I’ve been sick for the last week. Not COVID, just a heavy cold, likely acquired from one of my giggling, spluttering, young swim students.
To be sick is to be in an alternate reality. Life goes on outside my windows. The neighbors come and go. The mail comes. They’ve been paving streets in the neighborhood. It’s rained. I’ve watched leaves falling and wished I felt well enough to go out and rake them into my garden beds. I’ve missed being out in the world. I’ve missed work. I’ve missed my friends. I’ve missed swimming and exercising.
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I’ve had a lot of time to read, and to think. I follow a writer on Substack, Jessica Dore. She writes about the Tarot, myth, and story, and I rarely read her without new insight and perspective on my own work in these subjects. In one of her recent posts, she explores an old story dealing with wounds, suggesting there may be wisdom in “letting the wound live.” Culturally, we are focused on healing, on fixing, on freeing ourselves and others from pain. Allowing wounds to stay open is a challenging and uncomfortable idea, but some part of me senses wisdom may indeed lie within it.
I’ve been thinking about letting wounds live as I surrender to whatever virus is operating in my system right now. Not thinking logically and linearly, but allowing it float and drift through my mind, making tenuous connections with other things I’m reading, old memories, half-waking dreams as I cat nap on the couch.
Another idea I’ve come across lately is turning weaknesses into strengths. This is my favorite kind of alchemy. I’ve always considered my wounds to be weaknesses. Could they be strengths?
We moved in May, and I’m still figuring out how best to fit my furniture into my space. I bought myself a badly-needed new mattress and a high bedframe to hold it. High because I have no closet in my bedroom and I want to store clothes under my bed. Love the mattress, love the frame, but the bed is now so high (I feel like the princess and the pea on top of twenty mattresses!) my bedside table is ridiculously low and inadequate. I had to lean out of bed to use it.
I have a tall wicker basket with a hinged lid. When I was a child my brother and I used it as a laundry hamper. I’ve taken it with me from place to place all my life. It’s the perfect height for my bedside table, nice and roomy on top, storage inside.
I have an old wound connected with that basket.
When I was about nine years old we lived in a big house in the Colorado Mountains in a very small town. My brother and I had a playroom, a bedroom each, and a bathroom downstairs in the finished basement. The wicker hamper lived in our bathroom next to the tub/shower.
I was a fearful child, terrified of the dark, constantly anxious, with a vivid (fervid?) imagination. One evening I went in the bathroom, shed my dirty clothes and put them in the hamper, and took a bath. All was well (what’s better than a hot bath and a book?) until the tub was filled and I turned the water off.
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The hamper creaked. Then it cracked. Then it skritched. Long silences in between noises. I had never noticed this before, and I was immediately terrified. All the unnamed, half-understood fears in my young heart coalesced into the utter certainty there was a monster in that hamper, and my life depended on escaping its notice.
I froze, my book clutched in my fingers. I didn’t dare read because I was afraid of the whisper of turning a page. I didn’t dare move. The door was closed. My parents were far, far away upstairs. I got cold, and then colder. Reaching for the hot water tap was out of the question. I’d have died first.
The hamper creaked, and cracked, and skritched.
Eventually, what seemed like hours later but was probably much less than that, although the water was unpleasantly cool by then, my mom came to check on me and found me there, fixed in place with a terror I could not adequately express. That was the problem. If I’d been able to talk about my fears they likely wouldn’t have been so overwhelming.
I’ve never forgotten that evening, and how real and visceral my terror was. I knew, I knew some dark and deadly horror crouched in that hamper, listening, scenting prey, slobbering, waiting to pounce. I knew there was no help for me. No one would hear. No one would protect me.
In spite of that old trauma, I’ve always loved the wicker hamper. It still creaks and cracks with temperature change and use, but it strikes me as friendly now, rather than sinister.
An old traumatic wound. It joined others wounds made by the claws of fear. I’ve written before about my fear of the dark, which haunted me for the first three decades of my life. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of scarcity. Fear of the adult world I could not possibly understand. Fear of abandonment.
Fear is an old and loyal companion.
How could it possibly be a strength? Surely nothing is quite so pathetically weak as constant fear?
As I was pondering this, I came across a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, one of my favorite poets, translated by another of my favorite poets:
You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
so that no one sees you anymore.
But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight –
and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.
I have faith in the night.
Translated by David Whyte.
Rilke understood darkness. So does Whyte. Poets. Writers.
Writers like me.
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So much of my writing is about shadows and darkness, the hidden thing, the unspoken secret, the uncertain future, the truths nobody dares tell … until someone does. Someone like Pandora, who opened the box anyway. Someone who blows the whistle, blows the cover. Someone like Baba Yaga, or the child who said aloud, “the emperor had no clothes!”
I am surely not the only child of fear. Perhaps we all hold its hand, or perhaps some of us are more intimate with it than others. I don’t know. What I can sense is its paradoxical nature. Fear defines courage. How often does it define, at least in part, art? Think of Vincent Van Gogh, for example.
Fear defines courage. Yes. I believe that. Courage is strength. I believe that, too.
Then it must follow that fear is not weakness. Fear has wounded me, but it hasn’t made me weak. Rather the reverse.
If things had been different in my life, if I’d never felt the degree of fear I did and do, if somehow I’d found a way to heal myself of fear’s wounds and be free of it, I would not be the writer I am. I might still be a writer, a different kind of writer, but I would not have written The Webbd Wheel series or this blog.
All my work and much of my empathy are rooted in the compost of living, breathing, bleeding fear and the wounds it’s torn in my psyche. Fecund wounds. What a strange idea.
I leave you this week with a final thought from David Whyte:
… the place you would fall becomes
the place you are held.
To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.
Last Friday I resigned from my medical transcription job. Shortly after emailing my letter of resignation to my supervisor, she called me, wanting to know why.
I told her the truth. I don’t feel as though my contribution matters. I don’t like the company culture of perfectionism and high stress. I don’t feel valued as an employee, and my skills and talents are worth more than I’m receiving.
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We parted in a friendly manner. She assured me I was eligible for re-hire any time and wished me well. I wished her and the rest of the team well. Cyber handshakes and smiles all around.
I’m in the middle of selling a property back in Colorado. I currently have wonderful renters in the house. They’ve been honest, cooperative, open and have done every single thing they’ve said they would do. They’ve become friends. I’m faxing paperwork, including the lease with these tenants, to Colorado and working with my Colorado real estate agent long distance. The agent expressed surprise that our rental agreement didn’t contain language about punitive consequences if the tenants suddenly decided to break the lease and leave.
It never entered my head to limit my tenants’ choice to leave if they were unhappy. Obviously, at least one property professional feels this is inappropriate business practice, but why would I want to force two people whom I respect and like to stay in a situation that wasn’t working for them?
Answer: I wouldn’t want to, I didn’t want to and I don’t want to.
Last evening I had a long conversation with one of my sons, and among the things we talked about was the idea of noticing how things are within ourselves and the choices we make about our own unhappiness and discomfort.
This morning, as I fried bacon and sausage and worked in the kitchen, I was thinking about this week’s post, trying to come up with something I wanted to write about from my current experience, and suddenly all these interactions lined up in my head (Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!) and I thought, well, there it is. I want to write about quitting.
What do you think of when you think of quitting?
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I think of the word “should,” as in should quit smoking, should quit drinking, should quit eating so much sugar, should quit fill-in-the-blank. These are the kind of circumstances under which quitting is supported and validated, but the “should” is an instrument of shame, guilt and fear, as well as a thoroughly ineffective motivator.
I was taught being a quitter or a dropper outer is a desperately mortifying thing. Quitting is associated with betrayal, abandonment, failure, letting others down and weakness.
Quitting is often an act of aggression. It’s what we do when we’ve hung on by our fingernails until they’ve torn out, one by one, and we have to let go or die. It’s hitting bottom. It’s burnout, breakdown and nothing left to lose, often accompanied by scenes, meltdowns and an exchange of insults.
Quitting is selfish and irresponsible. Choosing to be happy is an embarrassing thing to admit. We’re told If everyone did what made them happy, everything would unravel. Nobody would work. Important things wouldn’t get done. The economy would collapse.
There are cultural consequences for quitting. The label “quitter” impairs our ability to get hired, find stable relationships or make financial choices. A quitter is unreliable and untrustworthy at best. Someone who quits their marriage, family or children is so despicable as to be unforgiveable in some cases.
The word quit, according to a quick search, means to leave a place, resign from a job or stop or discontinue an activity. In short, it’s a word that defines a choice. Interestingly, one of its origins is Middle English, in which it means “set free.”
Set free sounds a lot more positive than quitting, doesn’t it?
It occurs to me that the whole idea of quitting is rooted in power. To quit is to stop. How is it that the culture is so unfriendly and unsupportive, for the most part, of making a choice to stop? Why are we so consistently and pervasively discouraged from saying no, from quitting, from changing?
I’ve written before about the yes and the no. To be in our full power, both consent and dissent have to be available to us. We have to be able to make a real choice. The inability to freely choose points to a power-over situation, and it doesn’t matter if it’s work related, relationship related, addiction related or some internal limitation like fear. Something or someone is interfering with our power to freely choose if we can’t make a choice to quit.
Said a different way, the problem is not so much the addictive substance, the miserable job, the narcissistic family member or the abusive romantic relationship. The problem is we’ve been systematically amputated from our full power to choose.
Sadly, this is a consequence, at least in part, of our current educational system in the United States. It doesn’t work for a lot of kids. It didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for my kids. I told my sons the same thing I was taught when they complained. Education is important. Everyone has to go to school. It’s the law. We all have to do things we don’t want to. Being happy doesn’t matter.
Ugh. I wish I hadn’t believed that. I wish I hadn’t said it, and more than anything I wish I’d listened to their distress and taught them to respond to it appropriately by responding to it appropriately myself. At the time, all I had was what I’d been taught, and I’m absolutely certain my own mother taught me the only thing she knew as well.
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The point is few of us learn how to respond to our discomfort or unhappiness, either by expressing it appropriately or taking action to help ourselves. Public education certainly doesn’t teach it. The way we work in this country doesn’t support it. Patriarchy in general doesn’t validate self-reflection, honest communication, or simply saying, “No more. This isn’t working for me. I’m stopping. I’m quitting.”
On the other hand, we’re great at demanding and commanding, as in “You should … You will … You must … You have to …” However, living in a cage of internalized and externalized shoulds is more power-over. When the shoulds have our power, we’re not free to choose. I know, because that’s how I’ve lived most of my life.
One of the hallmarks of power-over is its resistance to change. Change threatens the status quo. Traditional marriage vows are forever, no matter what. Many jobs reward length of service. We’re encouraged to grow up, settle down, get a stable life. Loyalty, dependability, reliability and predictability are all rooted in not changing.
But we do change. Our bodies change. Our needs and desires change. We learn new information. The things that captivate and delight us change. The best of us learn, grow, question, seek new experience, dance elegantly with challenge and tension, and develop a healthy relationship with being wrong. The best of us spend a lifetime making friends with our changing selves, investigating our motivations, our patterns, our behaviors and beliefs, our weaknesses and strengths, and doing battle with our fears and demons.
A relationship, job, priority or place may be a perfect fit at some point in our lives, and then be outgrown. A coping mechanism or response may work very well, even save our lives at one time, and cripple us at another. Life is always changing. The ability to flow with change, to welcome it and play with it, responding with free choice after free choice, defines a well-lived, powerful, elegant life
Quitting, like boredom, has a bad reputation. I suspect this is mostly due to a cultural smear campaign. My son is in his 20s, and as he shared parts of his experience with me, I realized we’ve arrived at the same place, he’s just 30 years ahead of his late-blooming mother. He’s reclaiming his power to respond to his own discomfort and distress and choose what to do, based on prior choices and how they worked out. He’s not waiting until he can no longer bear his unhappiness. He’s not quitting in a blaze of hand grenades and gunfire. He’s not self-destructing. He’s allowing himself to stop, to change, to leave. He’s setting himself free of what doesn’t work for him, and he’s doing it without guilt or shame or the need for outside validation.
Quitting is an art. I can be done with respect, gratitude and dignity. It can be a gift of love and authenticity to self and others. The right person for a job, place or activity is not someone who hates the job, place or activity. The right job, place or activity for us is not the one that makes us unhappy. Commitment, responsibility and keeping our word are all important things, but not unto death. Not unto madness and broken-down health. We are allowed to set ourselves free. We are allowed to change. We are allowed to learn. We are allowed to try and fail and move on.
I began this project of blogging with a letter of resignation. This week I sent another letter of resignation. In both cases, I hung on long after I knew I was miserable because I was afraid to make a change. I have more work to do in building trust with myself, but I’ve made a start.
I quit. My daily crime.
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In the last couple of years, a lid has been gradually slipping off a container in my mind labeled ‘BOREDOM,’ and I suddenly realize the contents of the can are now moving into all the cracks and folds of my memories and experience.
I don’t have much interest in boredom. I’m never bored and I’m greatly irritated by people who are. When I expressed boredom as I child I was either given something “productive” to do or told sometimes everyone has to do things they don’t want to do.
As a parent, when my kids expressed boredom, I gave them a long list of tasks or “productive” things they could do to help me. They usually declined, but they also learned quickly to stop saying they were bored.
I’ve often been told I’m boring.
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There. That’s all I have to say about boredom.
Life was much more cut and dried before I became educated in emotional intelligence. Now I’m suspicious of cut and dried, especially if it has to do with feelings, patterns in my life or things that keep showing up. Boredom keeps showing up. People say they’re bored and I feel disgusted. People say they do self-destructive things because they’re bored and that excuse infuriates me. I take the boredom of others personally, as though I’m not entertaining or interesting enough to keep them engaged.
If I’m not interested in boredom, I ask myself, why does it make me so mad, and why does it keep catching my attention?
A couple of days ago I decided this week’s post would be about boredom, so I really started to think about it. I tossed around the concept of boredom with my partner. I thought about all the places it’s shown up in past relationships. I sat down and Googled boredom and looked at articles, quotes, memes, images and definitions.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve come to the page, either to write or research about something out there — a behavior or pattern I observe around me in other people — and discovered it’s not out there at all, at least not exclusively. It’s in here.
Remember what I said a minute ago? “I’m never bored.”
I’m suddenly realizing that’s not true. In fact, I suspect I’ve been chronically bored my whole life. The feeling of boredom, along with so many other feelings, simply got denied. It wasn’t until I started living more authentically here in Maine and stopped being bored that I could begin to see the colossal depths of my previous boredom.
Naturally, I’ve felt enraged when others express feeling bored while I can’t.
But why can’t I express it? What’s so shameful about boredom?
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First of all, being bored means you’re not working hard enough. You’re not being productive. You’re wasting time. You’re useless! You’re lazy! You’re a quitter! You’re irresponsible! You’re letting others down! You’re not pulling your weight! You’re a burden! You’re a failure! (This eventually trails away into a wild-eyed, gibbering mental shriek.)
When all the arm-waving drooling hysteria stops and I can think rationally again, what I’m left with is BUSY=GOOD and BOREDOM=BAD. This has the look and feel of first-grade logic to me, and I’m skeptical. I’ve spent a lot of my life staying busy in order to please other people and a lot of that busy was dead boring. School, for example. Busy and bored are not opposites. Busy without purpose is a recipe for compulsivity. On the other hand, the condition of being undisturbed and private with a book, paper and writing or coloring pens or even just a window and a cat with nothing in particular to do is a real pleasure.
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Somehow, somewhere along the way, boredom became the enemy in our culture. It’s a whine, a complaint, a danger and a discomfort to be avoided. It’s a weakness, even a sin (if you think in such terms). Boredom is a condition that must be fixed. Bored children get into trouble. Bored adults are not productive. Boredom is an excuse to use and abuse substance. People eat out of boredom. People have affairs out of boredom. Boredom, in fact, is to blame for a lot of undesirable behavior and choices.
Really? I don’t accept this. I’ve learned feelings — all feelings — can be thought of as value-equal data. We’re human. We have feelings. Some are more uncomfortable than others, but isn’t that largely a product of the thoughts and judgements we attach to them? Feeling a feeling doesn’t mean we have to act it out in ways to hurt others or ourselves. If we make destructive choices, our feelings are not the problem. What we do with our feelings is the problem.
It follows then, if I’m bored and I can call the feeling by name and recognize it, there’s information there for me. What is my boredom telling me? Here are some things I associate with my own boredom:
- I’m not interested.
- I’m not engaged.
- I’m not authentic.
- I don’t feel a connection.
- I can’t make a contribution.
- It’s too easy; I know how to do this; I can do more.
- I don’t understand.
- I’m overstimulated.
- I’m exhausted or ill.
- I’m overwhelmed with some other painful feeling, like fear, rage or grief, I’m refusing to deal with.
- I have a boundary problem; I’m taking on something belonging to someone else.
- I’ve been here and done this — not doing it again!
- My needs are not being met.
- I feel disempowered.
- I’m not in the right place.
- I feel limited.
- I can’t be curious or creative.
- I’m not safe.
This entire list is a map informing me where I’ve been, where I am and where I might go next. The feeling of boredom is the ground I stand on to read the map. My boredom doesn’t need to be fixed. There’s nothing shameful about it. On the contrary, it holds essential information and experience for me. It defines choices and supports power. Busy can’t create this essential space and quiet, but boredom can.
So much for not expressing boredom because it’s bad and busy is good. What else stood in my way all these years?
You see, I’m female. (By which I mean uterus, ovaries and menses.) Good girls, nice girls aren’t bored — ever — by males, including but not limited to male teachers, male family members, male romantic/sexual partners, male classmates and colleagues, and male bosses.
Now, before anyone climbs up on their high horse, understand I don’t hate men. Not at all. I’ve historically gotten along better with men than women, in fact. Also, I know things are different now than they were in the 60s and 70s when I was being socialized — sort of. There’s a lot more awareness and discussion of feminism and sexual politics.
However, a big part of my training had to do with “respect,” (also loyalty, responsibility and duty) and just about the only person not included in those I was taught to “respect” was myself. Respect was demonstrated by things like being silent while the men spoke, obedience, and being properly grateful for and attentive to mansplaining . Respect meant adapting, adjusting, and limiting myself so as not to challenge, threaten or compete with men. My role was to learn to “act like a lady” and be compliant, sweet and attractive.
You might not have noticed, but that training wasn’t notably successful.
Boredom and respect are not a happy team, so of course I kicked boredom to the curb. Respect meant love, validation, tribe, straight A’s, husband, children, a good job and a normal life. Boredom with addiction, violence, abuse, rigid thinking, inability to grow, absent creativity and curiosity, uninspired sex, toddler-level communication skills, power and control games, mind fuckery, omnipresent TV, unending housework and financial grind was absolutely out of the question.
As for other people calling me boring, we’ve already covered that in a previous post. It’s a projection. My feeling of boredom is not about others and their boredom is not about me. I’ve been a lot of things in my life, but boring isn’t one of them.
That empty can in my mind labeled ‘BOREDOM’ was filled with something I want and need. Who knew? Going forward, I’m reclaiming my boredom. I’m welcoming it like the wise old friend it is, naming it, honoring it, embracing it, standing hip-deep in it and reading the map of my life to chart a course for what I’d like to do next.
And I will never, ever again try to fix, discourage, stifle, diminish or deny someone else’s boredom. I will instead congratulate them for feeling such a vital, vibrant feeling and ask them my favorite question:
“What would you like to do now?”
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except where otherwise noted