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Give Your Best

Courtney Carver from Be More With Less  dropped this little spring blossom in my Inbox recently. I’m not on Instagram but she passed this on from @sierranwells from @theshineapp.

Paraphrasing, giving our all leaves us empty. It’s unregulated and indicates questionable boundaries. A better choice is to give our best.

Don’t give your all. Give your best.

What an amazing distinction! When I say that to myself, I feel as though a mountain has been lifted from my shoulders.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

I don’t have to give everything and everyone my all. I can choose instead to give certain people, situations, and efforts my best. My best financial donation. My best support. My best effort. My best investment. My best love.

My all is reserved for me and my writing.

The filter between my all and my best immediately clarifies life and choices. It frees me to recognize when I’ve done enough. I’ve given my best. I can stop now. I don’t have to give and give and give until I have nothing left, not even enough to crawl away. I have the power. I make the choices. I decide where the boundaries are. I make an offering of my best, and if it’s not wanted or useful, I move on.

After all, if my best hasn’t been good enough, likely my all won’t be, either. I know that intellectually, but I’ve lived my whole life with the firm conviction that my best is inadequate and withholding. What’s required of me is to give my all, every last penny, every last bit of my time, energy, patience, and love. Everything. No boundaries. No reserves. No personal needs. Boundaries, reserves, and needs are selfish.

Wait, says a little voice inside me. Doesn’t unconditional love mean giving it all continuously, no matter what?

Does it? Is that what unconditional love means?

Unconditional love means love without strings attached.

I don’t know if human love is limitless. I don’t know if mine is. I’ve loved several people with everything in me before, but today I don’t feel as though any of those loved ones found my love useful or even noticed it for what it was. Perhaps it was lost in translation.

Perhaps they never wanted it or needed it in the first place.

I still love some of those people, because they are woven into my flesh and bone, but we are not actively connected and for the most part my love is mute and suffering. I have not found an acceptable way to give it, which is to say I have not found a way to feel it’s recognized, valuable, received or even welcome. It’s unconditional, but it’s unwanted.

Yet I do know one person who longs for my best and my all – all my unconditional love, all my compassion and empathy, all my strength and wisdom, all my creativity and courage.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Me.

As I approach my 60s, I spend less and less time thinking about how to give my all and waiting for scraps and crumbs to come back to me. Now I’m focused on how to connect with and unconditionally love myself. Because I deserve it. And it’s my turn. And I want me. I need me.

The people (and cats) in my life get my best. Sometimes that seems regrettably inadequate, but I’m intentional about giving my best to those I interact with, work with, and live with. I give my best to what I do in life, from cleaning the bathroom to teaching a child to swim. My best love, care, and effort are no mean contributions to my loved ones and my community.

But I don’t owe my all to anyone. Not at this point in my life. I’ve never yet given my all without subsequent emotional bankruptcy it took me years to recover from. I’ve never yet felt my all was reciprocated. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

I thought I had to give my all. I thought that’s what love was. I thought one proves love, commitment, loyalty, what have you, with an investment of one’s all. I thought that investment was guaranteed to provide rich returns.

So far, I’ve failed to reap rewards from that strategy. I’m rethinking my investment plan. Might it be that giving my all to me increases the quality of my best to others? Could it be that giving my best to others will prove a better investment than giving my all? Is this a case of working smarter, not harder?

Maybe our all is only useful when we give it to ourselves. Maybe it doesn’t work elsewhere because it’s not supposed to. Maybe our best is better for the people around us.

In any case, I feel lighter, freer, and healthier, both in myself and in my relationships, when I endeavor to do my best within healthy boundaries and reserve my all for myself and my writing.

Convenience

Convenience: The state of being able to proceed with something with little effort or difficulty (online Oxford Dictionary).

It’s a frigid winter morning here in central Maine with a wind chill taking us into double-digit negative temperatures and a big winter storm approaching. I’m wrapped in a blanket, sitting in my attic aerie in the thin winter sunshine, listening to the wind and thinking about convenience.

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

The weather is inconvenient. I was hoping to load up the car for another trip to storage, but the wind chill is dangerous. Frostbite can occur in 10 minutes at these temperatures. The wind and cold have polished the ice and snow in our driveway to a slippery gloss, unforgiving as concrete. Nothing about the sound of the wind or the house creaking in the cold makes me want to leave my cozy blanket and chair and go out.

I think I’ll have another cup of tea instead.

I’ve never lived in a really old house before I came to Maine. The farmhouse we’re in now is 200 years old, and the house we’re in the process of trying to buy is more than 100 years old. I’ve learned, since I came here, to expect these old places to be less convenient in terms of closet space, ceiling height, finished basements, upstairs heat, and bathrooms than more modern homes.

Without considering it, I’ve always assigned a negative feeling to inconvenience. I read a few sentences from Seth Godin this week that made me think hard about the meaning and implications of convenience.

Looking at the definition above, I immediately notice how subjective it is. What may be entirely convenient for me can be ridiculously inconvenient for someone else, and vice versa. This is a challenge in my primary relationship. My partner cares a lot about convenience – his own. However, our ideas about what’s functional and workable are frequently quite different.

So here’s my first set of questions: where is the line between convenience and laziness? Is there a line? Should there be a line?

Godin opines that people will trade privacy and money for convenience, and I know from my own experience we sometimes behave as if we value convenience over relationships.

That seems wrong to me. Do we really care more about our own convenience – where things are kept, how we manage recycling and trash, how to load a dishwasher, how to position a roll of paper towels or toilet paper, how to iron a shirt – than our relationships?

Have I ever done that?

No, of course not!

Probably.

I have certainly received that message from others: I care more about having it my way than I do about you.

Ouch.

At the other end of the spectrum, I will say without hesitation there are certain “inconveniences” nobody should tolerate. Like being systematically abused or bullied, or ignoring a chronic issue that’s dangerous or a health concern. A car with a broken hatch or door that flies open while driving, for example, is more than an inconvenience.

Do we tolerate those kinds of things because it’s more inconvenient to deal with them than it is to live with them?

Speaking for myself, the answer is maybe. I will, and have, and do, tolerate constant small inconveniences because I value relationship more than my own comfort (not necessarily a healthy thing, especially when unreciprocated), and I find conflict and tension so unbearably inconvenient. I’d rather deal with my slow accumulation of resentment than stand up for what I find convenient in the context of a relationship and risk friction.

As I said, convenience is so subjective it’s hard to get on the same page in terms of discussing it. Convenience works in the shadows. We don’t talk or think about it directly. How many unconscious decisions a day do we make in an effort to make our busy, noisy lives more convenient, never counting the cost to ourselves or those around us?

Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

The cost of convenience. Not only monetary cost, but time, energy, social, environmental costs. Cars are indispensable for most of us. If we don’t have our own, we have access to some kind of mass transit. But we pay for our cars, and the planet suffers for them. Plastic is unbelievably convenient. It’s also choking the planet to death.

Convenience is a moving target. Having to walk through a big house to the one bathroom is not as convenient as an en suite bathroom, but it sure beats having to go out to the outhouse! When do we have enough convenience? When are we satisified with our privileges?

At what point have we taken convenience too far? How do we persuade ourselves and others to accept something more inconvenient but healthier and more sustainable for everyone, including the planet?

Undeniably, our search for more convenience has motivated countless amazing technological and design breakthroughs. Our desire for convenience can fuel our adaptability and resilience, our creativity, and underpins movements like minimalism.

But are we entitled to demand ever-increasing convenience from the world and those around us? Do we have a right to encounter no difficulty, have to make no effort?

Absolutely not. Because our convenience may be creating inconvenience for someone else, which they may or may not express. For me, this boils down to what I’ve learned about needs: My needs are as important but not more important than anyone else’s.

My convenience is as important but not more important than anyone else’s. None of us can escape others, not in this crowded world. And that means we’re all going to encounter difficulty and we’re all going to have make an effort, whether it’s convenient or not. Inevitably, some of us will make more effort than others, and it’s up to those hard-working people (emotional labor, anyone?) to refrain from enabling others in a quest for total convenience.

Perhaps inconvenience, like discomfort, is not negative at all. Maybe it shapes us in powerful, positive ways, helping us stay creative and flexible, reminding us to stay present with our true priorities and whether our actions reflect them.

Sometimes we’re going to have to change our plans to accommodate the weather.

Sometimes we’re going to have to walk through a couple of rooms or down the stairs to use our bathroom.

Sometimes we’re going to have to deal with the inconvenience of other people or pets.

We can choose convenience over all the rest. We can. But, as Godin reminds me, some things, and some people, are worth a little inconvenience. Or even a lot.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Meditations on the Golden Rule While Removing Cat Hair

I was cleaning cat hair off our furniture a couple of days ago and thinking about the Golden Rule. I muttered about it, too. To the cats, who had no opinion but thought the whole removing-cat-hair-with-a-dish-glove business highly entertaining and a good game. They wanted the cat hair back. I wanted to get rid of it.

Ozzy 2021

Sometimes I feel I’ve spent my life cleaning.

Don’t get me wrong. Cleaning can be a sacred activity, a Baba Yaga kind of activity. Few things are as satisfying to me as making order out of chaos; sorting the unwanted and unnecessary from the useful and beautiful is something I always enjoy.

On the other hand, cleaning is emotional labor. Physical labor, too.

When I say “I love you,” part of that is a commitment to provide a clean, comfortable, healthy space. Part of my own self-respect and self-love is providing myself a clean, comfortable, healthy space.

It’s not a question of money. Paint is peeling off many surfaces in this house. That doesn’t mean those surfaces need to be dirty. Yes, the floor is pitted, stained and scarred. That doesn’t mean I don’t bother to scrub off the grime. Yes, the front door gaps and sags. The metal screen door is getting rusty. That doesn’t mean they have to be filthy.

So, cleaning. For all of us, myself, my partner, and the cats.

I know some people will say the cats don’t care. My partner has said he doesn’t notice.

But I care. I notice. And I don’t know the cats don’t care. Why should they live in unnecessary squalor?

Anyway. The Golden Rule. Do unto others, etc.

I think the Golden Rule is a good way to live. I live by it. The problem is the rule itself implies others will do unto you as you do unto them.

And that’s simply not true.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

It’s like tolerance, or respect, or reciprocity. Treating others by those standards does not mean we’ll receive the same treatment.

I’m angry about that. Living by the Golden Rule is expensive in time, energy, and patience. I choose to do it because it’s part of my integrity as a human being, but it’s not easy, and it’s not an investment that always pays off. Which is sad. And disconnecting.

I’ve asked it before and I ask it again. When have we given enough?

Then I received a post in my Inbox from Joshua Fields Millburn titled ‘The Boundaries of Discontent’ about this very subject. Tolerance, he says “can be a magnet for neglect.”

Amen.

The Golden Rule is an effective guide for choice. I feel good about myself and the way I show up in the world when I employ it. But it’s only the first step.

The second step is observing whether it’s reciprocated in any given situation and continuing to make healthy, self-supportive choices based on that observation.

It’s wonderful to give positive things to the world and others, but we need to notice if we’re not receiving in kind. Giving out of an emotional deficit is not sustainable. We deserve more than that. We can find people who live the Golden Rule, people like us.

Millburn says we encourage what we tolerate, and he’s right. Tolerance is too heavy to carry alone in a relationship, and unbalanced tolerance is simply clutter. When we stop tolerating the absence of reciprocity, or more than a few days of cat hair on the furniture, we can move into a simpler, clearer, cleaner life.

Healthy boundaries are not intolerance.

I don’t want to be the friend who never reciprocates. In fact, I’ve voluntarily left more than one relationship because it was clear that who I am was making others unhappy or uncomfortable and I was unable to find a way forward into something healthier with them. I don’t want toxic people in my life, and I won’t be a toxic person for anyone else, either. Do unto others has sometimes meant letting go and moving on for my sake and theirs.

Tools for healthy relationship and connection like the Golden Rule work best when both parties bear their weight and use them. If that’s not happening, the tool becomes ineffective, even destructive, and the relationship falters.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To a point. But don’t get too carried away. And don’t build expectations of reciprocity around it. Follow it because you believe it’s the right thing to do and let go of the rest.

Photo by Roderico Y. Díaz on Unsplash

Belonging

Today is the Autumn Equinox. It’s cool, cloudy, and damp here in central Maine. My attic windows are open and I can hear acorns falling from our oak tree and cars going by, tires hissing on the wet road.

I’ve been reading The Enchanted Life by Dr. Sharon Blackie, and yesterday I laid the book in my lap as I sat outside in the bright sun and boisterous breeze and cried.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Dr. Blackie’s book is about reclaiming our relationship to the natural world. This process necessarily begins with reclaiming our relationship to our bodies and physical experience. We can’t feel at home in the world if we don’t feel at home in our own skins.

Blackie suggests that each of us is a part of the world, just like a flower, a tree, a bird, or a cricket. I’ve probably read something like this a thousand times in my life, worded a thousand different ways, but I’ve never read it without an automatic unconscious resistance. Others might be part of the world, but not me. I’ve never believed I had anything worthy to offer.

My lifelong feeling of being an intruder has kept me slightly divided from people as well as the natural world. A sense of pure belonging is so rare for me I can count the experience of it on one hand. The water. My children. A crippled cat, long gone. My dance group, also far away and long ago.

As I read about belonging to the world yesterday and relished the beautiful autumn day and the waning September sun, my resistance was unexpectedly absent. The words arrowed straight into my heart. For the first time, I seriously considered that maybe I am not just a tourist, a spectator, someone passing through. Maybe I belong in the world as much as any other form of life.

Photo by Dakota Roos on Unsplash

I realized then I’ve lived most of my life as a sort of apology for existing. I’ve felt gratitude, appreciation, even awe in the presence of the natural world, which I love and cling to. Most of my life I’ve lived in rural areas and revered the landscape, the plants, the animals. Yet I always felt ashamed to be intruding on the loveliness of the natural cycles and seasons and the wild places. As a member of the human race, I felt like a destroyer, a besmircher, part of what’s wrong with the world rather than what’s good and beautiful and natural.

Blackie writes of reciprocity; of listening to the voices of the leaves rustling on the trees and responding with our own voice. She writes about a woman who sings to the jungle, joining in with the myriad songs already there as a rightful part of the ecosystem.

When I touch a tree in reverence, is it touching me back? Is the feel of my hand as sacred to it as the feel of its bark and body are to me?

Healthy relationship is about reciprocity. I know that from my study of emotional intelligence. Communication is reciprocal, which is to say it moves in both directions. Moving fully into belonging, then, would mean not only learning and marveling at the liquid notes of the wood thrush, but sharing my own voice with him. He is in my world, and I’m in his. His song and my song are both part of the chorus of this place. We are, perhaps, woven together.

Could it possibly be that the world is richer for my presence, rather than burdened by it? Might my step, my breath, my voice, my touch, and my prayers be to others what the coyotes’ night song, the morning mist over the river, or the falling leaves and browning ferns are to me?

This shift in perspective is staggering. I don’t quite know what to do with it. It assuages a longing within me to belong, to be more than just tolerated.

Photo by Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash

When I look around from this perspective, I see gardens existing because of me. A variety of mushrooms grow in and around the compost pit because of me. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables thrive together, feeding insects and birds, creating habitat for snakes, amphibians, and rodents, because of me. There is greater plant diversity in the landscape because of me.

The most remarkable thing about this new perspective is that it lies at the heart of my fiction trilogy. I have a firm intellectual grasp of interconnection; I’ve just never included myself. I’ve been an outsider looking in. I haven’t seen myself as worthy enough to be part of the web.

Writing can be an exercise is discovering intuitive or unconscious truths we have not yet fully integrated. To date, I’ve written 700,000 words about interconnection, but not until yesterday did my heart accept that I’m part of it too, not as a stain but as a uniquely beautiful organism within a tapestry of uncountable other uniquely beautiful organisms. As I touch, hear, see, and smell the presence of others, they touch, hear, see, and smell me. As I communicate with others, they communicate with me, though I may not know it.

Life, the weather, the COVID virus are not happening to me. They are in relationship with me. We are woven together in a changing, dynamic dance of becoming, minute by minute. We belong to each other. I am neither alien nor separate.

I’m home, where I belong.

Photo by Andrew Montgomery on Unsplash

Doing it For You

I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.

For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.

I told you the language was inadequate!

Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.

Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.

Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.

Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.

Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.

When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.

I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.

My daily crime.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash