Once I lived with an avid outdoorsman who fished and hunted. He frequently spent his weekends camping during spring, summer and fall. I knew how much pleasure he took in this time away from the rest of his life, and always saw him off with some variation of “Have a great time.”
It never failed to make him mad.
He said it “put pressure” on him when people wished him well.
I felt both dumbfounded and amused by his attitude. I couldn’t imagine feeling insulted because someone who loves you wishes you a great time.
I’ve been remembering that man this week because I’ve been thinking about giving and receiving blessings.
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Traditionally a blessing was an important social exchange. If one was lucky enough to meet an incognito god or goddess on the flanks of Mount Olympus or in some other lonely place and received their blessing, they were broken open to receive it fully, their deepest and most private hopes, fears and pain exposed. It took courage, strength and humility to receive such a gift.
The poet David Whyte suggests we must make ourselves large for the exchange of blessings. To give such a favor is an act of generosity. To receive it is an act of growth. In the last several days I’ve thought a lot about making oneself big enough for blessings. I’ve remembered specific words and ways in which I’ve blessed others, including the simple blessing of my love.
Sometimes I’ve felt the love I gave another in words and actions was recognized, appreciated and fully received. Other times I have not, and I’ve always made that about me. My love was unwelcome and had no value. Now I wonder, though. Perhaps it wasn’t me at all. Perhaps they were not big enough in that moment to accept my blessing.
That thought leads me inexorably to wondering how many times I have not been big enough to receive a blessing from someone else. I’m forced to admit there have been plenty of times; probably many more than I’m aware of.
Am I big enough to be loved hugely, or receive a large sum of money or have my creative hopes realized?
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I’m not sure I am. I’m big enough to be loved moderately, but hugely? No, that feels like too much. I can feel myself tensing, rounding, drawing my knees up and wrapping my arms around my body as I imagine someone trying to give me huge love. I’m not worth that. I’ll be sure to disappoint. They’ve mistaken me for someone else.
I’m too small for such abundance. I choose to be too small. I’m afraid to stand up straight, open my arms and heart wide, and accept huge love. I choose to limit what comes in. I’m afraid of the pain of being broken open. I can make myself bigger in spite of my fear, but I usually don’t in order to accommodate a blessing.
Therefore, I impoverish myself. I have people around me who love me. Perhaps they love me as deeply as I love, and they long for me to receive it as I long for my love to be received, but my own inability to be large enough to allow their blessing into my life makes the energy of their love impotent and weakens our connection. My fear and choice to be small, hard and rigid, like a rolled-up porcupine, not only limit me; they limit others as well.
My most frequent prayer on behalf of others is that they might experience the greatest good. I use that specific language because I know I don’t know what the greatest good is for any of us. Sometimes what we want the most in life is not in our best interests. Sometimes the hardest experiences are the most useful to us. Sometimes what we long for is what we most need. I don’t know. I’m not big enough to know. I can’t see far enough down the road to judge the value in any experience. All I can say, along with everyone else, is what feels pleasant and what feels uncomfortable to me in the moment.
Oxford online dictionary defines blessing as “a beneficial thing for which one is grateful; something that brings well-being; a person’s sanction or support.” We all can make a list of crises in our lives that later turned out to be blessings in disguise. Maybe it’s all a blessing – each breath, each heartbeat, each tear, each drop of blood and sweat, each moment, each life and death. Gratitude is a practice encompassing all our experience.
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To receive a blessing is to allow an expression of support, affection and maybe even love touch us. It’s an act of trust in the intention of the one who blesses us, as well as faith in our own worth. We need one another in this life, and healthy reciprocity makes connections stronger. It’s not enough to be the strong one who maintains safety by extending love and support while accepting none; we must also be willing to be down and out, to be lost and confused, and to receive help and encouragement in our turn.
Last weekend two friends and my partner helped me empty out my flooded storage unit, chip ice, sweep water, put down pallets (transported in my friends’ truck), and put everything back again. We were ankle-deep in mud, slipped and slid on ice and splashed around in water as we worked. It needed to be done and I wanted to do it. I know I needed help. Yet from the beginning I was blocking the support and caring around me. I fussed about my friends using their Saturday to undertake such a messy job. I felt bad about using their truck. I was worried somebody would hurt their back heaving my wet mattress and box springs around. At the same time, I was deeply touched and uncomfortable because I could feel their caring and concern and I didn’t know how to take it gracefully. I wanted to be big enough to accept friendship and love from these dear ones, but it was really hard. I know, however, I’m not good at receiving and I want to be better. I also know, had our positions been reversed, I would have greatly enjoyed helping out a friend on a windy spring Saturday morning.
I endured my discomfort. Now that it’s done, what I will remember is not what was damaged and lost, or even the mess. What I’ll remember is the four of us tackled a necessary job, worked together and had a good time doing it.
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It was a blessing. I stretched as wide as I could to receive it.
I need more practice.
When I tell someone I love them, or wish them a great day, or the greatest good, I mean it. It’s not just words. My heart is in it. When I light a candle and reach out with all I am to a loved one who is far away, I’m offering the best I am as a blessing, a candle in dark times, a comfort in distress. I want the gift of my love and support to be received and used.
Probably the best place to start is to learn to receive with more grace myself, to expand, and to humbly accept whatever blessings come my way, whether plainly visible or in disguise.
Have a great day, readers. Greatest good to you. Blessings.
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It’s strange to be aging, isn’t it? It doesn’t matter if you’re in your 20s or 60s, getting older is a remarkable experience. As I move through my 50s, I see more and more of my life when I look over my shoulder and I no longer have the feeling of limitless horizons in front of me. Whatever is ahead, it’s not limitless.
I have a friend who looks at a tape measure and finds the number of inches corresponding to his age. He takes in the distance between the end of the tape and his place at 70 something. Then he puts his finger at another 10 years, another 15 years. The visual on this exercise is startling. What happened to all those years of our life, and when did we move so close to our last day?
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For at least a decade now I’ve been watching my elders and trying to figure out how to age gracefully. Every now and then I meet a remarkable elder. They have a twinkle in their eye, they laugh a lot, they’re curious and interested and they’re wonderfully authentic. I want to grow up to be just like that.
I’m convinced the great keys to aging gracefully are staying in intimate connection with ourselves every single day, no matter how old we are, and embracing change like a lover. Without consent and resilience, aging becomes a bitter battle to the end.
So many of us, as we age, live increasingly in the past. It’s understandable. We’ve been, done and seen a lot. The problem is as the years roll over us we don’t update our software. We hang on to what we were, what our bodies could do, how it all was during a time we remember as the best time (or at least a better time than now). We continue to define ourselves by outdated habits and routines. I’m not sure if this is a function of nostalgia or weariness or just plain laziness, but somewhere along the way we cross some invisible finish line, stop paying attention to embracing how things are right now and start waiting to die.
As our software gets more and more out of date, incompatibilities arise between how we show up in the world and our stories and memories. We lose credibility and effectiveness.
It seems to me the day we stop being curious about what we might learn, do or be next is the day our lives really end. People who age gracefully still have plans. They still dream. Their thinking remains flexible, even if their bodies don’t. They find some magical balance between letting go and moving forward. Change becomes a beloved friend rather than a feared enemy.
It’s not hard to see this in small external ways. We hang on to clothing, for example, that no longer fits, or was fashionable for a fleeting moment fifteen years ago. We hang on to books or movies or music we once loved and couldn’t do without, but now have outgrown. I don’t suggest there’s anything wrong with such nostalgia, but I do think all that stuff can pile up around us and block a clear view of what is now, or what might be ahead. Too often, the externals mirror our internal habits.
I notice many people my age still describe themselves by a job or position they no longer have. Some folks seem almost apologetic about being retired, as though they’ve lost personhood in the world, have become nobody. Others tell you all about some beloved skill or activity, how they practiced it, the ways it enhanced their life, their mastery, but never mention it was all long ago and right now, today, that activity is no longer part of their lives. Their lives have changed, but they haven’t updated their sense of identity. They’re stuck in their past and missing their present. They dangle in the empty gap between who they were and the stranger they are now.
I think some people feel angry about aging. We want our bodies to look, feel and perform the way they used to. We refuse to adjust to our present physical realities because they don’t match what we used to be able to do. We’re ashamed of our changing bodies rather than comfortable in them. We fear the changes the years bring and try to hide them or resist them.
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Then there are people, amazing people, who know the trick of beginning over and over again throughout their lives. They spend their professional years as a lawyer and then retire and become an artist. A woman marries, works, raises a family and then, divorced and in her 60s, begins traveling all over the world. People in their 50s and 60s go back to school and acquire a new skill or a degree. They live in the day they’re in, in right now, and they’re focused on the present and future rather than the past. They accommodate their physical needs, feel at home in their skin and are constantly updating their identity, intentions, connections and contributions.
Defining ourselves by our pasts is a sad business. I know aging can feel limiting, but I think the real limiting factor in aging is refusing to participate in it! Defining ourselves by what we can’t do, don’t do or once did (but no longer) is a terrible way to live at any age, but in old age it becomes a pernicious habit indeed. After all, anyone may have physical limitations at any age. Those limitations needn’t define us unless we invite them to.
Considering what is possible, what we can do, what we’d like to do and what we’ve always wanted to do — now, there’s a set of questions for living a full, rich life, today and tomorrow. An elder who draws wisdom from years of experience and has a well-exercised sense of humor, curiosity and the ability to learn is indomitable, irrepressible and irresistible.
Life brings many things, including devastating loss, injury and illness. Every day we live we’re aging, and every day is a new gift we might choose to receive, or we might turn away and look only at the old gifts, the old days, all that came before when we were younger, better looking, stronger, more hopeful, more innocent.
I know what’s behind me. Some of it was grand and some very painful indeed, but it’s all over, good and bad. Many of the clothes I wore, the thoughts and beliefs I held firmly onto, the meaningful routines and rituals in my life, are like so many dropped leaves, fluttering in the wind of my passing. I have no idea how much time I have left or what’s in front of me, but there’s so much I still want to do! Still, I cling to the past in some ways. I tell myself such-and-such (a lovely, longed-for thing) will never happen again. I say I can’t do XYZ instead of I’ve never done it before and will you teach me how? I feel frustrated and old when I wrestle with a 40-lb bag of bird seed and my back hurts for three days. I can be just as lazy, sulky, resistant and weary as anyone else.
Yet I’m convinced enormous grace lies in aging, if we can find it. I believe aging is full of invisible gifts, insight and strength. I want that grace. I don’t want to miss the last part of my life because I’m refusing to be present with it. I want to take the time to close all my programs and apps and let my psyche and body update and reboot regularly.
Aging with grace is a work in progress. Some days are more graceful than others.
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It’s the first week of the new year, and many of us are pausing to look back over our shoulders at where we’ve been the last twelve months and then turning to survey the path before us, at least as much of the path as we can see. The Internet is awash with lists of how to make new year resolutions as well as lists of why we shouldn’t make new year resolutions. Advertising for buying our way to a new persona is frenzied.
As usual, I’m out of step. I’ve read a couple of great pieces this week, one about the limits of willpower and a list of 13 things to give up for success. I’ve read and re-read them, thought about them, and discussed the first article extensively with my partner. Normally when material like this catches my interest it develops into a blog post, but this week nothing is happening.
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All I can think about is simplicity.
Lists are great. I used to be a champion list maker. They guided my whole life during a lot of complicated years.
Now? Not so much.
I have really simplified.
But the thing about simplifying is how complicated it is.
For example, more than a year ago I stopped shaving. But that’s not where it started. It started with me deciding I was no longer going to please people. But that’s not exactly where it started, either. Part of it started when I decided to allow myself to be everything I am and nothing I’m not.
If I hadn’t given up on pleasing others and limiting myself, I never would have stopped shaving. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do so. Interrupting this lifelong habit never made it onto a list, though it would have been easy to cross off. One decision and it was over.
Making a list of behaviors to discard is wildly misleading, because it doesn’t address what underlies our inappropriate and ineffective behaviors, and that’s where all the ongoing and time-consuming work is.
Pleasing others and making myself small are two lifelong, deeply entrenched habits, and I work every day to make different choices. It’s not easy. I’m not perfect. (Another deeply entrenched habit – perfectionism!) Any distress or inattention results in automatic reversion to my old habits. I don’t expect to ever be able to cross ‘stop pleasing others’ and ‘stop making yourself small’ off a list.
On the other hand, working to change and challenge these two big things allows a whole cascade of smaller habits to loosen and fall away, the kinds of habits that are reasonable to put in a list. Pleasing others and making myself small create an immensely complicated set of actions.
Anyway, one day it occurred to me to ask myself why I shaved.
Answer: Because everyone does. It’s a social rule that women shave their body hair. Hairy legs are unattractive.
The everything-I-am and nothing-I’m-not me: Oh, yeah?
The not-pleasing-other-people me: I don’t think hairy legs are unattractive. All my lovers have had hairy legs. I didn’t mind. In fact, I like body hair. It adds texture and sensation, especially in erogenous zones. I refuse to accept that male hairy legs and armpits are acceptable and female hairy legs and armpits are ugly. That’s ridiculous.
So I stopped shaving.
No more razors or shaving cream to buy and throw away. No more rashes, nicks or razor burn. Less hot water, less time in the shower. Bonus: In wringing humidity and hot weather, the hair on my legs and under my arms helps me cool more effectively. Another bonus: No more microcuts in my armpits. I worry less about health concerns regarding deodorant. A third bonus: Hairs provide sensory information. If a tick is crawling on me, it stirs the hairs on my body and alerts me to its presence.
I still wear shorts and skirts. I swim every week. My partner appears to be able to deal with a woman in a natural woman’s body without fainting with horror. In fact, I don’t think he even really noticed.
Shaving is just one of many examples of things that can be crossed off lists, but before we can get to those, we have to deal with the big stuff, and that’s hard, ongoing work. The big stuff drives the little stuff. Want to get more exercise? Work on keeping your word to yourself. Want to lose weight? Excavate your relationship with food and redefine it (which means change your life and purge your kitchen).
Simplicity is frequently the end result of complex effort.
On the other hand, some of us have a genius for making simple steps unbelievably complex.
Take exercise, for example. Do you want to exercise more? Really? Then set down the device you’re reading this on, put on clothes appropriate for whatever is outside and (here’s the hard part) walk. You don’t need a dog, a buddy, your mate, special clothes, neon shoes, a Fitbit, a step counter, a timer, a gym membership or a piece of expensive equipment. You don’t need earbuds or entertainment.
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Now you’re getting exercise. Do it every day and you’re getting more exercise.
It’s simple. Nike got it right. Just do it.
If it feels more complex than this, it’s not the exercise that’s the problem, it’s some belief or pattern (often deeply buried and unconscious) that’s sabotaging our efforts. And that’s complex!
It’s been very cold here in Maine, as it has in many other parts of the nation. We had heavy snow on Christmas Day. After my daily stint of three or four hours of writing, I wanted a walk, so I layered up and went out into the storm.
Unbroken fresh snow underfoot. One set of tire tracks going up the hill. The chill kiss of wet flakes against the little bit of exposed skin on my face. Wind, and the sound of the trees groaning and creaking and the snow hitting my hood. The sound of my own breath, which condensed on the scarf wrapped around my face, crusting it with ice. My steady footsteps squeaking up the hill. Everything grey and white and shadow.
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Christmas Day, and nothing but swirling snow and breathing, walking, the warmth and vitality of my own life. So simple. So peaceful. So starkly beautiful, and nothing to do but inhabit my body and the day.
In these days, fully in the grasp of winter, life is reduced to the wood stove, hot meals, my daily exercise and my writing practice. At 4:30 p.m. it’s dark. Storm and gale, wind chill and subzero temperatures limit our ability to drive. We delve into our piles of books. The cat snuggles with us on the couch. If the power goes out, we light candles and I’m not displeased. At night, the house pops and cracks, groaning in the cold and the wind. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my feet up and a blanket around my shoulders, I doze off as I’m reading The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures. This kind of extreme cold is very simplifying. Eat. Stay warm.
Simplifying my life has made me happier, healthier and more productive. It’s also been frustrating, slow, unpredictable, unexpected, terrifying and painful. It has not looked like an orderly list on a fresh sheet of paper written with my favorite pen. It would be nice if it were that easy, wouldn’t it? Lose weight. Check. Get more exercise. Check. Spend more time with family and friends. Check. Get more sleep. Check.
Those are all worthy goals, and perfectly attainable, but not by writing a list or making new year resolutions. Changing behavior is a great deal more complicated than that, and creating a life of simplicity is an enormous undertaking.
Boy, is it worth it, though!
Happy New Year to each of you.
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Last week, my partner and I went to the movies and saw Arrival. Without giving any spoilers, I found it a stunning story about communication, among other things. It was the communication piece that really grabbed my attention, though.
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Ever since then, I’ve been thinking in a newly focused and intentional way about communication — what it means, how it looks, where it breaks down and how to do it well.
The truth is, I don’t want to know how to do it well. I want to know how to do it perfectly.
Another truth is I’m always thinking about communication, because I’m always working on my book, on this blog or on relationships, and they all involve communication. My partner says there is no relationship without communication, and I think he’s right.
As regular readers know I am wont to do, I pulled out my Random House Collegiate Dictionary to give myself a starting place. Anyone who’s used a dictionary knows there are often multiple meanings for any given word, so I made a list of the definitions I liked, cut and pasted a little, and came up with this (emphasis is mine):
- To give or interchange information to/with one another.
- To express one’s true thoughts, feelings and moods easily.
- To have or form a connecting passage.
Although I’m intellectually satisfied with this definition, it feels incomplete and inadequate. In fact, it makes me mad. If only effective communication was this easy and simple! Instead, it seems to be one of the most desperately difficult things we do, and we must communicate if we are to manage life in today’s world.
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How many ways does communication break down for us in a day? Are we even aware of all the ways it breaks down? How often are we communicating something completely unintentional?
At the same time, have we ever, in the history of humankind, had so many devices and forms of communication at our disposal? Have we ever had access to so much information and so many other people?
So why aren’t we happier, more authentic, more secure and sure of our worth? Why are so many of us starving for healthy, fulfilling connection? What’s missing?
If I knew, I would fix it in my relationships, but therein lies one of the problems.
This is the part that always sneaks up and bites me in the ass.
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Not everyone wants the level and quality of communication I do. Generally, I don’t take this cold little fact personally, but among my nearest and dearest it does feel personal, absolutely. I feel utterly and completely rejected and shut out, in fact.
Another problem is that not everyone is capable of the level and quality of communication I am. Many people carry terrible damage or experience disability that prevents them from being able to participate in touch, in sex, in eye contact and nonverbal cues, even in conversation. I can tell you from personal experience it can be very, very difficult to sort out those who want to and are unable to from those who simply don’t want to. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it all comes to the same thing. When communication is limited, relationship is limited.
Limitation frustrates me, whether it’s my own or imposed by others. I can do more. I want to do more.
A third issue is that communication is two-edged. It’s an enormously powerful skill and ability, both constructively and destructively. We all know people who use communication as a weapon, not a tool. Sometimes, a simple, ominous clearing of the throat can be far more terrifying and damaging than a blow. Both actions are communication. Even worse are people who deploy words saying one thing and demonstrate action that says another, like the abuser who says he loves you while he hits you. This is called gaslighting, and I’ll write about it in the future. It needs a post all its own.
A fourth point is we don’t have enough silence in the world. Silence is the cup that holds communication. It takes time to write, to create, to speak, to hug, to make love, to nurse an infant. It takes time to nurture a friendship, a lover, a child. Sitting with the ill or dying takes time and quiet. Listening takes time and presence. Our slavery to technology and stimulation has all but eliminated uninterrupted time for our relationships with ourselves, let alone with others.
And that brings up a fifth aspect. If we don’t, won’t or can’t communicate effectively and honestly about who we are, what we need and want and the truth of our thoughts and feelings, we can’t form a connecting passage, to quote the above definition. We’re not even connected to ourselves.
As though all those things didn’t make communication a big enough hairball, we have to remember who we are. We’re human, which is to say each one of us carries stories, beliefs, expectations, memories, scars and bleeding wounds that get in our way every time we communicate, even with (especially with) those we care deeply about. We all have painful triggers. We all get hijacked. We make assumptions. We misunderstand, deny, obfuscate, conceal. We filter through our particular history and experience. Few of us have any training in effective communication. We can tweet or text a sentence or two, but ask us to do more and we’re at a loss. For one thing, we don’t have time to deal with it.
We also have rules about communication, individual rules, tribal rules, cultural rules. We have rules about acceptable language, rules about keeping secrets, rules about being indirect, rules about protecting others, rules about loyalty and duty, rules about privacy, rules about what we’re willing to reveal to whom, rules about who we trust and don’t.
Even the words we choose can make or break communication. Here’s an example out of my own life I’m feeling particularly resentful about at the moment.
I’m a woman, a partner, a sister, a daughter and a mother. I love wholeheartedly and I’m very clear about how important healthy relationship is to me. I know the people I love well, and I try hard to accommodate their personalities, preferences and idiosyncrasies. I’m not Miss Fixit. I’ve no investment in protecting people, and the four men in the world who I love most are unbelievably capable and intelligent adults.
When I say, “What can I do to help? “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “Is there anything I can do for you today?” I’m not implying they can’t manage their lives, dammit! I’m giving a message of love. I’m saying, “I’m here. You matter to me. I’m glad to lend you support. I’d love to collaborate/cooperate/work with you.” I’m making a connection. I’m giving what I most want. Catch me being insulted if someone asks if they can help me figure out how to run the errands, take care of work and cook a meal!
My male partner says, with great patience, that I should use the word “assist” instead of help.
Seriously???? These four idiot men, who know me better than anyone else, need me to tippy-toe with my language in order to hear a message of love and support?
Never mind. I’m over it. Figure out your own damn life, and I’ll figure out mine.
Furthermore, catch me allowing any of them to help me, even though I know that’s connecting for them. They don’t need anything from me, I don’t need anything from them.
See how that breaks down?
And half of that is about me. I’ve been taught to be indirect in my language, I’m giving others what I want myself (this never works well, because the recipient rarely understands that’s what I’m doing), I’m coming across as relentlessly mumsy-wumsy and overprotective, and I’m assuming these four men are like me and won’t ask for help if they need it, but I’m the one who can’t ask for help, and now I’ve fastened myself more firmly in that position because they won’t cooperate with me and allow me to love them, so I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of…
And so on.
My conclusion about all this is that communication among human beings is a clusterfuck. It’s confusing. It’s messy. Most of us don’t know what the hell we’re doing and many of us are not that well intentioned in the first place. We have wildly varying degrees of ability with wildly varying aspects of communication. We try to hide, we misunderstand, we make mistakes, we don’t remember accurately and we’re often terrible at listening. We want to be right, we want to be validated and agreed with, and we want others to meet our needs quickly and perfectly so life feels simple and uncluttered, emotionally, at least.
I’m never going to do it perfectly, and neither is anyone else.
But hey, let me know if I can help you in any way!
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