Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.
–From “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats
The line “the centre cannot hold,” has been running through my mind for several weeks, through all the time I’ve been sick with COVID and whatever nasty virus followed in its wake, and my slow recovery. “The centre cannot hold.” I found a quiet moment and looked it up. I knew it was poetry, but I couldn’t remember who wrote it or what the poem was. Thank you, Google!
W.B. Yeats, of course.
I suppose it’s a common experience to feel we’ve lost our center, our groundedness, when someone significant in our life dies, as my mother just has. I’ve fought against the feeling because over the years I’ve worked so hard to individuate from my mother, to reclaim my right to center my life around something other than her. If she was not the center of my life, why do I feel things have fallen apart since she died in August?
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Did I fail to reclaim my power, define myself and my value apart from our relationship? Has all my work been for nothing? Are my healing and growth an illusion?
I have been afraid of answering these questions.
When I reread the first three lines of the poem, I first imagined myself as the falconer and the falcon as … my soul? My joy? My wisest self? My intuition? All those and none of those, exactly. The falcon seemed like a piece of myself I lost a long, long time ago when I was child, a piece I struggled through many years and miles to find and reclaim, and now is lost again. It can’t hear me, and I can’t hear it. It feels unbearable. My center didn’t hold. Why didn’t it hold? Did I do something wrong? How do I call it back to me?
And I want to call it back, not haul it back by its jesses. In fact, why is the falcon restrained at all? If it’s truly mine and we belong together, why is it leashed? The idea disturbs me. I want it to be free. I’ve worked too long and hard for my own freedom to relish restraining any other creature. I note I assume the falcon is leashed. The poem doesn’t explicitly say so. Interesting.
Maybe my assumption of leash and jesses reflects all the ways I’ve restrained myself. As a child I internalized restraint. I had to. Everyone else felt free to throw self-control to the winds. Is my feeling of my center not holding asking me to release myself further? Is it time for deeper faith and trust in myself?
As I typed those three lines onto the page to begin this post, I imagined another picture in which my mother was the falconer and I the falcon. She no longer holds the leash. I am free. I have flown away from the only center I was allowed to have and now I’m overwhelmed by my freedom. I don’t know how to be wild. I don’t know how to live without the restraining leather jesses around my slender legs. What if I can’t? What if I perish? Must I find a new falconer to hold the end of my leash? What if my freedom is a mistake and I’m not fit to be free? What if I’ve lost the ability to fly free?
Don’t get carried away, I say to myself. Slow down. We’re talking about emotional freedom versus physical freedom. You’ve been flying in an ever-widening gyre for years.
What’s changed is that leash, woven of blood and bone and love, woven of years and empathy and need, guilt and shame and obligation, too strong to ever be severed … except, it turns out, by Death.
What do we center around?
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It changes, doesn’t it? In my first 20 years I centered around my family of origin. When I was in my 20s and beyond I centered around a man and my children. Work was in there, too. And my family of origin, particularly my mother, who was not pleased to be sharing the center. The proverbial 3-ring circus. It went on like that until my children emancipated and, to be honest, for some time after. Then, as they slowly faded out of my center, being far away and engrossed in their own lives, I centered around some man (but not the same one; I’m a slow learner) and my mother. Slowly, writing began to nudge for a place in the center as well.
This created real problems. Mom could never tolerate sharing. I was used to her competition with the kids and whatever man I was involved with but the writing would have created a real threat, so I hid it. The more I hid it, kept it inviolate and safe from outside sabotage, the more I centered around it, and the more I centered around it the more threatened she felt, though I’m not sure her reaction was conscious and she had no idea what she was fighting against. She just knew she didn’t have all of me anymore.
She was right to feel threatened, because writing eventually tore me away from her physically and geographically, a thing that had never happened before and a last betrayal she never forgave.
In the stresses and strains of the last couple of years, I lost writing out of my center. Oh, I still did it. I blogged and serial published. I journaled. But as Mom’s health and sanity crumbled, she became my center once again, this time to the exclusion of everything else. Work (generally part of the center for all of us) competed, keeping me sane, physically fit, and anchoring me into a community of friends, but Mom once again became the primary gravitational pull in my center. My days and nights were full of her. I had less and less respite and the intensity increased daily, winding around my life more and more tightly, and then …
She died. In the middle of the night, a night in which I lay awake in Maine while my brother sat vigil with her halfway across the country in Colorado.
When I write it all out like this, I can understand why I’ve felt so dazed. I can feel some grace for myself.
The one thing that’s always been in the center is gone.
“The centre cannot hold …”
Being too old to have any desire to put a man back in the center (been there, done that), and loving my job while realizing it’s not big enough to define me, I turn once again to the truest, most joyful, wildest part of my life: writing.
And that’s scary. If I let writing take all the space, time and energy in the center, what will happen? I don’t even make money with it!
I make joy with it instead. Joy, connection, contribution, authenticity. Writing is not a black hole of failure. It does meet my needs. When I write, I actually feel good enough and sometimes even better than that! No wonder I feel bewildered.
As I write this, it occurs to me for the first time to not only allow things to fall apart, but to participate actively in the falling away, falling down, falling apart. To dance in the ruins, even as I weep. I’m reminded of a Rumi quote:
Dance, when you’re broken open. Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off. Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. Dance when you’re perfectly free.
Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash
Things fell apart. The center did not hold. Change, in other words. Life. Which is to say Death.
So, an unexpected ending to this post. Things are falling apart. I’m ready to stop trying to hold them together. It’s time to let go. Mom already has. Now it’s my turn. What lives in our center changes as we change. It’s time now for me to choose my center, choose it freely without guilt or shame.
Sometimes things fall apart and the center cannot hold.
So we find a new one.
- What’s in your center?
- If you were free to choose your center, what would you chose?
- How many things compete for your center? Could you reduce the gravitational pull of your center?
- If your life changed in some dramatic way and you were forced to find a new center, how would you go about doing that?
- Is your center all about others, or do you have something there for yourself, too?
Leave a comment below! To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
This post grew out of two seeds. The first was a piece by a substacker I follow who heard a phrase on a podcast about pleasure in discipline. It struck her that she’s good at finding pleasure in discipline (think productivity), not so good at being disciplined about pleasure.
This struck me, too. I’m quite disciplined when it comes to achieving goals and being productive, but it never occurs to me to apply that same discipline to pleasure. What a thought! How lazy. How irresponsible …
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Amused at my internal horror, I played with this idea for a day or two. Discipline is like a doorway, I mused. One can walk through it and into pleasure. Being a strong adherent of Work Before Pleasure (even though I know the work never ends), the doorway metaphor seemed appropriate. For a minute. Until I realized standing in the doorway of discipline, unable to move forward into pleasure, is no good, either. And that’s mostly what I do.
Then, I did my Mabon Tarot spread. I do this at every turn of the wheel. Mabon is Fall Equinox. It came and went while I was wading through paperwork, documents, emails, insurance, retirement investments, and the business of changing banks, cards, automatic payments, and transfer networks.
Did I mention paperwork?
Anyway, I did eventually get to pulling cards about a week after Mabon. The last card of the spread, the “overall outcome” card, happened to be the 9 of Stones (my deck), or the 9 of Pentacles (classic deck). In my deck, this card is the card of tradition, signifying reverence for past wisdom and sacrifice, and ancestral memory.
It stopped me in my tracks. Ever since my mother died in August (hence the endless paperwork), I’ve been preoccupied with family, past and present, living and dead, known and (mostly) unknown. Managing my inheritance has been fraught with guilt, shame, anguished memories, bewildered pain.
I don’t feel reverence. Whatever I feel, it’s not that. (Another thing to feel guilty about.) Whatever happened in my past context of family, I’ve found no wisdom in it. Plenty of sacrifice, though, mostly of and by me.
In the five days since I turned this card over, I’ve been thinking about it. It’s the traditional time of year for many cultures to remember ancestors, the time when the veil between the worlds grows thin, the time when the trees release their leaves to decay and sleep before the next season of growth.
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The discipline of pleasure. And the pleasure of discipline.
Reverence for past wisdom and sacrifice; ancestral memory.
I suddenly remembered an old story I used to tell during this time of year, “The Corpse Bride.” It’s a story out of Jewish tradition. A corpse bride, still wearing her wedding finery, mourns her violent death as she was on her way to her wedding. She grieves for her lost opportunities. A living bride comforts her, vowing to fully experience all that the corpse bride dreamed of and lost. The corpse bride is then able to lie back in her grave and rest in peace.
These pieces seemed to answer a question I haven’t consciously asked. Discipline. Pleasure. Unquiet ancestors. Lost opportunities.
How do we connect with our ancestors in a healthy way? We’re only just beginning to understand epigenetics and the ways in which we’re linked to the generations who came before us. I know something about my DNA, but almost nothing about ancestors. When I think of ancestors, I think of a dignified group of people, wise, healthy, connected, at peace. When I think of my family, I think of rejection, dysfunction, and abandonment. I hardly knew my family, even the ones living during my lifetime. What I mostly knew was I didn’t belong, though I was a biological child of the people I called Mom and Dad.
I feel no connection to ancestors. My unconscious assumption is they wouldn’t want me any more than the family I knew did.
However. The fact is I do have blood ties and a biological family tree, as we all do. I have inherited certain characteristics, behaviors, weaknesses, strengths, and wounds through epigenetics as well as genetics and environmental factors. I am now a twig at the end of a branch on the family tree. Neither of my sons have children. I have no daughter. My two cousins are also childless, as is my brother. I am the last female in the last generation of my direct maternal line.
Me. The highly sensitive, passionate, sensual, creative, noncompliant one nobody wanted!
I dealt several Tarot cards of healing and recovery in that Mabon spread. Perhaps they’re not solely about my healing. In conjunction with the season and this powerful card of ancestry, perhaps I have an opportunity to heal myself and comfort? give peace to? palliate? propitiate? the women who came before me, the women who gave me life.
Whatever came before, I’m here now. I breathe. My heart beats. Half the family resources are in my hands. I have the power to make choices. I choose to continue forward into generosity, healing, and joy. I don’t have ancestral traditions or maps. No one ever gave me a map, because they didn’t know the way themselves. Maybe they didn’t want to go in that direction; maybe they stopped looking for the path. It doesn’t matter now.
What matters now is to live … because they can’t. Like the corpse bride, their earthly opportunities are lost. Maybe from the very beginning I was the one with the potential to bring my female ancestors peace at last, not because I complied with their oppression, but because I refused it. Maybe it’s my wisdom that’s needed, the map in my pocket we all must follow.
The women of my family taught me some of the pleasures of discipline. Perhaps I must teach them about the discipline of pleasure, of joy. Which means I must learn it myself first.
I swam yesterday. I’m required to train weekly for my lifeguard position, but that’s only a good excuse. I swim for pure pleasure. I relished every sensual detail, every rhythmic breath, every stretch and flex of my muscles, the silk of the water. I relished the hot shower afterwards, the long drink of water I took, my clean hair and warm and relaxed body. Because they never did, even when alive. Because they never can.
This Saturday morning I ran to the store. I took a deep lungful of the grey, humid air, heavy with the promise of coming rain. I savored it. I chatted with the cashier. I bought myself a luxurious dark chocolate bar. I deliberately splashed through a puddle in the parking lot with my bright yellow duckie boots. I smiled at strangers. I drove home with the window open and the damp air stirring my hair. Because they never did these things. (Well, maybe the chocolate. Mom did like chocolate.) Because now they never can.
I sit here on my couch with the cats, the laptop on my lap. I’m burning a scented candle, surrounded by a couple of sleeveless summer shirts I just bought on sale, my journal, lists, notes, the mail. I’m at peace. I don’t have pain. (Mom always had pain.) I’m content. I have friends I love and who love me. Life is good, filled with projects and plans. In a few minutes I’ll get up, put some laundry in, wash the dishes, stand in the doorway and look at the sky, feel the air stirring as the storm approaches. I won’t do these things because I’m disciplined and productive, or because I must, but because I can. I want to. I choose to. These are the small tasks of my life, and I love my life.
All these I’ll do for myself, and also for them, my ancestors, the women who came before me, my blood, my bone, the wombs who gave me life. Because they can’t.
They’re gone. (May they rest in peace.)
But I’m still here.
- What does the word ‘ancestor’ mean to you? Do you connect it with a real person in your life?
- Are you prepared to be an ancestor? What wisdom would you pass on to younger generations?
- Do you feel connected to the generations of family before you?
- Would you like to be more deeply connected to living family members? What’s in your way?
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
I’m a spinner, a speeder, a thought racer. (Yes, I know it doesn’t help. I know rocking chairs and hamster wheels go nowhere. I know worrying is pointless.) Under the right conditions, the inside of my brain is like a dusty attic filled with hysterical cats zooming in all directions, climbing the walls, knocking over piles of junk, filling the air with dust and yowls. Chaos. Destruction. I call it speeding. I call it anxiety. The world calls it racing thoughts.
Whatever we call it, it’s a miserable state of mind, and a common one.
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Herding cats, as any cat lover will tell you, never works. Sheep, maybe. Cows. But not cats.
However, at times familiar life goes off the rails in such varied, complex, and unforeseen ways I find myself once again herding cats, usually during the hours I need to be sleeping, though sometimes those hours bleed over into days when I’m supposed to be focusing. On something productive or something relaxing or something. But all I’ve got are catapulting (pun intended) thoughts and emotions racing around in my brain.
Not long ago, before the start of my current cat rodeo, I read somewhere (probably Substack) about The Rule of 9s. I’ve since gone back to look for it, but I can’t find the original source. Anyway, I didn’t come up with it myself. I wish I had.
The Rule of 9s is a tool used to identify what really matters. Or, if you like to look at things bass-ackwards, like me, what really doesn’t matter.
This morning, for example. I could garden, work on business at my desk, write, or make a Spotify playlist. I have just under two hours at my disposal before I head off to work.
I have a lot of desk business just now as my brother and I (mostly my brother) wind up my recently deceased mother’s estate and deal with our inheritance. By inheritance, I mean not just assets, but the inevitable emotional inheritance we all receive from our families of origin. What I’ve heard is true. When a parent dies, we cannot be prepared for the ways it changes us and how uncomfortable some of that change is.
My metaphorical cats – these mixed up thoughts and feelings — pull me in different directions at the same time. Everything feels overwhelming right now. It’s irritating. Two items on my grocery list and I’m overwhelmed. Now and then I have a few minutes free from the inundation, but I get a call, a text, another document to sign, and I’m overwhelmed again.
Fortunately, I just learned The Rule of 9s.
So, the option of gardening. It’s hot outside. Really, really hot and humid. Just when the weather should be getting crisper and cooler, a heat wave has arrived. It will ease in the next couple of days, but it’s brought a resurgence of mosquitoes and it’s not fun to be outside. So, no garden this morning. I’ll wait for cooler weather. Is that a crisis?
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Will gardening or not gardening matter in 9 seconds? In 9 minutes? In 9 hours? In 9 days? In 9 months? It might start to matter then, because I’ll be making spring plans and whatever progress I make this fall will affect those plans. But it’s clearly not urgent. I won’t remember choosing or not choosing gardening today.
Business at my desk. I’ve already done some of that this morning. Balanced the checkbook. Looked for a document I’m waiting on from my bank (not there yet). Made some notes. Did some planning. Considered options. I have money in my account. All the bills are paid. I don’t need to spend anything today. Will taking care of more business or not taking care of more business matter in 9 seconds? Nine minutes? Nine hours? Nine days? It might start to matter at that point, as one thing leads to another as we wade through this process. If I stay on top of tasks, step by step, I know I’ll eventually come out of the tunnel with effective systems in place that work for me and respect my goals and values. Tempting to start herding the cats quivering on my desk, but I only have two hours and nothing is urgent.
Make a Spotify playlist. I may shortly have an opportunity to bring a dance program to the community. I’ve tried several times in years past without success, but I haven’t given up hope. Now that I’m on Spotify (though I have misgivings about how platforms like this fail to support artists), I wanted to get a few of my dance playlists put together. I have them burned onto CDs and in iTunes, but not on Spotify. However, I don’t have any solid dates for dance now. It’s all in the planning stages. At some point it will matter, but not right now.
Writing. It’s my weekend to publish on Harvesting Stones. I don’t have to. It’s not required. But I’d like to, if for no other reason than it’s my usual routine, a stepping stone in the current chaos, and it comforts me to be doing something normal. Not to mention how much I enjoy it. Hard to think about focusing on it, though. All those cats whizzing around …
Will writing or not writing matter in 9 seconds? Nine minutes? Nine hours? Nine days? It won’t matter to the world, but it matters to me. It will matter to me in two days, when Saturday morning comes and I either do or do not have a rough draft I’m happy with.
So I’m writing. And while I’m doing that, miraculously, the other cats settle down. Tired, I guess. Maybe they’ll curl up in the chaos they’ve wrought and sleep a while. Sleep is good.
As I live my life and listen to the inside of my head, especially the anxiety, the fear, the resistance, the catastrophizing, I pull out The Rule of 9s and apply it. Will this matter in 9 seconds? In other words, will I die in 9 seconds if I don’t do whatever-it-is or figure it out, completely and perfectly? How about in 9 hours? (Have you ever noticed how crazy your nighttime I-can’t-sleep thoughts are in the light of day?) In 9 days will I even remember whatever feels stressful this minute? Will the fearful thing I can imagine happening be important in 9 weeks? In 9 months? In 9 years?
The Rule of 9s requires I slow down and think. The questions give me perspective, help me with a reality check. I stop reacting and remember my power to choose. I decide what’s more important than my peace of mind (not much). Hysteria is contagious; so is calm.
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Applying The Rule of 9s settles the cats right down. One or two may still zoom, because cats are contrary like that, but the chaos diminishes as I become intentional and mindful. I can find some focus, at least for a few minutes. I know what to do next, in the next 9 seconds, anyway. The next 9 years can take care of themselves.
- What are your strategies for pulling yourself out of racing thoughts and anxiety loops?
- How do you choose priorities?
- Is your experience one of choice in life, or one of reaction and compulsion?
- Share something ridiculous that’s kept you up at night.
Leave a comment below!
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
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.
Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Helena Yankovska on Unsplash
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.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
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,
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:
Last week a Substacker I follow, Candace Rose Rardon, illustrated a memory I shared with her. I was absolutely thrilled. The union of my words and her art spoke to one of my core values: collaboration.
Collaboration is about power management. It’s defined as working with someone. Not directing them. Not submitting to them. Working with them. In other words, sharing power – power-with rather than power-over.
Image by Bob Dmyt from Pixabay
Is it just me, or are we as a culture moving away from sharing power rather than toward it?
Collaboration and cooperation lie at the heart of my fiction. All my life I’ve been preoccupied with working together, but I never had adequate language or studied power until I learned emotional intelligence. At that point the light dawned. I reviewed my relationships, both family and otherwise, through the lens of power.
It was a grim review. I set out to reclaim my power.
Let’s be clear: reclamation is not stealing.
I didn’t want to take power away from others. I wanted to reclaim what had been taken from me.
This involved needs, boundary work, and many other moving parts, most of which I’ve written about here over the last seven years (almost exactly seven years … wow), and all of which are woven into my books.
Speaking of my books, I have a dream that one day a visual artist will read my work, become inspired, and want to illustrate it. That’s not all. (Might as well dream big, right?) In the same dream a musician (drums and flute or pipe, at least) reads my work, becomes inspired, and adds music and a soundscape to it. I even dream one day we’ll develop the ability to incorporate scent into reading.
I am a sensual person, and my writing reflects that. I myself see my characters and my world of Webbd vividly, but I’m not an artist. I respond deeply to music physically and emotionally, but I’m not a musician.
In every relationship I’ve sought collaboration. I’ve wanted a safe place to have an authentic voice, express an opinion, make a contribution. I’ve wanted the power to make choices. This has been true in the context of family, friends, spouses and boyfriends, coworkers, and community.
I have not been noticeably successful until the last ten years.
No matter how talented, strong, or knowledgeable we are, healthy collaboration can only make us bigger. Collaboration is tricky, though. It’s messy. We’re forced to deal with conflict, with different visions and voices than our own, different backgrounds, different belief systems, different ways of looking at the world and interacting with life. It’s work. It stretches us uncomfortably. We might have to be wrong (gasp!) and someone might find out we were wrong (horrors!).
Plenty of people say they want to collaborate when their true intention is a hostile takeover. Others seek collaboration as a way to make money or leverage other aspects of social power. Their agenda is to accrue power, not share it.
What Candace Rose Rardon did was extend a gift of generosity. When I sent her my memory I had no power over whether she chose to illustrate it or how she would illustrate it. I handed her my words and went on with life. I had no expectations. She sent back something beautiful woven of my words and her art. I’ve never met her. We exchanged no money. I know very little about her, but I do know this: she’s part of my tribe. She’s a creative collaborator.
Collaboration requires a willingness to be flexible and the willingness to accept someone’s vision regarding our art. As creators, we need to loosen our grip on our masterpieces and allow others to widen us. Perhaps someone else visualizes our character slightly differently than we do. Perhaps they see the character more clearly, or more fully than we can. As collaborators, we may be pushed to do more than we’ve done before, take new risks, try new things. Healthy collaboration makes us all more powerful, more expansive, more interesting, more textured.
We are stronger and more beautiful together than we are apart.
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash
Collaboration is everywhere. It’s the falling rain and early birdsong on a spring morning. It’s the calling of shorebirds against the background of surf. It’s the buzzing of a fat bumblebee in a fragrant blossom. The world is unbelievably sensual. Walking through tall grass this time of year, the stems and heads turning straw-colored, the small scratching prick of grasshopper legs on my bare skin, the scent of warm grass in my nostrils, is a miracle of collaboration. A garden exists because of collaboration between countless forms of life and the weather.
We can’t collaborate in every situation all the time. Leaders lead. Parents parent. Bosses must manage their people, teachers their students. We all have areas in our lives we like to manage solo, including areas in our creative lives. On the other hand, we are seeing the consequences of no collaboration: chaos, fear, hatred, division, destruction, and social breakdown. We are now successfully being manipulated into choosing not to collaborate even with ourselves, but with consumerism, capitalism, and ideology instead.
Collaboration is wide. It’s not only about human-to-human interaction. If we don’t figure out how to collaborate with our planet, with the human and non-human life around us, and (perhaps most importantly) with ourselves, we will not thrive. We’ll solve no problems. Nothing will change. We’ll meet challenges as individuals and as communities and countries poorly. We will keep ourselves small, disorganized, and weak.
Or we can choose to combine our knowledge, our skills, our vision, and our humanity.
- How have you collaborated successfully with others?
- How have you struggled with collaboration?
- What’s the hardest thing for you about sharing power with another?
- Are you open to collaboration? Why or why not?
Leave a comment below!
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