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What I Have Not Loved

As I write this, I have just returned from a long journey across the country and into my past. I’m home again, but the journey is not over and I expect to retrace my steps back and forth for some undetermined length of time.

The physical journey, however long, is nothing to the internal journey I’ve undertaken through my memories, family dynamics and history, and so much of what has shaped my life and experience.

Before I left, I came across this poem by David Whyte:

Here in the Mountains

There is one memory deep inside you.
In the dark country of your life
it is a small fire burning forever.

Even after all these years
of neglect
the embers of what you have
known rest contented
in their own warmth.

Here in the mountains,
tell me all the things
you have not loved.
Their shadows will tell you
they have not gone,
they became this night
from which you drew away in fear.

Though at the trail’s end,
your heart stammers
with grief and regret,
in this
final night
you will lean down at last
and breathe again on the
small campfire of your
only becoming.

Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash

“Tell me all the things you have not loved.” This is an invitation I’ve never heard before. My focus has been on gratitude, on reframing, and on finding something good in every situation. I call myself a pessimist rather than an optimist, though I do leave windows and doors open for good things to happen while preparing for the worst.

My friends and I talk at work about the way we avoid “complaining.” A male coworker was taught as a child to refuse to give way to pain and illness, to work through it silently and privately without “complaint.” Is complaint the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure. Three of us, all women, are more comfortable acknowledging our struggles and distress than our male friend, but none of us want to hear ourselves “whining.” Is whining the same as acknowledgment? I’m not sure about that one, either.

Because of my own confusion and blurriness around the terms we use and the cultural pressure towards toxic positivity, speaking about the things we have not loved is a jarring proposal. I carried it as I traveled on cars and buses, airport shuttles and airplanes. I hardly wrote at all over the last week. One journal entry by hand on the plane and the rest of my notebook filled with to-do lists, notes, names and numbers.

But I thought about things I have not loved.

It’s not just the invitation, though. It’s the way Whyte suggests all the things we have not loved are the background against which our lives are pinned, the shadows defining the light. I think of the night sky, gleaming with stars. What would the stars be without the blackness around them? I think of candle flames, fireflies, a lone campfire in the wilderness in the black night.

Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash

And isn’t it true that the things we have not loved don’t go away? Don’t they stay with us more inexorably, in fact, than the things we have loved? It seems so to me. Thus the fear, the drawing away, the heart filled with grief and regret. But at the core of our lives perhaps there is a small fire, patiently burning, waiting for us to come to our trail’s end. I think some would call the small fire God.

I realize one of the largest things I have not loved is love. A strange thing to realize, and a strange thing to say, I know. But so often my love has been helpless. The strong bonds, history, and feeling (all of which I mean by “love”) I feel for my parents, my brother, and my sons have been the greatest sources of pain in my life. Five vast, dark, wildernesses surrounding five campfires, these five who are flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. These five who I could never stop loving, even if I wanted to. No matter how great the shadows around the fires, the flames burn, warm, beautiful, cleansing, regenerative. Often, I wish I could stand just outside the firelight, unseen, and simply love without fear, without pain, without wishing to be loved in return. But I do draw away in fear from the heat, the flame, the passion of the fire. I cherish the fires and would protect them with my life, but I fear them, too.

I have not loved the trauma and abuse that has shadowed what I love. I have not loved my disillusionment or the terrible choices I’ve made in building boundaries and learning to love myself. I have not loved my feelings of loss, insecurity, scarcity, and exile. I have not loved my pain and grief. I have not loved learning to let go.

I did not love walking into my mother’s home, the place where she has lived her self-imposed solitary journey into dementia and inability to care for herself. I did not want to follow her trail into the darkness of fear and denial, marked with soiled clothing and bedding, desperate and increasingly nonsensical and illegible notes and reminders. I did not want to go through drawers and cupboards of vitamins and supplements; over-the-counter remedies for pain, sleep, memory loss, skin problems and digestion issues. I did not want to fill trash bags with worn-out but never discarded clothing and shoes, a thousand used emery boards, outdated products and food.

I did not love going through every stitch of her clothing, sorting, washing, labeling with a laundry marker and packing it all to take to her new home in a memory care unit. The day after I carefully loaded her dresser, newly cleaned and placed in her room, we visited and found she had dumped every drawer into her laundry basket. She was “packing” to go home.

I did not love doing any of it. I did not want to do it. It broke my heart and filled me with futile guilt and shame. But at the center of every bag of trash, every bag and box to be donated, every clean drawer and cupboard, burned the small fire of my love for my mother. Inescapable. Inexorable. In a strange way, all the things I did not love were fuel to keep that fire burning. The more shadows I found under beds, in closet corners, in drawers and cupboards she forgot she had, the brighter the fire burned. My pain and pity, my anger with her lifelong pattern of denial and rejection of any help or support, made the fire burn higher. To tend the fire is to face the darkness.

And I would not have the fire go out, though I feel torn into pieces by its presence.

Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash

It’s been a dark week, a week of deliberately moving into the things I have not loved. Drawing back was not an option. I could only step into the void. But the darkness has held a thousand small flames. The faces of old friends, both mine and Mom’s. Her animals, once so beloved but now forgotten by her, rehomed and doing well. A hundred acts of kindness and generosity. Help with moving furnishings into her new room. A cherry pie. Hugs and tears. The good-hearted friendliness of dogs. Constant support. Texts, emails, phone calls – all messages of succor and sympathy for me and my brother, for Mom. The friend who cares for the plants. The friends who keep an eye on the house. The friend who took a load to Goodwill for me. The friend who will take out the mountain of trash in the garage. And, when I came home, the arms of the friends who welcomed me back.

The shadows and the light. The things I have not loved cradle the things I do love. I am so weary I cannot begin to unravel the paradox. Perhaps it cannot be unraveled, only accepted and experienced. Perhaps Mom is wandering in her own dark wilderness, seeking the small campfire of her becoming, and when she finds it, leans down to breathe upon it, she will at last know peace.

Questions:

  • Share three things you have not loved.
  • Do things you have not loved persist in your life? What creates a background for what you do love?
  • What is the difference between complaining (whining) and acknowledgment? Do you believe it’s wrong for you to admit to personal struggles?

 

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Frozen In Place

Maine Farmhouse and Barn

I moved to Maine with a U-Haul packed with things from my old life. I was moving from a small, tight, energy-efficient home where I lived alone to a slouching, leaking farmhouse with a cracked foundation and a peeling roof. I didn’t trust my cherished possessions to the dubious protection of the house or the barn, also dilapidated and leaking.

So I rented a storage unit.

Now it’s four years later and I’ve been reading and thinking about minimalism. Minimalism appeals to me because it creates space and simplicity in our lives. I’m gradually coming to understand even my most cherished possessions are not important to my quality of life. In some ways they even block my view and obscure thresholds and openings.

That’s not to say I don’t frequently miss my just-the-right-firmness double mattress and box spring in storage, or my comfy couch and matching chair. I do miss them, but they don’t fit into my life anymore and they don’t fit into the house. Literally. I don’t think we could get my modern overstuffed couch in the old front door.

My bed and furniture, along with a few boxes, have languished in subzero temperatures in the winter, and heat and humidity in the summer, and I’ve faithfully paid the monthly rent all this time.

A couple of weeks ago we had a call from the owners/operators of the storage unit to say there was flooding on the property.

Here in Maine, we have yet to experience a snowstorm this season that wasn’t mixed with freezing rain. What this means is layers of ice have built up on the frozen ground and clogged culverts and drains. As temperatures see-saw between normal below-freezing and subzero and much warmer air that turns falling snow to rain, the rain has nowhere to go.

The storm that caused the problem at the storage unit dumped several inches of snow and then three inches of rain. Cellars and basements that had never flooded before got wet. Intersections and streets flooded in town. It was a mess. At the storage unit, all that water couldn’t drain away from the buildings, so it crept along the ground and washed through them.

When we unlocked the door and pushed it open, we found ice covering the floor of the unit. The floor slopes a little, so the ice thickness varies from half an inch to two inches or possibly more in places I couldn’t see well. Everything on the floor is absolutely frozen solid to the cement.

Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

For now, there’s nothing much I can do. After the initial look, I went back with a friend for moral support on another day. As I pushed up the overhead door, I had the usual pang of nostalgia and loss at the sight of the pieces from my old life, unused and abandoned. Added to that is the bitter cold and solid ice locking everything into place as though it will never let go.

The irony is inescapable. I was trying to keep those things safe from water and fire while I waited for a life they would fit into again. Keeping them safe felt like keeping me safe, or at least parts of me. Memories. History.

It’s all an illusion, though. How safe is any object? Objects get lost, broken or stolen. They get damaged. We have to manage them, care for them, protect them, carry them from place to place.

A couple of inches of ice have forced me to confront my thoughts and feelings about my stuff. Embracing minimalism is all about de-owning and decluttering, but as I go through my possessions in the house I’m in control. I can choose what to discard and what to keep. Now an act of nature has taken away some of my choice.

My cherished bed, for example, is nothing more than a mattress and box springs leaning against the wall in the back of a storage unit that got wet and are now firmly anchored in ice. When I am able to remove them and take them to the dump, all I’ve lost is the objects themselves. I’ll still remember with pleasure my wonderful bed and using all the bedding that goes with it. I’ll still remember my cat, gone now, with love and gratitude, and treasure the happy hours we spent together on that bed.

Photo by silviannnm on Unsplash

I’ve lost nothing but the necessity to store the bed for the sake of my memories and/or future possibilities. The truth is I have no use for a double bed in the life I’m living right now.

Why do we save things? Why are our lives full of things we wouldn’t buy today for the life we live now? Why do we save things “just in case?” Just in case of what? Does just in case ever come or is it merely a scary or hopeful story we tell ourselves? Do the things around us speak of who we are right now, or of who we once were or who we wish we were? Are we frozen in the past or in our fantasies?

The poet David Whyte says that most of us are at least three to four years behind our own growth and change. That struck a chord with me. My storage unit is filled with things from a life I left four years ago, a life I couldn’t go back to even if I wanted – and I don’t. I have moved on and out and up. As precious and sweet as some aspects of my old life were, they’re gone.

Except that I’ve been holding on, which has cost money and now created a situation requiring me to cut my losses and clean up. Maybe, if we took the front door off its hinges and even removed the door frame, we could have gotten my couch into the house, replaced the broken-down one we presently use, and been enjoying it all this time.

(Except the TV is always on in the living room. I hate the TV. The couch is mine. It used to be my reading place, but I can’t read in our disaster of a living room with the TV on. I don’t want it here if I can’t ever enjoy it! It’s mine. And the cat will sharpen her claws on it. And what if the house burns down?)

There is no moral to this story, aside from having learned it really is a good idea to put pallets down in a storage unit! It will be some weeks before the ice softens enough to chip off the floor and sweep out or melt. I have gone in and salvaged what I could, discarded some things, assessed some of the damage. Everything will have to come out while I dry the floor. Then I’ll need to discard whatever is ruined, buy and transport pallets and re-pack the unit.

Or maybe not. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the number of objects I’m carrying through my life. For far less than I’ve already spent on the storage unit we could have tightened up at least two of the outbuildings right here on the property for storage. How badly do I need anything I haven’t used in four years?

I’m inclined to be grateful for the flooding of my unit. It forced me to ask some important and provocative questions. It forced me to consider what’s truly important for my happiness. It challenged me to let go of things that no longer serve me without fear or regret.

When I left Colorado, I told friends I was coming to Maine because I thought I had a life here waiting for me. It’s taken me some time to find it, but I was right about that. I chose not to remain frozen in place, and that’s still my choice. Perhaps it’s time now to free my things from that old life as well.

Photo by David Hofmann on Unsplash

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Jennifer Rose
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