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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?

 

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Life’s Light

Mary Oliver writes about “the light that can shine out of a life.” I’ve been resting in that phrase over the holiday weekend.

Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash

When I think of “life” the first things that come to mind are not human lives, but those rooted in the green world, the world that sustains me. I thought of light shining out of lives as I deadheaded and watered velvety purple petunias in their hanging basket, leggy now but still blooming richly, as though the first frost is not around the corner. I thought of it as I diced fresh sage, thyme, parsley, and garlic chives from my garden with our sharpest knife to make herbed bread. On my low-carb diet I eat a half a piece a day and these two loaves will last me for weeks. The scent of baking bread with herbs and onion fills the house like late summer incense.

I think of human life, too — strangers, friends and family, all kinds of people, a great tidal wave of humanity straining the planet’s resources to the uttermost limits, but each individual a soul with hopes, dreams, history, wounds, and memories. Each with potential to be a light. Each with equal potential to be darkness.

The thing about light is it’s meaningless unless we know darkness.

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

I want to be a source of light in the world. More than that, I want to be a specific kind and intensity of light for specific people in specific ways. I’m pleased if my light illuminates a step or two for others, or provides some comfort, but the light I’m choosing to shine is really directed at a small handful of people.

Appreciate my light, dammit! Open your eyes! I’m shining for you!

I’m coming to the reluctant conclusion that allowing light to shine from my life is where my power ends. The intensity and quality of my particular light is not in my power. I can’t control the eyes seeing it or the steps it guides or companions.

This morning I took an early walk at dawn. The sky was orange and pink, and as I was heading home with the sun rising behind me light glowed in the trees, which are just beginning to turn the same colors. It was so lovely my eyes burned with tears.

That light wasn’t for me. It wasn’t mine. Birds and animals and yes, people too, all had their being under that morning sky. The trees bathed in it as though they loved it. I just happened to be one of many awake and about, and I saw. I saw and I was blessed.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Another thing about light is we can’t see it if we don’t look.

I wonder sometimes if we’re losing our ability to see lights shining from lives. Are our eyes too weary and distracted by a world full of visual noise and endless screens to find starlight or firefly light? If we light a candle in our soul can we find our way back to it when we’re lost in darkness? Are we able to value only the glaring light of sun or spotlight?

We were cleaning out a storage area under the attic eaves this weekend, and I crawled on my hands and knees with a flashlight, noting wiring that needs attention, dust, the desiccated bodies of wasps, and signs of mice. It struck me holding a flashlight in a dark place provides illumination in the direction it’s pointed, but the holder can’t actually see the light source itself. Can we ever know the quality and brightness of our own light? Are we able to judge its value or where it’s most needed? Can we control which direction it shines in?

“The light that can shine out of a life.” Nourishing light. Guiding light. Light connecting us to the web of life that is community. Inspiring light. Yet the value and outcomes of allowing our light to shine is beyond our control, beyond our knowledge.

Letting light shine out of our lives is an offering we can choose to make, and then we’re done. Perhaps the rest is none of our business.

Jenny’s attic is waiting for her. Fall, 2014