of my memories.
My loved one has experienced periods of extreme agitation and distress, and those are terrible for everyone. But, as the days pass, those periods seem to have passed too, and now I’m witnessing a gentle vagueness, a dream-like drifting, and in some entirely unexpected and inexplicable way I feel I’m at last catching a glimpse of the real person I’ve always wanted to know.
Even more amazing, I can now say “I love you very much,” that simple truth I’ve never been able to freely express, and they say it back to me. And I believe them.
After all these decades of pain and suffering, separation and bleeding wounds, I am finally able, in the words of Eden Ahbez, “just to love and be loved in return.”
This was all I ever wanted out of this relationship (and most others). Just this. To love fully and be loved in return. And I don’t care if it’s only in the moment. I don’t care that they’ll forget this elemental exchange of words of love as soon as they hang up the phone, or possibly before that.
What matters to me is they hear me, they accept my love, they return it. I’ve never had that with this person before. Maintaining bitterness, rewriting history, remembering old hurts, all require memory. And their memory is loosening, unraveling. What’s left is a person I’ve always sensed was there, a person of innocent simplicity, an undamaged personality who can participate in love. Someone who is not haunted by their past. Someone, oddly, who I trust.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
Whatever the next interaction brings, I don’t have to go into it fully armored. Forgiveness has no meaning when dealing with dementia. Cognitive decline is unpredictable, clearly out of anyone’s control. Whatever is said in any given moment will not be remembered, whether words exchanged are of love or not. So, there’s no point in me remembering, or taking anything personally, or trying hard to be acceptable, do it right, stay safe. It feels safe to trust again, to trust the naked soul I’m dealing with now. I don’t have to try to repair our relationship. My feelings of duty and obligation are meaningless, because those expectations reside in memory, and memory flutters in the winter wind, frayed and thin.
My loved one has attained, at least periodically, a kind of peace they have never demonstrated before in my lifetime. Peace from the past. Peace from emotional pain. Because they are at peace, I, at last, can also be at peace.
I hoped death would free us both. I never expected dementia would do it first. We have both found absolution, at least for now.
Whatever comes, these interactions are precious to me. I realize now I still reside somewhere in the heart of this damaged, unhappy person. I was and am loved, at least as best they could and can. Knowing that, feeling it at last, changes everything and heals much.
I am beyond grateful. And that’s a strange feeling in this context. Dementia takes so much away … In this case, it’s loosened prison bars and chains, unlocked shackles and manacles, and left behind something pure and tender, a glimpse of someone fresh and unscarred in an aged and battered body.
I wonder how much of our identity is built from our social context memories. Too bad we can’t just delete certain files, wipe our hard drive clean in spots, and begin again.
I ask myself if it’s wrong to be so happy, so grateful, so relieved at this unexpected turn of events. I tell myself I should feel guilty. I’ve occasionally worked with Alzheimer’s patients, and I frequently work with people who are dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s in their loved ones. I’ve never heard anyone suggest anything positive about it. Once again, I seem to be totally out of step.
I don’t take my self-doubt terribly seriously, though. I always think I’m doing life wrong. I’ve learned to tell that voice to shut up and sit down. Wrong or right, I feel a kind of exhausted joy at the lessening, maybe even the cessation of my loved one’s emotional suffering. Since I was a child I’ve wanted their health and happiness, their peace, wanted it more even than to be allowed to love and to be loved. I never expected those first passionate prayers from my child self would be answered, let alone in this manner. But here we are.
my former life
and realize how quickly
the current travels
dark and irretrievable
blossoms of sound
I made in that time
on the black surface
as if they no longer
From “The Sound of the Wild” by David Whyte
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On Thanksgiving morning I started a four-day break from my job. I spent the first hour of my day in my favorite chair snuggling with the cats, drinking a cup of green tea, journaling, and doing my morning online check. Perky articles and posts about gratitude and thankfulness were inescapable, as was Black Friday advertising. All of it made me feel sour. The swing in our media and advertising between catastrophizing and toxic positivity, whatever has the potential to make the most money in the moment, is nauseating.
Photo by Roderico Y. Díaz on Unsplash
By nature, I make the best of things, though I’m not an optimist. I’m a wait-and-seeist. By long habit, I spin my experience of life in a positive way. I practice gratitude regularly.
But, honestly, sometimes life is damn difficult. And this fall has been extremely difficult. And let’s face it, many, many people on this planet are struggling in ways I can’t even imagine. That’s true every single day.
I could make a long list of things for which I am grateful. I do it all the time when I’m feeling down and out. That’s attractive and adult and fashionable, particularly on Thanksgiving.
But I could also make a list of things for which I am not grateful.
I know, I know, nobody likes a whiner or a complainer. It’s unattractive and unseemly. It’s entitled.
But is it really entitled or is that just a criticism we throw out because we don’t want to think about all the tough stuff? If we do think about it, we want to do it privately where no one will catch us being less than grateful and positive, as though it’s shameful to feel frustrated, exhausted, impatient, fearful, or upset. But aren’t the times when we feel those feelings also the times we most need support?
I’m not proposing to pitch a tent and live in the negative outback of life, but it is part of my experience, part of my landscape, and it certainly influences many of the more pleasant aspects of my life and my gratitude.
Isn’t gratitude more powerful when we’ve acknowledged our ingratitude? Is there some virtue in refusing to tell the truth about the things in our lives that don’t work? Some would say the perceived negatives, the hidden pain, sorrow, and difficulty, must not be acknowledged or displayed. What would the neighbors think? Dirty laundry!
I discovered, as I made my list, how difficult it was to refrain from putting a positive spin on things. I wanted to explain, to justify, to make exceptions, to soften my ingratitudes. I wanted to signal my shame.
The strength of my compulsion to be grateful, submissive, and positive was enough to trigger my wide streak of rebelliousness. So here, in no particular order; without apology, justification, too much detail, or any other anxious softening and sugar-coating, is my Thanksgiving 2022 List of Ingratitudes:
Planned obsolescence (greed meets waste)
Spammers and black hat hackers
Unclear, ineffective, hard-to-navigate websites (I’m talking to you, federal and state governments!)
Unavailable or unusable tech support (see above)
Broken public “education” system (education is not about what to think; it’s about how to think)
Rape culture and misogyny
Alcohol and nicotine
Wokeism (Great roots are now cancerous and have become toxic “overrighteous liberalism” (quote from British journalist Steven Poole). Get a grip, people! Let’s work together for a level playing field for all rather than exercise our moral indignation!)
People who want to win and be right (shut up and sit down!)
Institutionalized racism (can’t we do better than this?)
Homophobia (get over it, and mind your own business while you’re doing it!)
This list is not complete, but these are are some of the things that don’t work in our culture, in our world. We can do better. We could make life better for everyone.
Sour humor aside, I am truly grateful for all you readers, your comments, your shares, your presence. Thank you. Happy holidays!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Unless the sky falls (again), we will be moving in less than a week. It’s hard to believe. In fact, it’s impossible to believe, but that’s okay. Today is real, and I know what I need to do right now. The future can take care of itself.
As I moved around the kitchen early this morning, feeding (and tripping over) the cats, making breakfast, heating water for tea, watching the sky lighten, it occurred to me the last seven years in this old farmhouse have taught me a magnificent lesson.
Maine Farmhouse and Barn
When I moved to Maine, I had a solid idea about what I was moving into, a whole set of expectations and dreams, none of which turned out to be real.
The loss of my fantasies was heartbreaking and took me years to process. During that time, I started this blog and later remodeled it, finished my first book, wrote my second, and began my third, started publishing my fiction serially on Substack, put everything I’ve learned about emotional intelligence into action, grew deep roots in my community, found a great job I love, and became part of a second family.
At the same time, I experienced disempowerment in terms of my living space and physical surroundings. Never before have I lived in a place where I had so little power to respond to my needs and preferences, and never have I been so overwhelmed with maintenance tasks I could not take care of.
Because of my emotional intelligence training, my disempowerment was visible to me, and I was able to turn towards what I did have power over, again and again, until it became second nature. It didn’t feel good, but it was invaluable practice in managing my own power, at recognizing my own power.
Always before in my life, I’ve had plans and projects, things I wanted to buy, walls I wanted to paint, the ability to rearrange furniture, make repairs, have new shelves built, and discard what was no longer useful. Such activity gave me a great deal of pleasure and was thoroughly distracting. It was never finished, so I stayed firmly focused on externals.
In this house, that distraction has been unavailable. To stand in my own power has been to stand still with myself, to work internally, to feel my feelings, create, stretch, grow, learn, explore. It’s been lonely. It’s been uncomfortable. It’s been transformative. It’s been internal, invisible, and has nothing to do with a shiny presentation.
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
Most of us would acknowledge real change and healing come from the inside, not from the surface. But understanding that intellectually is not the same as spending years living it. I would never have voluntarily given up the power to manage my surroundings. When I realized it was happening I had a choice to make, and I chose to explore this new, unexpected territory.
That choice is one of the best I’ve ever made.
I have learned a dream home, a dream wardrobe, a dream body, a dream library, is not a life. What others see of me and my possessions and home is not me. My presentation has nothing to do with my state of health, presence, and groundedness.
Our new home is old, though not as old as this farm, and it needs some work. Sure, it needs new exterior paint and other cosmetic help, but that’s not where I’ll start. Those changes are fun and everyone can see and appreciate them, but the invisible, internal issues like plumbing, wiring, and insulation are what will really make a difference to my experience living there.
The looks of the new house are not what matters. It’s the life we create inside it that matters.
The color of my hair doesn’t matter. It’s what’s inside my head that matters.
The clothes I wear don’t matter. It’s the health and peace in my body that matter.
Attaining perfection (and perfect control) of my space is not what matters. It’s the ability to manage my thoughts and feelings, maintain integrity, and live well that matter.
In these last few days of packing, sorting, and endless tasks and details, at every step I’m thinking about what I learned and how grateful I am for the lesson. I didn’t choose to learn it. I wouldn’t have volunteered to learn it. I was forced into it, tricked into it, even.
But that’s not important. My life has consistently taken me exactly where I need to go, in spite of how much I whine and complain about some of the places I’ve been. Now, just ahead, is a whole new chapter.
I wonder what I will learn.
(Next weekend we’re moving, so you won’t see a post here from me. I’ll be back in two weeks!)
Photo by Michal Balog on Unsplash