Once Upon a Time a Woman Walked Through the Woods …

… and she met a bear. She froze, watching it watching her, seeing the long claws, the muzzle raised to sniff the air, the marvelous deep pelt. She thought about everything she’d ever heard about dealing with bears. She stood still, attempting to convey the energy of no-harm.

The bear let out a “whuff” of breath, turned, and shambled away.

THE END

Once upon a time a woman walked through the woods and met a man she did not know. He made no eye contact, said nothing, and walked on. The woman followed his lead and ignored him, continuing on her way in a direction well away from his. She was conscious of a new alertness, a slight acceleration in her pulse. Her peaceful walk, her gratitude and appreciation of the balm of nature, her healing solitude, now took on the aspect of carelessness and risk. She knew some would say she was asking for trouble to walk in the woods alone. Was her comfortable clothing provocative? Were her jeans too tight? Did they send a signal that she wanted sex? Where, exactly, was she? If she called for help, could she be found quickly? Was she sure what direction she was walking in? She didn’t want to catch up to the man, didn’t want him to think she was following him or trying to get his attention. She didn’t want to linger in case he’d doubled back and was behind her. How fast was too fast? How slow was too slow? What was the fastest way back to her car?

She stopped, hesitating, sheltering behind a thick tree. Maybe the man was harmless. Maybe he had come to be alone and quiet, too. Maybe he’d hardly noticed her. Maybe he was a good man like her brother, her friends.

Maybe he was parked near her car and would wait for her to come out of the woods …

TO BE CONTINUED

Once upon a time a woman walked through the woods and met a man she didn’t know. He made eye contact with her, smiled, said, “How are you?”

The woman made her face smooth and calm, but inside she shrank and adrenaline kicked through her. Should she smile? She’d been told not to smile at strange men, lest it be misread. Should she reply to his greeting? Should she walk on without acknowledging him, or would that make him mad? Or hurt his feelings? (Probably he was a perfectly nice, harmless man.) Did she have anything she could use as a weapon? She’d seen no other cars when she parked; was anyone within earshot?

Her thoughts raced. Her steps slowed while she considered what to do. She smiled slightly without meeting his eyes. She didn’t speak and didn’t stop. As she walked away, she listened for sounds of him behind her, but all she could hear was the hammering of her heart. She didn’t dare look over her shoulder in case he was behind her and took it as encouragement. She felt naked. Were her jeans too tight? She wanted to take off her jacket and tie it around her waist, but she didn’t want to do anything to make him think she was afraid of him. She forced herself not to run. She lengthened her stride, standing tall, trying to project assertiveness.

She began to circle widely, back to where she’d parked her car …

TO BE CONTINUED

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

I’m not on TikTok (God forbid), but I’ve been hearing about a recent viral sensation around the question of whether, as a woman, we’d rather meet a bear in the woods or a strange man. The vast majority of women would much prefer to meet a bear. The question was posed to me with no context and I didn’t need any time to think about it. I’d rather meet a bear, of course. A bear isn’t going to rape me. Bears don’t carry guns, abduct women, or hurt women for pleasure. I’ve often had brief interactions with black bears, both here in Maine and in Colorado. I’m not food. Any food I’m carrying can be tossed aside. As long as I don’t inadvertently get between a mom and her cubs, I’m not a threat, not something that needs to be attacked. If I am attacked and mauled, I’d far rather be hurt that way, or even killed, than fall into the hands of a twisted man. Bears are predictable. They don’t stalk, torture, lie, manipulate, kidnap, use substance, or terrorize for the fun of it.

A man might do anything.

A bear would recognize me as a human being. A man might not.

I’m told there’s a lot of anger from men about this answer, to which women respond with, “Thanks for illustrating the point so well. See? That anger, that language, that defensiveness and denial are exactly why we’d rather meet a bear than a man.”

And around and around we go.

Interestingly, an article I found that talked about this said when a man was asked if he’d rather his daughter met a bear or a man while walking alone in the woods, he eventually chose a bear.

I think about these things more than I have in years. I think about them every day at work, where I interact with all kinds of people as a professional, and every day as I walk the few blocks to and from work. I’m angry about it, because I assumed by the time I was 60 this sort of thing would be behind me. I forget this kind of behavior and threat really has nothing to do with my age and attractiveness; merely being a female is enough. For some men.

Photo by Sam Burriss on Unsplash

There’s no point is saying “not all men” because everyone knows that. Of course not all men are a threat to women; that’s not the point. The point is all men might be a threat and women can’t tell. We have to assume “all men,” for our own safety until we’re satisfied the man we’re interacting with is OK. Sadly, we’re often wrong. The vast majority of male violence against women and children is perpetrated by someone known, either a close connection or an acquaintance.

Men close to me who I trust have told me I’m “too nice.” I’m too warm. I’m too empathic. It’s infuriating. All my life I’ve worked with people. I like people (mostly). It doesn’t occur to me commiserating with a (overweight, completely unattractive, past middle-age old hippie with six strands of hair in a ponytail) patron over chronic back pain (beer belly) could possibly be seen as a come-on, an invitation to flirt and step over boundaries. Until it happens. And then I’m furious with myself, with him, with a world where a 60-year-old female lifeguard can’t say, “Jeez, sorry about your bad back,” to a male patron without having to spend the next month acting like a stone-cold bitch in order to reclaim boundaries.

It’s exhausting, and nearly impossible to explain to a man. It’s simply not in their experience and most of them can’t imagine living this way. But every woman knows exactly what I’m talking about. The divide between women and men gets deeper and deeper, fills with resentment and even hatred, because some men can’t or won’t understand our reality. It breaks my heart. Healthy men and women need one another. I don’t think we can effectively address the problem of male violence against women and children without healthy men.

I’m also thinking about this because we’re about to embark upon a major remodeling project in our home, which means we’ll have some months of workmen coming and going. I like men and I love watching men at work, learning about structure and building, observing, chatting. I would also like to occasionally make cookies or muffins, buy pizzas, and find other ways to show appreciation for the hard and expert work these guys will do. I want to communicate clearly and assertively with the contractor to make sure we’re on the same page and we understand one another’s expectations. I want to make healthy, respectful professional connections.

But I’ll probably let my male partner do most of the interfacing. He’s the one at home all the time anyway. It’s safer for him. I will connect with the contractor and write checks, but otherwise I’ll make myself small, stay out of the way, and try not to attract attention, including refraining from expressing “too much” gratitude or warmth. Whatever the hell that means.

It makes me sad. This is a big adventure for us. I’d like to have fun, embrace the chaos and change, enjoy the process and get to know the people who are making it possible. But the risk is too great.

This bear versus man viral question is important because of the spotlight it shines on female experience. Instead of an opportunity for further male outrage and denial or stoking more hatred for men among women, it could be a moment to foster a better understanding of the experience of having to live defensively every single day as a woman, knowing even that may not save us from male violence, and if we do fall victim to male violence, we’ll be blamed for it. (Our jeans were probably too tight. Or we shouldn’t have been walking alone.)

Or we could just go talk to the bears.

Questions for women:

  • Would you rather meet a man you don’t know or a bear while walking alone in the woods?
  • When a strange man is friendly with you in person (and you’re not looking for a date or a lay), what do you do?
  • What do you routinely do in an effort to avoid male violence?

Leave a comment below!

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here:

 

 

Uncovering Peace

This quote by Joshua Fields Millburn landed in my Inbox last week:

“Peace cannot be created – it is already there beneath the chaos.”

The truth of this struck me at once. We don’t construct peace. We uncover it.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

The practice of minimalism, for me, is the practice of letting go, of letting things fall away. I don’t do that to make my life empty. I do it to uncover the life I want.

If I want peace in my environment, I need to remove everything obscuring it.

If I want peace in my relationships, I need to clear away whatever obstructs it.

If I want internal peace, I need to peel away whatever destroys it.

It’s such a simple idea, and so monumentally difficult to put into action.

How do we figure out what’s strangling our peace?

Likely, at least some of what’s killing our peace are habits of action and thought we’re deeply invested in or frankly addicted to. Things we don’t want to give up or feel unable to give up. Sometimes we’re so attached to certain habits or possessions we feel life is not possible if we can’t have them or engage with them. Our survival depends on them, and peace takes a back seat to survival.

Except maybe it doesn’t. Maybe, in the long run, we can’t survive without a certain amount of peace.

This goes back to subtractive problem-solving. We don’t need more to solve our problems. We need less.

Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

If we undertake the work of identifying what’s between us and peace, we’re going to find feelings. Lots of feelings. Feelings we don’t want to feel. Feelings we don’t know what to do with. Feelings we’re afraid to express. Feelings we’re ashamed of. Feelings that are tearing us apart.

Until and unless we find appropriate, effective ways of managing and processing our feelings, we’ll never uncover the peace buried beneath them.

That’s why emotional intelligence matters.

What might lie beneath the chaos along with our peace? What are we most desperately in search of or trying hardest to create?

Love?

Health?

Time?

Our true selves?

An authentic life?

What if there’s nothing to make and nothing to buy? What if there’s no app to use or post to make?

What if what we have to do is discard everything concealing the peace, love, health, time, self, or authentic life we want?

We can’t discard our feelings, but we can learn how to manage and integrate them. We can discard toxic pieces of identity. We can discard thoughts, beliefs, patterns of behavior, and addictions. We can discard digital and real-life clutter. We can discard time-wasting and destructive habits. We can discard toxic relationships and toxic relationship dynamics.

It’s easier to buy something. It’s easier to get on Facebook or a dating app. It’s easier to have a drink, or turn on Netflix, or get high, or get numb. It’s easier to eat a box of donuts.

Easier, but all those choices layer a further crust of chaos over the magnificent life we long for.

Photo by fancycrave 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 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

Authenticity

I’ve been thinking about authenticity during the last couple of weeks.

What, exactly, does it mean?

Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as the “quality of being genuine or real.”

It seems simple enough, until one pauses to think about what “real” means, especially in the current cultural and political context of “alternative facts” and disinformation.

Recently I went through all my old photographs from the days when we took our film somewhere and had it developed. As I thumbed through photos of the first fifty years of my life, looking at all those younger versions of myself in the context of family, friends, and places, I was struck (not for the first time) by how one-dimensional a photograph is. One single moment in time recorded visually. As I was there when the picture was taken, I remember the emotional context of those recorded moments, the relationships, the quality of my experience; but showing the pictures to someone else is like taking the cover off a book and trying to convey the story with just that.

We know this, yet we continue to take selfies and be utterly seduced by pretty pictures, nowadays filtered, air-brushed, and otherwise enhanced. Some part of us believes in that fantasy, envies it, longs for it.

Is a picture authenticity?

No, of course not. But my pictures do record visual moments in a real life: My childhood, long-dead pets, family, trips, school years, my first job, my first day at college, and my years raising two sons. A real person experienced all that, but not quite the same real person I am today.

Authenticity, then, changes as we change. We age, we grow, we learn, people around us come and go, we move from place to place.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

I think of authenticity as a positive quality, one to aspire to and practice. I admire real people, and find them attractive. In some relationships, however, practicing authenticity is dangerous and severely punished. When children repeatedly experience negative consequences for their authenticity, they are effectively crippled in their ability to self-express and form healthy attachments. In order to survive emotionally, they create a pseudo self.

For some, being real or genuine is a horrifying risk. Here is a quote from Patricia Evans, author of Controlling People:

“I have heard many people … say that even when they use all their strength to maintain patience, to carefully articulate their truth, to share their deepest feelings, to explain their personal reality … they don’t receive understanding but instead encounter disparagement, subtle trivializing, or outright rage. People with excellent communication skills, sensitivity, and honesty can’t “get through.” … the Controller experiences this depth of authenticity as an enormous assault.”

When we are children, our sense of self is curated by the adults around us. Too many children internalize relentless criticism and contempt from their caregivers and carry it into adulthood in the form of a vicious internal critic. In this case, what feels like authenticity becomes a lie based on negative beliefs. The genuine, worthy human being is invisible, especially to him or herself, under a crust of trauma and abuse so old it feels real. Ironically, a palliative for this is to risk authenticity with a healthy other and be able to hear a challenge to the false beliefs obscuring our true selves. Sometimes a loving, compassionate onlooker can see us much more clearly than we see ourselves.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

I found an article in Psychology Today about authenticity that was thought-provoking. The author lists qualities of authentic people, including emotional intelligence, the ability to learn, and being able to perceive reality.

Perceiving reality has become an enormous cultural problem recently, as you may have noticed! It makes sense that a person practicing authenticity must be able to recognize what’s real and genuine externally as well as internally.

Being authentic sounds so easy. A simple choice. I haven’t realized before writing this post how difficult it is. We can’t choose it if we don’t know what it is, and discovering what’s real, both inside and outside us, is a daunting challenge.

Authenticity is approached by many paths. The practice of minimalism is one. Peeling away layers of stuff and clutter leads to peeling away toxic habits, thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which helps us peel away weight, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, and a multitude of other unhealthy debris.

Another road to authenticity is creativity. I myself discovered decades ago I’m incapable of expressing anything but truth in my writing, particularly journaling for my eyes alone. Our creative work can expose our deepest selves.

Yet another path is emotional intelligence and healing old trauma. The habits of mindfulness and self-inquiry, the willingness to reveal our scars and wounds and express the truth of our experience to others, help us discern the difference between who we really are, who someone told us we are, who we’re afraid we are, and who we wish we could be.

As I work on my new site (yes, yes, it’s coming!), one of the things I’m working with is reorganizing and recategorizing my content, which amounts to 250 posts. Going through all this content chronologically, starting at the beginning with my first post during the summer of 2016, has been a fascinating and lengthy process. Each post is entirely authentic, but I can clearly see change and progress from week to week, month to month, year to year. The woman who wrote that first post is not quite the woman who writes this one. Yet both are (were) practicing authenticity.

Photo by Khoa Pham on Unsplash

I can’t think of anyone more authentic than a newborn baby. Maybe life is a journey from a state of absolute, completely innocent authenticity, through chaos and identity confusion and enormous cultural and societal pressures, and gradual reclamation of who we were born to be, less innocent, but more fully ourselves, as we grow old.

Certainly, I feel more authentic in this moment than I did when I wrote my first blog post. Will I be more authentic yet in a year? In two years? In five?

Interestingly, my new site says “A Journey Into Power” on the landing page, and authenticity is one of my categories. To be seen, heard, and loved for our real selves is a core human need, a longing we all share.

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.