Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
–From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats
The line “the centre cannot hold,” has been running through my mind for several weeks, through all the time I’ve been sick with COVID and whatever nasty virus followed in its wake, and my slow recovery. “The centre cannot hold.” I found a quiet moment and looked it up. I knew it was poetry, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it or what the poem was. Thank you, Google!
W.B. Yeats, of course.
I suppose it’s a common experience to feel we’ve lost our center, our groundedness, when someone significant in our life dies, as my mother just has. I’ve fought against the feeling because over the years I’ve worked so hard to individuate from my mother, to reclaim my right to center my life around something other than her. If she was not the center of my life, why do I feel things have fallen apart since she died in August?
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Did I fail to reclaim my power, define myself and my value apart from our relationship? Has all my work been for nothing? Are my healing and growth an illusion?
I have been afraid of answering these questions.
When I reread the first three lines of the poem, I first imagined myself as the falconer and the falcon as … my soul? My joy? My wisest self? My intuition? All those and none of those, exactly. The falcon seemed like a piece of myself I lost a long, long time ago when I was child, a piece I struggled through many years and miles to find and reclaim, and now is lost again. It can’t hear me, and I can’t hear it. It feels unbearable. My center didn’t hold. Why didn’t it hold? Did I do something wrong? How do I call it back to me?
And I want to call it back, not haul it back by its jesses. In fact, why is the falcon restrained at all? If it’s truly mine and we belong together, why is it leashed? The idea disturbs me. I want it to be free. I’ve worked too long and hard for my own freedom to relish restraining any other creature. I note I assume the falcon is leashed. The poem doesn’t explicitly say so. Interesting.
Maybe my assumption of leash and jesses reflects all the ways I’ve restrained myself. As a child I internalized restraint. I had to. Everyone else felt free to throw self-control to the winds. Is my feeling of my center not holding asking me to release myself further? Is it time for deeper faith and trust in myself?
As I typed those three lines onto the page to begin this post, I imagined another picture in which my mother was the falconer and I the falcon. She no longer holds the leash. I am free. I have flown away from the only center I was allowed to have and now I’m overwhelmed by my freedom. I don’t know how to be wild. I don’t know how to live without the restraining leather jesses around my slender legs. What if I can’t? What if I perish? Must I find a new falconer to hold the end of my leash? What if my freedom is a mistake and I’m not fit to be free? What if I’ve lost the ability to fly free?
Don’t get carried away, I say to myself. Slow down. We’re talking about emotional freedom versus physical freedom. You’ve been flying in an ever-widening gyre for years.
What’s changed is that leash, woven of blood and bone and love, woven of years and empathy and need, guilt and shame and obligation, too strong to ever be severed … except, it turns out, by Death.
What do we center around?
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It changes, doesn’t it? In my first 20 years I centered around my family of origin. When I was in my 20s and beyond I centered around a man and my children. Work was in there, too. And my family of origin, particularly my mother, who was not pleased to be sharing the center. The proverbial 3-ring circus. It went on like that until my children emancipated and, to be honest, for some time after. Then, as they slowly faded out of my center, being far away and engrossed in their own lives, I centered around some man (but not the same one; I’m a slow learner) and my mother. Slowly, writing began to nudge for a place in the center as well.
This created real problems. Mom could never tolerate sharing. I was used to her competition with the kids and whatever man I was involved with but the writing would have created a real threat, so I hid it. The more I hid it, kept it inviolate and safe from outside sabotage, the more I centered around it, and the more I centered around it the more threatened she felt, though I’m not sure her reaction was conscious and she had no idea what she was fighting against. She just knew she didn’t have all of me anymore.
She was right to feel threatened, because writing eventually tore me away from her physically and geographically, a thing that had never happened before and a last betrayal she never forgave.
In the stresses and strains of the last couple of years, I lost writing out of my center. Oh, I still did it. I blogged and serial published. I journaled. But as Mom’s health and sanity crumbled, she became my center once again, this time to the exclusion of everything else. Work (generally part of the center for all of us) competed, keeping me sane, physically fit, and anchoring me into a community of friends, but Mom once again became the primary gravitational pull in my center. My days and nights were full of her. I had less and less respite and the intensity increased daily, winding around my life more and more tightly, and then …
She died. In the middle of the night, a night in which I lay awake in Maine while my brother sat vigil with her halfway across the country in Colorado.
When I write it all out like this, I can understand why I’ve felt so dazed. I can feel some grace for myself.
The one thing that’s always been in the center is gone.
“The centre cannot hold …”
Being too old to have any desire to put a man back in the center (been there, done that), and loving my job while realizing it’s not big enough to define me, I turn once again to the truest, most joyful, wildest part of my life: writing.
And that’s scary. If I let writing take all the space, time and energy in the center, what will happen? I don’t even make money with it!
I make joy with it instead. Joy, connection, contribution, authenticity. Writing is not a black hole of failure. It does meet my needs. When I write, I actually feel good enough and sometimes even better than that! No wonder I feel bewildered.
As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time to not only allow things to fall apart, but to participate actively in the falling away, falling down, falling apart. To dance in the ruins, even as I weep. I’m reminded of a Rumi quote:
Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.
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Things fell apart. The center did not hold. Change, in other words. Life. Which is to say Death.
So, an unexpected ending to this post. Things are falling apart. I’m ready to stop trying to hold them together. It’s time to let go. Mom already has. Now it’s my turn. What lives in our center changes as we change. It’s time now for me to choose my center, choose it freely without guilt or shame.
Sometimes things fall apart and the center cannot hold.
So we find a new one.
- What’s in your center?
- If you were free to choose your center, what would you chose?
- How many things compete for your center? Could you reduce the gravitational pull of your center?
- If your life changed in some dramatic way and you were forced to find a new center, how would you go about doing that?
- Is your center all about others, or do you have something there for yourself, too?
Leave a comment below! To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
In the last few months I have noticed a pattern as I teach private swim lessons.
It first caught my attention over the summer as I worked with a six-year-old in her home pool. She and I have worked together for some years. We have a good relationship built on trust and affection. She’s strong and big for her age, and she’s a tiger, assertive, competitive, stubborn, determined. She’s focused on progression through Red Cross Learn-to-Swim levels. She’s less interested in the skill-building than the card proclaiming her a Level ___ swimmer, and she wants the card now.
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I started out her summer lessons the way I always do, with a review of the skills I knew she had already mastered. Then we began working on next-level skills. Except things fell apart. I began to feel frustrated. Her behavior, instead of sunny and eager (she was always waiting in the water for me until this), became oppositional. She stopped laughing with me. She stopped looking me in the eye. She stopped cooperating. She wouldn’t follow directions, she had to be coaxed into the water, and suddenly it wasn’t fun for either of us.
Her mom and I were puzzled. We agreed to take a couple of weeks off and regroup. My little student seemed relieved. During that time I thought about things and my student had some talks with her parents as we all tried to figure out what was wrong. Young children often lack the language to communicate their difficulties. Adults need to decode the behavior and provide the language.
I threw away my lesson plans for the next level and worked on games incorporating skills she already had. I made sure she knew our next lesson would be games. When I got to her house, she was able to tell me, with her mom’s support, that she didn’t want to learn some of the new skills I was presenting.
I suddenly recalled I was working with a six-year-old. Big, strong, determined, yes. But six years old! The level she and I had reached is typically a skill set nine to eleven-year-olds are working on.
Too much, too fast. Her competitiveness and determination had outstripped her physical and developmental ability, and in my delight in teaching and sharing my love for swimming, I simply forgot what was age-appropriate.
So, we spent the summer playing games and giggling. We practiced all the skills she already had, and we worked on some new ones, too, but she didn’t know that because they were games. If she didn’t like the game, we stopped immediately and did something else. She made up some games, too. We had a lot of fun. She waited in the water for me and pouted when our lessons ended. We were back in business.
I spoke privately with her mom and we agreed to slow down. This little girl needs time. Time to grow. Time to develop. Time to play and simply enjoy the water. Next summer she’ll be seven. If I work with her again, I’ll pay attention. She may be ready for next-level skills. She may not. But this time I’ll adjust more quickly, and she’ll have better language skills, too.
I have been observing this pattern during the autumn months as I teach. Sometimes kids want to learn more but we don’t have a lot more to teach them. Sometimes they want to learn more, or their parents want them to learn more, but they’re simply not ready physically or developmentally. An activity that used to be fun and easy starts to be stressful. Parents are frustrated. I’m not having fun. Children are uncooperative.
I’ve been thinking about time lately because in October I caught COVID for the first time and I’ve been sick ever since. I took good care of myself during COVID, in part because I was too sick to fight it. As I began to feel better, I slowly started exercising again. I didn’t want to slide backwards or develop a secondary infection. I was worried about weight loss and weakness, as well as my fatigue and lack of endurance. I gradually began walking to work again, and doing a mile at a time on the elliptical. I even got back in the pool and did an easy half a mile instead of ¾ of a mile with intermittent sprinting.
I was just beginning to feel better when I got sick again. Not with COVID and not as sick, but I filled up with congestion and started to cough.
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So, it’s been doctor visits. More nasal swab testing. Masks at work. Shortened shifts. Teaching lessons from the deck rather than in the water. No gym. No swimming. No walking to work.
The doctor keeps saying rest. My friends keep saying rest. I am resting, I swear it! I don’t have a lot of choice. If I do housework for an hour I’m worn out. I can rest, but sleep has been hard to come by because when I lie down I start to cough and nothing really stops it. The nights have been hard. And haunted.
I’ve been dreaming about my mother, who died in August. Bad dreams, where she’s in trouble and I’m trying to rescue her. Often we’re in water, which is ridiculous because Mom hated the water. Often we’re in the dark, but I can hear her end-stage breathing and death rattle and I grope through the dream, trying to find her. Sometimes I find her and get my arms around her, but then I wake up. In fact, Mom hated to be touched and I never held her the way I do in my dreams. Only in her deep dementia would she tolerate touch. The dreams hurt me with their promise of loving contact that never happened and now never will happen. I doze in my recliner and wake up weeping.
I want to move, to be at work, to go out and rake leaves, to scrub the kitchen floor. Something. Anything. I trail into the kitchen, make another cup of tea, have another half cup of chicken soup, read a few pages, write a bit. I get in the car to go to work instead of walking (everyone at works frowns at me when they find out I walked), and I’m resentful. I want my life back. I want my strong, fit body back. I want my energy back. I want it back NOW.
And, clearly, I need time. I don’t want it … but I need it. I suppose it doesn’t much matter if my experience is post-COVID, or post-whatever-this-last-virus was or grief or trauma or just getting old (!). Whatever it is, I am not in charge, and my stubbornness and determination are presently more than my physical and perhaps emotional reality can live up to.
Time is enigmatic, isn’t it? We say time heals all wounds. Does it, or does it just give us a chance to process our wounds, to clean them out, breathe on them, bind them up and learn to live with them? How can I help myself? What am I supposed to be doing with all this unwanted time? I think of my little swimmer. She doesn’t need to do anything. She’s perfect. She simply needs to give herself some time to grow. That’s it. Time does the work. Our job is to allow it to do the work.
This is unsatisfying. I’ve read that rest is productive, which makes me mad. It cannot be true. I can’t remember ever feeling loved, valued, or wanted because I rested well. Quite the reverse. (On the other hand, when has unceasing production ever worked to buy love, value, or a sense of being wanted? Never.) I have a feeling Time doesn’t need me to do anything, at least not anything I’m not already doing. Another cup of tea. All the calories I can take in. Rest. Tears. Dreams. Writing. Reading and dozing on the couch with the cats.
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I worked two days Thanksgiving week before having five days off. My physical upper respiratory symptoms are certainly better. Normal sleep patterns are returning. Yet a dragging fatigue and bewildered feeling remain. “It’s detox,” my massage therapist says. “It’s transformation,” the wisest, deepest part of me says. “It’s rebirth,” my Tarot cards say.
It takes time. Everyone agrees on that one.
I remember my little swim student, outraged tears in her eyes. “I’m still a Level ___, right? You won’t take away my Level ___?”
“No, sweetie. You haven’t lost anything. It’s all still yours. You’re just not quite ready to go on to the next level. You need some time …”
I hugged her and gave her a kiss, told her I’d see her again next summer if she wanted lessons. She believed me, reluctantly. She’s in a dance class this winter. That will distract her, I hope.
Now I need to put my arms around myself. My life is not passing me by. I’ll exercise again. I’ll put the weight back on. I’ll get strong, sleep well, stop coughing.
I just need some more time.
- Do you think rest is productive? In what way(s)?
- Do you think of time as an ally or an adversary?
- Do you think time actually heals, or does it just help us come to terms with what is?
- What does rest mean to you?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I came down with COVID this week. It’s the first time I’ve had it, for which I’m thankful, as I’ve been diligent about vaccinations and I’m sure they are mitigating the virus. Three weeks ago I received the latest vaccination, in fact. (And no, I don’t think that’s why I got COVID!)
In our current world a positive COVID test is an iron-bound, all-purpose excuse for downing tools, stepping away, and spending some quiet time in solitude. So here I am, on the bench (or in my case, a comfy couch) instead of making my way through my usual work week and routines.
I haven’t been afraid of winding up in the hospital on a ventilator. I’m not especially high risk and in very good health. I’ve been resigned, more than anything else. Resigned that I unknowingly exposed my friends and coworkers before I knew what was happening. Resigned that this is a different viral experience than I’ve ever had before. Resigned that someone else taught my group swimming lessons and enjoyed the kids. Resigned to the fact that now we all have to mask for a time at work.
I’ve been miserable with fever, aches, congestion, and difficulty breathing. The physical symptoms are easing; however, I have entirely lost both taste and smell, perhaps the most distressing symptom of all, in part because it’s so different. Yesterday I ventured out for a walk.
It was breezy and grey with rain moving in, the air warm and soft. I took a short neighborhood walk, enjoying being outside and moving, but struggling with shortness of breath, disoriented by my inability to smell the rain coming and the crisping leaves. I feel cut off from my greatest source of solace, the natural world. I will continue to walk every day because my body needs it, but my joy in being outside is painfully diminished.
When I completed my test route, I felt too tired to do more. I came home and discovered I’d been gone less than 10 minutes.
At times like this I bless my passion for reading. I’ve had eye inflammation and itching with this virus; a symptom I’ve never had before. It worsens as my fever increases and makes looking at a screen or watching TV miserable, as well as sitting in any kind of sunlight. However, I can turn on a lamp and read until I doze, then wake and read some more. This passes the time, keeps me quiet, and distracts me from my present experience.
Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash
This morning I walked again in a light rain. It’s been a dull-colored fall here. Some leaves are finally starting to turn; other trees are mostly bare already. This time I was ready for scent blindness. I turned away from what I couldn’t do and feasted my eyes on the rich colors of fall-blooming flowers and the leaves. A humid breeze fanned my cheek. I focused on breathing, filling my weary lungs with the fresh, damp air, exhaling as well as I could through my nose. I paid attention to what I heard: crows squabbling, an occasional passing car, a barking dog, the subtle background sound of the rain. I walked a longer distance than yesterday.
I haven’t run a fever from more than 24 hours and my throat feels normal again. Progress, although my heart thumps uncomfortably when I’m up and doing things and I have the lingering feeling I’m not getting quite enough air. Still, some symptoms are clearly abating.
Benches are not comfortable, for the most part. No back support. Hard under the ass. Sitting on the sidelines watching others live their lives when we can’t participate much in ours is discouraging. So much of my daily centering, comfort, and self-care are bound up with scent. I could not have anticipated how devastated I feel without the simple ability to smell and taste. My scented fall candles, usually a daily pleasure, sit unlit. Tea might as well be plain hot water. Food is absolutely tasteless. I can’t smell when the cat boxes need to be emptied. Cleaning doesn’t smell like cleaning. Fresh air doesn’t smell fresh. Taking a shower, using soap and lotion and putting on clean clothes, is joyless. Eating is a chore.
Yet still there is reading, and writing. I’m washing my sheets. I’ve aired out my room and waved a smudge stick around. I’ve washed the breakfast dishes. The cats are snuggled up with me in my chair. The rain comes down. Another cup of tea cools at my elbow. I picked up a scarlet leaf while I was out walking; an antidote to depression.
In spite of violence, pain, suffering, and illness, the world is beautiful. It welcomes us, shelters us, sustains us. Small pleasures and joys are everywhere, if we only engage with them. Refusing pleasure and peace does not help those who have none. Whatever our circumstance, we are all connected.
- How would your life change if you couldn’t smell anything?
- If you had no ability to taste, how might it change your relationship to food?
- In these dark days of twisted politics and violence, what gives you hope?
- What is your favorite indulgence or ritual when you’re sick?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m sitting at my desk this morning, the sun shining on the wet grass scattered with wrinkled leaves outside my window. I’ve just been running errands. My desk, unusually, is piled high with scraps of paper, notebooks, my calendar, receipts, to-do lists, and a new binder and paper I just bought to help me organize. My big grey tabby, Oz, is busily knocking everything off the desk and chewing on a new plastic package of AAA batteries because I won’t let him lie on the keyboard.
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I was sick most of October. I’m finally on antibiotics; I can breathe, and consequently think, more clearly. A week ago an aged family member living halfway across the country with whom I have a lifelong troubled history became openly unable to manage their life and then fell and broke their hip in quick succession.
Sometimes life requires us to muster every bit of learning, wisdom, strength, courage, insight and experience we have in a catastrophic practical test, like a nightmarish pop quiz. This is one of those times. It helps to look at it that way, because I know I have (somewhere) everything I need to manage this situation with all my considerable compassion and clear-sightedness.
This last week I let go of everything. My living space needs to be cleaned. I desperately want to change my sheets after so many nights crying, coughing, and trying to breathe adequately enough to snatch some sleep. I’m longing to escape my phone and laptop, sit in the sun, read, relax, do some gentle gardening (still like late summer here in Maine). I haven’t even started on this post yet, a thing I usually do during the week.
I made it to work. I made it to the doctor for antibiotics. I stayed hydrated. Aside from reactive crisis intervention and coming to terms with what’s happening long-distance, that’s about all I can say for myself. But now, at last, I’m beginning to stir feebly into some kind of normal experience again.
It’s a relief.
I opened this document and started typing without any plan whatsoever. I don’t have to post today on this blog. It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t. I suppose I’ve grown used to the opportunity to organize my life into words every week.
For nearly a decade I’ve worked intensively on boundaries. Ten years ago I knew nothing about personal boundaries. My life was accordingly dysfunctional. It was hardly my life at all, in fact. It was everyone else’s life. I’ve written extensively about boundaries on the blog, and the concept of the difference between your experience and mine is woven heavily into my fiction. I’ve practiced building and maintaining healthy boundaries in the last years, though I’m still far from perfect in working with them.
But I’m getting better all the time.
When we are prevented from building appropriate psychological boundaries as children, we never create an internal world in which we can rest, center, and ground. We become an image in someone else’s mirror, a paper doll, a nonperson.
Nonpeople have no needs, no credibility, and no permission to express themselves as individuals. It’s worse than no permission, though. Nonpeople are severely punished for any independent feeling, need, or expression. Nonpeople have no private life. They’re not allowed to say no.
This kind of relationship, sadly, is often invisible to onlookers. From the outside, such connections look bonded and mutually adoring. The public view never sees the anguish involved in a relationship without boundaries.
Anguish on both sides. Those who seek to prevent others from having boundaries are deeply damaged, insecure people whose own boundaries were likely brutally violated and torn down. They are terrified of being alone, and a boundary makes them feel utterly outcast and rejected.
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But for me, boundaries are sanity. They’re safety. They allow the power to choose and respect to flow both ways. They say, “My self is worthy. Your self is worthy. We can choose to love one another as well as ourselves.”
Reshaping a primary relationship with no boundaries into one with healthy ones is excruciating. It may not be possible. I haven’t decided it is impossible, but I wonder. One of the hardest things about it is how it looks to outsiders, who don’t understand why all the harsh edges and corners are suddenly showing in such a perfect, loving relationship, the kind we all want, the kind we should feel lucky to have.
Another feeling I’m present with just now is the nauseating swing between relief and guilt. All secrets, painful family secrets included, have an uncomfortable way of being revealed. Even if everyone involved conspires to keep the secret, eventually, often in a you-couldn’t-make-this-stuff-up kind of way, someone or something like a terrible series of events exposes it.
I’ve posted about such ideas as loyalty, responsibility, duty, gaslighting and projection. The bars of prisons built by family systems are forged out of concepts and strategies like these. But when a secret escapes the bars melt away and we’re suddenly free. We’re not alone in solitary anymore.
Some stranger says to us, “Oh, yes. I’m familiar with that dynamic. I’ve observed that behavior. I understand,” and we realize we are not crazy. We are not mean and ugly. We are not hateful.
We are not alone.
The relief of validation is indescribable. So is the guilt accompanying the relief. When we guard secrets, literally with our lives, for the sake of protecting the dignity of a loved one and the secrets are revealed through no fault of our own, we also feel exposed. The mere fact that we were the designated secret keeper means we failed.
Our love and the cost of bearing the secret’s burden for so long doesn’t matter. The least we can do, the least we can do, is remove all the boundaries we’ve erected so carefully and painstakingly and once again give up our lives, our freedom, our selves. Our loved one’s anguish should become our anguish, their pain our pain, their limitations our limitations. If necessary, their death should be our death. Because we betrayed, we let them down, we failed.
The secret got out.
I can’t see very far ahead. It’s not useful to gaze at the road behind. I’ve already walked it and everything is different now, the people involved and the situation. Right now I know where I am. I can see the next steps. This is a new path, one I’ve never taken before. It’s a new script, a new experience. I’m working on releasing my assumptions. I don’t know what will happen next. I can predict, but predictions make me tired. What I have is right now, today. I know what I will do today, both in my personal life and to manage my loved one’s situation.
This time I will find a way to inhabit my boundaries and support my loved one without sacrificing one for the other. I will make phone calls, send emails, get myself organized to do whatever I can long distance and prepare to travel in case of need. I will grieve.
I will also write, get outside, do some laundry, maybe take a nap, and work on recovering my health, because mine is the only life I can live.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here: