relishyourstory.com

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WORK

I was twelve years old when I began babysitting other people’s children.

The work was demanding, but since I already had so many younger siblings, I was accustomed to it, so I didn’t complain. Besides, it was usually easier than mowing lawns for money (which I also did), and I liked having a few dollars in my pocket to show for it. And when I say a few, I mean a very few.

One particularly well-off miserly family (the mom used to laugh about how she couldn’t wait to go to work to get away from her two small children) saw fit to pay me a whopping twenty bucks to watch them five days a week for one whole summer, then had the nerve to complain about how much of their food I was eating when I had the nerve to eat the last Klondike bar I found hidden in their freezer the day before.

I was thirteen or fourteen at the time, had always been underweight for my age, and she made me feel ashamed. Made me feel like I was stealing food from their table.

For me, that was the last straw. I could handle watching her two young children, both still in diapers, but I could not handle her being as big a baby, so I quit.

When I think of how hard I worked, not just watching other peoples children, but cleaning their houses and even getting dinner started some nights for one family, I cringe at how badly I allowed myself to be taken advantage of back then.

I was fifteen when I finally landed my first real job, though barely above minimum wage it wasn’t much better than my babysitting gigs.

It was at a local family-owned pharmacy, the kind with a soda fountain where the construction workers who were erecting something or other nearby would come in most afternoons just as my shift started, and spin around on the swivel chairs at the counter and order coffee frappes while they flirted with me and another of my friends that worked there. I guess you could say I’d graduated from babies drooling on me to grown men drooling over me.

Most of the time I didn’t mind it, nor did I mind swiping makeup off the shelves when the boss wasn’t looking (not a very good Catholic girl I know) or stealing an occasional pack of butts while refilling the cigarette shelves when I was broke, which was basically all the time.

But when it began to feel as though I was a toy for those men to play with, when the innocent flirting began to take on sly, threatening tones, I quit and spent the rest of that summer ironically working in construction. I knew a friend of a friend that was looking for a couple of laborers to help them finish constructing a large stone wall for a property in a town nearby, so for the next several weeks that’s what I did, and I reveled in it.

When the wall was finished, I hung up my work boots and went to work at a local supermarket as a cashier.

By the time I was seventeen, I was living on my own and working full time to support myself.

During the years eight years that followed I held eight different jobs ranging from a bank teller, computer operations at said bank, a medical secretary, a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service, an air traffic control student for the Federal Aviation Administration and other various office jobs in between.

My ninth, working from home as a fine art painter of collectible miniatures, I would continue to do for the next sixteen years while I raised my two kids and simultaneously homeschooled them.

When I stop painting exactly ten years ago, it wasn’t because any part of me wanted to quit. OK, maybe some part of me did; the part that woke at four in the morning every day to get the work done before the kids woke up. But the real reason was that the work was taking too great a physical toll on my body.

At that point, I was working seven days a week and making more money than I ever had in my life – even if most people would consider it small potatoes, so giving up the freedom of working from home was not an easy adjustment to make.

But after more than sixteen years of being hunched over at my desk, forehead pressed against a hot lamp set above my subject matter, my wrists held at unnatural angles for hours, my neck and shoulders strained and trained into repetitive movements that would take lying on the floor after a session to get to relax back to where I could move them again, I had no other choice than to give it up the same way I’d given up smoking: cold turkey.

It would take almost two years of physical therapy to get back to full mobility once I’d quit. Thankfully my husband was making enough money (for the most part) by then to cover my sudden lack of income, so I could remain at home and continue to teach my children while I kept clipping coupons and tried to find new ways to make every single dollar stretch.

In the ten years since I have had many other jobs, but not until very recently when I was hired by my son as his bookkeeper, was I ever paid for any of them.

My teacher’s salary was nonexistent, as was any salary for being a nurse, a veterinarian, a personal shopper, a housekeeper, a chef, a gardener, a household finance manager, a climber of laundry mountains, you get the idea.

During all that time, without an actual paying job, I always felt inadequate when compared to my husband, the breadwinner, since none of the work I was doing was held in as high a regard.

No matter how hard I worked the fact that I no longer contributed financially to our family, translated into me being on less than equal footing.

“Work is intimacy and discovery even through the boredom, even through the imprisoning necessities of toiling for another, even through the trauma of rejection and dissatisfaction, even through being badly recompensed. ” – David Whyte Consolations

The work I chose was just that, chosen. No one held a gun to my head forcing me to do any of it. I wanted children, and more importantly, I wanted to be the one to raise my children, so the isolation I felt being a stay-at-home mom, the work involved looking after everyone’s needs, even the lack of being paid a penny for any of it, I willingly signed up for.

But when I was forced to stop painting, or more to the point when I stopped bringing home a paycheck, I no longer felt like all the rest of the work I was still doing was enough.

I had to prove myself, didn’t I?

I had to have an answer when asked, “So what do you do for work, Amy?” since answering, “I’m a stay-at-home mom” never felt like a good enough answer.

So I began writing. I had written two children’s books years before, that despite my many attempts, were never published, so this time I decided I would write a novel, something I’d always believed I was meant to do. After all, I had the financial and emotional support of my husband, had some great ideas, and had the proper motivation to do the work.

I’ve written three novels in the last ten years, but since none of them have ever been given an audience outside of a very select few, I’ve never felt the satisfaction that comes with being published. Of being paid for my labor. Of finally having my literary voice heard.

Writing, I discovered very quickly, was hard work. Maybe the hardest work I’d ever set out to do aside from raising my children, but not for the obvious reasons. Not because educating myself about story structure and plot and themes and so on was any more difficult than any other thing I’d done that took hard work and dedication, say like designing and helping to build our home.

For me, the hardest part about writing has been returning to the blank page day after day despite knowing I may always be my only audience.

It’s a feeling that until I began writing this blog, has never gone away.

This blog has been a year-long labor of love. It required hard work to keep pushing through the resistance I felt writing a new essay every week.

To move forward, I had to remember where I had been and who I was then, compared to who I am now, even when it meant ripping open old wounds to do so.

In the process, I found something in each of my stories to relish, even the most painful ones, even if that something was that each story is uniquely mine and I’m still alive to tell it.

A gift from my sister for my fiftieth birthday.

“I write to balance the teeter-totter of my childhood.” – Screenwriter and novelist, William Goldman, once said.

I would add, I write because I was sick of giving power to my pain.

The often invisible child I was, has been seen.

The story of my future is no longer the story of my past.

I’ve spent my life feeling like I didn’t deserve to be happy, and felt guilty whenever I was.

I kept some of the best parts of myself locked away in a self-imposed prison. Over the years I became very comfortable there. So much so that I no longer noticed the bars on the windows or that the door was locked from the inside.

At the risk of upsetting and or alienating people very close to me, or instilling disbelief in others who have expressed doubt about the accuracy of my memory, with every story I have bravely shared here, I’ve taken one more step towards freedom.

“Are the stories we tell ourselves true?” Was never meant to imply that mine or anyone else’s memories and stories are not accurate or factual – only our very one-sided interpretation of them.

To my audience – every single reader who took the time to read any or all of what took me a lifetime to write –  I hope you feel your time was well spent. I will forever be grateful to you all. And to those of you close to me who reached out – always when I seemed to need kind words of encouragement the most – thank you for your unwavering support. I love you.

And I will forever be grateful to the poet extraordinaire, David Whyte, whose poem, Sweet Darkness, I clipped from a magazine and hung above my bed many years ago, never knowing that our paths would cross one day.

https://soundcloud.com/onbeing/sweet-darkness-by-david-whyte

His wise words have been a gift and an invitation for my inner child to come out and play.

I am a big believer in not wasting time having learned that lesson the hard way by wasting so much precious time in the past.

My hard work has paid off. As the year draws to a close I don’t feel the need to make any resolutions; I have the resolution I have longed for.

All that is left is love.

I have gifted myself with something no one else could have given me — tabula rasa – a clean slate.

“With the right work, the right relationship to that work and the mystery of what is continually being revealed to us through our endeavors, we find a home in the world that eventually does not need debilitating stress, does not need our exhausted will and does not need enormous amounts of outside energy constantly fed in to sustain it.” – David Whyte Consolations

I have found my home in writing. It feels like the right work. It feels like both a mystery and a dear friend.

Anyone that knows me well knows that when I start something, I finish it; preferably as soon as possible.

I am glad to have stuck with this blog. As many times as I thought about quitting, I knew I never would. I made a promise to myself and kept it.

I plan to keep writing here, on my blog when I can, and I’m anxious to get back to work – whether that turns out to be something brand new or not I can’t yet say, and that’s okay.

I don’t need to know.

I rather like not knowing.

Dare I say I relish it?

 

WITHDRAWAL

A couple of years ago I began reading the book this blog was based on but did so only sporadically.

I would pick it up every now and again, and choose which essay to read based on my curiosity to certain words listed in the table of contents.

But when I picked it up again late last fall, something felt different. What had changed I really can’t say, but the first thing I noticed was the four essays I had dog-eared earlier: Haunted, Honesty, Vulnerability, and Withdrawal, so I decided to reread each of them.

“We stick to the wrong things quite often, not because it will come to fruition by further effort, but because we cannot let go of the way we decided to tell the story and we become further enmeshed even by trying to make sense of what entraps us, when what is needed is a simple, clean breaking away.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was gearing up to begin the third rewrite of my third novel and was already several years into the writing of it, and when I read this one powerful sentence again, the truth of his words hit home for me in a very big way.

After all of my hard work and focus, I wasn’t keen on letting go of the way I had decided to tell the story, even though I knew in my gut it wasn’t working. I felt trapped and was aching for a clean break from it all.

Not only that, but I realized the same could be said about the stories I’d been telling myself my entire life, which is why this one sentence had such a powerful effect on me and made me want to cry when I read it again.

I was at that point, inching ever closer to the fifty-year mark of my life and was aware that I had spent so many of those years enmeshed in my stories trying to make sense of how trapped they often made me feel.

I wanted a clean break from them; a clean slate from which to start over.

Relish, was the working title of the novel I was still laboring over. It was the story of a young woman who despite having an incredibly challenging childhood and painful relationships with most of the people in her life, over time, and with the help of her beloved grandmother (that’s where Grandma’s relish comes in) she comes to see that life is meant to be savored, that she can always find something about it to be relished.

And that’s the moment when the seed for – Relish Your Story, the blog – was planted.

I reached out to David Whyte’s publicist the very next day to ask for permission to base my blog on each of his essays and was surprised to hear back from someone by the following morning. I was told David was out of the country, but that they’d approach him about it when he returned home in a few weeks.

By the end of the following month, I was excited to learn he had given my blog his blessing.

After the initial shock wore off, the panic set it. I had no idea how to go about setting up a blog but the new year was fast approaching (I wanted to time all fifty-two essays to coincide with the start of the new year), so I wasted no time getting to work.

It would be the break from my novel I felt I so desperately needed, though not quite the break I had anticipated as far as my workload was concerned.

I decided early on not to read Consolations in its entirety before beginning. I wanted the work to be spontaneous, wanted to allow each word to have its way with me just before writing about it.

For perhaps the first time in my life, I was ready to get real. It would make me vulnerable. I would need to be honest about all the things that still haunted me from my past, and I would need to withdraw from the world every week to do it.

Holding off on reading all the essays beforehand added to my overall vulnerability and anxiety and proved to be much more of a challenge than I’d anticipated, but I felt it was vital to my process.

So when I reached this week’s word – Withdrawal – again, the first thing I noticed was that turned down corner of the page that started it all.

Once I had a chance to reread it, I understood why the word withdrawal was a catalyst for getting me to share my stories; withdrawing from the world has always been my modus operandi. It’s what has kept me sane in this often insane world. The downside is that it keeps me even more isolated than I already am.

I’ve worked from home (including homeschooling both my kids) for the last twenty-five years – which amounts to half of my life, so I saw this blog as a unique opportunity for more connection.

“We withdraw not to disappear, but to find another ground from which to see; a solid ground from which to step, and from which to speak again, in a different way, a clear, rested, embodied voice, our life suddenly an emphatic statement and one from which we don’t want to withdraw.”  – David Whyte Consolations

If I could change my perception of my past – find another way in which to see my stories and solid ground from which to speak about them in a different more honest way than I ever had before, maybe I would stop feeling the constant need to withdraw.

This blog has given me a new embodied voice to speak with. As I write this, almost an entire year has passed since I began.

In typical fashion, I have withdrawn from the world to celebrate my birthday alone on a chilly beach.

I slept for twelve hours the first night I arrived, and when I walked the beach alone the next morning – on my birthday, I thought about my mémère who died on that day sixteen years before, and about the innocent lives that were violently taken from their loved ones in Newtown, Connecticut, six years before, and about my sister who never got to see her fiftieth birthday, and all I could feel was gratitude to be alive and free as tears poured down my face, and I walked one foot in front of the other into the future.

My husband, who joined me later for the rest of my stay, never once made me feel bad for my wanting to be alone the first couple of days.

He has, over the years, always supported me whenever I’ve felt the need to withdraw from the world.

It began when our children were still children. I would withdraw from the demands of my family as a means of self-preservation and spend time alone hiking in the woods or at the beach or a meditation or breathwork or creativity retreat, as a way of recharging my batteries while he took over caring for the kids. We both knew that if I’d reached the point of needing time alone away from everyone, it was for a good reason and time spent away from everyone would end up benefiting everyone.

He even backed me immediately, without reservation, when I told him I wanted to volunteer for a couple of weeks alone in South Africa.

And he has supported me every step of the way while writing this blog, which often required me to withdraw from family life and lock myself away in my room to write.

“Withdrawal is often not what it looks like – a disappearance – no, to withdraw from entanglement can be to appear again in the world in a very real way and begin the process of renewing the primary, essential invitation again.” – David Whyte Consolations

I will forever be grateful that he understands this about me – that I need to periodically withdraw from the world so that I can come back better in every respect than when I left.

For me, that is vitally important, but I think it’s also a universal feeling we all share.

Sometimes you just need to get away from it all. Withdraw from your family and friends and coworkers, withdraw from the demands of life that never completely go away.

“To remove ourselves entirely and absolutely, abruptly and at times un-compromisingly is often the real and radically courageous break for freedom.” – David Whyte Consolations

I am of the mind that it would require much more courage from me to stay put when every fiber of my being is telling me to take some time for myself and go – withdraw from the world and follow my heart wherever it leads me for a time.

To me, radical courage is required only when fear is a factor, and I’ve never been afraid to be alone.

Quite the opposite; I relish it.

 

NEXT WEEK: WORK

VULNERABILITY

To be human is to be vulnerable.

“Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state.” – David Whyte Consolations

As an infant, the first emotion I likely ever felt was distress. Wholly vulnerable and utterly helpless, I relied on the adults in my life to protect me and take care of me until I was old enough to take care of myself.

As a young kid, I may not have been as physically helpless anymore, but I was still largely powerless, especially being that I was born female, which only added to my ever-increasing vulnerability in relation to the rest of the world.

By the time I entered my teens, my vulnerability lived in my body like a separate entity. Walking down the street grown men would shout lewd comments that made my heart race and my face flush and my knees weak from the fear I felt settling in my bones.

That particular vulnerability still lives in my marrow.

But as I grew into adulthood, my understanding of vulnerability grew along with me. I was keenly aware of the tender, vulnerable spots in my body and my psyche that needed constant protection.

Every time I felt an arrow pierce my armor, I understood I had two choices. I could remain reluctant and afraid to ever put myself in a position of being hurt again, or I could remain in the battle with the courage to fight another day.

“The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through that door.” – David Whyte Consolations

After I was forced to leave my home at the age of seventeen, I had two choices. I could refuse the considerable risk of being on my own at such a young age and beg and plead with my parents to allow me to come home again, or I could inhabit my vulnerability and fight to make a new life for myself by going to work full time and finding a new place to live.

I chose the later.

After I was thrown from my horse at full gallop, I laid in the field where I landed, unsure if I might die before the paramedics finally reached me almost an hour later. When I returned home from the hospital a week later, I had two choices. I could refuse to risk being hurt again and sell my beloved horse, or as they say, I could get my ass back in the saddle.

I chose the later and was riding again five weeks later.

When my first pregnancy ended abruptly at fourteen weeks, I could have easily let my fear to take over and never try again. The same can be said when I suffered my second miscarriage only a short time later. But both times, as intensely vulnerable as I was, I risked it. I became a citizen of loss and swore an oath to life the day I finally became a mother.

And that is where my greatest vulnerability will always lie – with my children.

They are an extension of me, and I will always feel an acute vulnerability where they are concerned.

My son, who moved into his first home last year, now feels a like a phantom limb that’s still attached to me. I know that no matter how much physical distance there is between us, he, like my daughter when she leaves home to strike out on her own, will always remain a part of me no matter how far apart we may be.

They are in large part why I began this blog in the first place.

I had already written three novels that went nowhere and was at a crossroads.

I had two choices. I could give up entirely on the idea of ever being taken seriously as a writer. I could burn my last two novels like I had the first. I could throw them into the fire and watch the flames consume the blood sweat and tears that marked every page. Or I could embrace this blog as a rare opportunity to look back at my life and share my stories not just with my children but with others in the hopes that they too, might find something in their own stories to relish.

I chose the later.

From the moment I began reading ConsolationsThe Solace, Nourishment & Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, David Whyte’s words strongly resonated with me and then began to haunt me. Each word was like a scalpel slicing straight to the heart of the matter – to the heart of what matters, in life, in love, in a family.

Each word is a meditation on meaning, and each has brought me solace and nourishment as promised. They have also, with David’s kind permission, served as a springboard from which to dive from, back into the waters of my childhood, back into the strong and at times turbulent current that runs through my life.

In many ways, I feel like I’ve been holding my breath ever since.

Owning my story has been hard but not nearly as difficult as spending the last fifty years running from it.

My vulnerability lies with my willingness to express my truth no matter what. Not just in this blog but in all aspects of my life.

Sharing my stories with strangers, and harder still with the people I know and love, has at times been terrifying but it was very important to me. It was something I felt I needed to do with my one precious life. To tell the truth of who I am and the paths I’ve chosen and open my soul so that others might see themselves and interpret their own stories in a new and more forgiving light.

However, unlike the characters in my novels, the people I write about here are real.

And therein lies the difficulty and the vulnerability.

My sibling’s stories, though they have been entwined with mine since my birth, are very different from my own and are not my stories to tell. We all had the same parents, but none of us were ever parented the same. This has been a difficult truth for some of them to accept but it doesn’t make it any less true. I have understood this from the beginning, so I did my best to respect their privacy.

Regrettably, I was not always able to do the same for my parents since they, more than anyone else in my life, are who shaped me. They are the bedrock from which my story sprang. I have tremendous love and respect for them both. I quite literally would be nothing without them and would have no stories to tell if I could not include them. But since they also have their own unique backstories, the stories I’ve shared here, all fifty so far, have not been the whole story.

I’m sure their stories might help explain some of their actions, but I was not able to build them into the backdrop of my own to give the necessary context as to why they raised me the way the did. I regret that because I know their own parents shaped them every bit as much. I know enough to know that their lives were far from easy and knowing this gives me enormous empathy for them and makes it easy for me to forgive them.

I started this project because I knew in my heart and in my soul that I could never heal the pain if I kept on refusing to feel it.

Recently, I came across a quote that felt like one of those daggers piercing my armor.

It said, “Pain gets passed down through families until someone is ready to feel it.” – Steph Wagner.

I guess I was that someone and I’m glad for it. As hard as this blog has been for me to write, it was necessary. Infected wounds only fester and grow more painful.

Using David Whyte’s words as my scalpel, I’ve done my best to excise the full thickness of my injuries. In the process of doing so, I may have inadvertently injured others by cutting open and exposing things no one asked to see or had any desire to look at.

By allowing myself to feel the full extent of my pain and my vulnerabilities, I inadvertently forced other people in my family to feel their own vulnerabilities as well – namely their unconditional love for my parents who we now all understand on some level, are living out the last chapter of their lives.

My willingness to be vulnerable and share my stories with the world was looked at as a betrayal of them by some. I was seen as their judge and jury and determined guilty for sentencing them to what some thought was too harsh a punishment.

Knowing all of this, I suddenly had two choices. I could quit, apologize profusely, and let my stories be quietly buried again along with my pain. Or I could keep going and risk being rejected by my family entirely.

I chose the later.

“To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others.” – David Whyte Consolations

After my sister died, I spent hours and hours alone grieving for her while contemplating the meaning of life – of her life as well as my own.

I, like the rest of my family, felt unbearably vulnerable when forced to accept the reality of her unexpected death.

And with her death, my sister taught me how important it was not to run from my vulnerability but rather turn and face it and embrace it.

Because of her, as morbid as it sounds, I began grieving for my parents years ago, knowing as I do that their lives, like mine, are finite. Sharing these stories about my life (and by default, theirs) has been a unique opportunity for me to say all the things I’ve wanted to say but couldn’t bring myself to for so many years, despite not knowing if they’ll ever read them and despite not knowing if the doorway to understanding between us was already closed to my grief long ago.

Yes, that makes me feel vulnerable, but finally feeling my feelings after trying to numb myself from them for all these years was necessary and has been worth it.

Now that I have let myself feel my pain, I can more fully feel my joy.

I can spend the rest of my life (and theirs) choosing to remember the good times, and there were most definitely plenty of good times.

I will always remember my mother gathering all of us together on special occasions to tell us the funny story of Herman the Pet Mountain Lion. She would push her tongue against her bottom lip while reciting it which always made the telling of it funnier. And my father, sharing with us the sad story of The Lightning Express so authentically that for a long time I thought he was telling us a story about his own mother.

Where would we be and who would we be without our stories?

 

NEXT WEEK: WITHDRAWAL

UNREQUITED

If the love that human beings experience is almost always unrequited why do we risk loving anyone or anything at all?

Why did I say, “I do” when sometimes I don’t.

Often, I need to remind myself that I will never be loved back in precisely the same way as my love is given, and as hard as that may be to accept, and it is, that’s okay.

“Human beings live in disappointment and a self-appointed imprisonment when they refuse to love unless they are loved in the same selfless way in return.” – David Whyte Consolations

When we are young, and we don’t know any better, we have unrealistic expectations about what true love means.

I was twenty years old when I got married. On my own since the age of seventeen, what the hell did I know about true love?

We met when I was sixteen, and were engaged just two short years later. When I think about that now, especially when viewing it through the lens of my now adult children, I still ask myself what the hell were we thinking?

Yet here we are thirty-three years later, still together and still in love, at least most of the time anyway.

“Men and women have always had difficulty with the way a love returned hardly ever resembles a love given, but unrequited love may be the form that love mostly takes; for what affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given?… What other human being could ever love us as we need to be loved?” – David Whyte Consolations

Many of us, myself included, can’t even love ourselves the way we need to be loved.

We set conditions on ourselves that must be met then strictly adhered to first.

For most of my life, I’ve felt that nothing I’ve ever done was enough.

It’s a strange ache that’s never been satisfied and is one that, for a long time, kept me from fully loving myself for exactly who I am.

So it comes as no surprise to me that my husband will never love me exactly the way I want him to or expect he should, and that’s impossibly difficult to accept, but ultimately that’s okay because it has to be. It’s the price of admission on this crazy roller coaster ride called love.

Over time, and it does take time, I came to realize that I had to be willing to give up wanting to control the manner in which my love is reciprocated or risk being habitually miserable.

I had to somehow keep my heart open when I was lied to, or dismissed, or taken advantage of, or hurt by unkind words.

It hurts like hell when the person we depend on the most to love us for who we are, doesn’t, or does not show it in the way we would like them to or expect they should.

We could easily view this as a failure and use it as an excuse to never allow ourselves to be hurt again.

During her inspiring commencement speech at Harvard, J.K. Rowling once said, “…Failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

In all fairness, I know I am not the easiest person to live with either.

I’m an introvert. I am highly sensitive by nature. I am highly attuned to the injustices in the world that many others turn a blind eye to. I care so much about everything and everyone else that sometimes I neglect the people right in front of me.

I sometimes keep my feelings bottled up inside until someone or something lights my fuse, and I explode, then apologize to my loved ones as I try and pick up the pieces and put things back to together again.

I feel pain, my own and other’s, exquisitely, which often leaves me too raw to be touched.

I am an artist that has spent her whole life, up until this point, too afraid to express herself and everyone around me has had to suffer the consequences of my acute frustration.

My husband knows all of this about me and still loves me, just as I know things about him, and I still love him.

We work hard to do the best with what we’ve been given and work even harder to keep loving each other when all we want to give each other is grief.

It’s not easy.

It’s never been easy.

But as the brilliant philosopher, Alan Watts once said, “The whole point of the dancing is the dance.”

My parents, who set an excellent example for me, have been dancing together for almost sixty years.

Growing up I saw firsthand how their love for each other was never perfect, but when you got right down to it, it didn’t matter.

Underneath all the bickering and the yelling, I knew they loved each other for better or worse.

I knew that meant something.

I knew that meant everything.

Like them, my husband and I have done our fair share of fighting, and like them when everything is said and done, the deep love we have for each other has always saved us.

Repeatedly.

Every time I’ve ever been tempted to withhold my love for whatever reason, even if it’s a very good reason, in the end I know it’s no use. I only end up hurting myself.

As a result, I’m forced to do the impossible; let go of the pain, let go of the expectation that things will be different, and let go of my stubborn refusal to love him when he doesn’t deserve it.

“We seem to have been born into a world where love, except for brilliant, exceptional moments, seems to exist from one side only, ours – and that may be the difficulty and the revelation and the gift – to see love as the ultimate letting go and through the doorway of that attention, make the most difficult sacrifice of all, giving away the very thing we want to hold forever.” – David Whyte Consolations

I cannot force anyone to love me; they must be given the freedom to choose. Only then will that love be real, and whether or not it’s unconditional or unrequited makes little difference.

Love is love.

I have loved and been loved. It is something I will be forever grateful for.

It is something I will always relish.

 

NEXT WEEK: VULNERABILITY

UNCONDITIONAL

Unconditional love is the love we all long for.

We all want to be wanted, loved and accepted for who we are without condition.

But “Unconditional love is not fully possible.” – David Whyte Consolations

Maybe maternal love is the exception to his assertion I don’t know, but I do know that from the moment I gave birth to my children, my love for them was unconditional and still is.

My own childhood was, however, much different than that of my children.

The fact that I was born at all did not make me inherently worthy of anyone’s unconditional love, even if, in a perfect world, it should have.

Having ten children naturally made expressing unconditional love for each of us a challenge for my parents.

They both worked hard every single day to make sure we were all taken care of and provided for, and always did their best to make sure we all knew we were loved. But because I happened to be born one of their daughters and not one of their sons, certain things were expected of me that were not expected of my brothers. For me, their love seemed to come with a stricter set of conditions.

The girls (the first seven of us) were seen as mommies little helpers while the boys – the last three of their children born, did not have any of the same expectations placed on them.

Like the rest of my sisters, I was expected to dutifully perform my chores preferably without complaining. We were the ones who helped clean the house, helped my mother grocery shop, helped her prep vegetables for dinner, and even helped with the laundry and ironing once we were old enough.

My father was a small business owner who, like my mother, worked hard to provide for his family which was his way of showing his love, but sadly that didn’t leave a whole lot of time for us kids.

By the time he got home from work, dinner would be on the table, after which he would retire to his chair in the living room and most often the only interaction I would have with him after that point would be to fetch whatever he needed, like his foot cream, then preferably leave him in peace.

I can remember being absolutely desperate for my father’s love and attention when I was a child but no matter how hard I tried there were just too many of us for him to pay attention to me.

I’m told that when I was still in diapers, I once climbed into a bucket of tar (my father owned a roofing and siding business) because I wanted to be like my father.

Another time, when I was a bit older while watching him shave in front of the mirror, I wanted so much to be like him that when he left the bathroom, I attempted to shave my face like he had and gave myself a pretty good gash in the process.

One of the fondest memories I have of spending a few minutes alone with my father was after I’d caught a string of catfish while we were camping and he took me aside and showed me how to cut off their heads and clean them and skin them, then showed me how to fry them up in a pan over our campfire with lots and lots of butter.

I was probably six or seven at the time, and it’s the only memory I have of just the two of us spending a few minutes together.

But when my brothers were born that changed. When my brothers were born, he changed.

I saw every day in a myriad of ways how unafraid he suddenly was to show his love and devotion for them in ways that I had never experienced.

I wanted so desperately to be included in their club.

I can remember wanting to spend time with my father so badly that I once tagged along with him to watch my then ten-year-old brother play baseball. I didn’t care much if at all about baseball; I cared about getting to spend time with him even if his attention would be more on him than on me.

I remember the feeling I had standing close to him behind the low fence behind first base, finally feeling like he might be enjoying my company.

But when the kid on third threw the ball to the kid on first (who if memory serves me correct was my brother) he overthrew it so hard that it was like a missile heading straight for me and because it all happened so fast, I had no time to protect myself, and so I was hit square in the mouth with it.

The force of the impact sent me flying backward, and when my father helped me back up on my feet, I spit out a mouthful of blood along with a couple of pieces of my teeth through my split upper lip.

After that, I left the baseball games to the boys.

As I write this, it is not lost on me that my story is a pretty common one given the times.

Unlike how my husband and I raised our kids, girls were brought up very differently than boys back then, which isn’t to say that knowing that has ever made it any easier.

It’s also not lost on me that as far as difficult childhoods go, I should count my blessings and I do. There are far worse problems I could have had than a father who didn’t pay attention to me.

“The hope for unconditional love is the hope for a different life than the one we have been given.” – David Whyte Consolations  

At a certain point, I gave up hope that things would be any different.

That was the life I was given, and the hope for it be any different than what it was, was futile.

By the time I was sixteen, I was ready to take a risk by confiding in my mother that I’d gone to Planned Parenthood for birth control. I knew that my parents were worried I might get pregnant so I wanted to set their minds at ease. I also told her that I tried smoking pot because being honest about it was important to me.

My mother thanked me for my honesty, applauded me for taking responsibility for my sexual health, admonished me about smoking pot, then warned me not to repeat a word of it to my father.

Years later, when my husband and I moved back home with them while we were building our house, as we neared the end of construction, she said something to me that I will never forget.

I was the general contractor; it was something I was extremely proud of especially when we came in just slightly over budget. When I told my mother this, she said, “You’ll never hear this from your father, but I want you to know that I’m very proud of you.”

“The invitation is made to us every day whether we desire it or no, to enter a deeply human world of robust vulnerability, shot through with sometimes joyful, more often difficult helplessness, to risk ourselves in the conditional world in which we live and to accept that there is no possible path we can follow where we will be untouched by heartbreak, the difficulties and the joys that move us and move through us, under the beautiful and beautifully conditional guise of love.” – David Whyte Consolations  

I love my father and my mother and all of my siblings with all my heart. Nothing will ever change that.

But no matter how much I love my parents or anyone else for that matter, I cannot control how they or anyone else will love me back.

My dogs, Charlie and Lucy, are the only creatures that I can be sure love me unconditionally. That’s why I’ll never be without dogs in my life.

Their unconditional love along with the joy they bring to my life keeps me sane in this crazy world.

And nature does the same.

I am transformed each moment I step outside, reminded of how much beauty and love there is in the world with all of natures gifts given so freely without condition.

So why are we taught to hope for something so obviously unattainable?

Unconditional love may be the love we all long for, but in reality, love is most often unrequited.

 

PART II OF III

NEXT WEEK: UNREQUITED

TOUCH

It was love at first touch.

I reached for my daughter aching to finally hold her, to smell her, to inspect her, to stroke her delicate skin and touch each of her tiny fingers as they wrapped around one of my own, clinging to me as if somehow sensing our connection was about to be cut.

But at that moment I knew nothing could ever sever our connection, that much I was sure of as I looked into her eyes, seeing her beautiful soul for the first time since leaving my body.

Two years later I am reaching again. This time for my son. Aching to finally hold him, to smell him, to inspect him, to stroke his delicate skin and touch each of his tiny fingers as they wrapped around one of my own, clinging to me as if somehow sensing our connection was about to be cut.

But nothing could ever sever our connection, that much I was sure of as I looked into his eyes, seeing his beautiful soul for the first time since leaving my body.

From the moment they were born my children’s lives were shaped by the gentle touch of love coming at them from every angle.

From my breasts that filled their bellies, and my fingers that traced circles across their skin or stroked their backs as they drifted off to sleep, or from my husband’s rough, callused hands that gently washed their slippery bodies in the sink and tapped their backs to bring up burps as he bounced them while they danced around the room together.

From the rough tongue of the cat who insisted on tasting them and the long wet tongue of the dog when she was allowed her turn.

From the outstretched arms of family and friends who all longed to hold them close to their hearts while they smelled their heads.

And from the rest of the world that welcomed them as well.

The blades of grass and grains of sand that tickled their feet. The snow that soaked through their mittens and the sweat that wet the back of their necks under their formidable snowsuits. The snakes and salamanders that slithered through their slender fingers and the tiny yellow buttercups held under their chubby chins.

And from every winged thing that ever sang to them. The robins and the red-winged blackbirds signaling the return of spring. The melancholy lullaby of mourning doves outside their playpen as they napped outside on a warm summer day. Or the red-tailed hawk screeching as it circled the sky far above their tiny heads.

And from marvelous, mysterious things that grew out of the ground. Not only the flowers that filled their nostrils with their delicate heavenly scent but from all the wondrous things growing in our garden, like the bright green feathery carrot tops that were grasped by tiny hands and tugged from the ground like a magic trick.

As they grew their understanding of the world grew with them.

They learned that the world is meant to be touched.

“We are something for the world to run up against and rub up against: through the trials of love, through pain, through happiness, through our simple everyday movement in the world.” – David Whyte Consolations

By the end of their childhood, they had learned that tongues stuck out to taste snowflakes or lick ice cream from a cone before it could melt, could also be used to lash out in anger, forming words that could injure someone as easily as the blade of a knife.

And they learned about pain. Broken bones and broken hearts initiated them into the painful ways of the world as much as spending a day at the beach or an afternoon snowmobiling had introduced them to genuine happiness.

“Being alive in the world means being found by that world and sometimes being touched to the core in ways we would rather not experience.” – David Whyte Consolations

Preparing matchbox caskets for hamsters prepared them for the further heartbreak that would inevitably come to visit them, teaching them lessons no one wants to learn. Like the sadness and grief that never completely goes away after you are touched to the core when someone you love dies.

They both have friends that are no longer with us. That’s not something I ever experienced as a child, but sadly they have.

Freak accidents and suicides claimed lives cut way too short but also taught them an honest appreciation for life that they otherwise would not have learned at such an impressionable age.

From the beginning of my story of becoming their mother, I tried very hard to make another sort of impression on them – that they both become independent of me as soon as possible. I felt a fierce determination about it. It was almost irrational, this fear I had that something might happen to me or my husband or us both, and then what would happen to them?

Because of this, I felt an urgency to raise them in ways that would empower them (they had their own checking accounts before they were even teenagers) and ignite a strong sense of self-confidence in them, which is something I never had.

I also felt an even greater urgency to find ways of reminding them of just how much they are loved every day.

The devastation I felt after my first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, had me feeling extremely fragile for a long time. I remember reaching an arm out to my husband randomly but regularly for just his touch reminded me of his love.

He would clasp my hand in his and give it three soft squeezes – I – love – you, and with that simple touch, that brief reconnection, I would feel better.

After my children were born, I started doing the same with them.

I could be driving home in terrible traffic with both the kids in their car seats in the back seat sensing my stress, and one or both of them would lean forward with their hand held out for me to take. I would feel the three squeezes take a deep breath and immediately feel better, all without any of us saying a word.

Over the years I tried my best to provide them with all the love and support they needed to figure things out on their own and live with the consequences of their choices and actions, but I firmly believe that exposing their bodies and souls to the touch of nature every day made them who they are every bit as much as my husband or I did.

With the dawn of every day, we’re all touched by the world in a myriad of ways which grows our love for it and for each other in ways I will always be profoundly grateful for.

It was love, unconditional love, at first touch.

 

PART I OF III

NEXT WEEK: UNCONDITIONAL

SOLACE

Like every other human being ever born, I came into this world a very needy creature.

With my connection to my mother cut, I was suctioned and weighed and measured and tested and pricked and bathed and dressed and fed and changed and (hopefully) consoled.

Finding solace in the arms of my mother would be my first introduction to love.

My love for her grew as fast as I did during those first formative years of my life. As did my love for my father and the rest of my family and friends, all of whom have, over the years, given me solace during difficult times just as I have tried my best to do for them.

And like the title of David Whyte’s wise and wonderful book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words I have based this blog on, words also bring me solace in so many ways.

Whether it is someone else’s written word, like David’s, read at the perfect time when its effect on you is one of further opening your heart even when it is already breaking. Or my own, when I am furiously scribbling down my thoughts in my journal which comforts me to know that I’ll have them with me long after they’ve disappeared from my mind.

And music lyrics, too. Melodies that give wings to words which flutter in your heart and leave you feeling breathless from their brief visit and changed.

A few days after my beloved dog died, I heard Peter Gabriel’s powerfully soulful voice pouring from the speakers in my truck on my way to work as he sang, I Grieve and had to pull off the road because I could no longer see through my tears.

She was our first dog and lived to be fourteen and a half and was in many ways our baby before our actual babies were born. As the music played on, I dropped my head into my hands and stayed by the side of the road sobbing wildly as I let his music wash over me and comfort me.

When a good friend’s five-year-old child died from cancer some years later, it was music that offered me solace when I was inconsolable.

I remember the night I returned home from the funeral, unable to get the image of the tiny casket out of my mind. I locked myself in my office where I had a twin bed directly on the floor for times when I needed to shutter myself away from the outside world. I lit several candles and encircled myself in their gentle flickering light then hit play on Damien Rice’s CD O, and braced myself for the onslaught of pain that followed.

“…It’s not that we’re scared, it’s just that it’s delicate.” – Damien Rice Delicate

The injustice of a tiny life being taken by such an unfairly more formidable opponent was too much to bear or even bear witness to and left me childlike, in a fetal position all alone on my bed, weeping for the family left behind.

I stayed like that long after both the entire CD and I were played out, and when I woke the next morning, I found my strength somehow renewed enough to face another day despite never knowing when death might come for another of my loved ones.

But after my sister died, not even words worked. No matter how thoughtful or comforting the ones offering them might have been, nothing could break through and offer me solace other than perhaps the touch of my loved ones.

An embrace, a hand being held, an arm wrapped around my shoulders steeling me to withstand the pain, offered some solace without a sound.

After September 11, 2001, hugs helped, but words even when set to music failed me. I found no solace, not even in a smile, only finding solace from the solitude I sought in the woods.

Nature has always offered me solace unlike anything else ever has, or I suspect ever will.

Everywhere I look I see beauty as a balm for my soul.

I can be having a horribly bad day, and within those few first steps, I am surrounded by beauty and transported into a world that no longer revolves around me and my problems.

Spider webs that break across my face on my way to nowhere snap me out of the past or the future or wherever else my mind may be and plant me firmly back in the present moment. Birdsong welcomes me and invites me into secret conversations making me feel a little less alone. Trees and the tiny mushrooms that grow in their shade direct my attention to all of their unique shapes and sizes and variations, reminding me of the beauty of diversity.

And so it goes. With each step, through some sort of mysterious alchemy, I am taken further and further away from myself and my pains and problems and closer and closer to a new perspective where I am reminded that someone else somewhere is always worse off than me which also offers a sad strange sort of solace.

I walk along the trail and watch a swollen river rage against its banks after a heavy rain and think of all the souls whose homes and businesses have been visited by floods. The unwelcome and unwanted guest leaves them with no firm place on which to stand, their lives forever marked by the tragedy like the high water marks floods leave behind.

I zip my coat up as protection against a biting bitter winter wind and think of all the souls whose lives lay in twisted wreckage from hurricanes and tornadoes and realize whatever wreckage I may face in my life pales in comparison.

I hike through heat that pulls sweat from my body and leaves me thirsty, my throat desperately dry, but never as dry as the shells of cars and homes and families that have been hollowed out and left behind after a raging wildfire.

If I’m lucky, by the time I return home I will have shaken self-pity and sadness from my body like one of my dogs spraying water all over me after exiting the lake.

But lately, there are times when that no longer works. Times when the clear and present threat to nature itself overwhelms me and leaves me trembling like a leaf on a tree as I walk through the dense woods with the knowledge that we are killing it.

It’s as if I’ve learned that a dear friend has been diagnosed with terminal cancer that they are oblivious to.

We have been altering the natural world to our advantage for millennia, and the ramifications of our actions are rapidly catching up to us.

In California, the extreme prolonged drought has turned the state into a tinderbox (as we have seen with wildfire after wildfire) and across the country and the rest of the entire planet, the changes we have made to our climate put us all at risk in new ways every day.

Where will humans go when nature is no longer there to offer us solace?

Will we still find solace and be made to feel better about ourselves and our lives by watching archived footage of a bluebird alighting on a branch via our widescreen TVs instead of standing in a field holding our breath while we listen to their sweet distinctive song?

It’s a tough question we’ll need to come to grips with if we continue down this road with no thoughts of such things.

“But solace also asks us very direct and forceful questions. Firstly, how will you bear the inevitable that that is coming to you? And how will you endure it through the years? And above all, how will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?” – David Whyte Consolations

I can bear the thought that my life will eventually end. I can endure it for however many years I have left by being surrounded by beauty and shaping my life equal to that beauty by always being appreciative of it.

I just can’t bear the thought that life in the natural world as we know it may eventually end while we’re still living in it.

I want more than anything for this story to have a happy ending, but with every day that passes, it’s turning more and more into a nightmare I cannot wake from.

 

NEXT WEEK: TOUCH

SILENCE

Silence was a rare commodity when I was growing up.

Being born the sixth of ten children meant there was never a dull moment and almost never a moment of silence unless you count the times we were asked to play “who can be the quietest, the longest?” which never lasted more than a minute.

The only way for me to escape the noise was to hide out in my bedroom closet, or even better, in the woods alone if I wanted to find any peace.

So it’s not surprising to me that I still crave silence like an addict craves a fix.

This craving is what led me to attend my first ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat where I learned, among other things, how to pay attention to my breath as a way to shut off or at least turn down the volume on the incessant noise running through my brain. For as often as I loved to walk in the woods alone in silence, my thoughts kept pace with my every step and I was growing weary of it.

Being silent for ten days came easily for me. I did not miss making small talk with strangers in the slightest, nor did I miss the intrusion of the outside world into every waking moment of my day.

I had already been instructed not to bring along any outside reading or writing material and was asked to surrender my cell phone upon arrival which I happily did. But when it came time to unpack my bag and settle into my room, I was glad we hadn’t officially begun noble silent yet since I burst out laughing when I saw what my daughter had snuck into my bag.

Her funny, thoughtful gesture would end up serving as an important reminder for me to be kind to myself throughout the process. She was still quite young at the time but already wise enough to understand that what I was doing was not going to be easy and that keeping my sense of humor about it all would be key for me to see it through to the end and she was right. Even though I only played with it that first day when I found it, I was grateful for the reminder to keep things in perspective.

Ten hours of meditating a day for ten days straight was a challenge unlike anything else I had ever undertaken. The first and by far the biggest distraction was the pain. By the end of the first full day, I was ready to throw in the towel. I tried countless different positions in an effort to make myself comfortable while remaining perfectly still, but because I had suffered multiple traumas to my back over the years – two bad car accidents and being thrown from my horse – I could not manage what others around me made look so easy.

By the end of that first day, I decided to put my pride aside and break my silence to ask for a chair.

With the pain no longer a distraction, I was able to settle into the silence, and by the end of my time there I felt profoundly grateful for the rare chance to get to know myself on a soul level and paradoxically come to know that there is no “self.” I don’t know that I can explain it in ways that can be understood easily. It’s one of those things that needs to be experienced I think.

“Out of the quiet emerges the sheer incarnational presence of the world, a presence that seems to demand a moving internal symmetry in the one breathing and listening equal to its own breathing, listening elemental powers.” – David Whyte Consolations

This comes close. At a certain point (I don’t remember what day it was or how far along in my journey I was) but there was a moment when I experienced this emergence he is referring to. There came a time when I was no longer the one doing the breathing; I was being breathed through by something much larger than myself.

I felt like a delicate glass-blown vessel being breathed through and shaped by some greater elemental force outside myself.

It’s the one sensation that has stayed with me all these many years later. While I no longer practice as faithfully as I once did, I did set up a meditation space inside my bedroom closet (go figure) and when I’m feeling overwhelmed by life and set aside some time to meditate, it doesn’t take long for me to once again experience the sensation of being breathed through. It’s quite extraordinary in my otherwise ordinary life.

But for all my meditating at retreats (I’ve been back twice since then) as well as inside my closet over the years, the goal of achieving true silence still eluded me. I used to think this was because I was doing something wrong or I wasn’t trying hard enough until I allowed for the possibility that it may be because the complete absence of sound doesn’t exist, at least not in a waking state.

Silence has a voice that at times can be deafening.

I could be all alone in a root cellar buried underground in a state of deep meditation where all thoughts are banished and still hear the ringing, buzzing, or humming my brain generates when my auditory nerves stop working.

Knowing this took the pressure off finding perfection as a place to begin and made me question why I set perfection as a goal in the first place.

Now I understand that being immersed in silence isn’t always absolutely necessary. I can begin wherever I am, in a crowd of people or alone in the woods, and be grateful for whatever clarity I can discern. However imperfect a circumstance I may find myself in, my own silence helps me to understand who I am, which is never one thing but everything.

In order for me to hear what my heart was saying I had to develop a relationship with silence. I had to stop all other conversations whether real or imagined and only then did I discover what supports me when I can no longer support myself.

“As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.” – David Whyte Consolations

Whenever I enter the woods, I exit as a different person.

What I always thought of as walking in silence is anything but. The rustling of the leaves as the wind plays with them, the sudden slap of a beaver’s tail sending ripples out across the pond, the distant call of an owl, the rush of the nearby river, the low rumble of a storm moving in, the sound of my breath as it escapes my body while exerting my energy in an uphill climb, all compete for my attention even as I’m being drawn deeper into silence.

Spending so much time in nature in my own unique silence also taught me that while I may be able to escape the rest of the world for an hour or so, I still need to keep showing up in all other areas of my life. I can’t sit back and just complain about things, or worse, refuse to participate. Nothing else in nature is as reluctant to be itself as I am. I may not want to be stuck in the situation I find myself in, but if I’m willing to embody my reluctance to it, I can at least allow for an opening for things to change. It’s an invitation to see things differently and live my life not in the past or in the future but exactly where I am in the present.

At least half of everything that is about to happen in my life is unknown and unknowable which I believe is how it’s meant to be. When I rid myself of expectations and allow the world to find me just as I am, I allow it to change me. I have no choice in the matter, that’s its job. And yes, at times I will have my heart broken. We all will; it’s something we can all count on. But that doesn’t mean I can’t ask what can be done about it. Even if I do nothing, just my asking might call forth a beautiful answer I hadn’t thought of. And in my experience, there’s no better place to ask these kinds of big questions then when in the “silence” of nature where I can hear what my heart is trying to tell me.

“To become deeply silent is not to become still, but to become tidal and seasonal, a coming and going that has its own imitable, essential character, a story not fully told, like the background of the sea, or the rain falling on the river going on, out of sight, out of our lives.” – David Whyte Consolations

Last week I wrote a story about shyness, about how terrified I was standing on a stage to give a speech when I was a painfully shy thirteen years old girl. I persevered because I wanted to win believing in my heart that I deserved to.

“…I didn’t realize until that moment that I wanted to win. I needed to pretend to be someone else to do it, but I didn’t care, in fact, I relished the thought of being someone else if only for a few minutes.”

I was attempting to tie in David Whyte’s words, “Shyness is the exquisite and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve.” based on the story I was trying to tell as if that was the only instance I could equate those feelings to.

It wasn’t until days later when I was walking alone in the woods in silence that the truth of his words cut me to my core.

It wasn’t just that one story. It was every story.

I was painfully shy throughout my entire childhood because I lacked an ounce of self-confidence.

My awkward silence was due to my shyness because I fundamentally believed myself unworthy and undeserving of any positive thing I thought possible.

But I see now that I can no longer let that old story confine me or define me. By deciding to write this blog I am deciding to let the painful versions of my story go so that a new version can take their place, one that might allow my future happiness.

I will always be a story not fully told.

 

NEXT WEEK: SOLACE

SHYNESS

If I had to describe what I was like as a child using only one word it would have to be shy.

I was extremely insecure as a child, an introvert by nature, always highly sensitive to my surroundings and to the feelings of others, which made me cringe at the thought of being the center of attention for any reason. (It still does.)

So imagine my terror when I was told I would have to recite a speech from memory in front of the whole class for the annual speech contest when I was nine years old.

The memory of my first attempt at it is sketchy at best. I was one of the youngest in my fourth-grade class (I started kindergarten when I was four), so I was already behind my peers in the art of social graces nevermind public speaking.

I’m sure I was trembling, palms sweating profusely as I held them clasped behind my back as we were instructed to do, heart racing insanely as I opened my mouth and tried to speak above a squeak. I have no memory of the poem I chose that year, but if I had to guess, it would have been something from Shel Silverstein.

Somehow I got through it and was told to take my seat. The relief I felt was instant since it meant I would not move on to the next round, or god forbid the final round where I would have had to recite my speech in front of the whole student assembly before going in front of an even bigger audience of parents and teachers had I been selected as a finalist.

I remember my teacher assuring me that there was always next year, and so I shouldn’t give up, which had anything but a calming effect on me learning that I would be expected to go through this all over again in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grade as if it was something for me to look forward to.

I loved poetry from an early age, so that wasn’t the problem. Nor was the memorization of it since I loved being able to spontaneously summon stanzas as though they were my own. To have had such rich descriptive words inside my mouth left me with a delicious aftertaste wanting for more.

When the following year rolled around, I tried again. And I failed again. I was still very much an outsider looking in, still acutely uncomfortable in my own skin.

My third attempt in the sixth grade was another flop. Still intensely shy, still terrified of being seen or heard.

My fourth attempt was in the seventh grade. As I stood before my classmates yet again, I thought of the advice Mike Brady gives Jan to calm her nerves before a big debate: imagine the audience is wearing only their underwear. I thought about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to imagine it. Instead, I imagined myself dressed in a suit of armor as I readied myself for slings and arrows that were sure to fly my way.

I don’t remember what I choose to recite that year either, but I do remember having the slightest bit more courage when delivering it, enough so that my classmates and teacher took notice and voted me on to the next round.

I would go on to become a finalist that year which meant I would have to stand on the stage front and center and recite my speech into a microphone in front of at least a couple hundred people.

I was terrified and have no memory of that night probably because it was so traumatizing for me. But I did it, and although I came in fifth of five, I felt proud to receive an honorable mention for my efforts.

The following year would be my last and toughest test. I was in eighth grade. I was determined to give it my last best shot. It was now or never.

I chose the following poem as my speech that year to be delivered with a unique twist:

Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.

This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

– Oliver Goldsmith,  (1766)

After I had finished reciting it for the first time in front of my class, I joked that it sounded better at home when I was reciting it with an English accent.

Everyone laughed at this, but I was dead serious. I neglected to tell them it was because when I said it with an English accent, it somehow made me feel like I was a different person. I wasn’t the painfully shy thirteen-year-old girl dying inside as she stood in front of everyone to be picked apart, I was a rebellious British girl unafraid to go for it.

“Shyness is the exquisite and vulnerable frontier between what we think is possible and what we think we deserve.” – David Whyte Consolations

I didn’t realize until that moment that I wanted to win. I needed to pretend to be someone else to do it, but I didn’t care, in fact, I relished the thought of being someone else if only for a few minutes.

When everyone was finished laughing at me, my teacher agreed to let me have a go at it.

When I was finished, much to my total amazement, everyone started clapping for me, or should I say for the Brit with a bit of a chip on her shoulder.

Unfortunately, when my eighth-grade teacher later conferred with the principal about whether or not I should be allowed to speak with an accent when delivering my speech, the principle, who was as strict a nun as they come, ruled against me.

The fearless Brit in me disappeared. I was back to being me which meant back to feeling the painful shyness I could not shake.

“To feel shy is to look five ways at once: to the beckoning new life in front of us, to the line of retreat behind us, to alternative possibilities of escape to the left and right, and in really difficult circumstances, the hope for a complete and sudden disappearance.” – David Whyte Consolations

I’m sure I looked five ways at once that night.

Five ways times at least five times.

Five ways can last five minutes or five hours.

For all my efforts that night, I took home another honorable mention. This time I came in fourth of the five finalists.

I would never win a speech contest. Not then, not ever. But never had I been so relieved to have that particular kind of test behind me.

Of course, I continue to be tested in other ways every day.

It is still exceptionally rare for me to feel comfortable in my own skin. One of the very few places I do is when I’m alone in the woods or when I’m underwater, which is why I try to walk or swim every day.

I have had my share of equally terrifying moments comparable to being on that stage all alone with nowhere to hide.

When being brave enough to confront doctors who think they know better. When meeting with inspectors of all sorts while building my house. When going toe to toe – literally – with my school district’s superintendent during a town hall type meeting to stand up for my rights as a mother who homeschooled her children.

Or when I’m called upon to stand up for myself in any way, which is still as terrifying as it was when I was that nine-year-old scared shitless little girl.

I am shy.

I will always be shy.

I will never be able to speak in public without looking five ways at once at least five times.

We all face unique challenges that make us uncomfortable and test us sometimes on a daily basis.

Having had the opportunity this week to reflect on the poem I chose all those years ago is what interests me the most now.

The poem is about hypocrisy. The mad dog is far less dangerous than a phony Christian. The man is a Christian in name only, rather than in spirit, he is toxic – and thus the dog dies from biting the man, rather than the other way around.

Yes, I am shy. That’s the way I am wired. But I am also brave in other ways. Despite how uncomfortable I still am being in social situations, my shyness does not change who I fundamentally am at the core.

It took me a long time to figure that out and an even longer time to be OK with it.

 

NEXT WEEK: SILENCE

SHADOW

One of my favorite things to do with my friends when we were kids, was shadow dance.

There was a newly paved parking lot at our local bank that was located on the other side of an empty lot across the street from the house I grew up in. Late afternoon made for the longest shadows, so sometimes if we were bored after school, we’d wack our way through the wildly overgrown grasses and weeds and various scraggly bushes, and emerge victorious in the empty parking lot ready to dance.

We didn’t require any music; we were a bunch of gangly goofballs back then, unafraid to march to the beat of our own drum.

We danced together and alone, our elongated shadows faithfully following along, step by step, as we glided across the blacktop with legs ten feet long.

Other times, inside dark tents, one of my sisters would flip on a flashlight, and we’d stay up late giggling at the shapes our shadows made across the ceiling. Hands contorted into bunnies and giraffes and fish until we’d hear “Light’s out!” coming from my mother in another tent, which always prompted “the hand” to appear from the holder of the flashlight. Its ominous shadow crept from a corner of the tent, then slowly stretched across the side wall before covering the entire ceiling as it mover closer and closer to the source, until, in its final act, it covered us all, extinguishing the light and letting in the night.

“Shadow is a beautiful, inverse confirmation of our incarnation.” – David Whyte Consolations

I have always paid attention to shadows. The way the dappled sunlight invites the leaves to shadow dance in the tall grass and along my arms and across my face as it turns to the sun, or when a shadow becomes a reflection and tricks the eye into wondering which way is up.

Everything casts a shadow; shadows do not exist by themselves. The long beautiful shadow I cast in the sunlight is the same one I carry with me into the dark where it requires new eyes to be seen.

“To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark; and to approach the central difficulty, that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable, to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt.  – David Whyte Consolations

This blog has given me new eyes; eyes that can peer into the dark where my shadow hides unaware that I am feeling my way around, unaware that I am about to shine my light and make my darkness conscious.

When someone or something has hurt you, your instincts are to protect yourself from further harm, but writing this blog requires that I let my stories inhabit me, which in turn requires that I trust not to be hurt again which is a big ask but an important one.

I wrote three novels before I realized that I couldn’t properly write fiction yet because I didn’t have a handle on my own feelings. Feelings of being hurt or betrayed as well as hurting others (it’s a two-way street after all) have been dark shadows lurking in my subconscious, haunting me for far too long.

After three failed attempts, I felt like I was ready to tell my stories by bringing them out into the light of day come what may, not as an attempt to become perfect but as an attempt to become whole.

It’s been painful at times to be sure, but it’s also been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

“Shadow is a necessary consequence of being in a sunlit visible world, but it is not a central identity, or a power waiting to overwhelm us.” – David Whyte Consolations 

Anytime you step into the dark, into the unknown, your first instinct will probably be that of fear. Fear of the unknown overwhelms us and controls us and keeps us paralyzed in place, unable in the end, to transcend the fear of our uncertainty.

Whether it be the fear of what others may think of us, or that what we may think about ourselves (good or bad) might actually be true, or simply the fear of failure even though there’s nothing simple about that, I spent my life believing I cannot or should not confront it. Better to just leave things be the way they are.

But was I better off for it? I find myself asking that question a lot lately.

Because it’s not just about me as an individual; I am part of a larger community and country. As Americans, our stories are entwined together. They are stories that will seemingly forever cast long dark shadows, no matter how much light we shine on them in our collective effort to dispel them.

Indigenous Native Americans slaughtered, poisoned, driven off their lands, their children later ripped away from them and sent to boarding schools where they were given new names, still waiting hundreds of years later for our government to honor their treaties.

African slaves brutalized, forcibly removed from their families and their homeland, chained together and sent to America to suffer in silence, their children ripped from their arms and sold on auction blocks like animals.

Shadows from the Inquisition spread to our shores as the Catholic Church attempted to do away with heretics by way of torture and public hangings during the witch-hunts.

Japanese Americans forced from their homes during World War II, rounded up like cattle and incarcerated in concentration camps.

Patriarchy’s power was America’s umbilical cord during the birth of our nation, and the ensuing years have been a foot on the throat of women everywhere no matter what color or creed.

Shining a bright light on America’s past brings forth its long dark shadows for all to see and in a perfect world for all of us to learn from.

These policies of the United States government all began with the same assumption: that the idea of family is less important to people of color, that Native Americans and African Americans and immigrants and refugees are less than human, and that white men are born inherently better than everyone else alive.

Because of this, too many people in our country grow up believing it is normal to be afraid of other people who do not look or speak or dress or pray like them. This fear of the other gives them free rein to go right on believing that they are inherently superior to all others.

What we wrongly and dangerously assumed was all this was in the past, but those shadows still loom large and still haunt us today.

Racism and misogyny still run rampant. Colin Kaepernick kneels to bring awareness to racial injustice, while a new Supreme Court Justice accused of sexual assault is confirmed. It’s me too, and her too, and him too, in every town, in every state, and in every walk of life. Sexual abuse survivors brave enough to risk finally be seen and heard are not believed. The Supreme Court now has two justices accused of sexual assault. Our president, likewise accused of sexual assault, is on public display every day, spewing lie after lie after lie as he preaches to his devoted followers. Income inequality is at an all-time high as the one percent make rules for the masses and more and more of the masses eek out survival in extreme poverty. Immigrants desperate to escape the horrors of their own governments risk their lives for asylum in our country and are rewarded for their superhuman efforts by having their children ripped from their arms and locked away in cages. A journalist is murdered and dismembered by a hostile foreign government, and our president is so corrupt he uses this mans violent death as a drum beat to provoke more violence against the “fake” media from his base the very next day.

Despite the capacity for greatness inherent in all and not just a few of us, we keep repeating the same destructive patterns throughout our relatively young history. It’s an endless loop of hatred and fear of the other.

Ironically, when you get right down to it, we are all “others.” We are all descendants of Native Americans or slaves, immigrants or refugees, whether or not we came here or were born here, we’re all more alike in that regard than we think.

I am one woman telling my stories, but I am also part of a much larger story. My shadows are enveloped by larger shadows that shape and make us who we are.

So who do we want to be?

We are at a tipping point, even the future of the earth itself is at stake.

Just as the sun sinks below the horizon and the Earth’s shadow rises in the east every day, we can all be certain of one thing – none of us are getting out of here alive.

I hope when I am on my deathbed, I can die with dignity knowing that I did my best to not hide from these shadows. I hope that I can relish every moment from my life, wise enough to understand there was never any point in trying to escape the inescapable – we are born we live and we die. We don’t get to choose our birth or our death, but we do get to choose how we will live.

 

NEXT WEEK: SHYNESS