I’m living inside this poem right now:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
–Percy Bysshe Shelley
I want to escape this haunted place, walk away, never look back, forget, and wander among green trees, feeling their breath on my face. I want the blessing of the rain on my skin, to plunge my hands into rich soil, lie open to birdsong and the sun’s touch.
I want to be free.
Yet, again and again, I find myself crouching in front of that shattered visage, tracing the frown, the wrinkled lip, the sneer of cold command, unable to leave it or look away. I remember, and weep, and try to understand how something so mighty, so powerful, can fall and break apart, become nothing more than a colossal wreck in a desert in an antique land, unvisited, unremarked, nothing but time’s debris.
I was born in the shadow of those stone legs. I watched the sculptors at work, perfecting, shaping. I learned to worship Ozymandias, to make myself small before him, to endure his stony displeasure and indifference.
I did not know his name for a long time, not until I read this poem in high school. He was called Money. He was called Status. He was called Power. He was king of kings – that I never doubted. He required unceasing sacrifice; though I sacrificed everything I had, the sneer and wrinkled lip looked down upon me in infinite contempt. I looked upon his works and saw destruction and anguish. I saw lies and shattered lives and I despaired.
By Wei Gao on Unsplash
I left. I crawled away under the weight of my own inadequacy and unworthiness, across the lone and level sands, feeling his stone gaze upon me. I left, and one day I got to my feet and walked, and then I remembered how to dance, and swim, and the world opened up for me, showing me friendship, healing and joy.
Then, across the years, across the miles, Ozymandias fell, and the ground of my being has shuddered and convulsed with the impact ever since.
Understand, when he fell it all fell. Secrets lay revealed. Lies tumbled naked in the desert sun. Ozymandias, so carefully sculpted by generations before me, disintegrated. I understood then what I was taught to call Money was really named Fear. Status was in fact Shame. The wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command were not love, were never love. The king of kings lay forgotten, impotent, slowly wearing away to sand.
“Look on my works … and despair.”
It’s all gone, the gods of my childhood, the king of kings, the money, the status, the false power.
Except for me. I am not gone.
In Maine, I eat and sleep. I journal and write. I walk to work, talk to people, laugh, teach. I sweat on the elliptical and exercise in the pools. I pay bills, make plans, file papers. I buy groceries and cat food. I do laundry and clean. I work in the garden. I’m distracted and absentminded, prone to sleeplessness and unexpected fits of tears welling from some deep unaware place. Or, on the other hand, maybe that place is all I’m truly aware of right now.
I talk and text and email to staff at the memory care center in Colorado where my mother resides, to her hospice team, to people at the agency we’ve now hired by request to provide extra caregiving. I hear about dementia, combative behavior, falls, sabotaged bed alarms, incontinence, sleeplessness, anxiety, medication adjustment. I am called to calm Mom down as though that was ever possible, as though she trusts me or ever took any comfort from me.
And part of me kneels in the desert, watching the family money (a mere pittance, judged by today’s standards rather than those of 100 years ago) and pride, that towering edifice more important than love, more important than health and happiness, more important than anything, sink into the desert like water. Is the desert powerful enough to cleanse it? Shattered Ozymandias still frowns, wrinkles his lip, sneers his cold command, but his works have disappeared even as he himself wears away.
Do I grieve or rejoice? I try to understand. I try to feel something more than despair at the waste of lives, at the dearth of love.
One thing I know: I will not stay here, beside Ozymandias. It’s a cursed place, a dark place. I will leave it to the circling vultures, the sun, the wind, and the silence. I will leave it to Time to wear away the sneer, the frown, the wrinkled lip, the trunkless legs. I left once, and I will leave again. I know this desert is a small place and the world is wide. I know who I am now. I know what love is, and that I’m capable of it. I am no longer alone.
I would have saved my family if I could have, but my gifts have no monetary value. What I have to give, what I am, cannot be bought or sold. I do not accrue a good rate of interest. I was not judged a sound investment. I did not increase my family’s status. Ozymandias, king of kings, was incapable of seeing or knowing me, being far too dazzled with his mighty works, dissolving now into sand while I myself, still vital and alive, pause to find absolution and mourn, groping for a way forward, watching it all decay.
- What idols have fallen in your life?
- What family secrets have you discovered?
- Do you find comfort in the eventual fall of what once seemed all-powerful, or does it frighten you?
- How have you challenged your family’s definition and expectations of you?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Regular readers will know I struggle with money. The first time I wrote about it was here. About three months ago, I came across a creative prompt suggesting inviting Money to dinner and seeing what happened. I wanted to engage with it. I didn’t want to engage with it. I didn’t delete the article. It’s been sitting in the bottom of my Inbox sneering at me all these weeks. Finally, I decided to play with it …
I’ve unwillingly invited Money to lunch. She suggested it three months ago because she wants to see my new house. I’ve avoided it, tried not to think about it, even forgotten about it for days at a time, allowing the layers of my life to gently cover it, but then it shows up again, a small piece of grit in my psyche.
Finally I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to get it over with. She’s not going to get tired of waiting for me. She wants to see my new home, and she wants to have lunch. I can’t deal with the silent demand and the weight of her expectations any longer.
After all, it’s only a lunch, right? Two hours at the most.
Having made up my mind, I decide what will work best for me. I feel resentful, railroaded into doing something I don’t want to do. Why can’t I just say no and feel okay about it? Why do I feel I have to do this? I hate the feeling of being pushed, being badgered, being emotionally manipulated. Most of all, I hate how much I care about what she thinks. I hate my fear of her judgement.
Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash
I don’t want to do this. I really, really don’t want to do this.
But I feel I have to. I can’t possibly tell the truth. It’s lunch, for God’s sake. Why do I make such a big drama out of everything? What’s with the dread? Why can’t I just be a normal person, get it over with?
I eat alone, so my round, glass-topped table is small and there’s only one chair. I’ll bring another chair in. Which would be most comfortable for Money? She’s a small person. The second chair is an antique, but it’s not as sturdy or large as the one I always sit in. Would it be a subtle compliment to give her that chair, or is it too old-fashioned to be comfortable and welcoming?
I can’t put flowers on the table because the cats will destroy them.
I have cloth napkins that match the tablecloth I’m using; that’s good. That looks nice.
My kitchen, where the table is, needs work. We haven’t been in this house long. The kitchen is outdated and battered, the formica countertops stained and pitted. The stainless steel sink has old drips of paint in it I can’t scrub away and haven’t taken the time to tackle more resolutely. The refrigerator is too big and partially blocks the pocket door into the bathroom. The litterboxes are tucked under a bench along one wall near the door leading to the entry; I don’t yet have a good place to set up the cats. Their food and water are on a boot tray on the floor in the kitchen. The floor is lovely old pine with wide boards, scratched, scarred, stained.
I try and fail to see my home, my kitchen, my kitchen table, through another’s eyes. It so clearly needs work, but, to my shame, I don’t have the money to get the work done. I may never have the money to get the work done. Yet I’m grateful to have a roof over my head, and this lovely old house as a refuge from the world. I love it. I don’t want to have to defend it or feel ashamed I can’t give it the care it needs right now. It’s clean, at least.
New Home, May 2022
Since this invitation was not my idea, and Money is not a friend, I don’t feel I must make a meal. I basically eat meat and high-quality animal fat. I don’t have the time, skill, or money to make an elaborate meal. I’m afraid to make something simple, like a big beef stew. Whatever I do, I’ll feel it’s not good enough. We agree, Money and I, to get a to-go order from a local restaurant. That way, if she’s disappointed, it’s got nothing to do with me. I make sure to insist I pay for my own order. I don’t want any favors from her.
I know the cats are going to be on the kitchen counter, in the sink, walking across the stovetop. It’s what they do. There’s no way to keep them off the counters. Believe me, I’ve tried it all. One of them will probably choose the time we’re sitting a few feet away to have a big, stinky BM in one of the litter boxes with lots of noisy scraping and covering while we’re eating. Then they’ll jump out, scattering litter across the floor, come into the living room adjacent to the kitchen, and scoot their dirty bottom across the carpet and try to cover that. I’m mortified, just thinking about it. Do I pretend it’s not happening, like when you’re talking to a cute guy and your leashed dog squats to take a dump? Do I get up from the meal, scoop out the litter box, spray the scoot mark with stain remover and sponge it away while it’s still fresh and visible? I can keep them off the table, at least, while we’re sitting there eating. But there might be cat hairs.
Who am I kidding? There will definitely be cat hairs.
What will we talk about? That one is not so hard. I’m good at drawing people out. Most people love talking about themselves. A few good questions can get the ball rolling and I can stay safely concealed.
When Money arrives, I greet her at the door, hoping she doesn’t notice the rotted sill and threshold, the damaged door frame, and the fact that the outside door has gaps underneath it large enough to admit a squirrel in search of winter housing. I take her through the lovely, shabby, wood-lined sun porch, another door that has clearly been kicked in at some point, and into a narrow little hallway leading to the kitchen door. Everything is clean, swept, mopped, scrubbed. I give Money the tour of my living space. The cats come to investigate. (Does Money even like cats? I don’t know. I don’t want to know in case the answer is no. If she doesn’t like cats, one is sure to jump in her lap.)
Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020
Money has picked up our order. I gather cutlery, plates, glasses. We sit down to eat. I am nervous, tense. The last thing I want to do is eat, but I do. I ask a couple of questions to get her talking and we chat in between bites. I wait for the curled lip, the sneer hidden within polite words, the fleeting contemptuous expression on Money’s face I know will be coming.
Money’s fingernails are unpainted. She’s wearing plain gold hoops in her ears. She’s dressed in unmatched leggings and a sweater. No makeup. I realize I expected something quite different …
And then my flow dried up and I came to a sudden stop, realizing I expected, in fact, my late maternal grandmother, who was always made up, bejeweled, well-coiffed, and wore little designer or custom-tailored (in Hong Kong) skirts and jackets and high heels. I expected her gold watch, expensive perfume, perfect manicure, and big, heavy rings. I expected her vivacious social cocktail chatter (gold monogrammed cocktail napkins). I expected her small brown eyes to turn mean, to tell me to act like a lady, to use my napkin, to keep my knees together. I expected the Jekyll-and-Hyde experience of watching her flirt, even when well into her 80s, and smile, and bat her nearly denuded eyelashes, still thick with mascara, with every male in the room and then the sharp little knife buried in a smiling comment or an aside about my looks, my conversation, my choices, and my behavior.
Gram, as we called her, had money. A lot of it. She was widowed young, inheriting considerable wealth from my grandfather. When her daughter, my mother, was divorced with two young children, Gram financed the family. By which I mean she demanded invoices, receipts, and bills, and gave Mom just enough to cover things and no more. No allowance. No lump sum. Mom had to ask specifically for every penny. Gram made her grovel. It was an exercise in humiliation. When Gram came to visit she hounded Mom about her marriage (Gram hated my father), her divorce, her stupidity and bad judgement. Mom went back to school to get a degree in order to get a job and support her children. We became latch key kids. I was assigned to care for my younger brother; we both were assigned to care for the animals, though the horses were sold during the divorce, taking the core of Mom’s happiness with them and leaving only bitterness and grief behind.
Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash
Every night, after I went to bed, I listened to Mom cry while she sat at her desk in her bedroom down the hall and dealt with the bills and finances or did coursework. I was often hungry because I felt guilty about eating food Mom would have to ask Gram to help pay for. I was 11 years old. Yet Mom remained loyal, thanking Gram for her grudging support, telling everyone how lucky we were to have her mother, who loved us, to help out. I don’t think she dared do anything else. Mom cared for her mother until the end of her life, when she died in a nursing home in her 90s.
Only one time did Mom break down in front me. “I’ve never pleased that woman one single day in my life,” she sobbed. It was true. She didn’t. And she tried every single damn day. I never pleased Gram a day in my life, either, but I didn’t try. I did not love my grandmother.
That moment of truth was never referred to again. By either of us. I’m sure, had I tried to talk about it later, Mom would have denied saying it. The world, especially her male relatives, saw Gram as charming, entertaining, gregarious, and generous. She could be all those things. But could also be abusive, toxic, selfish, and manipulative. She became (I discover), in my mind, the face and personification of Money. Money weaponized. Money withheld. Money rather than love or true connection. Money as a tool for power, control, and shame.
Every dollar of “help” Gram gave us was, as far as I was concerned, soaked in Mom’s blood and tears.
So, I’ve had a difficult relationship with money. Surprise, surprise. This exercise revealed to me the roots of my self-sabotage and conflicted feelings about “success,” which in my family meant plenty of money. In many ways I feel very successful, but I’ve always struggled financially. The work I’ve done and loved (being a librarian (yes, I have a degree); working with animals, children, the elderly; teaching swimming; lifeguarding; working in the public school system; working in hospitals; storytelling; and medical transcription) are not high-paying jobs in terms of money. The work of my heart, writing, has so far not earned me a single penny. All this contribution, all this creativity, all this love and care for animals and people and books, doesn’t count and is a matter of shame because I haven’t made much money. How sad and messed up is that?
My car is falling to pieces. My house needs work. I buy clothes at thrift stores. I’m a minimalist. I could use more money. I hate to admit it, but it’s true. It would help. A lot. But it wouldn’t fix everything I struggle with in life. I’m clear about that, too. And money is not love or success. Money is a tool, one I’ve mostly refused to consider learning to use. So I haven’t. What’s the point? I don’t have any! I’ll never have any. I don’t want Money to come to lunch because it’s wrong to need it and I do. I’m certain I don’t deserve it, because I’ve failed the family expectations, but I need it. Convoluted. Tricky. My personification of money in this exercise exposes a lifetime of shame about needing money, or any other sort of support or resource, to be honest. Which is ridiculous. Because the less money I have, the more I need it. And the more ashamed I feel. And so on.
At the same time, I’m proud of my contributions to the world. I’ve loved all the jobs I’ve had. I like to work. I like to volunteer. I have no plans to retire. I’ve been richly rewarded for my service in far more important and meaningful ways than monetarily. I’m proud of my self-sufficiency.
But those things won’t pay down the equity loan or fix the car. They won’t pay my bills.
Maybe I’ve never clearly seen Money at all, because I can’t look past my grandmother. Maybe Money doesn’t wear her face, but another I’ve never glimpsed. Maybe it’s time to grow up and out of that old anger and rejection of anything Gram stood for …
So this is the story of when Money came to lunch.
- If you imagine an issue or feeling you struggle with as a person, what would that look like? What issue or feeling would you start with?
- What feelings are attached to your experience of money?
- How do you define success?
- What contribution are you most proud of? Is it the one that made the most money?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m pausing. It wasn’t, I hasten to say, my idea! However, after an interesting and stressful concatenation of events I’ve decided to embrace the opportunity to pause.
It all started with a wonderful post from one of my favorite Substackers, Lani Diane Rich. It’s titled “Emotional Ex-Lax.” Honestly, how could anyone not go look at that post?
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash
The post suggests an exercise in blind journaling. I journal daily, first thing in the morning, with my first cup of tea. I don’t go on line first. I don’t work in the house, or start breakfast, or make my bed, or clean the cat boxes. I feed the cats (because if I don’t I won’t be allowed to sit peacefully and journal). I pee. I turn on one low light. I heat water and make tea. Sometimes I put on very low music. Sometimes I light a candle or two. At 5:00 in the morning there’s nothing going on. Darkness presses against the windows. Nobody needs anything from me. I’m free, and something of sleep’s twilight lingers. I sit with my laptop, open a new document, and start typing. Every month I delete the last month’s journal entries. I never look back at them. They’re for no one else’s eyes. It’s an entirely private space.
If, for some reason, I miss this time with myself, I notice it immediately. I’m not as centered. I feel more anxious. I feel more stressed. If I can’t get to a word processor, I journal with pen and paper, and then destroy it.
I never thought of blind journaling, though.
I recognized resistance. As I peeled the resistance away, I discovered the roots of it: perfectionism. That made me mad. I’ve worked so hard to uproot that toxic growth, but I never seem to get it all eradicated. It’s like bindweed, that bane of gardeners. Out in Colorado, where I used to live and garden, bindweed choked the dry landscape. Its roots can grow 6 feet deep. Any attempt to dig it up or kill it above ground merely encourages it. It grows fast. Herbicides don’t work. Its folk name is ‘Devil’s guts.’ A perfect description.
I think about perfectionism as bindweed.
Even as I journal, I edit. I correct spelling. I make sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes I even cut and paste. For a journal no one else will ever see and I won’t read again. For a journal document I’m going to delete in four weeks. If I blind journal I can’t edit as I write.
It won’t, God help me, be perfect. It won’t even kind of be perfect. I’m a good typist, but I make mistakes. Sometimes the cursor jumps around. Sometimes my sentence structure is poor.
So, naturally I made up my mind to try blind journaling, to challenge my perfectionism if for no other reason.
I chose a day off and journaled the usual way for a bit, then set a timer for 20 minutes, shut my eyes and blind journaled. I thought I was already emptied out, but wow. I was in full flood when the timer went off, and it felt like I’d only been doing it for five minutes. I loved it. I knew I was making mistakes (which I refused, by the way, to go back and fix!), but they didn’t interrupt my process. I just kept going, never looking back, never losing the thread of what I was saying. No visual distraction whatsoever.
I didn’t want to stop.
Well!, I thought. This will be a fun thing to blog about.
Izzy & Ozzy; Fall, 2020
I picked up my 16-ounce cup of tea, pomegranate green this season. Our little calico cat, Izzy, who had been snuggled in her favorite position in my armpit, woke up and decided she wanted to be in my lap where the laptop was. I pushed her away. She came back. I pushed her away. She started chewing on the upper corner of the screen, an obnoxious habit she has. I pushed her away with more irritation this time. The tea I was holding slopped onto the keyboard. I cursed, wiped it away, tipped the computer and let it drip out. I got a couple of Q-tips and dried around the three or four keys that got splashed. I sat down again to go back to my peaceful morning journaling.
The computer died.
I plugged it in in case the battery was run down, but I knew it wasn’t. I let it be for an hour, then tried to turn it on.
When the computer store opened, I got in the car and took it over. Mark, my computer guy, shook his head. I left it in his capable hands.
Now my quiet day off, in which I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything but noodle around at home, had turned upside down. My serenity fled. My excitement about starting a rough draft of a post on blind journaling withered. I couldn’t pay bills and deal with money, always a major stressor. Speaking of money, replacing my laptop would cost over $1,000. And what would repairs cost? And how much money do I have in savings? In checking? I couldn’t check! Panic until I remembered my cell phone is connected to the Internet. I couldn’t write, at least not with a word processor.
But none of that was the worst thing. The worst thing, and I’m completely mortified by this fact and would prefer to hide it from both myself and the world, was I couldn’t play solitaire!
Photo by Jack Hamilton on Unsplash
This realization was so unwelcome I longed, craved, itched to play a few games of solitaire and “think about it.” Except that’s a lie. I wanted to play solitaire so I could numb out.
I roamed around the house, restless, wanting to crawl out of my own skin. The day I had looked forward to suddenly seemed dull and endless. I didn’t want to read. I didn’t know what to do with my anxiety. I started waiting for the phone to ring with news of my machine.
I did eventually get a grip but I recognized the symptoms of withdrawal from an addiction, and I didn’t like it. I kept myself busy with several tasks I’d been putting off. I cut greens I’d gathered with a friend a few days before and decorated for Yule. I pulled out a notebook and continued journaling, off and on, long hand. It gave me a sore hand, but it helped. I told myself I could rough out a blog post long hand, too. But it was probably not worth it. I’d have my laptop back by the end of the day. Probably. Maybe. Wouldn’t I?
I set aside the budget and a couple of bills I’d just received and weren’t due for a week or more. I tried not to think about money, or scarcity, or money.
Not thinking about money – la, la, la-la – fingers in my ears and eyes squinched shut.
I tried not to think about my email piling up. I read some of it on my phone, but the screen was so small it wasn’t much fun.
I thought and journaled about how busy I always feel, how often I hear myself say I’m tired, how overwhelmed I feel. I’ve been telling myself feeling overwhelmed is natural. I work; I run a blog and a Substack page, publishing on both every weekend; I’m writing another book; and now I’m co-manager of a long-distance situation in which a loved one is recovering from a broken hip and sinking into dementia. I anticipate making the long trip from Maine to Colorado and back again at some point during the holiday season, running the gauntlet of weather, travel complications, crowds, and various respiratory viruses. Oh, and spending money I don’t have. Especially if I have to replace my laptop.
Of course I’m overwhelmed.
Yes, said a snarky little voice in my head, “and how much time and energy does it cost you to play solitaire in all the pauses, cracks, and crevices of your life? What about visual stimulation? What about your problem with speeding? What about your anxiety? You’re not helping your anxiety, you’re feeding it!
The day passed and the computer guy didn’t call. The next day was a work day. Normally I would have been working on posts for the weekend ahead. I was beginning to feel behind. If I didn’t get the laptop back I wasn’t going to be able to post. Less than perfect. Inconsistent. Letting my readers down. Everyone would probably unsubscribe. Even if I got the laptop back, the weekend was going to be tight. Starting from scratch on Saturday morning for Harvesting Stones and on Sunday morning for Substack takes a lot of hours out of my weekend, when I also run errands, clean, do laundry, cook for the week ahead, and take care of business I haven’t had a chance to do during the week.
And I was already tired. Already wanting those two days off, not to fill up, but to relax in. Could the solitaire really be feeding my anxiety rather than calming it, I wondered?
Yes, your solitaire habit is feeding your anxiety. You know it.
At the end of the day, I called my computer guy. He informed me my machine was disassembled and he’d been running a fan on it night and day. He didn’t know if it was a goner or not; he wasn’t going to put it back together and plug it in until he was sure every molecule of water was gone. He told me, rather pointedly, he’d call me.
OK, I thought. I won’t post this weekend. Nobody will care but me. I’m allowed to take a weekend off. I read all kinds of people who take frequent breaks and pauses. I don’t think any the less of them for it; in fact, I admire their self-care and confidence.
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
Friday happens to be my nine-hour day at work, so I wouldn’t have used the laptop much that day in any case. I gritted my teeth, used a computer at work to catch up a little, and tried not to worry too much. I never play solitaire at work, so it was my third day without it.
Meanwhile, I made and received long distance calls from the facility where my loved one is recovering physically and wandering mentally. I finished the book I was reading and started another. I journaled a lot in my notebook. I played with the cats, giving them my full attention, which felt nice. I noticed what I was eating and enjoyed the taste of my meals, unusual for me. I savored my tea more. I wrapped a few Yule gifts and got them in the mail. I did some cleaning. I exercised. I put on an old movie and did upper and lower body resistance training in front of it rather than playing solitaire.
I slept well. I felt less exhausted. The inside of my head was quieter. I even took a nap, a thing I don’t normally do, as playing solitaire is “resting.” (Uh-huh. Whatever you say.) My anxiety ratcheted way down. I had a couple of crying jags, but they passed and I felt relieved rather than more upset when they were over.
I had more time.
I have more time because I’m not writing without my laptop, I thought.
“No. You have more time because you’re not playing solitaire in all the cracks and crevices,” said the snarky voice.
On Friday, while I was at work, my laptop was resurrected and my partner brought it home. What saved its life, I am told, was there was no sugar in the tea. Who knew?
By Friday evening, when I returned home from work, I’d made some decisions:
- No more solitaire.
- No more liquid in close proximity to the laptop.
- Take the weekend off. Really take it off. No pressure to post and publish. No solitaire. Embrace the pause. Make it last. Feel about things. Think about things. Be present.
All weekend I had the half delighted, half guilty feeling I was playing hooky. I ran several errands. I journaled on the word processor. I dealt with receipts, bills, accounts, the budget. I did some cleaning and laundry. I read. I listened to music. I watched a couple of movies and exercised. I played with the cats. I texted with a friend. I talked to my loved one and their nurse in Colorado. I made a new recipe for a pork shoulder in the crock pot which made the house smell like citrus, garlic, and herbs. I read several inspiring pieces from the Substackers and minimalists I follow. I started making notes for this post, which flowed into writing a rough draft.
It was a good weekend. It didn’t feel too short or too rushed. I didn’t feel pressure or anxiety. I slept well.
I’ve realized it’s time to make some changes. It’s a good time of year to reevaluate and do that, right? I didn’t set out to do it, but once it was forced upon me I realized I’ve been running a little faster every day for a long time, feeling a little more tense and anxious, and needing a little more numbing to manage it all. I’m grateful I was forced to stop. I’m going to start moving again, but in a different way, with slightly new priorities and without the damn solitaire!
(“You’ve finished the post!” says the snarky voice. “You’re way ahead this week. Wouldn’t you like to relax, play a game of solitaire, and celebrate?”
Oh, shut up!)
What’s your favorite numbing activity?
On a scale of 1 (hardly any) to 10 (all), how much of your power does it have? Are you uncomfortable about the level of power your habit has over you?
Does your habit increase your anxiety?
Does your habit decrease your focus?
Have you ever formally kept track of the time you spend doing your favorite numbing activity?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
One of my favorite filters through which to make choices is the question: Who benefits if I do this? Who benefits if I don’t do this?
It’s a deceptively simple question on the surface. Most of the choices we make in an hour, a day, are unconscious. We don’t take the time to think about them. We go with our instinct or impulse, we take the path of least resistance, we default to our familiar routine, we choose the most comfortable thing. Pausing to think our choices through slows us down and makes us uncomfortable.
Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash
Unconsciousness is so much easier!
Last week I wrote about making choices, paths and no-paths, trying to navigate my life journey according to what works best for me, makes me happiest, and creates a life true to my particular values rather than doing what everyone else seems to be doing and following the most trampled trails. You know a lot of trash gets left beside the most heavily used roads, right?
I make many choices out of fear. I suspect we all do, but I won’t presume to speak for anyone but myself. In fact, I’ve posted about fear-driven choices before on this blog, years ago. Interesting, how we can spiral around and around in life, going a little deeper with each iteration.
Let’s take, for an example of a fearful choice, our own personal economic situation, whatever it is. If we are afraid to keep our accounts balanced, budget, open our bills, call a plumber, or commit to some kind of savings account, who benefits? Seriously. It’s a real question. Who benefits when we avoid dealing with our financial situation?
Any lender or business entity who charges interest or late fees benefits. Our bank benefits in overdraft or returned payment charges. Capitalism benefits if we don’t manage our spending habits and can’t resist advertising. Nameless, faceless institutions and corporations benefit from our fear. It’s in their best interests to complicate, obfuscate, create pitfalls and loopholes, offer “deals” and “sales.”
Who benefits when we put off dealing with a frightening physical sign or symptom, or facing an addiction? Both situations have the potential to get much worse, more frightening, more deadly, more expensive. So who benefits when we choose to deny, avoid, ignore what’s happening?
Who benefits when we sabotage ourselves, when we don’t choose to live according to the highest expression of who we are? Who benefits when we silence ourselves or allow others to silence us? Who benefits when we refuse risk, vulnerability, passionate creativity, joy?
I have never made a fear-based choice that didn’t eventually come back around and bite me in the ass. Most of us know the feeling of “what was I thinking?” Making the easiest or most seductive choice in the moment can mean years of cleaning up consequences and eventually having to revisit the original choice point and try again, hopefully with more wisdom.
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And if we do circle back around, fear is still there. What if I get it wrong again? What if I fail? What if I can’t do this one thing I want to do more than anything else? What if the other kids laugh at me? What if I miss out on what everyone else is doing? What if this is my last chance?
“What if …” is nearly always the voice of fear, and it frequently stops me in my tracks. I can think of ten ways every choice might be the wrong one. All my demons throw a party and I’m stuck, locked in the bathroom without a friend or a way home while listening to them smash up the furniture..
Why do I make choices that benefit my fear? According to Oxford Online Dictionary, fear is a feeling arising from the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
A feeling arising from a belief. Contrary to the increasing fanaticism and extremism infecting our culture, a belief is not necessarily true. We can and do change our beliefs.
Belief is a choice.
As for the feeling of fear, we are psychobiologically wired to feel it because it’s a survival mechanism. Our ancestors felt it and effectively responded to it; if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here.
Feeling fear is not the tricky part. What we choose to do with the feeling is. Do we use it as the good tool it is, or do we let it stop us, take away our power, keep us imprisoned?
More than that, do we feed it? Do we choose to benefit it?
If we allow our fear to take over our lives, as opposed to harnessing it to keep ourselves whole and healthy, who benefits?
No one and nothing but our fear.
Do we want to benefit a feeling based on a belief?
When I look at the world around me, that seems like a dark, well-trodden path with a lot of trash left beside it. I don’t see that particular path leading to any true connection, opportunity, or healing.
It’s not what I want. It’s not what I choose to do.
There’s enough fear in the world without me adding to it or enabling it, even in my small sphere.
Fear is for taking immediate, life-saving action. Or for weighing the pros and cons of a risky activity or choice. Or for directing our attention to a potential threat, a real threat, like the stranger peering in our window, not a belief.
We can benefit from our appropriate response to fear. Let’s not allow fear, or anyone manufacturing it, to benefit from us.
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Now is the path
of leaving the path.
And we hear our own voice
demanding of ourselves
a faith in no-path,
when there is no faith at all.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
I sit in my favorite grey-green overstuffed chaise, a pillow at my back, a cat curled in a cat bed behind me on the back of the chair, my laptop on my lap with a slim volume of poetry by David Whyte titled Fire in the Earth next to my leg. A bookmark indicates the above passage. It’s a chilly, grey day. As I sit here the furnace hums and stops, hums and stops, keeping the temperature around 60 degrees. This house we bought in May has a brand-new propane hot water furnace, supposedly the most economical and efficient available. This week is the first time we’ve used it. What will propane cost this winter? Will electrical costs spike as much as predicted? Will it be a cold winter or a mild one?
Always, this question in my mind: “Will I be able to manage economically?”
Enlarging my own personal bubble, I ran errands this morning. A haircut from a friend, during which we talked about the coming winter, how costly it might be, how cold it might be, how effective foam and cloth barriers like rags and old blankets might be in chinks and cracks around doors and windows. How can we hold in the heat, keep out the icy fingers of cold reaching for our paychecks?
I went to the town dump with the recycling, plastic and cans. Does all this material really go for recycling, or is it quietly disposed of in earth or ocean somewhere out of sight? I try to have faith that is really is recycled. Eggs are cheaper when I buy 18 in a carton, but the carton is plastic. But the plastic is recyclable. Maybe. If they actually do it.
This is the kind of thing that preoccupies my mind. A lot.
The furnace clicks on again. How much would I save if I turned it down just 2 degrees?
After the dump, I went to the store. I bought a couple extra jars of salsa, a couple extra pounds of butter. I’ve read about the climate-change decimated tomato crop this year and to expect shortages. Ditto butter. I bought a turkey on sale. It’s early, but I’ve read turkeys will also be in short supply. Every time I go to the store, I’ll buy a tomato product for my pantry, a pound of butter for the freezer.
Enlarging my small city bubble, maybe the projected shortages aren’t real. Maybe it’s all hype, designed to keep people spending as recession fears rise and prices climb. Maybe we can’t believe anything we read or hear from anyone. It’s like standing on the beach in bare feet, feeling the waves pull the sand away from beneath my soles, the sand of common sense, the sand of objective reality, the comforting, warm sand of sanity and critical thinking. Maybe the tide is too powerful, the waves too forceful for most people to withstand. Maybe, by the end, we will really believe in … nothing. Our individuality will be erased. Art, science, and thought will be exterminated. Our lovely sexuality will be neutralized and sterilized. Our magnificent bodies will be surgically altered according to our whims or the dictates of the totalitarians in charge and, if possible, amputated altogether from our increasingly narcissistic and developmentally arrested minds.
From the bubble of my chair in this moment of solitude with my fingers on the keyboard to the world. It’s a grim journey.
I feel increasing pressure to bring in more money. More hours are not possible right now at my job. Another job? Two other jobs? I’ve sold everything I can. I budget every penny. How much of my anxiety is based in real conditions and how much is my longstanding fear of scarcity and tendency to catastrophize? Is it not a job I need, but to GET A GRIP?
I can’t tell. Ask me when heating season is over.
Of course I could get a side job. It’s what a normal person would do. Need more money? Find more work. But is that the right thing for me to do? (I do still claim the right to think for myself.) Would the extra money be worth the time, the energy, the fatigue? I don’t want to live to work and earn. I’ve never wanted that. I’m nearly 59 years old. If I don’t take care of my excellent health, I may not get it back. Is an extra couple of hundred dollars a month worth the strain?
Photo by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash
I’d love to earn my living writing, but I believe it’s a less and less realistic dream. Traditional publishing is dying. Soaring costs and shortages, not the least of which is paper, are forcing change. Very few writers live by their writing alone. Very few. Many do earn some income from it, however.
I love books. I also love trees. If I must choose between a book in my hands and a tree, I’ll read on a digital device for the sake of the tree. Even now I never buy a new book, only used. I write – and people read what I write – on two digital platforms, this WordPress blog and Substack. Should I be monetizing those rather than searching for another job?
I’ve been having that internal conversation for years.
Would I rather avoid asking for donations or putting up a paywall and clean houses or something like that? Anyone can clean. No one but me can write what I write.
I recently picked up a couple of used books of David Whyte’s poetry. The first poem in the first book I opened contained the above excerpt. I was sitting outside in the weakening sun when I read it a couple of days ago. I put the book down and cried.
Oh, Mr. Robert Frost and his road not taken. The well-traveled roads. The less well-traveled roads. The once travelled but now overgrown roads. The paths we tread, following others, and directed by others. The faint game trails that peter out in the wilderness. The well-paved roads and paths that lead to Hell. And now Whyte asks if it’s time to leave the path altogether. Not only that, but to have faith when I have none. Faith in the no-path.
And aren’t we there, at the no-path? Civilizations have collapsed before, but not as the planet was undergoing its own collapse. Well, maybe that’s not right. Maybe in eons past it’s all happened before – relatively abrupt climate change, enormous die-off, cataclysmic geological and oceanic reshaping, and reemergence into a new normal, healthy, planetary system.
If there were paths humans could tread through all that, they’ve been lost.
But let’s make the bubble smaller again. I can’t choose your path, or anyone else’s. Is the right path for me the no-path? The money path is clear. Work more, spend less, have more money. We all know it. Most of us have walked it. It’s well-signed and well-traveled. There’s an equally well-signed and well-traveled path into theft, fraud, extortion, etc., but none of those are options for me, so let’s not complicate matters.
What’s the no-path? Oh, that would be the writing. Always. Whatever our creative work is, it takes us on to a no-path, because creativity is unique. We’re always breaking trail, one way or another. We may follow, for a time, the paths of others, or intersect their trails, but we’ll make our own unique track, worn by our footsteps as we go along, unrolling in front of our feet, existing only because we turned off the main road into a no-path … and made a path.
Faith in a no-path when there is no faith at all. What a strange, dream-like, impressionistic phrase, balancing on the edge of holy foolishness and divine wisdom. It would take a poet of Whyte’s caliber to – well, to take that path.
Right now I’m pausing, considering my options, thinking, feeling, reading and writing my way forward. I don’t have a map for these times. Does anyone? Perhaps faith isn’t necessary, just determination and choosing the next step.
Wherever we go
we can only take a step from here.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
It’s good to be reminded of the no-path. The six-lane highway we’ve been following has led to climate change, increasing political and social tensions, and worldwide social and economic instability. Who knows where a no-path might take me; it could hardly be much worse. At least it would be my own path, chosen by me. My feet would define it, my choices shape it. My sweat. My challenges. My journey. No guarantees, but no lies, either. Lonely, perhaps, but I’m no fan of doing what everyone else does, just for the sake of it.
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Or maybe it’s not a question of travel at all, at least not all the time. Maybe it’s a question of standing still, like a mountain, like a tree. Standing still is an art we’re losing as a species. Maybe there’s nowhere to go and nothing to do; everything is just as it should be, no matter how uncomfortable or fearful. Maybe I have enough.
Maybe I am enough.
And standing still,
saying I, and the small vision I have
-is enough, becomes the hardest path of all.
–David Whyte, from “Millennium”
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