The Center

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?

Ugh. Goosebumps.

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.

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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.

Questions:

  • 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:

Discernment

In the old tales, young women are sent on dangerous quests that involve learning to sort one thing from another. One such teacher is Baba Yaga, about whom I’ve written previously. Baba Yaga is a crone, and when she can be bothered, she teaches too-sweet maidens how to sort poppy seeds from dirt, how to cleanse, and how to cook.

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This is to be understood metaphorically, rather than as a statement of appropriate gender roles. Take a deep breath, all you feminists!

The idea of discernment, or the ability to tell one thing from another, is essential to living effectively, and, much like restraint, we are losing touch with it in today’s world.

Sorting poppy seeds from dirt, or wheat from chaff, or mildewed kernels from wholesome corn, is not something technology can help us do. It doesn’t require equipment, money, strength, or a college education.

It’s a hopeless task, of course, to sort poppy seeds from a pile of dirt in one night with no light and no help, but in stories it’s a task that must be done if the maiden wants to live. Usually a magical animal or some other helper arrives; symbols of the maiden’s intuition, kindness or compassion. Interestingly, the maiden often sleeps while the helper(s) accomplish the task.

Metaphorically, this indicates that our civilized, rational, logical intellect must step out of the way and allow creativity, faith and intuition to guide us. Fairytales and oral tradition map our subconscious, our shadow, our deepest and oldest foundations, the places where our primal wisdom lies. Sorting one thing from another takes time and close examination. Discernment involves our senses and our feelings as well as our intellect. It demands our consent to peer closely, and accept what we see. It can’t be done in the presence of denial. Fear clouds discernment, as do distraction, an unwillingness to be wrong, ideology, and an inability to think critically. Gaslighting, projection, distortion and deflection all work actively against our ability to see things clearly. Those who are unwilling to venture into terra incognita are unable to practice discernment, which involves learning and adaptation.

Modern life doesn’t require us to sort poppy seeds from dirt, but here are some places in which discernment is vital:

  • Differentiating between truth and lies
  • Distinguishing between friends and not-friends
  • Recognizing the difference between power-with and power-over
  • Realizing the difference between our beliefs and needs and those of others
  • Differentiating between love and abuse, or love and control
  • Distinguishing between kindness and enabling
  • Realizing the difference between useless and useful
  • Knowing the difference between what makes life easier and what makes it harder (simplicity and complication)
  • Distinguishing between poisoned bait or toxic mimics and healthy choices
  • Understanding where our power is and where it is not
  • Noticing differences between words and actions (major red flag)
  • Differentiating between our own ghosts, struggles and wounds and those of others; in other words, do we take it all personally or blame it all on others?
  • Knowing the difference between our authentic selves and our pseudo selves
  • Recognizing the difference between what truly makes us happy and what the culture insists should make us happy

Discernment is not prejudice, hate or bigotry. The ability to tell one thing from another is a basic skill. I remember watching Sesame Street in the 60s when I was a child: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.

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In this era of “alternative facts” and postmodernism, our ability to discern is taking a beating, and those of us who persist in attempting to clearly see and understand our world, ourselves, and others are often targeted on social media. Interesting, that a skill four and five-year-olds can learn is becoming demonized.

 

Restraint

An article in my news feed caught my eye this week: 7 Psychological Superpowers Few People Have That You Can Use to Set Yourself Apart. It sounded interesting — and it was!

The author proposes restraint as a superpower. Oxford Online Dictionary defines restraint as “unemotional, dispassionate or moderate behavior; self-control.” The ability to manage our own behavior is an important aspect of emotional intelligence.

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Understand this does not mean making ourselves small, or silencing ourselves or others. It’s also important to think of restraint as an internal control. We have no power (usually) to restrain others, but we can develop self-restraint, which may influence others to be more restrained in their behavior.

As I think about restraint, it has two aspects. One is the choices we make as we interact with others. The other is the choices we make about our own attention; for example, we can learn to refrain (or restrain ourselves) from taking everything so seriously? This kind of restraint is invisible to anyone else, but significantly changes the quality of our experience and life.

I’ve noticed, as I work with this blog, how the vehicle of social media seems to encourage saying more and meaning less. We seem to have a need to share our most mundane activities and decisions as though they’re filled with meaning.

A good example is the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) trend, which has long fascinated me. As I navigate through the Internet, reading my news feeds, researching and exploring interesting links, I often stop reading articles and essays before finishing them. Sometimes because I don’t have the time right then to do it justice. Sometimes I’m finding no value in it.

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It never occurs to me to make a comment indicating why I made the decision to stop reading. If I’m too busy to read a lengthy piece, why on earth would I pause to say TLDR about it, either aloud or in writing? Why is that important? Why does anyone care? Is such a comment a passive-aggressive way to say the writer is too long-winded? Or that the reader has an important and busy life? Or that literacy is elitist? It seems to me an utterly useless comment.

I also think it’s fun when people write comparatively lengthy comments about why they didn’t read. I have the same set of questions there. It’s impossible to take feedback seriously or have a good discussion with someone who hasn’t read the piece, so why bother saying anything at all? We read what we’re interested in, and we don’t read what we’re not interested in … don’t we?

As we become more embedded in social media and texting technology, we act as though If we have the ability to say something, we must. But does having the means to constantly share our thoughts and choices mean we should? Is it useful? Is it truly connecting? Is it meaningful?

I’m amused and appalled by modern dating. Younger friends and colleagues inform me the norm now is to exchange frequent texts throughout the day in even a first date relationship. Romantic, meaningful texts like:

“How was your commute?”

(Icy. It’s February in Maine and it snowed yesterday, you jackass!)

“How’s work?”

(Distracted and interrupted because you keep texting me about nothing, Dude! You’re not a swimmer, you’ve never been here, and you don’t know anything about my job. What can I text you about work? Nobody’s drowned yet today. The pool is cloudy, and we don’t know why. Send chocolate!)

The parenthetic replies are mine. My friend was much kinder and more tolerant! Apparently, however, if texting like this doesn’t happen, one or another of those involved are hurt, or feel rejected or otherwise insecure.

Gah!

It makes me smile to think of restraint as a superpower, but maybe the writer is on to something. The article did make me think. I’m more comfortable listening than talking, but it’s evident after a few hours at work how lonely so many people are. They talk about their pets, their families, their health concerns, food, their pain, their history, their financial struggles, their work, their gardens, and the ice in their driveways. Sometimes their conversation is long, rambling, and interminable. I’m filled with compassion for them.

Many people of my generation and older are uncomfortable with texting, e-mail and social media. In fact, e-mail is now used much less frequently than messaging or FaceTime. My 30-something kids are scornful of e-mail and those who use it. They much prefer texting, which I do with them for the sake of staying in touch, though it’s deeply unsatisfying for me. I’d rather write long e-mails or talk on the phone (if I must; I hate talking on the phone!).

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Nothing replaces actually being with them.

People crave face-to-face conversation and contact (FaceTime doesn’t count), contact that can’t happen in a text with emojis. They’re so hungry that when they get it, they have no restraint at all. Everything comes out. Being “connected” through technology appears to be a toxic mimic for what we really need.

I wonder if part of what drives younger generations to compulsively send words into cyberspace is the same hunger for authentic connection, though unrecognized. In their loneliness and isolation, they send more and more impulsive, unedited, unrestrained words out into the world, longing for meaning, connection, and validation, but having no idea their extreme oversharing is making them less connected, not more.

Superficiality is not connection. The ability to be in constant technological contact is not necessarily intimacy, security, love or meaningful in any way. Restraint seems to be a lost art. We’re better at it when interacting in real time and place than we are online, where it appears nothing is too mean or hateful to say, but we all say an awful lot of nothing.

I’m disheartened by how easy we are to manipulate, from click bait to disinformation to trolls. The Internet and tech provide us with endless tasty poisoned bait to nibble on, and we pick it up every time. Stimulate our fear, guilt, outrage, defensiveness or paranoia, and we’re hooked into long, pointless debates and arguments, competitions over who gets to be right, and spending our time engaging with the world in a way that makes us and our relationships neither healthier nor happier, but is probably quite satisfying for all the Cluster B and otherwise destructive, manipulative folks out there with agendas for power and control.

The mice in our house are smarter than that. They’ve figured out how to lick the peanut butter out of the trap without triggering it.

So much for human supremacy!

We all have feelings and impulses, and most of us have said things we regret later. I’m not suggesting it’s wrong to be lonely, or to want to be seen or talk things out. I do wonder sometimes if technology is taking us farther and farther from our ability to participate in healthy, authentic relationships, however. Publicly documenting our every move, choice and experience (with pictures!) and participating in the culture’s indiscriminate oversharing makes me wonder where this road will take us. We’re getting very skilled at monologues. Real discussions and conversations in which people both speak and listen? Not so much. We spend more time waiting to speak than listening and attempting to understand.

After reading this article, I’m paying more attention to what I say, and why, and to whom. The point of language (a symbolic system for sharing meaning) is communicating. If we have nothing meaningful to say, why are we speaking (or writing)? (What is meaningful? Who gets to decide? Never mind. That’s for another post!)

Why is just being silent or present as a listener or reader not enough? Must we find something to say about everything to everyone? Do we cease to exist if we’re getting no attention or validation or have no comment? Does everyone need to know about our TLDR choices? Do our private lives need to be public plays with stage directions?

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