Two weeks ago my 87-year-old demented mother fell in her memory care unit and broke a hip for the second time in less than a year. Eight days later she died in a hospital under the care of Hospice, my brother at her side.
Until I sat down to write this, I was afraid I had lost my words, lost the need to write them, lost the ability to form them into meaning. But I haven’t. I’m still a writer. This remains. That’s a relief.
Oh, I’ve been writing. Lists. Notes. An obituary. Texts. Updates to family and friends. Daily journaling. But it hasn’t been creative writing. It hasn’t been this blog, or my fiction. These last two weeks have passed by, the first in a blur of pity and anguish, and the second in numb relief glazed with exhaustion, and I have not posted or published. I haven’t kept track of the days; they spill into one another, as the days and nights blended together while my mother lay dying and we waited.
For a time words have simply been inadequate to relieve the pressure of my feelings in any organized or coherent way. They flew away from me, leaving a series of kaleidoscopic impressions, sensual details so vivid they frightened me with their power.
While my mother lay dying I reread my childhood copy of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham. Reading has also largely failed to sustain me during this time. I find myself unable to focus. I read a paragraph or two, and then realize I’ve been sitting staring into space, out the window or into the garden, not hearing, not seeing, not even thinking. Just sitting. But I needed a companion for the night watches, something comforting and familiar. Something innocent.
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The fan in my window purred during those hours, blowing in cool night air and an occasional moth or mosquito. Every night, when I go to bed, I light a tea light in a candle lantern. When calls or texts reached me, I knew when I opened my eyes if it was before midnight or after, according to whether the candle still burned. Propped up on pillows, glasses on, my small bedside lamp alight, I spoke to Mom’s facility staff, emergency department doctors and nurses. I texted with my family. I read, the well-remembered illustrations making me smile as I communed with Rat, Mole, Badger, and the ridiculous Toad, finding respite for a few minutes before turning off the light and lying awake in the dark room, listening to the fan, feeling my heart beat, resting, breathing, waiting.
While my mother lay dying and after, I’ve stained wooden pallets. My partner and I are building a 3-bin compost system against the back yard fence. We set out sawhorses. I found an old brush, a rag, a stirring stick. We bought stain. I lay a pallet on the sawhorses, brush away dirt and debris, and paint every surface. The raw wood soaks in the oil-based stain, a rich brown color. The brush is more and more frazzled. I’m sloppier than I would be if painting a wall. The pallets are splintery. Some of the boards are split or loose. I bend over, the sun hot on the back of my neck and my bare arms. Mosquitos bite me. Stain drips between the boards as I brush their edges, dappling the sawhorses, falling onto the filthy old cream-colored jeans I’ve been wearing all summer in the garden, and onto my worn-out sneakers, used only for outdoor work now. As I maneuver between the boards, stain smears the skin of my hands and wrists. I kept the phone close, in a patch of shade.
This is the only sustained work I’ve been able to do. Now and then I wash a few dishes. I’ve done a couple loads of laundry. I go out into the garden, note the trimming, pruning, composting, mowing waiting to be done, and turn away. It all feels like too much. I don’t know where to start. It’s impossible to open the garden shed, get the tools, wheel out the wheelbarrow.
But the pallets. I can do that. It’s a simple task, direct. I don’t need to make any choices. Each side takes fifteen or twenty minutes. When I’ve finished a side, I wrap the brush in an old plastic bag, cover the can loosely, let the pallet dry an hour and a half in the sun. Then I turn it over and begin again. Two coats each side. One side after another.
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The smell of stain. The prickly feeling of intense sun on my skin. I think about compost, recycling, breaking down life to sustain new life. I think of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. I wonder if I’ll ever use the compost bins without thinking of Mom. I wonder who names the colors of stain and paint. I chose ‘Canyon Brown’ for this project. I vaguely hear birds, cars passing by. Small groups of women walk by in clumps, hospital employees on their lunch break, talking about families, gardens, school starting, hospital gossip. I should be at work, on that same campus, just a ten-minute walk away. I should be, but I’m not. I’m here, staining pallets, waiting for Mom to die and then on bereavement leave.
Am I bereaved? How would I know? I wonder why I don’t care enough to follow the thought. I let it drift away.
I decide I want to make bread. I don’t eat bread often, so rarely make it any more. But my rosemary is bushy and ready to be harvested, and someone brought fresh home-grown garlic into work to share before … before all this. So I make a sponge, stirring together milk, a little sugar, yeast, water. I chop fresh rosemary and garlic, very fine. I take flour out of the freezer and let it warm. The dough is heavy under my hands, sticky at first and gradually becoming supple and smooth. The earthy smells of garlic and rosemary vanquish the smell of stain in my nostrils. I turn the dough, kneading. The timer ticks off seconds and minutes. I clean the bowl, grease it, use a linen towel to cover it for rising. I put it in the oven for safe keeping, because the cats are likely to lie on it or step in it, or nibble at it if I leave it out. The bread, like the pallets, is a project in stages. I don’t have to focus on any one step for more than a few minutes. I move between the kitchen and the back yard with my phone, not thinking, not planning, just taking the next step, and the next. I can’t remember times, so I write them down. About 90 minutes for the stain to dry. An hour for the bread to rise. Another 90 minutes for the pallet to dry. Another hour for the shaped loaves to rise. Another 90 minutes. An hour for baking.
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At the end of the day, I have two enormous round loaves of bread to cool, slice, and put in the freezer. This batch will last me for a year. I have finished another pallet. I leave it on the sawhorses to dry overnight. My stained hands smell like garlic.
I haven’t cried since the last night call, my brother telling me Mom was gone. Perhaps I cried all my tears before she went. I receive condolences with all the grace I can muster. People talk to me about God and heaven. They talk to me about Mom. They talk to me about their own experiences of death. I try to be gracious. I try to look like I’m listening, like I’m there. With my brother and sons, my partner, I can be real. The faces of my friends comfort me. They don’t need anything from me. They don’t ask for anything. I can see their concern, their love for me, their sorrow. They hug me, and smile. They talk to me about small things, the daily things I’ve lost track of – family, friends, outings, work. I pick up a friend’s daughter and feel almost normal, doing an ordinary thing, a manageable task I cannot fail.
I realize part of my feeling of unreality is rooted in a loss of identity. I catch sight of myself in the bathroom mirror and pause. I rarely look at myself in the mirror. This woman, who is she? She isn’t the disappointing daughter any more. She can’t be, if there’s no mother to disappoint. What else is she? Who else is she? I look into my own eyes and feel no shame, no guilt. Did Mom take them with her? How will I navigate my life without them on my shoulders, without the knowledge that Mom is alone, suffering, needing? For fifty years I was at her side, day and night, year after year, ineffectual, helpless to fix or heal her physical pain, her dysfunction. Feeling my failure, my powerlessness, knowing I more often made it worse than better as time went on, even though she clung closer and closer to me as she aged. She could not release me and I almost waited too long to release myself.
But the geographical distance I put between us brought no real release. She still suffered. She declined, grew confused. Her body aged and began to run down. She was just as lonely without me as she was with me, just as emotionally remote, just as relentlessly needy. She cut herself off from me, but I still carried her. Internally, I still orbited around her. I still agonized for her.
I still loved her. I always loved her. I accepted she could not find me lovable, but it made no difference. She was my mother, and I loved her. All I ever wanted was for her to be well, and happy, but I could not make it so, and in her eyes it was my responsibility to fill her need. Indeed, she told me long ago her physical pain started with her pregnancy with me. I accepted the blame, and was heartbroken, and have tried desperately to make up for it ever since.
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Now Death has come to stop her suffering. Has mine stopped, too? I don’t know. I’m too numb to tell. But I feel different. I feel … released. I prayed for her release and freedom, not mine, but perhaps they were linked. Many times a day I think of her, hear her voice in my head, and I realize with a painful clench of my heart she’s gone. It’s over. I can’t humiliate her anymore because of what I wear, how my hair looks, what I do, who I sleep with, or, most of all, what I write. She’s moved beyond humiliation. I can’t fail her anymore. And that’s a soaring, joyful, unbelievable thought. I can’t fail her anymore.
I wonder if I’ll finally feel good enough, if I’ll do a good enough job, live a good enough life. Might I simply enjoy my small talents, my joyful work, my community, my garden? Might I immerse myself in the loveliness of life without the gnawing guilt of knowing I’m happy when she’s not, I’m companioned when she’s not, I’m relaxed and rested and peaceful when she’s not, I’m laughing when she’s not?
The last couple of times I spoke to Mom, I told her it was okay to rest now, she could let go, be at peace. We told her her loved ones and animals were well and happy, and she could relax.
I told her, and I meant it. Was I telling myself, too?
She could not release me, yet I am released. Did Death break the chains when he gathered her in? Or now, at last, have I released myself, now that she’s moved entirely out of my power and knowledge?
As I write this, it’s Wednesday afternoon. I have finished another pallet. I have written. I have sat in the sun, read a paragraph or two at a time of an old Edna Ferber novel, rested my eyes on the garden. The lily stems are turning dry and brown, as are the leaves. Sunflowers bloom. The sun is hot. The phone has been sitting on my kitchen table all morning, silent, as I go in and out. I have balanced my checking account, scheduled a private swim lesson in a home pool, ironed a tablecloth and three napkins. Tomorrow I go back to work.
A new page of my life has turned. I can’t read it yet. It’s enough to sit with it in my lap, letting my gaze wander over blue sky and afternoon clouds, the garden, our old cars, the worn wooden boards of the porch, the bruise on my left knee, the mosquito bites on my right arm, the smears of stain on my hands. It’s too bright in the sun to read this new page, too hot, too much effort. I’ll read it later.
I dare to be at peace.
Daughter’s Dream (July 2014)
I dreamt I carried my mother.
The car had slipped out of her control
with a blind will of its own,
and I thought I knew she shouldn’t be driving.
We landed in water.
I swam to her and held her in my arms.
Then the water was gone.
I carried my mother,
but she left my embrace,
slipping free of her embattled flesh.
Irrevocably, I felt her go.
I was alone.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
Empty beds stood all around me
but the sheets were disordered and dank,
Smeared with shit.
I carried the vacant body of my mother.
There was no clean place to lay her down.
I carried the vacant body of my mother,
seeking to slip into my own freedom,
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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.
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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.
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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!
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I noticed a social pattern last week I’ve never seen clearly before.
I was involved in a situation at the pool facility where I work in which a distressed person (person #1) needed support. The situation did not arise in a private place, and there were onlookers. It continued for about 30 minutes, which is a long time when someone is visibly and audibly struggling with pain and grief.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
The situation resolved, of course. We cannot fix the challenges and difficulties others face, but we can be with them while they feel their feelings and lend our strength, compassion, and energy until they can move forward. My team and I provided the needed support.
A few minutes later, a witness to the interaction (person #2) attempted to monopolize my attention and monologed about their pain, medical history, and personal difficulties.
I had completely different reactions to these two circumstances.
I have never known the first person to engage in attention-seeking behavior. On the contrary, in spite of significant disability person #1 is generally upbeat and determined, working very hard to gain strength and independence and supporting those around them who also face physical limitations and challenges. When things fell apart it was an anomaly, my empathy arose immediately, and I stepped in without hesitation or thought. I entered into their experience as fully as I could with nothing held back, completely focused on support.
In the second case, person #2 was no better or worse than usual, and is much more able than person #1 at baseline. While other witnesses had expressed compassion for person #1 (“that could be any one of us”), person #2 did not, but launched into a harrowing personal account that felt both competitive and demanding. I was wet (I’d gone into the pool in my clothes), cold, and emotionally worn out, as well as sad about the difficult experiences some people go through. I felt I was expected to supply more emotional energy, not as a temporary support on a bad day, but as a continuing source.
I silently declined, putting my empathy behind a boundary to rest and recover, and employed my usual level of compassionate listening. After a few minutes, I politely excused myself and moved away.
We’re all familiar with the adage about the squeaky wheel getting the grease. These interactions made me consider the failing wheels that do not squeak. Years ago, when I did fire and rescue work, I learned the loudest victim of an accident is probably not the most seriously injured. The person in hysterics clearly has an airway and a pulse. It’s the quiet victims one needs to assess first. This is true of drowning victims, as well. If a drowning victim is yelling for help, they’re in less immediate danger than the one sliding silently below the surface.
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I’m one of the quiet ones. Stoic, mistrustful, often blaming myself for my own distress, I conceal it as best I can for as long as I can. I’m much better about asking for what I need than I used to be, thanks to my extraordinary group of friends, but I can relate to the one who is in deep emotional trouble and needing the most support and never asking for it. Pain and grief build up in the silence of our own heads and hearts. Our wordless anguish swells until it finds some kind of an outlet, and that outlet can be messy and humiliating.
I vividly remember being a school kid in a classroom. I was frequently bored. Some teachers allowed me to read or gave me extra credit or advanced assignments when I’d finished the assigned work, but some did not. I watched the clock while students who struggled with reading read aloud. I gritted my teeth. I daydreamed. I did my homework. I refrained from raising my hand, even though I generally knew the correct answer. I ignored the whispers about being a “goody-two-shoes” and a “teacher’s pet.” I continually defended against my neighbors trying to copy my work. I watched in resignation as the “squeaky wheels” acted out, floundered academically, and otherwise consumed all the teachers’ energy and attention. If allowed, I read a book. If not allowed, I read ahead in my textbooks. Anything to make the time go by. Of course, if I read ahead I only invited more boredom in the weeks ahead. My teachers said I was a “good kid,” I was a “pleasure to have in the classroom.”
I was not and am not a squeaky wheel. I was invisible. I could have learned so much more. I wanted to learn so much more. But there was no leftover grease. The squeakers and squealers got it all. Every day.
I know people who are comfortably well-off financially (comparatively) and are always talking about money, trying to make more money, dreaming what they would do with lots of money, blatantly pinching pennies to save money, gloating over the money they have, using their money to manipulate others. I know other people who are quite financially distressed and never complain. All their energy goes into working to earn more and doing without to spend less, but they don’t talk about it. If I didn’t know, I’d never know.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
It’s an interesting social paradox that those among us who are most in need are sometimes the quietest about it, while attention seekers fight to remain center stage under the brightest spotlight. Yet the attention seekers frequently are the least able to utilize support and validation in such a way as to build self-reliance and independence. They crave the attention, but it doesn’t satisfy. They can’t use it effectively. It only feeds their hunger.
Others can transform with a little bit of care and attention. They use every kindness and expression of support to move forward and grow. They don’t want to be dependent on external attention.
We all need support sometimes. Any wheel can develop a squeak. Some people want support all the time and some wheels squeak continually no matter how much grease they get. As we make choices about investing our time and energy in our relationships, it’s important to know the difference.
Fear. It’s so mundane. It’s so extremely powerful. It’s such an extraordinary tool for manipulation.
Rhone asserts faith is frequently more powerful than facts. I might have doubted this once, but after the last four and a half years I agree. We continue to play out the conflict between those who are fact- and science-based and those who are not, especially in social media, steadily becoming more divided and disconnected as each side polarizes further.
We are evolved to experience feelings, and fear in particular is an important evolutionary advantage.
I think of faith as a spiritual connection, and we’re evolved, as social, conscious beings, to connect. Connection is a primary human need.
It seems to me a balance of faith, fear, and facts is optimal for navigating through life.
Where does the balance go wrong?
It goes wrong when we deify a misinformed or dishonest person. When we misplace our faith, in other words. We accept someone’s version of reality, their ideology, their beliefs, without question. Sometimes we do it because we believe they have power we need. Sometimes we do it out of fear. Sometimes we do it because we have no self-confidence; we feel powerless to think and learn for ourselves. Sometimes we do it out of misguided compassion.
The balance goes wrong if we fear our fear and are unable to manage it. Fear becomes so consuming we’ll do anything for relief, including refuse to deal with facts that scare us.
So we develop faith in something – anything – that makes us feel better and relieves our fear.
Perhaps our problem is not literacy, or education, or access to resource, or discerning fact from fantasy, but simply our inability to cope with fear.
During my lifetime, I’ve watched our culture become increasingly inauthentic as we consumers demand more and better ways to live in a fantasy world. Role playing games, superhero movies, digital image manipulation, porn, virtual reality tech and special effects allow us to sink into illusion.
Over Memorial Day weekend I did an experiment. I installed a free hidden objects game on my laptop to see what it was like.
It was a big file and took several minutes to download. When I opened it, it covered my whole screen, corner to corner. I couldn’t see my task bar or clock. There was no obvious way to exit; I used the Escape button. The graphics were colorful, animated, attractive, and interesting. A pop-up suggested I use headphones to fully experience the sound. Constant pop-ups urged me to join social media communities playing the game. Constant pop-ups advertised other games (paid) I could play, or pressured me to purchase tools and tokens that would make me a better, faster, more successful player in the “free” game I downloaded.
Free, yes. Want to compete successfully? Want to win? Now you have to buy things!
By the way, if you play every day you get extra points!
The game was cluttered. It provided constant validation and reinforcement. The characters were good-looking, well-dressed and Caucasian. Beautiful food and drink, jewels, and true love were heavily emphasized. One collects points and objects and advances in levels. You don’t have to search for what you need, though, if you’re feeling fatigued. You can simply buy what you need.
The puzzles were timed, of course, which made them a lot less fun for me. Although one plays alone, the competitive aspects were continually reinforced.
The reviews of the game say things like “Beautiful!” and “Addictive!”
Because, you know, addiction is a good thing.
I played for a couple of hours. During those hours I didn’t invest in health, happiness, resource , resilience, or my own power. I wasn’t present in the real world.
I also didn’t think about climate change, politics, my job, or getting the car into the shop for brake work.
My feelings were numbed. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t anything else, either.
When I exited the software, I felt as though I’d eaten a bag of jelly beans. I uninstalled the game Tuesday morning.
Have we become a culture that favors illusion over real life? Do we prefer fantasy, as long as it makes us feel “good,” entertains us, or distracts us? Do we prefer being led and manipulated to thinking for ourselves and forging our own paths?
I feel sad and scared after this experiment. If we don’t choose to live in the real world and deal with facts, we have no hope of solving the challenges and problems facing us, from maintaining our cars to managing climate change.
Fear helps us survive. The feeling tells us we must take action. If we refuse to feel fear, or respond to it, we will be deselected.
Facts can be inconvenient and unpleasant, but refusing to deal with them is like refusing to deal with fear. They don’t disappear if we deny them. Nothing can be solved or learned if we refuse to acknowledge facts.
Reality endures. Truth and clarity are powerful. Illusion lies. It might be seductive for a time. Illusion might pretend to be power. In the end, however, it’s empty. It only takes and weakens. It enslaves us, confuses us, and steals our power. It increases our fear while pretending to relieve it.
Faith is a choice about where we put our trust and confidence.
Four years ago someone said to me “women and children should be behind the shield.” The impact of that statement was like a kick in the gut. I was shocked by the way the words made me feel; a tidal wave of fury, grief and despair. It was so overwhelming I didn’t poke at it right away, but ever since then I’ve been playing around with the idea of shields, my version of circling around a potentially dangerous object with twitching tail and ears pricked, curious but wary.
Photo by Bogdan Kupriets on Unsplash
A shield is a piece of personal armor used to actively intercept specific attacks. Traditionally, shields varied in size, shape and thickness and were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. Shields have probably been around as long as we have.
A shield implies protection.
I think my initial reaction to the phrase “behind the shield” was painful because of my fierce, primitive longing for the kind of protection and safety that image implies to me. I’ve always been hypervigilant and concerned with identifying safe places. I know where the exits are, physical and emotional. I maintain bolt holes, if-the-sky-falls plans and a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency.
Because my own anxiety and fear have been such sources of private and mostly hidden anguish, I’m extremely sensitive to others who suffer in the same ways, either specifically or generally. In the days when I was doing volunteer fire and rescue work, I frequently took the role of lying on the highway in the glass, spilled gas and ruins of a vehicle calming and reassuring a trapped victim, monitoring a pulse if I could get to a pulse point, explaining what was happening as we tried to extricate, establishing responsiveness and orientation and taking a history while the fire department deconstructed the car around us and the EMTs and paramedics passed me pressure bandages, a blanket or anything else that was needed and we had room to use.
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash
In short, I give others, animals and human, the kind of calm reassurance and protection I’ve always craved myself.
It might be this longing is buried within all of us, a kind of deep and primitive desire to return to the ultimate safety of the womb or a longing for the in-arms experience every baby needs and has a right to receive. Except that the womb is not always safe, and many of us do not get sufficient in-arms experience as babies. It might be that I’m uniquely broken in this, but I doubt it. I suspect much of our irrational and destructive behavior has to do with trying to feel safe, sheltered and loved, including sexual and behavioral acting out and addiction.
In any event, my desperation to be shielded motivated me to become a willing shield for others. This adaptation was greatly assisted by being female and then further strengthened when I became a mother.
Photo by James Pond on Unsplash
I never thought of myself as a shield. It never occurred to me such a role was a choice. I defined myself as a protector, a nurterer, a figure of maternal and female strength, a life-giver and a peace maker. I thought of myself as a good woman. I automatically placed myself between the harsh edges of the world and those I loved. I protected my husbands and partners from the necessity to deal with anyone else’s needs (including my own) and threats to their egos (including me). I protected my sons from the immaturity and selfishness of my husbands and partners. I tried to protect people from their mental and physical pain, from the consequences of their choices, from their own feelings and from any other irritation, hurt or harm.
Shields were originally made to protect from specific kinds of attack, but I tried to shield others from all kinds of danger: blade, arrow, blunt weapon, words, pain, consequences, inconvenience, feelings and worry. I was determined to be a perfect shield for all my loved ones.
Predictably, I failed, and nobody likes a shield that fails. I regularly heard about my inadequacy.
No one ever suggested to me that I protect myself, and no one invited me behind their shield, even for a rest. I approached every relationship with a craving to be taken care of, to be held, to be loved. I believed in romance and part of romance certainly included being taken behind the shield of some kind, competent man. If you’re thinking this was needy and dangerous behavior, you’re right. Somehow, I always ended up with one more person in my life I needed to shield, instead of the other way around.
The inability to trust and the craving to be protected and cared for can tear a woman apart. I’m certain there have been people in my life over the years who wanted to give me safety and security, but I refused to let anyone get that close. I don’t want to rely on anyone. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. At the same time, I’ve spent much of my life working happily with children, animals, in hospice and as a first responder.
For a long time I thought if I could get a good enough job and earn or save enough money I’d be safe, but I was wrong about that. We live well below the poverty line, but I feel safer now than during any other time in my life. I’m also less concerned about money than I’ve ever been before. Money is not safety. I also thought if I could just find the right home I’d be safe. I found the right home and discovered that wasn’t the solution, either. Wrong again.
Since I came to Maine, everything has changed. Now I live in a situation that does not require constant emotional labor. I live with an adult who does not need or expect me to protect him. I have found reciprocal relationships.
This morning, as I went about my daily breakfast routine, it occurred to me that I’m no longer looking for a shield to crawl behind. The need for safety doesn’t drive me now. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by safety. What is the threat I’m trying to protect myself from? Aging? Poverty? Being unloved? Abuse? Getting my feelings hurt? A blow to my pride? Abandonment? Betrayal? Internet trolls? Loneliness? Crazy people with guns? Illness? Death?
Yes. All these and more. And most of these have already happened, some more than once, or are happening right now.
In spite of that, I’m okay. I’m better than okay. I’m great. I’m resilient. I believe in my ability to survive and thrive. I don’t mind aging and I’m not afraid of death. I’m emotionally intelligent and I understand power dynamics. I’m as safe as anyone, and a lot safer than millions.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
I have my own shield now. I made it (without knowing what I was doing) out of dragonfly wings, cobwebs, stardust and the sound of bats flitting around my head in the dusky barn on their way out to hunt. I made it out of integrity, passion, dance, laughter, creativity, ritual and spirit. There’s room behind my shield for others to rest, breathe and make shields for themselves, but I’m not spending my days searching for those in need of such a shelter. I can’t make a shield for you or even my most beloved to carry. I can’t keep everyone or anyone safe. I can’t shelter the world.
The only person in charge of my safety is me. The only person I have a responsibility to keep safe is me.
I am not a shield. I don’t have to take the blows or go to war. I don’t have to buffer, neutralize or ameliorate the experience of life for others. I don’t have to prostitute and beg in order to be dragged behind someone else’s shield. I made exactly what I need for myself, and no one can take it away from me.
Knowing I have what I need, I’m no longer approaching interactions with others from such desperation to be cared for. I still don’t like to ask for help, but I’m practicing doing it anyway. I’m much better at taking care of myself and no longer put the needs of others before my own. I’ve developed useful coping mechanisms that help me feel safe.
Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash
We all construct shields emotionally, intellectually, behaviorally and with our choices. None of them really protect us from our fears or the experience of life. There is no way to shield against generalized fear and anxiety. It’s counterintuitive, but the best path I’ve found to feeling safer and more secure is to drop my armor and open my arms to my fears. I don’t know why that works, but it does. Monsters are ten times larger when I’m running away from them. When I run toward them they shrink before my eyes, and sometimes they even run away from me. That’s why I build my shield from things like iridescent hummingbird feathers and milkweed fluff. It won’t stop a harsh word or a bullet, but I carry with me joy, wonder, awe, mystery and beauty. My shield is a story of love and a story about what makes life worth living. It reminds me to stand tall and unafraid, looking life in the eye, confident in my ability to endure, heal, laugh and learn.