My partner and I have been watching back episodes of Nova for several weeks now on PBS. Last evening, as we watched “What’s Living In You?” and “Can We Make Life?” I realized that part of why I like the show so much is that it’s filled with people from all over the world who know they don’t know … and they want to know.
This is a direct contrast to some interactions I had this week with people who know … everything. They know what happened; they know everyone’s motivations and secrets; they know exactly what everyone else should think, do and say. They have no interest in anyone else’s point of view or experience. They ask no questions seeking understanding or more information. They don’t have to. They already know, and any information that doesn’t fit their story is an attack, a lie, or a threat.
In these posts I’ve referenced Kathryn Schultz’s book, Being Wrong, a fascinating and funny look at the myriad ways in which we’re all wrong, every day, though some folks seem to feel their lives depend upon winning and being right. Even when forced to admit we’ve been wrong about something, we avoid thinking or talking about it, concentrating instead on all the ways we were, are, and will be right!
We live in a world in which knowing is highly valued. Uncertainty or even, God forbid, admitting or contemplating the vast cosmos of what we don’t know, is seen by some as weakness. I suspect, however, that what’s really going on is simply fear. It makes us uncomfortable to think about how much we don’t know. If we discover things, we might have to make different choices, and most of us don’t want to do that. It’s too much work.
Fear doesn’t empower me, and neither does being right or wrong, or knowing or not knowing, Power is in the inquiry, in the questions, in the curiosity about ourselves, each other and our world. Power is in our ability to learn, unlearn and relearn — also called resilience — as we navigate our lives. We’re all both right and wrong, ignorant and knowledgeable, whether we admit it or not, but not everyone can ask a good question. Not everyone is able to propose an hypothesis and see it through to becoming a theory.
One of my greatest frustrations in life is with people who don’t want to know. What is that? How can anyone choose to be willfully ignorant? I don’t mean we all need to be interested in everything, as though life is one unending mechanistic reductionist set of classes. I mean we all need to be interested … period. In ourselves and the quality of our lives and experience. In others and the qualities of their lives and experiences. In our home, Planet Earth, and how to take care of it. In problem solving and innovation. In relationships and connection. In choices and consequences. In patterns, history and creativity.
The old map-makers drew maps of the discovered world, labeling the undiscovered areas “Terra incognita” or “Here be dragons.” What is the difference between someone who stays strictly within the confines of what the majority accepts as known and those of us who poke and pry; open forbidden doors, jars and boxes; look through microscopes and telescopes; and sail, ride, walk, stumble or crawl in search of dragons?
It boggles my mind to imagine some people find safety in not knowing, in not understanding. How can we make effective choices if we’re missing information? How can we heal, or learn to do better? How can we break dysfunctional patterns in our behavior? How can we have healthy, authentic relationships with ourselves or anyone else?
The hardest part of this issue for me is how disconnected I feel from people who say they don’t want to know. I think of life as an adventure, and I want playmates. I want to share what I’ve learned and learn more. I want to live the questions. I want to explore, reframe, turn beliefs and ideas inside out and upside down. I want to master new tools and skills. I feel sad when people in my life can’t — or won’t — play with me. It’s hard to feel my curiosity and questions are threatening to others. It silences me, and when I have to be silent, or less than I am, I’m bored.
The older I get, the less I realize I know. The older I get, the more willing I am to be wrong. The older I get, the more comfortable and confident I am with my ability to research, read, synthesize, understand, experiment, challenge and learn. I notice how angry that makes some people, and how intolerant some folks are of questions, especially uncomfortable questions.
Terra incognita. What a wonderful phrase. Anything could be there, anything at all. I’ll send you a postcard with a footprint of a dragon.
For several weeks the depth of snow has limited my ability to walk on our 26 acres. Last week we had a couple of inches of rain that arrived with the scent of the sea and tropical warmth, followed by a hard, fast freeze. The rain melted a great deal of snow and we had flooding. The sudden freeze created a hard crust on the remaining few inches of snow, and as we returned to subzero winter temperatures I decided to see if I could get down to the river.
Photo by Vincent Foret on Unsplash
The crust supported my weight — sometimes! Other times I broke through and floundered up to my knees, the icy rind bruising and scraping my lower legs in spite of long underwear and heavy canvas pants. I saw tracks of deer and moose, rodents and birds in the snow. The river, ice encased, had thawed slightly and flooded during the rain, so the cracked ice was piled in slabs. In some fissures I could see open water. In other places thin new ice had formed and old, yellow ice lay flat but spiderwebbed with cracks.
As I stood next to the river catching my breath and marveling at the power of winter, I could hear the voice of the ice. It’s an odd sound, because it comes from beneath one’s feet rather than the sky or the world around. The ice pops and groans, sings and mutters and snaps. It’s a wild, unearthly voice, a chorus of cold water, cold air and cold crystals, the medley of flowing, living water and rigid winter armor. I wondered what it sounded like to the creatures hibernating in the river bed and the beavers in their dens.
The trees here have voices as well. When the wind blows they creak and groan as they sway, and their branches rub together, making a classic haunted house rusty hinges sound. In the deep winter when it’s very cold, sap freezes, expanding, and the trees explode with a sound like a gun going off. Sometimes they split right through the trunk.
So many voices in this world. Every place has its own special choir, every season its own song. The sound of a beetle chewing bark, the Barred owls calling to each other in the snow-bound January night, the agonized shriek of a vixen calling for a mate on a February midnight of crystal and moon, and the barely discernible high-pitched talk of the bats as they leave their roost at dusk are all familiar voices to me.
I’m a seeker of voice, a listener, partly because I’m a writer and partly because I know what it is to be silenced. Our world contains so much pain and suffering, such unimaginable horror and injustice that my compassion is frequently overwhelmed. I cannot staunch the wounds and wipe the tears of the world.
But I can listen. I can bear witness. I can stand and wonder and marvel at the wild ice, the mating owls, the hunting bats and also the handful of people in my life. For a few minutes, I can encircle another with my presence and attention, allowing their voice to speak freely, truly and fully. I can choose to have no agenda about the voices of others, no expectations or judgements.
I can also give that to myself. It’s only in the last three or four years that I’ve reclaimed my own voice. That, more than anything, is why I began writing this blog. Once a week I sit in front of a blank page and write in my true voice. Blogging, for me, is not about validation or statistics. It’s not about trying to please anyone, creating click bait or competing. It’s about contributing my voice because I am also here, not more important but as important as anyone else.
Using our voice does not require a listener.
Listening to the ice and the world around me has allowed me to realize, for the first time, how deeply I’m committed to appreciating and supporting authentic voice. My appreciation is a thing apart from agreement or disagreement with what I hear. Speaking our truth is not a matter for criticism. It’s an offering of self, and listening without judgement is an acceptance of that offering. I feel no need to annihilate those I disagree with.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
The dark side of voice is the voice that deliberately drowns everyone else out, the voice that silences, controls and distorts our world and our sense of self. The voice that deliberately destroys is an evil thing, a thing afraid and threatened by the power of others. Dark voices throw words like a handful of gravel in our faces.
An essential part of self-care is learning to recognize, minimize and/or eliminate our exposure to voices we experience as destructive or silencing. This is boundary work. Note the difference between appropriate boundaries and dropping an atomic warhead. Healthy boundaries do not disrespect, invalidate or silence others.
I wonder what the world would be like if all criticism, jeering and contempt were replaced with “I hear you. I’m listening. I believe in the truth of your experience. You are not alone.” What would we be like if we gave that gift to ourselves?
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash
And what of lost voices? I don’t mean unheard or unremarked, but those voices who spoke, faintly, for a moment, and then were silenced so brutally and completely no one but the silencer heard their last cry. Such a person lives, breathes, walks, eats and sleeps, but he or she is a shell mouthing superficial words. Attempts to draw close, to understand, to share authentically and elicit a true voice in return are all in vain. The phone is off the hook. Silence and deflection are the only response. No one is at home. Love and listening count for nothing and behind the mask is only emptiness. Connection is denied.
How many voices can we truly hear? The world is filled with a cacophony of sound made by billions of people. Even here in the heart of Maine the voice of the river is punctuated by traffic noise. We all seem intent on increasing our exposure to voices via social media, 100 TV channels, streaming, downloading and YouTube. Does all this clamor make us better at listening and honoring voices? Can we listen to our child, our mate, the TV, and read Facebook all at the same time?
Some people say they can, and perhaps it’s true. What I know is I can’t. I don’t want to. I don’t feel listened to when I’m competing with other voices. I can’t hear myself when my day is filled with racket and din. I can’t extend the gift of presence to 100 friends on Facebook. I can’t discern between an authentic voice and a dark voice in the middle of uproar.
Voice is precious. It’s sacred. No created character lives in our imagination without voice. Silencing voice is a horrific violation. I have promised myself I’ll never again abdicate my own voice.
Honoring voice, yours, mine, theirs, and the world’s.
I came across a prayer to Baba Yaga recently. I’ve spent a lot of time with Baba Yaga, who is a supernatural female figure out of Slavic European folklore. I’ve told stories about her for years, and she’s an important character in my book. She’s a powerful life-death-life-death figure and has many names, among them Storm Raiser, Primal Mother, Lady of Beasts and Mother of Witches. In spite of our long acquaintance, I’ve only lately begun to love her.
Photo by ivan Torres on Unsplash
Sometimes I think the most important thing to understand about life is power. It structures every single relationship, most of all our relationships with ourselves. Power creates wars, cults, murderers, abusers, tyrants, rebels and perhaps angels.
I believe we have a great longing for our individual mislaid power, such a longing that we’ve lost track of what it is or how to recognize it in our hunger and desperation. I don’t know how else to explain our mindless obedience to the media, to our culture, to our religions, to the almighty “they” who instruct us how to live, how to eat, what to believe, how to look, how to buy and how to be.
At this time in my life, and at this time in my country’s history, I cling to Baba Yaga, because she represents sanity in a world becoming more insane by the day. The prayer reminds me of what true female power is — and is not.
True female power wastes no time on despots and bullies who conceal their fear and impotence behind dishonesty and the willingness to use force. It’s not her business to prop them up. They have nothing she needs and they’re not worth her attention, for they shall not endure.
True female power is real. It’s authentic. It’s not bound by chains of political correctness, manners, fear or ideology. A woman in her authentic power is, according to need and whim, a child, a wild woman, a bitch, a seductive temptress, a crone, and a creature of magic. Obedience and compliance are not in her nature.
True female power seeks the hidden thing, within and without. She pares away layers, stories, masks, facades, dreams, visions, expectations, and shoulds. She’s a persistent poker, prier and meddlesome busybody in holey tennis shoes. She opens drawers, boxes and jars, looks behind forbidden doors and never stops asking questions. She refuses to shut up, close her eyes or pretend, and views everything by the stark light of a fiery skull without flinching. She doesn’t need anyone to agree with her, and she doesn’t need everyone to agree with her. She doesn’t argue with what is. The truth cannot escape her.
True female power doesn’t prostitute for love and validation. Baba Yaga eats sulfur to make her farts more momentous and fertilizes her body hair to make it grow more abundant. She’s hairy legs and iron-tipped fingers and teeth sharpened on bones. She takes a lover when she feels like it, but she kicks him out of her bed before dawn and doesn’t offer breakfast. Her body is not for sale, her hair is the color it wants to be, and she has no use for a painted mask over her face.
True female power is a teacher of magic. She teaches the sorting of one thing from another, cleansing, lighting a fire, the alchemy of cooking. She’s the power of the cauldron, the cup, the womb and the growing seed. She’s the wisdom of bone and blood, seed and water, life and death. A woman in her authentic female power learns to feed and nurture the magic of her intuition and creativity. She knows they are the most priceless jewels she will ever have.
True female power feels huge, deep feelings of rage, grief, joy and lust. When fear accosts a woman in her power, she spits in its eye and knocks it down on her way forward. An authentically powerful woman knows how to cause earthquakes with her dance, bring rain with her tears, melt rocks with her passion and sow stars with her joy. She allows no one to make her small.
True female power expresses all her fine feelings. She shrieks, curses, cackles, stomps, grumps, slams and mutters. She will not be silent. She stays up all night drumming and dancing if the mood takes her, and sleeps all day when she wants. She collects secrets, stories, marbles and insults with equal enjoyment. In fact, she says and does exactly what she wants to do and say.
(Yes, I said marbles.)
True female power is ancient and enduring. It’s coarse silver hair, aching bones, pearly stretch marks, lumpy thighs, scars and wrinkles and cracks and crevices. A woman in her power bleeds, first red and then the invisible silver blood of wisdom that arrives when the children of her body have become ghosts living only in her memory. A woman in her full authentic power smiles kindly on the young and beautiful, because they are not yet capable of her wisdom.
Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash
True female power knows how to live through the night alone, how to wander in the desert, how to go underground and live in a cave among the roots of life when necessary. She survives the conflagration, the invasion, the prison sentence, the betrayal, the loss, the beating, the chaos, the flood. A woman in her authentic power is rooted in the stars, in the trees, in the mountains, in the sea and in the earth. She welcomes cycles and seasons. Change is her strength. She knows how to bide her time and let die what must, because she knows her power will endure in women who come after her.
A woman in her power is not confused. She knows there’s no authentic power in money or position, youth or beauty or hairless legs. She knows her wellspring of power is internal and if she can’t find it, no one will. True feminine power defines her own success, her own goals, her own agenda, her own spiritual practice, her own beauty and her own rules.
Baba Yaga’s specialty is too-good maidens of all ages. That’s how I met her. When the Baba is finished with such a maiden, she’s either saltier and wiser or dead. Baba Yaga eats the dead ones with vinegar to cut the sweetness.
It’s a good time for prayers. Perhaps it’s always a good time for prayers. Here’s mine:
Baba Yaga, Grandmother, we offer you our sweat, tears, blood, milk and urine. Initiate us into life and death with our own blood and bone. Lead us back into love for ourselves, our bodies and our earth. Help us, your daughters, find our authentic feminine power again.
Last week, my partner and I went to the movies and saw Arrival. Without giving any spoilers, I found it a stunning story about communication, among other things. It was the communication piece that really grabbed my attention, though.
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
Ever since then, I’ve been thinking in a newly focused and intentional way about communication — what it means, how it looks, where it breaks down and how to do it well.
The truth is, I don’t want to know how to do it well. I want to know how to do it perfectly.
Another truth is I’m always thinking about communication, because I’m always working on my book, on this blog or on relationships, and they all involve communication. My partner says there is no relationship without communication, and I think he’s right.
As regular readers know I am wont to do, I pulled out my Random House Collegiate Dictionary to give myself a starting place. Anyone who’s used a dictionary knows there are often multiple meanings for any given word, so I made a list of the definitions I liked, cut and pasted a little, and came up with this (emphasis is mine):
To give or interchange information to/with one another.
To express one’s true thoughts, feelings and moods easily.
To have or form a connecting passage.
Although I’m intellectually satisfied with this definition, it feels incomplete and inadequate. In fact, it makes me mad. If only effective communication was this easy and simple! Instead, it seems to be one of the most desperately difficult things we do, and we must communicate if we are to manage life in today’s world.
Photo by Bewakoof.com Official on Unsplash
How many ways does communication break down for us in a day? Are we even aware of all the ways it breaks down? How often are we communicating something completely unintentional?
At the same time, have we ever, in the history of humankind, had so many devices and forms of communication at our disposal? Have we ever had access to so much information and so many other people?
So why aren’t we happier, more authentic, more secure and sure of our worth? Why are so many of us starving for healthy, fulfilling connection? What’s missing?
If I knew, I would fix it in my relationships, but therein lies one of the problems.
This is the part that always sneaks up and bites me in the ass.
Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
Not everyone wants the level and quality of communication I do. Generally, I don’t take this cold little fact personally, but among my nearest and dearest it does feel personal, absolutely. I feel utterly and completely rejected and shut out, in fact.
Another problem is that not everyone is capable of the level and quality of communication I am. Many people carry terrible damage or experience disability that prevents them from being able to participate in touch, in sex, in eye contact and nonverbal cues, even in conversation. I can tell you from personal experience it can be very, very difficult to sort out those who want to and are unable to from those who simply don’t want to. In the end, it doesn’t matter, it all comes to the same thing. When communication is limited, relationship is limited.
Limitation frustrates me, whether it’s my own or imposed by others. I can do more. I want to do more.
A third issue is that communication is two-edged. It’s an enormously powerful skill and ability, both constructively and destructively. We all know people who use communication as a weapon, not a tool. Sometimes, a simple, ominous clearing of the throat can be far more terrifying and damaging than a blow. Both actions are communication. Even worse are people who deploy words saying one thing and demonstrate action that says another, like the abuser who says he loves you while he hits you. This is called gaslighting, and I’ll write about it in the future. It needs a post all its own.
A fourth point is we don’t have enough silence in the world. Silence is the cup that holds communication. It takes time to write, to create, to speak, to hug, to make love, to nurse an infant. It takes time to nurture a friendship, a lover, a child. Sitting with the ill or dying takes time and quiet. Listening takes time and presence. Our slavery to technology and stimulation has all but eliminated uninterrupted time for our relationships with ourselves, let alone with others.
And that brings up a fifth aspect. If we don’t, won’t or can’t communicate effectively and honestly about who we are, what we need and want and the truth of our thoughts and feelings, we can’t form a connecting passage, to quote the above definition. We’re not even connected to ourselves.
As though all those things didn’t make communication a big enough hairball, we have to remember who we are. We’re human, which is to say each one of us carries stories, beliefs, expectations, memories, scars and bleeding wounds that get in our way every time we communicate, even with (especially with) those we care deeply about. We all have painful triggers. We all get hijacked. We make assumptions. We misunderstand, deny, obfuscate, conceal. We filter through our particular history and experience. Few of us have any training in effective communication. We can tweet or text a sentence or two, but ask us to do more and we’re at a loss. For one thing, we don’t have time to deal with it.
We also have rules about communication, individual rules, tribal rules, cultural rules. We have rules about acceptable language, rules about keeping secrets, rules about being indirect, rules about protecting others, rules about loyalty and duty, rules about privacy, rules about what we’re willing to reveal to whom, rules about who we trust and don’t.
Even the words we choose can make or break communication. Here’s an example out of my own life I’m feeling particularly resentful about at the moment.
I’m a woman, a partner, a sister, a daughter and a mother. I love wholeheartedly and I’m very clear about how important healthy relationship is to me. I know the people I love well, and I try hard to accommodate their personalities, preferences and idiosyncrasies. I’m not Miss Fixit. I’ve no investment in protecting people, and the four men in the world who I love most are unbelievably capable and intelligent adults.
When I say, “What can I do to help? “Is there anything I can do to help?” or “Is there anything I can do for you today?” I’m not implying they can’t manage their lives, dammit! I’m giving a message of love. I’m saying, “I’m here. You matter to me. I’m glad to lend you support. I’d love to collaborate/cooperate/work with you.” I’m making a connection. I’m giving what I most want. Catch me being insulted if someone asks if they can help me figure out how to run the errands, take care of work and cook a meal!
My male partner says, with great patience, that I should use the word “assist” instead of help.
Seriously???? These four idiot men, who know me better than anyone else, need me to tippy-toe with my language in order to hear a message of love and support?
Never mind. I’m over it. Figure out your own damn life, and I’ll figure out mine.
Furthermore, catch me allowing any of them to help me, even though I know that’s connecting for them. They don’t need anything from me, I don’t need anything from them.
See how that breaks down?
And half of that is about me. I’ve been taught to be indirect in my language, I’m giving others what I want myself (this never works well, because the recipient rarely understands that’s what I’m doing), I’m coming across as relentlessly mumsy-wumsy and overprotective, and I’m assuming these four men are like me and won’t ask for help if they need it, but I’m the one who can’t ask for help, and now I’ve fastened myself more firmly in that position because they won’t cooperate with me and allow me to love them, so I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of…
And so on.
My conclusion about all this is that communication among human beings is a clusterfuck. It’s confusing. It’s messy. Most of us don’t know what the hell we’re doing and many of us are not that well intentioned in the first place. We have wildly varying degrees of ability with wildly varying aspects of communication. We try to hide, we misunderstand, we make mistakes, we don’t remember accurately and we’re often terrible at listening. We want to be right, we want to be validated and agreed with, and we want others to meet our needs quickly and perfectly so life feels simple and uncluttered, emotionally, at least.
I’m never going to do it perfectly, and neither is anyone else.
But hey, let me know if I can help you in any way!