I’ve been resting in this pause between solstice and the new year. Although I made a conscious choice to set aside everything I could, it was uncomfortable to let this blog lie fallow. On the other hand, I have not been inspired to do much more than manage day-to-day life.
I’m grateful to have moved into new holiday routines after decades of feeling imprisoned by obligation and duty to my fractured family and making Christmas meaningful and fun for my children. Gone are the days of huge, exhausting meals, tight schedules, trying desperately to please everyone at my own expense, spending much of the holidays in the car traveling between homes, and tired, overstimulated children. Not to mention tired, overstimulated me.
Now I focus on Yule, on the deep, introspective peace of winter and long nights, withdrawing into my cozy home. I engage in the rituals I love: candles, simple decorating, making a double batch of Spritz cookies with my cookie press to share, and welcoming the return of the light.
Photo by David Monje on Unsplash
This year we had a tropical storm the week before Christmas with high winds and torrential rains that flooded our town and, indeed, the whole state. We were without power for 48 hours. The lack of electric light (or electric anything else) fit in well with Yule, though we got very cold. We were also trapped; every bridge in the area was closed and the Kennebec River, which winds through our town, rose 30 feet, which is 15 feet above flood stage. Between flooding and downed trees, we were unable to leave our immediate neighborhood. Most businesses closed. The ones that stayed open (with generators) quickly ran out of everything. Our neighbors loaned us a butane camp stove so I could heat water for hot drinks.
As soon as the power was restored I ordered a propane camp stove.
Life rolls along, whether I’m posting or not.
This morning, as I lay in bed waking, I heard snow plows in our neighborhood. We’ve had more rain here, and clearly sometime during the night it had changed to snow. As I moved around the kitchen, watching the sky lighten and the snow fall, cooking breakfast, sipping my first cup of tea, enjoying glowing candles, my thoughts drifted.
Impossible to avoid end-of-year lists and reviews and new year resolutions, hopes and fears this time of year. I generally am uninterested. I’m content to let the old year diminish and recede, particularly this one, which was especially difficult personally. I don’t enjoy new year resolutions, mine or anyone else’s. None of us know what the new year will bring and many of us look ahead with some trepidation and anxiety; I don’t need to exacerbate mine by making or consuming predictions. What will come will come and we’ll have to cope with it.
I will be 60 this month. Impossible. Incredible. For the first time in my life, I’m daunted by a birthday. Generally, I hardly notice them. I’m annoyed by my discomfort this year. I’m determined not to focus on it, but I keep seeing it out of the corner of my eye.
I asked myself a question as I moved around the kitchen this morning. If I could have anything for my birthday, if I could make one intention for the year ahead, what would it be?
It’s easier to think about what we don’t want, isn’t it? I reviewed my current challenges and anxieties, watching the pewter sky and the snow becoming less rain and more flakes as the temperature dropped. I flipped the bacon, gave the cats another half a can of food so they would get out from under my feet. The pipes in the radiators creaked and popped as the furnace turned on.
The word ‘simplicity’ came into my mind. I turned it over. I thought about what brings me joy. I thought about candles, reading a good book, the warmth and weight of a cat in my lap. I thought about a cup of hot tea. I thought about music, the rhythm of swimming, being with people I love and trust. Sitting in my comfortable chair with my weighted blanket, just breathing. Peace. Stillness. Light and shadow. Long nights. My warm bed. Hot showers. Solitude. Privacy. I thought about my current laptop background. A perfect illustration of simplicity:
I thought about what I don’t want. The endless complications of being nice, pleasing others, fawning to stave off violence and pain. Clutter. Bright lights, noise, demands. Busyness. Obligation. Duty. Feeling hounded, imprisoned, criticized, judged by myself and others. Too much talk. Racing the clock.
I thought about boundaries. Inconsistent boundaries, badly maintained, easily breached; and strong, smooth, tough boundaries, well-maintained and consistent. Unapologetic.
I thought about the simplicity of ‘No’ and the complications of ‘No’ followed by five minutes of cringing apology and justification, or the inability to say ‘No’ at all.
‘Simplicity’, I decided, named my longing.
When I consider the first 60 years of my life I mostly see the unending labor and anguish of caring for others, the years of trying and trying, as only a woman who loves can understand, to love them all. To please them. To make them happy and healthy. It was complicated. Noisy. Chaotic. Bloody. Painful. Extremely expensive in terms of my own health and happiness.
And frequently thankless. Rarely reciprocated.
That’s what I thought I was for, to live that way. I was taught that was what I was for.
In the last few months I came across a little mantra which has become something like a prayer permanently nestled in my consciousness:
I am enough.
I choose my life.
I trust myself.
Sixty is a nice, round number. How would it be if I chose to begin again, now, with just myself; my own self-care, which is simple and easy? What if I chose to embrace the discomfort and power of maintaining strong, consistent boundaries and let people react to them however they need to, making their feelings none of my business? What if I stopped apologizing for what I need because it’s not what they need or understand or want?
What if I made up my mind to choose the simplest thing, the most direct, honest answer, the clearest communication in any given situation? What if I stood up for myself the way I stand up so readily for others?
Maybe 60 years of responsibility for everyone around me is enough and I could choose to spend the next 60 years (!) being responsible only for myself.
What a relief!
I don’t tell myself living more simply will be easy. It won’t. Boundaries, (I’m never allowed to forget) are invariably heavily challenged and battered by those who have the most to gain by us having none. Maintaining boundaries means conflict, a thing I dread and have always avoided as much as possible. It means emotional manipulation, the most painful (and successful) weapon those close to me can wield against me. It means Failing To Please. It means controlling my natural empathy, focusing it inward rather than outward, being more present with my own internal state rather than that of others.
Simplicity. What a lovely intention.
Photo by Das Sasha on Unsplash
Here’s a deep winter wish for you all:
May You Grow Still Enough
May you grow still enough to hear the small noises earth makes in preparing for the long sleep of winter, so that you yourself may grow calm and grounded deep within.
May you grow still enough to hear the trickling of water seeping into the ground, so that your soul may be softened and healed, and guided in its flow.
May you grow still enough to hear the splintering of starlight in the winter sky and the roar at earth’s fiery core.
May you grow still enough to hear the stir of a single snowflake in the air, so that your inner silence may turn into hushed expectation.
by Brother David Steindl-Rast
- How did you spend your holidays? Did you spend them the way you wanted to or the way you had to?
- How do you feel about new year’s resolutions?
- What single word names your deepest longing?
- In your view, how do self-care and selfishness differ?
Leave a comment below!
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For several weeks the depth of snow has limited my ability to walk on our 26 acres. Last week we had a couple of inches of rain that arrived with the scent of the sea and tropical warmth, followed by a hard, fast freeze. The rain melted a great deal of snow and we had flooding. The sudden freeze created a hard crust on the remaining few inches of snow, and as we returned to subzero winter temperatures I decided to see if I could get down to the river.
Photo by Vincent Foret on Unsplash
The crust supported my weight — sometimes! Other times I broke through and floundered up to my knees, the icy rind bruising and scraping my lower legs in spite of long underwear and heavy canvas pants. I saw tracks of deer and moose, rodents and birds in the snow. The river, ice encased, had thawed slightly and flooded during the rain, so the cracked ice was piled in slabs. In some fissures I could see open water. In other places thin new ice had formed and old, yellow ice lay flat but spiderwebbed with cracks.
As I stood next to the river catching my breath and marveling at the power of winter, I could hear the voice of the ice. It’s an odd sound, because it comes from beneath one’s feet rather than the sky or the world around. The ice pops and groans, sings and mutters and snaps. It’s a wild, unearthly voice, a chorus of cold water, cold air and cold crystals, the medley of flowing, living water and rigid winter armor. I wondered what it sounded like to the creatures hibernating in the river bed and the beavers in their dens.
The trees here have voices as well. When the wind blows they creak and groan as they sway, and their branches rub together, making a classic haunted house rusty hinges sound. In the deep winter when it’s very cold, sap freezes, expanding, and the trees explode with a sound like a gun going off. Sometimes they split right through the trunk.
So many voices in this world. Every place has its own special choir, every season its own song. The sound of a beetle chewing bark, the Barred owls calling to each other in the snow-bound January night, the agonized shriek of a vixen calling for a mate on a February midnight of crystal and moon, and the barely discernible high-pitched talk of the bats as they leave their roost at dusk are all familiar voices to me.
I’m a seeker of voice, a listener, partly because I’m a writer and partly because I know what it is to be silenced. Our world contains so much pain and suffering, such unimaginable horror and injustice that my compassion is frequently overwhelmed. I cannot staunch the wounds and wipe the tears of the world.
But I can listen. I can bear witness. I can stand and wonder and marvel at the wild ice, the mating owls, the hunting bats and also the handful of people in my life. For a few minutes, I can encircle another with my presence and attention, allowing their voice to speak freely, truly and fully. I can choose to have no agenda about the voices of others, no expectations or judgements.
I can also give that to myself. It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve reclaimed my own voice. That, more than anything, is why I began writing this blog. Once a week I sit in front of a blank page and write in my true voice. Blogging, for me, is not about validation or statistics. It’s not about trying to please anyone, creating click bait or competing. It’s about contributing my voice because I am also here, not more important but as important as anyone else.
Using our voice does not require a listener.
Listening to the ice and the world around me has allowed me to realize, for the first time, how deeply I’m committed to appreciating and supporting authentic voice. My appreciation is a thing apart from agreement or disagreement with what I hear. Speaking our truth is not a matter for criticism. It’s an offering of self, and listening without judgement is an acceptance of that offering. I feel no need to annihilate those I disagree with.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The dark side of voice is the voice that deliberately drowns everyone else out, the voice that silences, controls and distorts our world and our sense of self. The voice that deliberately destroys is an evil thing, a thing afraid and threatened by the power of others. Dark voices throw words like a handful of gravel in our faces.
An essential part of self-care is learning to recognize, minimize and/or eliminate our exposure to voices we experience as destructive or silencing. This is boundary work. Note the difference between appropriate boundaries and dropping an atomic warhead. Healthy boundaries do not disrespect, invalidate or silence others.
I wonder what the world would be like if all criticism, jeering and contempt were replaced with “I hear you. I’m listening. I believe in the truth of your experience. You are not alone.” What would we be like if we gave that gift to ourselves?
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
And what of lost voices? I don’t mean unheard or unremarked, but those voices who spoke, faintly, for a moment, and then were silenced so brutally and completely no one but the silencer heard their last cry. Such a person lives, breathes, walks, eats and sleeps, but he or she is a shell mouthing superficial words. Attempts to draw close, to understand, to share authentically and elicit a true voice in return are all in vain. The phone is off the hook. Silence and deflection are the only response. No one is at home. Love and listening count for nothing and behind the mask is only emptiness. Connection is denied.
How many voices can we truly hear? The world is filled with a cacophony of sound made by billions of people. Even here in the heart of Maine the voice of the river is punctuated by traffic noise. We all seem intent on increasing our exposure to voices via social media, 100 TV channels, streaming, downloading and YouTube. Does all this clamor make us better at listening and honoring voices? Can we listen to our child, our mate, the TV, and read Facebook all at the same time?
Some people say they can, and perhaps it’s true. What I know is I can’t. I don’t want to. I don’t feel listened to when I’m competing with other voices. I can’t hear myself when my day is filled with racket and din. I can’t extend the gift of presence to 100 friends on Facebook. I can’t discern between an authentic voice and a dark voice in the middle of uproar.
Voice is precious. It’s sacred. No created character lives in our imagination without voice. Silencing voice is a horrific violation. I have promised myself I’ll never again abdicate my own voice.
Honoring voice, yours, mine, theirs, and the world’s.
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except where otherwise noted
Last week I came down the steep stairs from my little attic aerie, sat in a chair in the living room and cried while I asked my partner if he thought I would ever have a less effortful experience of life.
It’s not that anything was really wrong. What I was feeling was an old, familiar feeling of trying to manage my life and myself as efficiently as possible and feeling worn out and unsuccessful.
Photo by Bradley Wentzel on Unsplash
Trying. Manage. Efficiently. What am I, a machine?
I was tired that evening, and worried about diminished workflow and subsequent diminished paycheck. I wasn’t seeing a way out of my work/income situation, which is a place I’ve been in for several years.
One of the things I did last week during a work shift devoid of work was join She Writes, an online community for, obviously, women writers. I’d been procrastinating about doing so for a long time.
For years, I’ve been trying to find a writing community, both locally and online. I’ve joined a professional local organization, but their programs are rarely offered up here in Central Maine, as Portland is their headquarters. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to find beta readers for my first book. I put up an invitation to start a writer’s group at the local library and didn’t get a single call. I tried a give and take partnership with another writer so we could read one another’s work and provide feedback, but my partner had other priorities and needed to drop out.
And, of course, I need to work for that paycheck, so my time and energy are largely gobbled up by my financial needs rather than the joyful work of my life. This produces a chronic background tension that grinds away at my soul.
Anyway, I decided the time had come and I was ready to join She Writes and see what possibilities might open up through that community. I had to apply to join.
I knew they wouldn’t take me.
They accepted me (probably some kind of mistake) and the day after I sat in the chair and cried, I had another shift with no work and began exploring She Writes. I came across a blog post titled “The Only Reason to do Anything is Love,” by Bella Mahaya Carter, and had an epiphany.
Engaging with life from a place of love rather than fear is not a new idea for me, or probably for anyone reading this. It’s the kind of thing we hear and read all the time. I would have said I do that. It’s always my intention to show up in the world with love, which is to say kindness, compassion and respect.
The wording of Carter’s post, however, indicates motivation, an internal thing, not external action. Make choices with love, not fear. Decide what to do based on love. Do nothing for fear.
Right, I thought. I treat others and myself well. Of course.
I treat others well because I think it’s effective and I’m afraid of violence, hatefulness, rejection and just plain crazy.
I treat myself well because I’m afraid to be unhealthy, unable to earn a living and/or unable to be independent.
Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash
It’s all for fear. It’s not for love.
Furthermore, treating myself well doesn’t equal loving myself. I caretake my physical form like a good property manager takes care of a rental. I exercise, eat well, brush my teeth, wash my body and take care of injuries.
What I think about myself is that I disappointed my parents, drove my brother nuts (not literally!), failed two marriages and made unforgiveable mistakes as a parent. I think I’ve never made a successful career or had a good enough job. I think I’m ridiculously hard to live with. I think I eat too much, use too much hot water in the shower, like obnoxious music, try too hard and am too sensitive. I think I’m unattractive and few people want to hug or touch me. I think I’ve spent years writing a 300,000-word book that, for all I know, has less value in the world than a roll of cheap toilet paper. On sale.
Those are some of the things I’m conscious of. When I look at my fear-based choice making, it appears I also think if I don’t hold my own feet to the fire at all times I’ll become a lazy, irresponsible, selfish slacker; demanding, mean, dishonest and greedy.
Carter’s post made me realize I could hardly think of a choice, any choice, whether important or mundane, that I haven’t made based on some kind of fear. Ever. From earliest memory.
The greatest motivator in my life is and has always been fear.
Not only that, but I’ve created a whole pantheon of idols I obsessively and ceaselessly worship in order to avoid the vengeful, punitive God I’ve made out of fear. I make daily bloody and brutal sacrifices of time, energy and life to appease them, but insatiable fear just gets more and more powerful. Here are some of the idols:
I read that post on Friday. There and then I decided to start making choices based on loving and believing in myself rather than fear of consequences and see what happened.
Without leaving the chair, I asked myself what the hell I was doing messing around with a job that wasn’t meeting my needs and I was unhappy in.
On Saturday I applied and tested for a job as an independent contractor to do transcription for an online company.
On Sunday I applied and tested for a job as an independent contractor to do transcription for a second online company and was hired on the spot. I also wrote the publisher of She Writes Press and asked for help with the next step for my book manuscript.
On Monday, when I ran out of work, I began getting qualified (via testing) to do various kinds of transcription through my new job and looked up the resignation process from my current medical transcription job.
Yesterday the second online business hired me.
This morning She Writes Press wrote me back with support, suggestions, a recommended professional who might read the manuscript, and what it would cost.
The fear is not gone. In fact, it’s louder than ever because I’m challenging it on so many fronts at once. The difference is I’m not standing nose to nose with it right now. Playing with the new toy of making choices based on what’s loving for myself gives me another option, which means now I can make a real choice.
Fear is not a bad feeling. We need it to survive. It’s just that mine has grown bloated and swollen on all the power I’ve given it over the years. The bigger it gets, the more space it takes. At this point I’ve become its thing. It thinks it can do as it likes with me.
I’ve had a belly full of life based on doing things out of fear. It’s exhausting, demoralizing, joyless and hag-ridden. It doesn’t work well and I’m sick of it. When I think about it rationally, I know I don’t need to beat myself with a stick through every day for fear I’ll become lazy, selfish, etc., etc. If I was going to turn into any of those things I would have done it long ago.
How would it be if I used regard for myself as a motivator and refused to do or not do out of fear? What might a life based on doing things out of thinking well of myself look like? What if I stopped giving anything to fear?
The funny thing is life looks much the same. The difference is largely in the outwardly invisible motivation behind my choices. Am I going to relax with music or a video and stretch because that’s the right and responsible way to treat my tiresome physical needs after a long day sitting in which I earned inadequate money, or am I going to do it because I love the way it feels after a tiring day in which I worked hard, whether I earned money or not?
Life is crazy right now. Everything feels like it’s in transition. I hardly know what to concentrate on in any given moment, there’s so much on the table. Even so, now when I run out of energy in the afternoon I spend a few minutes writhing between making a choice between demanding more from myself out of fear or doing something pleasurable and relaxing. So far, every day I’ve managed to choose rest and relaxation after another wild day.
It appears I’ve begun a new practice. I didn’t know that evening I sat in the chair and cried I was standing on an important threshold. I didn’t know by the end of the week I’d have not one but two new jobs. I didn’t know I was going to finally get serious about putting my manuscript into a professional’s hands and risk failure and rejection. I didn’t know in just a couple of days I was going to begin making a habit out of rolling out of bed and stepping into the day’s embrace with curiosity and a resolve to think well of myself as I navigate, rather than wondering fearfully what would happen next and whether I would manage it adequately.
So far, so good.
Nothing more for fear.
Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash
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except where otherwise noted