On the first day of 2021 I joined friends for ice skating.
It was the best kind of impromptu celebration, begun with a generous invitation from one friend and coworker to another to bring her young daughter and enjoy the ice on the water adjoining her property. Then I was asked to come, and another mother and young daughter. The invitation was casual. Not everyone had skates. Masking and social distancing were taken for granted. No one expected to be inside or any kind of a party. No RSVP.
In the end, three adult couples, two children, an ecstatic dog and I found ourselves under a cold, sunny sky on a lake-sized pond. A snowstorm approached; the air bit with cold anticipation in the shadows on the shore, but the sun on the ice welcomed us.
I never heard ice speak before I came to Maine, but it does. It booms and thrums, singing in deep tones that one feels in the bones of one’s feet and legs as much as hears. It’s a primal, otherworldly sound, like whales singing, and it formed a wondrous background for the whole afternoon. Stepping onto the ice was like walking onto the body of an ancient primordial being, an old god of nature. The high, pure tones of the children and barking dog made a cheerful contrast to the resonant lake, frozen into still grandeur.
I have not skated since I was nine years old and have no skates, but I love my friends and their children, and I love this little corner of Maine. I’m also rather fond of the dog!
A thin, bitter layer of snow covered the ice at the shoreline, but where the sun reached it was bare, the ice tea-colored, clear and thick, filled with trapped air bubbles like frozen champagne, cracks running through various layers below our feet.
Our hostess provided the kids with aluminum lawn chairs with frayed webbing, retrieved from a shed by the lake. After their skates were on, they could hold the back of the lawn chairs and slide them along for balance and stability as they gained confidence.
Once the children were deployed with their chair supports, the adults with skates laced them on and slid away. Those without skates walked gingerly out onto the glassy ice to monitor the children.
The dog, a goofy youngster who, between you and me, is kind of a chicken and won’t do more than wade on the edges of the lake during the warm season while his family swims and boats, went suddenly from being the one no one could keep up with on land to having to defend his superior speed and agility on the ice. He raced off happily with a small group striking out for the far side of the lake, his paws slipping and sliding sideways, several inches of pink tongue dangling, ears flopping, tail in the air.
I sat on the dock, my bottom getting numb with cold, watching the kids and adults with them in the foreground and the skaters and dog, reduced to small blots of moving color in the far distance, beyond them.
The kids, in their colorful coats and winter gear, were up and then down, up and then down. They talked. They laughed. They used the chairs and then abandoned them, half collapsed on the singing ice. Adults called out encouragement and words of advice. Determination in every line of their bulky, padded bodies, they slid and staggered, leaned and swayed, made headway and collapsed. They lay with their ears pressed to the ice to hear it speak. They lay with their faces in the sun.
The more skilled skaters returned and joined in the play. Racing from one to another, the dog tried to keep up but was foiled by the more confident skaters’ ability to stop suddenly — without falling! Putting on the brakes, he careened across the ice, all four legs splayed, an expression of consternation on his face. How are they stopping like that?
He occasionally came to me (we’re old friends), panting and grinning, filled with joy and vitality, his chestnut coat soft and warm under my hands, but I was too stationary to be much fun and he was soon away again.
As skates were traded back and forth, another small group set out for the other side of the lake, one of my friends highly visible in the clear air because of her cherry red coat. Again, the dog took the lead, a low reddish blur, running gracefully as long as he didn’t want to stop. They skimmed, moving impossibly fast, while, nearer to me, the children began to stay on their feet more easily and it was clear at least some of the falling was now voluntary. It was like being in a painting by Breugel come to life.
As I watched, joy and gratitude filled me. What a year it’s been, an impossibly difficult, stressful, frustrating year, saturated with fear and loss, chaos and uncertainty, hatred and conflict.
Yet here, on the first day of the new year, were gathered together joy, blessings and beauties that endure: the peace and patience of winter, the tough bonds of family and friendship, the miracle of children, the innocence of play, the delight of the animals we love, the simplicity of sharing. I found tears in my eyes, and I wondered if it’s ever possible to fully express the preciousness of the gift of life in our place with our people.
I forget, sometimes, how unutterably beautiful life can be.
The kids began to get tired, and every parent knows that’s when the potential for tears and injuries starts growing. The ice had stolen all warmth from my feet. We gathered up the forlorn, crumpled aluminum chairs, folded them, and put them away. Snacks and drinks appeared from bags scattered on the dock. A hat came off a small head to reveal hair wet with perspiration. The children sprawled wearily, legs splayed, cheeks flushed, eyes starry.
Someone mentioned hot cocoa.
I was cold, but not ready to return to everyday life. I decided to walk the two miles home. The sun dimmed, the sky turning pearly as the storm approached. I turned down offers of a ride and said good-bye, treading a narrow road climbing up through the trees from the lake. My feet and hands ached with cold, but my face was warm under my mask and wool Buff, and my body and head were warm in my coat and hood. I stretched out my stride, welcoming the uphill walk. The dog followed me for a few yards, but turned back, drawn by the confusion of loading up cars and tired kids.
I gained the public gravel road and strode along, moving up a steep hill, feeling my feet and then hands gradually warm, conscious of and grateful for my ability to breathe deeply, feeling my heart thud in my chest, warmed with happiness and pleasure, and thinking about how to share it all in a post.
I crested the hill, feeling loose and strong, moving into my usual long-legged pace, watching the sky get milkier and milkier and the sun disappear as the edge of the front loomed.
It was good to be home and regain the solitude of my attic aerie. It was good to have a hot meal. It’s good to remember it all now, and put it into words on the screen. It’s good to share, to remind one another and be reminded that life is precious and beautiful and there’s always much to be grateful for. Today the snow is falling and several inches lie on the ice we played on yesterday, but I won’t forget.
I recently read an article from The Minimalists about problems and solutions. The first time I skimmed through it, I thought, “Huh?” and saved it for more concentrated exploration later. It was one of those pieces of inside-out thinking that stuck in my head, like a small rock in one’s shoe, and I puzzled over it for a few days, until I went back and read it with more attention.
I laughed when I reread, because it’s a short and simple piece, but it suggests an unaccustomed way of thinking about problems, especially to someone as goal-oriented and problem-solving as I am.
The idea is that solutions, the magic bullets everyone wants, take our attention away from problems and often compound them. The solution becomes more of a problem than the problem was in the first place.
This phenomenon is familiar enough to us that we made a saying about the cure being worse than the disease. I just never thought past the context of cures and disease before now.
When it comes to solving problems, especially in a consumer culture, toxic mimics are ubiquitous. We’re also in a hurry. We don’t like discomfort. We want a quick, palatable fix, and we want it now. This means we throw solutions at problems without taking the time to understand their full extent and complexity. We feel entitled to instant gratification, and that’s what advertisers promise us.
In the last few cold, dark days of 2020, as most of us look ahead and hope for better things in 2021, it’s a good time to pause and spend time with our problems.
Seriously! They’re with us anyway. We might as well give them some real attention. If we’ve tried and tried to solve a particular problem and gotten nowhere, or made it worse, maybe it’s time to go deeper into it, putting possible solutions aside for a while and just being with the problem. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about loving and living with the questions before living into the answers.
In a lovely demonstration of synchronicity, as I work on this post I’m also reading Holistic Management by Allan Savory. It’s essentially a book about restoring the environment, based on a lifetime of study, experience and success in reversing desertification and building healthy land, but it’s also a framework for decision-making and management of any context, from a household to a community to a business organization.
Defining and understanding as much of the problem as possible is key to managing anything holistically. The metaphor Savory uses is taking aspirin to relieve a headache brought on by someone hitting us in the head with a hammer. Taking an aspirin is quick and cheap, but the real problem is not the headache, it’s the fact that someone is hitting us in the head with a hammer! Taking aspirin does not address the real problem.
This is a simple metaphor, but it’s surprising how often we respond in just this way to the symptoms of problems rather than excavating the root causes and addressing those, which often involves time, patience, learning new information and creating entirely different ways of responding and utilizing resources.
Perhaps this year we could make a different kind of New Year’s Resolution list.
If we have financial problems, instead of trying to figure out how to make more money, we could investigate our relationship with money.
If we have weight problems, instead of trying a diet, we could explore our relationship with food.
If we don’t get enough exercise, instead of buying an expensive piece of home equipment (which I hear make great laundry racks and/or clothing storage), we could take a look at our ability to keep our word to ourselves and our willingness (or not) to self-care.
If we feel disorganized and overwhelmed with our stuff, instead of buying storage space, organizing systems, or looking for a bigger house, we could simplify our lives and shed some stuff.
If we’re lonely and searching for romance, instead of spending time and money on dating platforms, we could strengthen our relationship with ourselves, learn how to meet our own needs, and take a look at our expectations of relationships.
I’ve always thought of problem-solving as a strength, with the emphasis on solving problems. I’m only now realizing the power of simply experiencing problems, patiently and fully, even affectionately, before racing to a solution and applying it as quickly as possible. Could there be more power in the problem than in the solution, at least in the beginning of problem-solving? That possibility makes me smile.
I’ve noticed that I’ve been using the term “unconditional love” in some of my most recent posts. I wondered why. I’ve never thought much about the term, or what it means, until the last year or so.
One of the things I most appreciate about life is the fascinating journey of it all. When I came to Maine, I knew exactly what I wanted. I was sure it was here, waiting for me, the love I’d been looking for all my life.
I was wrong.
Rather, I was not wrong. What I was wrong about was how that love would present itself, how it would look and feel and be expressed. I realize now part of what I was searching for was unconditional love, and it is indeed here.
But it was there, in my old place in Colorado, too. The possibility of unconditional love has been with me every day of my life, and my inability to understand that meant I also did not recognize unconditional love that others gave me.
You see, it had to start with my ability to extend it to myself, and I never was able to do that until recently.
Unconditional love is best defined by its opposite—conditional love. Love is “an intense feeling of great affection (Oxford Online Dictionary).” Conditional love is the intense feeling of affection we give to others as long as they are compliant with our expectations.
In other words, as long as the one we “love” behaves in a manner we approve of, we “love” them. If our “loved” one makes choices, develops beliefs or expresses themselves in ways we disapprove of, we withhold or withdraw our love. Conditional love always comes with iron chains attached to it.
Much of the confusion around what unconditional love is has to do with our individual beliefs about how to express and receive love. “An intense feeling of great affection” can probably be communicated in as many ways as there are human beings, and that’s where the trouble starts. We don’t just want to be loved. We want that love to be communicated in specific ways, or we reject it. We also want to demonstrate our love for others in specific ways they may reject.
A further layer of confusion occurs because sometimes we identify our desire for power, control, codependency, romance and other benefits as “love.”
Conditional love is a manipulative tool used to benefit the one who claims to be the lover.
Unconditional love is a state of being in which love is extended to others selflessly, with no thought of reciprocity or benefit to the lover. Unconditional love is free. It’s not payment of a debt, and it doesn’t have to be proven. It’s a spiritual practice, an offering we choose to make over and over. Sometimes it’s completely invisible and unappreciated. We can unconditionally love people who don’t meet a single one of our needs.
When we think about love, are we thinking more about giving it or receiving it? I admit I’ve spent most of my life thinking about receiving love (or not receiving it in the form I wanted!) rather than giving it. I also admit I haven’t always recognized the love I have received. Further, I haven’t always recognized the difference between toxic relationships and giving and receiving healthy love.
On the other hand, I know a lot about codependency!
I don’t want to admit that unconditional love is impossible to give others if we can’t give it to ourselves, because the truth is I just figured out how to do that and I was a new parent (the parent-child bond is the most important place for unconditional love) 30 years ago. I have never experienced the depth and intensity of the love I felt as a new parent, either before or since, but I’m only now growing into my ability to extend truly unconditional love to my (now adult) children.
When I was a new parent with young children, I took it for granted that the love I felt for them would always be returned in a way I could understand and appreciate. It wasn’t a condition of my love that they do so, but it certainly was an unconscious and deeply-rooted expectation. Since the moment of conception, they were my priority and the center of my world, and I assumed, without really thinking about it, that we would remain the most important, intimate and trusted people in one another’s lives.
My love for them was not and is not conditional. I know that now that I’ve received some brutal and much-needed reality checks! As they have stepped into their adult lives and the inevitable challenges and journeys life brings to us all, I’ve understood that they are not responsible for responding to my love in any particular way, and I’ve also understood the fact of their continuing love for me, expressed in their own unique ways rather than the ways I expect and want!
Our longing for love can be all-consuming, and sometimes we sacrifice everything we are and have in order to find it. Unless we can unconditionally love ourselves, we become absolutely dependent on those around us to convince us we’re loved. Our dependency leads us into pseudo self, self-destructive choices, enabling and despair.
Nothing and no one can replace our love for ourselves. No one can love us and express that love to us in a meaningful way better than we can, not a child, not a lover, not a family member or friend. Our desperate external search is a waste of time and energy. It also exhausts and depletes the people around us and results in a painful pattern of broken relationships. Nothing is more futile than trying to prove our love to someone.
Unconditional love does not mean love without boundaries. It doesn’t mean relinquishing the power to say no (or yes). It doesn’t mean there’s no physical distance between ourselves and those we love. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean we accept abuse or manipulation, or enable destructive behavior.
Unconditional love is clear-eyed; it doesn’t argue with what is. We accept ourselves and others in all our weaknesses, wounds and struggles. However we need to be, we love ourselves through it. However others need to be, it’s okay with us, AND we reserve the right to take care of ourselves, whatever the circumstances.
My practice of minimalism has helped reveal to me my desire and ability to extend unconditional love. In order to practice it, I have to release expectations of myself and others, my grievances and grudges, my scorecards, my pseudo self, and some of my stories and beliefs. I need to give up trying to control others, being a victim or a martyr, or being concerned about what others think of me.
Most important and difficult of all, I must take responsibility for my own needs and choices, choosing to love myself, day by day, unconditionally, because I know I’m doing the best I can in life and I’m worthy of the same compassion, kindness, respect, loyalty and support I give to others.
As adults, it’s not the love and recognition we long for and demand from others that makes us whole, heartful and soulful. It’s the unconditional love we give ourselves that allows us to make positive contributions, shape healthy relationships, and lead effective lives.
We are on the threshold of a new year. We could approach this fresh start with unconditional love for ourselves, for some of those around us, and for life in general. We could release our fears and expectations about the future and retain a simple intention of unconditionally loving whatever the new year brings to us, difficult challenges and changes as well as unexpected opportunities and joys.
I came across a poem by Ursula K. LeGuin (see below) and found it beautiful and timely. The wheel of cycles and seasons has swung around to the resurrection of light once more, and we wish one another a happy new year, each of us with our own hopes and fears for the months ahead.
For much of my life, I equated love with protection. When I became a parent, the vulnerability of my sons added exponentially to my own. In common with many parents, I struggled fiercely to protect them through infancy, childhood and beyond. Naturally, we protect others from what we ourselves most fear. In my case these fears include pain, loss, addiction, abuse and abandonment. I tried to shield my children from those people and experiences that hurt me, lest they be hurt in the same ways.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
Certainly, in the case of small children, animals and others who have no voice or are unable to use it, protection can be an act of love, but I’ve thought for some time now that we carry it too far, especially when we seek to “protect” our perfectly capable adult children, partners and friends. At some point our impulse to protect others becomes selfish. We do not want to bear witness to a loved one’s pain, let alone our own. We do not welcome the responsibility of telling the truth. Protection becomes a pathological means of disempowering others and binding them to us because we don’t want to be alone or the independence of our loved ones threatens us.
To be over-protected is to be without the freedom to develop confidence in our own good sense, strength and courage. We’re never allowed to stumble and fall and we don’t have to figure out how to comfort ourselves, clean our scraped knees and move forward. We over-protect out of fear or control, not love, and our constant vigilance of our loved one or loved ones teaches them fear as well. Fear makes our lives smaller, not bigger.
This new year, I don’t wish you photoshopped health, prosperity and happiness, and I don’t have a list of resolutions I hope will lead me to those things, either.
This year, I wish us each the ability to stand in our own power.
May we learn to love our bodies as they are. May we live joyfully in our skin. Let us teach our bodies new things and work with them to become as strong and healthy as we can. May we allow our bodies to be and to change.
This year, may we make mistakes. May we become lost and confused, and then find our way again. May we find out we’re wrong, and tell everyone. May we be vulnerable, get hurt and heal ourselves.
May we wander far from home without a map and walk a thousand miles, exploring new places and ideas. May we listen to a different kind of music and read a different kind of book. May we do something we’re afraid of.
Photo by yatharth roy vibhakar on Unsplash
Let the new year bring us laughter that makes our bellies ache and tears that fall like warm rain on our anguish. Let us fall head over heels in love with something or someone as though it’s the first time we’ve ever done it and we just know it will all be perfect. Let us make friends with our rage and give it something productive to do. Let us tell someone about our deepest shame.
May we know loneliness, boredom, disappointment and humiliation, and balance them with companionship, engagement, satisfaction and validation.
Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash
May we risk, dare and dream. May we learn to believe in ourselves. Let us burn our candle at both ends. Let us wear ourselves out with living. May we hear our lives whisper and speak our own truths. Let us learn and grow. Let us allow ourselves to be seen and rejected.
May we long for a home, find one, make one and lose it. May we make another and choose to walk away from it. May we learn how to come home to ourselves no matter where we are or who we’re with.
May we let go of our protection. Let us tear ourselves away from it. Let us outgrow it. May we feel what we feel with every cell of our body. May we make our thoughts, emotions, curiosity and creativity big and hold nothing back.
Go out into the sun flood of your life, my friends, my sons, my family, and know that I hold you in my heart. Know that I believe in you. Know that I neither ask for your protection nor seek to protect you, for none of us need it and love is bigger than that.
Go out from me into the new year, dear ones, and if you choose to return, please bring strange things.
Please bring strange things. Please come bringing new things. Let very old things come into your hands. Let what you do not know come into your eyes. Let desert sand harden your feet. Let the arch of your feet be the mountains. Let the paths of your fingertips be your maps and the ways you go be the lines on your palms. Let there be deep snow in your inbreathing and your outbreath be the shining of ice. May your mouth contain the shapes of strange words. May you smell food cooking you have not eaten. May the spring of a foreign river be your navel. May your soul be at home where there are no houses. Walk carefully, well loved one, walk mindfully, well loved one, walk fearlessly, well loved one. Return with us, return to us, be always coming home.
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.
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
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.