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What I Have Not Loved

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
of neglect
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,
in this
final night
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
only becoming.

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.

Questions:

  • 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.

Friction

When I am struggling, I frequently find myself gifted with exactly the idea I need to help me step back, take a breath, and reframe. It always feels like a miraculous bit of synchronicity. When it happens I remember to have faith in myself, faith in the vagaries of life. I remember I can make choices, whatever the situation.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

It happened this morning, unexpectedly, in a post I read by an astrologist I follow. This astrologist is unlike any I’ve ever read before. To begin with he’s intelligent, but not in a grifter, let-me-manipulate-you sort of way. His interpretation of astrology is interesting and provocative. I don’t read him to find out what color to wear today, but because his lens is so fascinating.

This morning began at 4:00 a.m. Which is better than yesterday morning, which began at 3:00 a.m. with me hunched over in bed scribbling yet another list. Really important stuff that had to be recorded at three in the morning. For example:

 

 

 

  • E birthday card for friend (We share the same birthday this week; clearly this was an urgent reminder.)
  • request time off (formally, I mean. My absence is already covered by a teammate. But I might forget I have to travel to Colorado to put my mom in a memory care unit next week, and if I don’t properly request time off in our software system the sky will fall, I’ll be fired, I’ll give my director and friend (see above) extra work and she’ll hate me, I won’t get paid …)
  • tape measure (We are visiting the facility we hope to check Mom into before going to her house. How will we know what furnishings to bring for her? How will we know how much wall space there is? Clearly, I need to pack a tape measure, carry it on the bus, on the hotel shuttle, on the plane, in the rental car. There are no tape measures in Colorado.)
  • soap dish (We have an informal lost and found at the rehab pool facility where I work. Mostly what gets found are toiletries in the locker room and showers; these are rarely claimed. I need a soap dish, and one is sitting in our lost and found waiting to be retrieved. If no one comes to get it, I want that soap dish. A very important detail that must not be forgotten, as plastic soap dishes are rare and valuable. Soap dish or sleep? … obviously, soap dish is more important.)
  • waterproof mattress cover (Mom’s new room will not accommodate a queen bed, which is the only size she has. We have a twin bed for her, but she’ll need new sheets and bedding. I mustn’t forget to get a couple of waterproof mattress covers …)
  • Etc.

But where was I?

Oh, right, the astrologer’s post about Mars and planets and friction.

Friction. Pressure. Oh, boy.

I confess I didn’t read the whole article with much attention, mostly because I don’t have much focused attention right now for anything, but this caught my eye:

Mars Positive: Courage and willpower applied consciously towards a specific goal.

Mars Negative: Impatience and misapplied force.

Misapplied force, anyone? I had to laugh.

At that point it was time to get up and make breakfast, so I put the laptop aside. While I cooked, washed my face, cleaned out the cat boxes, and watched the cold dawn light I thought about friction. Pressure. Birth. Transformation. I thought about polished rocks and pearls. I thought about diamonds and fossils and geologic forces and time. I thought about youth and plasticity and vitality, followed by old age, desiccation, brittle bones, weariness, atrophy.

Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash

Friction can produce fire — cleansing, regenerative, alchemical fire.

I remembered life is full of friction and grit. Experience can smooth our edges, soften our rigidities and certainties, blur our idealism and mellow our arrogance.

I remembered, in short, I can choose to avoid and resist friction (and mostly I do), but sometimes the only way out is through.

This is one of those times. A camel-through-the-eye-of-the-needle time. A time when the right thing to do is the thing I most want to avoid doing. A time when I want to argue with reality. A time when I have chosen and am now resigned to everything that choice entails.

In exactly a week from the minutes I sit writing this draft I’ll be on a plane heading to Colorado to do an unthinkable thing: meet my brother and one of my sons and transition my mother to a locked memory care unit in a place she’s never been before with people she doesn’t know (not that it matters, as she no longer remembers the places or the people she has known) before getting on another plane to come back to my life in Maine.

Even as I write it, it doesn’t seem real.

I wish it wasn’t real.

For the first time this morning, though, while the new day dawned and the cats and I ate our respective breakfasts, I thought about the other side of this narrow tunnel, this birth canal. There will be another side. There always is. What is happening to me, and to the rest of my family? What is happening, locked away, invisible, irretrievable, in Mom’s experience? I’ve done hospice work, and I’ve witnessed how mysterious and beautiful the end of life can be. This event ripples out into the rest of my family system, sanding, smoothing, transforming. Friction is change. Pressure reshapes us. Can I relax, just a little? Can I let it happen the way it needs to? Can I be satisfied I’ve made the choices and decisions I’ve needed to and let my feelings wash me where they will? Can I surrender to the cars, the buses, the hotel shuttles, the planes, the journey, in fact?

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Could I set aside soap dishes and birthday cards, payroll issues, tape measures, waterproof mattress covers; the potential for delays, bad weather, mechanical breakdowns, crowds, jammed traffic, overstimulation, viruses, and the general unpredictability of life and people and trust there will be sleep, there will be food, there will be a bathroom, there will be a minute to sit down, there will be help, there will be tears, and I will figure out how to print my boarding pass at a kiosk in the airport?

Well, I could try, at least. I’m willing to try.

There is friction, and friction is magical.

I’m publishing two weekends in a row right after I said I was moving to biweekly posting. But then the trip to Colorado was upon me, which is the weekend I’m scheduled to publish. So I’ll write again on the other side of all this friction. Maybe by then I’ll be a pearl. Or write pearls of wisdom?

Questons:

  • What’s the biggest source of friction in your life? What is it shaping you into?
  • What wakes you up at 3:00 in the morning?
  • Do you avoid friction or welcome it?
  • What helps you lubricate life’s friction?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.