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, is 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.
I try to remember my former life
and realize how quickly the current travels towards home
how those dark and irretrievable blossoms of sound I made in that time have traveled far-away on the black surface of memory
as if they no longer belonged to me.
From “The Sound of the Wild” by David Whyte
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I’ve written about the longing to belong previously. The desire to feel firmly anchored in family and community is an ache I’ve felt most of my life. Though I’ve belonged a few precious times in my life and I know what it feels like, I know more about what it doesn’t feel like.
Mangis suggests being an outsider is powerful because being an insider is so much work. We trim and prune and espalier ourselves to stay safe in our feeling of belonging. Humans are social animals. We’re neurobiologically wired to fear being outcast and alone.
Childhood is about learning roles, rules, familial and cultural norms, and, for most of us, under which specific conditions we can be loved and accepted and achieve belonging. Unconditional love is not our best thing.
By the time we’re young adults, we know what’s expected of us if we want to belong. The parts of us that don’t fit in are amputated or hidden, and we often live a double life, one secret and one playing to our audience, or we make ourselves into masks and shells, acceptable to our peers, families, and communities, but lacking authenticity or vitality.
What we really want is for our real selves to belong, our honest, authentic selves, but few of us are lucky enough to find that easily, and the fear of being alone is huge.
We have a tendency to think of maturity as taking place in the first 20 years of life. By then we’re in our adult bodies and generally able to function on our own. We define ourselves as grownups, adults. We take on responsibilities, pursue education and interests, figure out the economics of independence. Some people form partner bonds and raise children. We’re busy in the world and much of that busyness has to do with belonging, taking care of social obligations, participating in production and consumption, and bumping up against limitations, rules, and taboos. We use our manners, follow traffic rules (sometimes), stand in lines, allow ourselves to be directed by signs, and generally follow the same standards of civility we learned in school.
We also subscribe to ideologies and resist change in the form of new information or critical thinking. We can’t endanger our places of belonging. Our identity depends on them.
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash
In exchange, we are paid for our work, have friends, family, and community, wear our labels comfortably, and stay safe in the middle of the herd.
Then suddenly we’re old, negligible, invisible, and burdensome.
Then we die.
But what if the first 20 years are just the beginning? What if, as Mangis suggests, we embark on a new level of maturity in late middle age? What if that level requires we outgrow the need to belong and leave the longing for it behind?
I know from my study of power dynamics fear-driven choices indicate power loss. The fear of being outcast and alone is terrible, and so is the fact of it.
However, it is survivable, and it’s also a much, much easier way to live. The degree to which we’ve spent our first 50 years or so living underground or in the shadows is the degree to which our lives simplify if we decide belonging isn’t so important after all.
Suddenly, we can be as big, as expansive, as individual, as happy, as creative, as expressive, and as strong as we choose. We’ve spent 50 years learning about ourselves and the world. We’re no longer overwhelmed with the physiological needs of reproduction. If we give up our fears and struggles around belonging, what could we do with that energy? Belonging is expensive, and so is longing.
Perhaps mid-life crises are really just another growth spurt, a milestone to be celebrated and welcomed.
Instead of framing these years as the beginning of the end, perhaps we could look at them as the beginning of our most authentic years, the years in which we’re less concerned about how acceptable others find us, stop apologizing for who we are, and focus on reclaiming ourselves and belonging in our own skins.
At the end of the day, we belong only to ourselves. We’re not required to give up our power for transformation in order to belong to anyone else.
All we have to do is let go of our longing for belonging.
I was cleaning cat hair off our furniture a couple of days ago and thinking about the Golden Rule. I muttered about it, too. To the cats, who had no opinion but thought the whole removing-cat-hair-with-a-dish-glove business highly entertaining and a good game. They wanted the cat hair back. I wanted to get rid of it.
Sometimes I feel I’ve spent my life cleaning.
Don’t get me wrong. Cleaning can be a sacred activity, a Baba Yaga kind of activity. Few things are as satisfying to me as making order out of chaos; sorting the unwanted and unnecessary from the useful and beautiful is something I always enjoy.
When I say “I love you,” part of that is a commitment to provide a clean, comfortable, healthy space. Part of my own self-respect and self-love is providing myself a clean, comfortable, healthy space.
It’s not a question of money. Paint is peeling off many surfaces in this house. That doesn’t mean those surfaces need to be dirty. Yes, the floor is pitted, stained and scarred. That doesn’t mean I don’t bother to scrub off the grime. Yes, the front door gaps and sags. The metal screen door is getting rusty. That doesn’t mean they have to be filthy.
So, cleaning. For all of us, myself, my partner, and the cats.
I know some people will say the cats don’t care. My partner has said he doesn’t notice.
But I care. I notice. And I don’t know the cats don’t care. Why should they live in unnecessary squalor?
Anyway. The Golden Rule. Do unto others, etc.
I think the Golden Rule is a good way to live. I live by it. The problem is the rule itself implies others will do unto you as you do unto them.
I’m angry about that. Living by the Golden Rule is expensive in time, energy, and patience. I choose to do it because it’s part of my integrity as a human being, but it’s not easy, and it’s not an investment that always pays off. Which is sad. And disconnecting.
I’ve asked it before and I ask it again. When have we given enough?
Then I received a post in my Inbox from Joshua Fields Millburn titled ‘The Boundaries of Discontent’ about this very subject. Tolerance, he says “can be a magnet for neglect.”
The Golden Rule is an effective guide for choice. I feel good about myself and the way I show up in the world when I employ it. But it’s only the first step.
The second step is observing whether it’s reciprocated in any given situation and continuing to make healthy, self-supportive choices based on that observation.
It’s wonderful to give positive things to the world and others, but we need to notice if we’re not receiving in kind. Giving out of an emotional deficit is not sustainable. We deserve more than that. We can find people who live the Golden Rule, people like us.
Millburn says we encourage what we tolerate, and he’s right. Tolerance is too heavy to carry alone in a relationship, and unbalanced tolerance is simply clutter. When we stop tolerating the absence of reciprocity, or more than a few days of cat hair on the furniture, we can move into a simpler, clearer, cleaner life.
Healthy boundaries are not intolerance.
I don’t want to be the friend who never reciprocates. In fact, I’ve voluntarily left more than one relationship because it was clear that who I am was making others unhappy or uncomfortable and I was unable to find a way forward into something healthier with them. I don’t want toxic people in my life, and I won’t be a toxic person for anyone else, either. Do unto others has sometimes meant letting go and moving on for my sake and theirs.
Tools for healthy relationship and connection like the Golden Rule work best when both parties bear their weight and use them. If that’s not happening, the tool becomes ineffective, even destructive, and the relationship falters.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To a point. But don’t get too carried away. And don’t build expectations of reciprocity around it. Follow it because you believe it’s the right thing to do and let go of the rest.
It’s time. Harvesting Stones is now live, after six months of hard work. I hope you enjoy the new site as much as I do!
Why harvesting stones? We can’t plant pebbles and grow big stones. Why would we want to?
Stones are hard and heavy. Aside from gemstones or the pebble in our shoe, we don’t think about them much. Stone, after all, is everywhere. Healthy soil is the child of stone, plants and animals. Stone is literally the foundation of our world. It’s the raw material we live on, build and decorate with. Stone shapes the land. We break our backs and tools on stone.
We also, especially as children, marvel at the colors and shapes of stones. We pick them up, finger them, carry them in our pockets, take them home and set them on a shelf or table.
Stone is elemental. It contains a record of the planet’s history, and our history as a species. It contains the future, for every stone eventually wears away. It’s what remains when all else has perished, like bone, like seed. Stone endures.
Stone is resilient. It weathers. Water shapes it. Plants split it. Lichen breaks it down. Volcanic heat melts it. It can be chiseled and carved, and then time blunts and wears away the chiseling and carving. Given enough exposure and time, stone becomes sand and soil. It’s never lost. It’s always becoming.
Stone is uncompromising in its simplicity. It will bruise us, scrape our skin off, cling stubbornly to the field where it’s not wanted, make us ache with its weight. It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. It’s authentic.
Harvesting stones is about presence. It’s about appreciating the stones we trip over, the stones we carry in our hearts and bellies and pockets. It’s about coming to terms with discomfort and looking past our narrow focus on monetary value and popular beauty. It’s about power.
I lately came across an exercise in The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie. She asks the reader: If you could be any place in the landscape, what would you be?
By Joshua Sortino on Unplash
I would be a cave. A hidden place, a haven. A cozy cave from which I could hear and see and taste the outside world. I’d be a cave with a spring falling into a stone basin, a cave with ledges and shelves, a cave with, perhaps, a bat colony in some part of it, or a hibernating bear, or a new animal mother and her young. A womb of stone.
Not surprisingly, caves show up everywhere in my reading and writing.
Creating Our Daily Crime was an extraordinary experience. I could never have imagined how many stones I would turn over, how much I would grow and learn, what I would discover, what I would let go. I was unprepared for how powerful it would be. Powerfully healing. Powerfully connecting.
Now I want to do more with that power. I wanted something more creative, more authentic, and more accessible for readers, browsers, and searchers. I wanted to create a digital space to share more poetry, more resources, more stories, and my books.
Welcome to Harvesting Stones.
(Readers: This was a long, complicated process to transfer a lot of content, so there may be glitches and less-than-perfect formatting. I’ll be working hard to get the site polished. Please let me know if you find a broken link or other problem, and forgive any rough edges as we go forward. All Our Daily Crime links should automatically redirect to Harvesting Stones.)
If I want peace in my environment, I need to remove everything obscuring it.
If I want peace in my relationships, I need to clear away whatever obstructs it.
If I want internal peace, I need to peel away whatever destroys it.
It’s such a simple idea, and so monumentally difficult to put into action.
How do we figure out what’s strangling our peace?
Likely, at least some of what’s killing our peace are habits of action and thought we’re deeply invested in or frankly addicted to. Things we don’t want to give up or feel unable to give up. Sometimes we’re so attached to certain habits or possessions we feel life is not possible if we can’t have them or engage with them. Our survival depends on them, and peace takes a back seat to survival.
Except maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, in the long run, we can’t survive without a certain amount of peace.
If we undertake the work of identifying what’s between us and peace, we’re going to find feelings. Lots of feelings. Feelings we don’t want to feel. Feelings we don’t know what to do with. Feelings we’re afraid to express. Feelings we’re ashamed of. Feelings that are tearing us apart.
Until and unless we find appropriate, effective ways of managing and processing our feelings, we’ll never uncover the peace buried beneath them.
What if there’s nothing to make and nothing to buy? What if there’s no app to use or post to make?
What if what we have to do is discard everything concealing the peace, love, health, time, self, or authentic life we want?
We can’t discard our feelings, but we can learn how to manage and integrate them. We can discard toxic pieces of identity. We can discard thoughts, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and addictions. We can discard digital and real-life clutter. We can discard time-wasting and destructive habits. We can discard toxic relationships and toxic relationship dynamics.
It’s easier to buy something. It’s easier to get on Facebook or a dating app. It’s easier to have a drink, or turn on Netflix, or get high, or get numb. It’s easier to eat a box of donuts.
Easier, but all those choices layer a further crust of chaos over the magnificent life we long for.
Uncovering peace. And other things. My daily crime.