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GRATITUDE

Whether your stories are filled with pain or regret, sacrifice or sadness, to relish your story – to find something in it to be grateful for – is a brave but I believe, necessary thing to do.

By doing so, you are paying yourself a kindness and gifting yourself with another way of seeing things, a way that allows us to find new meaning in old stories. When we are able to change our perception of something, we, in turn, are changed.

My experience writing this blog has so far has been something of a roller coaster ride. As I look back at experiences that shaped the story of my life, I am often plunged into darkness for a time which can be terrifying. But then comes the slow climb back up and out into the light, and the new view from the top allows me to see things from a whole new perspective, which like riding a roller coaster, can be quite a rush.

Expressing gratitude for someone or something often comes by way of a thank you note, so in a way, I guess this blog is my thank you note to the universe and all its players for getting me this far in my journey.

“Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us.” – David Whyte Consolations

I am paying attention, not only to all the old stories that are still alive within me but to how they have shaped and continue to influence the rest of my life. I am profoundly grateful for the chance to do so, even though at times there was and is considerable pain involved.

There are times when hearing a single word causes the memory of an old injury to ache for having recalled it. You wouldn’t think these were stories in which I could find something to relish, but you’d be wrong.

The words bald eagle (okay two words), can still make my ankle ache.

They conjure a memory for me of having fallen into the hole at the bottom of our boat immediately after my husband warned me to watch out because he was putting the anchor away.

We had already spent several hours putting around, drinking a few beers and relaxing in the sun at a pristine lake in New Hampshire. It was a windy day, so there weren’t a lot of other boats around, and it felt like we had the whole lake to ourselves, which was rare and lovely.

While floating on our backs earlier in the day, we had spotted a bald eagle soaring high above us, so we suspected there might be a pair nesting somewhere on the lake and from then on we were on the lookout for them.

Around mid-afternoon the wind began picking up again, so we decided on one last spin around the lake. For some reason this time an enormous old oak caught my eye as we did, and while admiring its beauty from the trunk up, I gasped when I saw the eagle’s nest at the top.

We ever so slowly pulled the boat up beneath the tree, quietly dropped the anchor and watched in awe as one tended to a pair of juvenile eagles in the nest while the other was perched on a branch jutting out just below keeping watch.

We sat still watching them for some time before I slowly reached for my camera bag careful not to frighten them into flight before I began shooting.

We were both mesmerized and hung out there for quite a while until my husband noticed it appeared a storm was rolling in, so like a child I was given a five-minute warning from him. He also warned me that he was pulling up anchor and to watch out for the hole in the bottom of the boat that was now open.

But in all of my excitement snapping these pictures, I gave no thought to what he had said and oblivious, I fell into the hole.

The pain was immediate and excruciating. I had a large gash on the bottom of my leg and was convinced I had broken my ankle judging by how swollen and purple it already was. I knew I was in trouble. Even more troubling was that all the ice in the cooler had melted by this point, and we had about a fifteen-minute ride back to the boat ramp, and a much longer ride back home. (I would later learn that I had suffered a grade three sprain to my ankle.)

Full disclosure, I am a terrible complainer. I complain about the weather all winter and insects all spring, summer, and fall, about other people that irritate me, and of course about politics, but these days I don’t know too many people who don’t. I am aware of how ridiculous I often sound, but that’s usually not enough to stop me from doing it despite that fact it never does any good to complain.

But during the long ride back to the boat ramp, with only a still somewhat cold can of beer to hold against my ankle as a compress, I never once complained. During the arduous task of hopping back into the rough water to hold the boat in the now very gusty wind while my husband hiked out to get the trailer and then load up the boat, I never complained. During the hour and a half ride home I never complained.

All I could think about were those eagles, how crazy blessed I felt for the privilege of being able to watch them up close, and about what a glorious day we had had together out on the boat.

My overwhelming gratitude was my anesthesia.

Another word, horse, immediately brings dozens of emotions to the surface, like love and connection, but also work and pain. Like the physical pain that must be endured when having to chip away at a frozen pile of shit before you’re able to pick it up and haul it away when it’s ten below outside. Or the pain felt when being kicked square in the shin, not breaking the bone, only bruising it along with my ego, but incredibly painful nonetheless.

Or being thrown off when your horse begins bucking at full gallop and having the wind knocked out of you as you hit the ground, hard. It rose up to meet me as if in slow motion and my last thought before impact was, brace yourself, this is going to hurt.

I was somehow able to take in a single large breath while pulling off my helmet before collapsing back onto the ground unable to move any part of my body. My still very young daughter left her horse next to mine to graze in the field while she ran to get help.

I laid in that field alone (no cell phone yet) for close to an hour waiting anxiously to hear the sounds of sirens. It was getting harder and harder for me to breathe and I remember thinking that I might die there. Strangely I was not afraid. I remember watching the colors of the sky change as it began to set all tangerine and pink like sherbert. I was so grateful for that sky believing it might be the very last sunset I would ever see.

And I remember being so grateful for the company of my German Shepard, Jake, who laid beside the length of my body, protecting and guarding me against the coyotes that would no doubt be venturing out before too long.

As I lay in that field all alone thinking, well, this is it, I guess this is how I die, I was oddly never afraid. I was concerned that my daughter would be permanently traumatized after seeing what had happened to me and I thought a lot about how terrified she must have been running from door to door trying to get help, (my husband and son weren’t home at the time). But with my beloved dog beside me, all I thought about was how grateful I was to have had such an amazing ride with my daughter that day.

“Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.” – David Whyte Consolations

Many millions of things came together that day in order for me to take even one more breath of air. I would later learn that I had torn muscles in my back and broken ribs but thankfully not the collapsed lung the EMT’s feared when they found me.

I will never forget lying in that field, my body feeling heavy like cement while watching the sky change color, feeling the dew gather on the grass and begin to soak through my jeans, listening to the birds signaling the end of another day with their collective song and the crickets making a racket between the blades of grass all around me. The soft hum of a plane flying overhead, the scent of death wafting in the wind as it kicked up decaying piles of leaves and tossed them around as easily as I had been tossed from my horse.

And my horses, seen only in my periphery now, still happily and obliviously munching away at the still lush green fields, reminding me of some of my favorite sounds on earth: them crunching on carrots pulled from the garden that were grown especially for them, and the clip-clop sound of their hooves hitting the pavement. Or the sweet smell of them, a delicate balance of dried mud leftover after an exhilarating ride, and homemade fly-spray containing white vinegar, eucalyptus and citronella oil, and the conditioner sprayed on thick wavy manes and tails, combined with the smell of sweet hay, it was all intoxicating. And I was filled with gratitude for all of it.

Not only gratitude for our ride that day but immense gratitude for my entire life – the wildest ride of all.

 

NEXT WEEK: GROUND

GIVING

My mother was twenty-nine years old when she gave birth to me almost fifty years ago. I was the sixth child she gave birth to in seven years and in the years that followed I would be joined by another sister and then three brothers.

But my mother did not just give birth to me; she gave life to me. From her own body mine took shape and was sustained for more than forty weeks, until severed from her, I drew my first breath.

When I think of all the gifts my parents gave me over the years, my father’s commitment to working as hard as any man could to put food on the table and clothes on our backs and provide a quality education for each one of us, and my mother’s never-ending sacrifice to provide for the daily needs of all her children, I am humbled.

I remember accompanying my mother on weekly grocery shopping trips with one or two of my sisters because she always needed at least two shopping carts. Other times, I would offer to help chop vegetables for dinner after school in the hopes of getting to spend some time with her. But it never worked. I was seen only as a welcome relief so she could move on to more pressing things. Like pressing the laundry after washing an average of probably three or more loads a day.

There was never any shortage of work to be done, no days off unless you counted the weekends when my dad might take all of us camping to give my mother a break while relying on all of us to keep track of each other. But in reality, the only break she was getting was from us, not the work we created for her.

She was getting a break from the constant bickering, and name-calling, and doors being slammed, and tears of frustration and hurt feelings and the overwhelming tension that comes with having so many kids. But she was not getting a break from much else because there was always something for her to have to do next.

By the time my youngest brother came along my mother was fast approaching her forty-second birthday. By this time she had spent a total of more than seven and a half years of her life being pregnant. As I think about this now, I am overwhelmed by her body’s physical ability to keep giving.

I am also overwhelmed by the emotions that surface when I think about how differently we were all parented.

“Giving has an enormous horizon and a breadth that is hard to compass: it is both a practicality, it creates bonds and dependencies necessary to our communal well-being, but it is also an essentiality, the essence of giving being that the other person is simply alive and by corollary, not only a privilege to know but a living privilege themselves, who has the astonishing ability to acknowledge both the somebody who has given and the something that is given to them.” – David Whyte Consolations

I was dependent on my parents for my physical well-being. We all were. This dependency is what bonded us together as a family. But sadly, I was never made to feel like I was a privilege to get to know, at least not by them anyway. For the most part, any attention I was given came from my siblings and not my parents.

This lack of connection to them is what so often drove me into the woods when I was a child. There, I always felt welcomed and wanted and somehow understood. I paid close attention to everything and was paid close attention to in return. By the spider whose web anointed my face as I unknowingly walked straight through what had taken it so long to create, and by the birds, each with their distinct calls, singing sweetly to me as if welcoming back each and every time.

When I think of all the gifts that nature continuously gives me each day and in every way, like the bees that pollinate the blossoms of the fruits and vegetables that I will harvest and feed my family with, and the trees that shade us one day, are cut down and cut up the next, to warm us the following winter, I often times feel overwhelmingly unworthy.

One of mine and my children’s favorite books is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein.

It speaks directly to just one of so many loving gifts from nature that so often go unnoticed. The tree gives so freely of itself right up until the end when it can only offer itself as a stump to be rested upon.

Some of the best gifts I have ever received are ones that did not involve money. My children know their homemade cards will always mean more to me than a store bought one because they have taken the time to say what’s in their heart in a way Hallmark never could, which is something money can’t buy.

By contrast, some of the best gifts I have ever given are ones that did involve money. For example, one Christmas when my siblings and I were all older, and some of us already had kids of our own, we came up with a new idea to replace a tradition we previously had taken part in when we were kids.

As children, every Thanksgiving after dinner, we would draw names from a hat and whomever we picked, that sibling would be our ‘krisken’ for Christmas.

This meant that we would each be tasked with buying inexpensive but meaningful gifts for that person that we would then hide periodically in the days leading up to Christmas (like under that person’s pillow or in one of their shoes) leaving them to wonder who had them as a krisken.

When Christmas morning came around you would have saved your last, best gift for whoever was your krisken and we would take turns trying to guess who had us based on whatever small gifts we had been given leading up to that day.

“Clichés are clichés often because they are so stubbornly true; it is the thought that counts, but even more it is the imagination behind the thought that counts, made tangible through gifts that find their definition through being twice blessed.” – David Whyte Consolations

We really were twice blessed by that tradition, but sadly it came to a halt when some who no longer saw the point of it, stopped putting any thought or effort into hiding the small gifts leading up to it (if any were hidden at all) which inevitably led to hurt feelings and the opposite of the traditions intention.

It was at that point that we all decided to change things up and collect the money we would have spent on each other to donate to a worthy charity of our choice instead. The catch was that everyone got to write down their choice on a slip of paper which was then picked out of a hat and that was that.

This went great for the first few years, and we were able to donate on average about five hundred dollars to a charity in need every Christmas. But when the charity of mine and one other sister’s choice https://www.womenforwomen.org was picked one year (I guess we had unknowingly doubled our odds) some of my other siblings were less than enthusiastic about it for reasons I still don’t understand.

It is a charity that has been near and dear to my heart for more than fifteen years, in fact, I was just asked to write a blog for their website which was an incredible honor for me. https://medium.com/@WomenforWomen/in-solidarity-with-my-sisters-around-the-world-250cce623c37

But regrettably, our donation to Women for Women International would be the last we would make as a family.

Since I only have two children, it was impossible for us to carry on the krisken tradition. Instead, we collected our spare change in a jar over the course of the year and then voted on what charity to give it to. One year it went to sponsor a gorilla through The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, but most years the money would be donated and deposited into the Salvation Army’s red kettle, which was always pretty exciting for my kids since the scene they made would often inspire others to reach into their pockets after witnessing their genuine excitement.

We never knew exactly where that money would go, but we could imagine the good it might do for someone else in need, someone more than likely, from our own community.

“Giving means paying attention and creating imaginative contact with the one to whom we are giving, it is a form of attention itself, a way of acknowledging and giving thanks for lives other than our own.” – David Whyte Consolations

My story would be forever incomplete without my parents; without their care and love that colored in the pages of my life. I will be forever grateful to them for all of the gifts they have given me. Without them, I know I would not be the person I am today.

And for what they couldn’t give me – their time and attention – well, I am grateful for that, too. I have to be. It made me into the parent I am today.

Because of it, my greatest joy in life comes from giving my children what I needed but did not receive. Whether it’s the time and attention that was given to them while homeschooling them for all those years, or the time we all spend in nature together as a family, or the time spent making a delicious, nutritious meal for them and then, hardest of all, giving away the leftovers I was looking forward to having for lunch the next day. I know these gifts are received with genuine gratitude. And I am as grateful for the opportunity to give them.

But perhaps the greatest gift I can give my children is this blog. While they already know all my stories (the only surprise to them so far has been to learn how young I was when I started smoking) by cracking open my book, my life, and sharing my story with the rest of the world, I am showing them how to be unafraid and unapologetically who they are. To be unafraid to share their own stories and their unique gifts with the world.

When they see me connecting with strangers in a way that might make someone feel the tiniest bit better about stories from their own past, I know I am inspiring them to do the same. That is no small thing; that is everything.

I am so grateful for this opportunity.

It is the gift that keeps on giving.

 

NEXT WEEK: GRATITUDE

GENIUS

Everyone has a story. I suppose my own officially began with my first spoken word: matoapple. Since I was very young when this happened, my memory of it is like a page from a coloring book colored in for me by my parents.

As the story goes, I was following my mother around with a basket as she worked in the garden and when she handed me a fat ripe tomato, I must have gotten it confused with an apple calling it a maytoapple instead. I am told this was my first word. Not, Mama, not Dada, maytoapple.

It’s a charming story, and while I don’t remember that specific day, I do remember the large garden we had back then. The neat rows of vegetables and the chickens clucking in the coop behind the garage. Later in my adolescence, I would form a strong bond with one of our hens who for some reason I decided to name Freddie.

In keeping with the garden theme, the word genius has roots that go deep. Its current meaning calls to mind a sense of a person’s exceptional natural ability but its origin goes back much further. Its original Latin meaning points to a guardian deity or spirit innate to each of us, watching over a person or place, guiding or governing an individual from birth.

“Each one of us has a unique signature, inherited from our ancestors, our landscape, our language, and beneath it a half-hidden geology of existence: memories, hurts, triumphs, and stories in our lineage that have not yet been fully told.” – David Whyte Consolations

While I don’t know a lot about my ancestors, I do know a fair amount about the landscape I was born into. Both the emotional landscape of my family’s history – memories my parents and my mémère shared with me about what their lives were like before I met them – as well as the physical landscape that’s been burned into my memory for all time.

I remember the garden and the chicken coop and the dense pine grove adjacent to it. I remember the smell of it and the way the sap would stick to the back of my legs when jumping from a swing strung between two of its enormous conifers. I remember the poison ivy creeping along its edges and the post where our pony was tied. The pony that my father brought home on a whim that was promptly shipped back the following week.

I remember long tennis matches on our homemade gravel court and hitting tennis balls against the tall concrete sidewall of the house for hours before having to climb out onto its roof to retrieve all the balls that would inevitably end up in the rain gutter.

I remember filling old socks with those same tennis balls and flinging them into the air at twilight to tease the bats, and kickball games that lasted until it was so dark we could no longer see the ball. And picking ripe, juicy peaches and plums and cherries and apples from our makeshift orchard, each of us kids having a fruit tree planted in our honor.

The long hot days of all my summers were spent camping in the woods and taking a rowboat out with a bagged lunch and a thermos of water as often as I could so I could spend the day alone catching and releasing whatever was brave enough to take my bait.

And I remember the gnarly old hollowed out tree in the middle of the woods behind our house and the solo picnics I would relish setting up inside of it, while the birds sang me stories to keep me company.

And I remember all of our animals. The gerbils and hamsters, and the rabbits that were allowed to live in our kitchen for a time until a proper hutch was built. Our cats and subsequent litters of kittens, and our dogs, our beloved dogs that have been constant companions to me my whole life.

As the main character in my story, I have been shaped by nature since as far back as I can remember. It is my unique signature, my unique innate guiding spirit. Nature is the plot, the theme, and the setting in my unique story.

But all good stories require conflict, and mine was no different. My conflict came from a different facet of nature, namely human nature. Sharp words that inflicted deep wounds gave rise to the silence that kept me from expressing myself for much if not all of my life.

Outside in nature, I was in my element but inside was another story. Inside the walls of my confinement whether physically or emotionally, allowed for a cast of other characters to steal the limelight while I was cast to the shadows. Not surprisingly over time, I developed a hard outer shell – portable protection – that was damn near impossible for others to penetrate.

This did a fairly good job safeguarding me, but in a real sense it also closed me off to the outside world that I loved so much. I would retreat into my shell like a tiny frightened hermit crab at the first sign of a perceived threat. It served me well but perhaps a little too well, since over time I began to prefer it to its alternative: being exposed. Being exposed meant getting my already sensitive feelings hurt even worse which was not something I willingly risked.

I remember feeling very closed off from the outside world at a certain point in my adolescence, almost as if whatever genius, whatever guiding spirit left inside me, was trapped.

My genius had quite literally become my genie in the bottle. I was the bottle, the shell, and it was trapped inside me.

“Human genius lies in the geography of the body and its conversation with the world.” – David Whyte Consolations

I had stopped having a real conversation with the world. I dutifully listened while the powers that be told me how to look and what to do and how to be and stopped listening to my own inner voice that had always been there to guide me.

When I was forced to leave home at such a young age, I had very little knowledge about how to steer my own ship and so had to ask myself, by whose moral compass will I now be sailing?

Slowly, over time I began to trust my new surroundings enough to venture out of my shell. As a result, I became reacquainted with nature both my own as well as with Mother Nature who I quickly realized had never abandoned me.

It was as if every moment spent reconnecting to forests and streams and fields and frogs and all of the animals I began welcoming back into my life, caused an almost imperceptible crack in my armor and just enough space for a bit of my genie – my genius – to come through.

Having my children was what finally broke me open, completely. Whenever I looked deeply into their eyes, I saw their ancestors on both sides starring back at me. My genius would become part of their inheritance, just as my own mother’s had become part of mine. Giving birth to them was the start of a conversation that would deepen and be celebrated throughout their entire lives.

“Genius is the meeting between inheritance and horizon, between what has been told, what can be told and what is yet to be told, between our practical abilities and our relationship to the gravitational mystery that pulls on us.” – David Whyte Consolations

This calls to mind one of my favorite Rumi quotes. Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic, writes,  “Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love. It will not lead you astray.

Once I had the courage to begin following all the things I was being drawn to, I starting making choices that were aligned with my true spirit. I chose to take my kids out of public school and homeschool them in nature’s classroom instead and gave up eating all of the animals I so loved. They were two choices that profoundly changed the trajectory of my life.

I am everything I have inherited from my ancestors. Their stories shaped my prologue and will continue to shape my epilogue as well as my epitaph some day. Guided by whispers from my spirit, my genius, I am finally telling the stories that can be told knowing there is much more inside me that is yet to be told.

I am following the breadcrumbs; I will forever follow the breadcrumbs that pull me deeper into my woods.

 

NEXT WEEK: GIVING

FRIENDSHIP

Despite feeling a bit lost in the mix coming from such a big family, in many ways I feel incredibly lucky for having been given so many built-in friends at birth.

By the time I came along, I already had five older sisters and would later be joined by a sixth and then three brothers, so not having someone to play with was never a problem. But they weren’t just fillers until I found the real thing, they were and are my very good friends, too.

Ironically, I am especially close to a sister that lives the furthest away. When we were teenagers, we would pretend she was my therapist/psychiatrist, her office being our bunkbed, where I would seek guidance from her knowing I could trust her and tell her anything. And nothing about that has changed in the all the years I’ve been alive, and I am so thankful for that.

I am overwhelmingly grateful for my family, for their unwavering love, support and friendship. That is no small thing in the world we live in today. But of course, at some point, we all have to go out into the world and strive to make friends of our own. As the saying goes, you sure can’t choose your family, but you do get to choose your friends. Well, most of the time anyway.

My earliest memory of making friends with another child (besides my siblings or cousins) happened when I started kindergarten. Her name was Crystal, and although I haven’t seen her in forty-five years, I can still picture her beautiful black face framed by a light blue blouse as we posed for our class pictures.

I can’t be sure, but I don’t remember having ever met a black person before that day, so maybe that’s what initially drew me to her. What I do remember about her the most is her sweet, gentle smile and the way we delighted in holding hands when being led out to recess, almost as if we knew we wouldn’t be able to hold on to each other for very long. (She ended up moving away the following year.)

It was nineteen seventy-three, and she was one of only a handful of black students in the entire Catholic elementary school K- 8 that I attended, which may or may not have had something to do with certain people strongly disapproving of our friendship. I remember being encouraged to leave her and the subject matter alone, which out of respect I tried to do, but it felt incredibly unfair to me. On the one hand I was encouraged to make new friends, but on the other hand, I was then discouraged when I did just that.

In the years that followed, I became increasingly painfully shy so making new friends did not come easy for me. I steered away from forming friendships with other kids at school, but I did have a couple of girlfriends in my neighborhood who became like sisters to me, in addition to my six sisters of my own.

We (Charlie’s Angles as we liked to call ourselves) were inseparable, but that didn’t come easy either. One of these two girlfriends had the unfortunate luck of having parents that were divorced, which was a pretty big taboo to my Catholic mother who was very disapproving of our spending so much time together.

Thankfully the older I got, the braver I became, eventually enough to stand up for myself, to stand up for her, and to stand up for our friendship. And although we now often go years without seeing each other, we remain friends to this day.

But it was on the first day of the fourth grade, that I would meet my new best friend. She was transferring from another school nearby, and when we were asked to form a line on the first day, we were drawn to each other like magnets and from that day forward were damn near impossible to separate.

We had our share of disagreements over the years and at times drifted away from each other, sometimes accidentally and other times on purpose. Our long-lasting friendship often required forgiveness on both sides, and that wasn’t always an easy thing to do.

Many years went by when we didn’t speak to each other at all, but then heartbreak would visit one of us, as heartbreak always does, and we’d be there for each other, despite the distance that had grown between us because we will always love and support each other. And I treasure that as much as I treasure her and always will.

She saw me through just about my entire childhood, the highs and lows and everything in-between and I would not be who I am today without her.

Then, during the summer before my senior year in high school, I met a new friend. A young man who unbeknownst to me at the time would become my best friend for life. It started slowly at first, but very quickly we began talking about the future, about our future – together.

“Friendship is a moving frontier of understanding not only of the self and the other but also, of a possible and as yet unlived, future.” – David Whyte Consolations

Fast forward thirty-three years and we are still looking towards the future, together.

Being best friends with the man I love is both an easy and at times incredibly hard thing to do. Easy like Sunday morning sure, but hard on a Tuesday afternoon when you’re both ready to call it quits.

Thankfully over the years, there have only been a couple of times when we felt like that might happen. Times when one or both of our shadow selves would be pushed out into the light of day by the other, and it was times like these that we couldn’t stand to look at each other let alone be sure we could stick it out for even one more day. But because we’ve always made it a rule to communicate even when all I want to do is tell him to fuck off (which I sometimes do), we have always made an effort to keep the lines of communication open.

We genuinely enjoy spending time together, talking, laughing, bickering, relaxing, all while watching our two children our two beautiful creations, grow into the loving, caring adults they have become.

And because we have been together since we were both still so young, we know everything about each other as all great friends do. We know each other’s histories, the pain as well as the joy and the stories behind all of our scars.

“But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of a friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.” – David Whyte Consolations

“To have walked with them and to have believed in them,” that, that right there is the true measure of our friendship. He sees me, the real me, and for someone who felt invisible for much of her life, that is huge. That is everything.

We believed in one another from the start. And throughout our many years together we always strived to honor each other’s feelings, even when that meant me moving to Oklahoma for Air Traffic Control school right after we were married. Or going all the way to Africa, alone, to fulfill a dream he didn’t share which meant leaving him behind.

He has been instrumental in my growth as a human being, and that’s something I will be forever grateful for.

Our children – the ultimate gift we gave each other over twenty years ago – keep our friendship alive and well since we are both equally invested in their well-being and their happiness.

And we are friends with our children, now more so than when they were younger, but really always. Our doors always have, and always will remain open to them. Like a good friend, we have always encouraged the best in them to shine while subtly discouraging what may make them smaller or less generous or less of themselves.

I have always encouraged them to be themselves and follow their hearts, affirming their value not only to the world but more importantly to themselves, while encouraging them to be independent of us as soon as possible in the event they would ever be faced with losing one or both of us.

We have both tried our best to be the parents we wished we had. To give our kids more of what we didn’t get, to love them more and support them more than we were loved or supported. Knowing better, we tried to do better, for ourselves and them, and in return, we fostered a genuine friendship with both of them.

Still, over the years I’ve been teased about not having many if any other close friends. I’ve been urged to go out and make new ones as if there’s some quota I am expected to meet.

I’ve never been able to adequately explain that I have many more friends than meets the eye.

“Through the natural surprises of a relationship held through the passage of years we recognize the greater surprising circles of which we are a part and the faithfulness that leads to a wider sense of revelation independent of human relationship: to learn to be friends with the earth and the sky, with the horizon and with the seasons, even with the disappearance of winter and in that faithfulness, take the difficult path of becoming a good friend to our own going.” – David Whyte Consolations

I am friends with my dogs who talk back but have my unconditional love. And my horses even though I must now visit them as a good friend would. And my cats who I am not always on speaking terms with. And the grass that tickles my bare feet to remind me of our connection. And the wind that likes to play with my hair. And the water that envelopes me like a hug. And the trees that shake with delight when they see me. And the birds that like to gossip. And the flowers that draw the bees that pollinate the vegetables growing in my garden after a long bitterly cold winter – a winter that gets off on tormenting me.

In all of my friendships, I try to give what I need, especially to myself. The act of looking back has encouraged me to drop that old story of me never having very many friends. I’m writing a new story now, and in this story, I am finally not only becoming a good friend to myself, I also have an abundance of good friends all around me.

 

NEXT WEEK: GENIUS

 

FORGIVENESS

Tricky business this is. Attempting to write about forgiveness without divulging too much information about others is like walking a tightrope. One false move and you begin to wobble, and too much of an overcorrection might send you flying off in a downward spiral.

I was brought up in the Catholic faith so from an early age I was taught two things about forgiveness.

First, the golden rule: always treat others as you would like them to treat you.

Second: ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

The first doesn’t require a religious background to learn about or understand, or at least it shouldn’t. It should already come downloaded in our DNA. Some may choose to delete it, but they do so at their own peril – karma really can be a bitch. When we don’t treat others the way we wish to be treated we invite situations into our lives that will inevitably require forgiveness for all parties involved. I think we can all attest to this.

The second comes from the prayer, Our Father and instructs us to turn to God to ask for forgiveness. The deal is, if we agree to forgive others then we will automatically be forgiven by God in return, which essentially lets us off the hook (at least for the time being).

I understand the impulse as a way to teach forgiveness, but it feels like being coerced into doing the right thing by the promise of being forgiven as a reward. I remember feeling incredulous as a kid being expected to believe it was that easy. I remember thinking, that’s it? I agree to forgive others, and I’m forgiven for whatever sins I might have committed against someone, even though I haven’t asked to be forgiven by them?

Why would I be granted forgiveness for myself so easily when I was not expected to ask for forgiveness from the actual person I hurt?

Instead of looking to the heavens for absolution, I sought forgiveness from actual people. Whether or not I ever spoke the words, “can you please forgive me?” if I cared enough about that person I would not give up until I knew in my bones I had made things right or exhausted myself by my efforts.

“At the end of life, the wish to be forgiven is ultimately the chief desire of almost every human being.”- David Whyte Consolations

That seems crazy to me but its no wonder it works out this way when we’re taught to rely on an imaginary peace that comes from outside ourselves instead of it coming directly from the person we hurt.

It’s scary stuff to ask for someone’s forgiveness because then the power rests entirely in their hands. We may honestly and sincerely ask, but ultimately it is left up to them. Whereas when we are the ones expected to do the forgiving the power is entirely ours.

Both take an honest effort, and both require all parties to come to the table.

Throughout my life, perhaps without even being conscious of it, I’ve never been satisfied to leave things unsaid that need to be said. When I know I have hurt someone that I care about, I cannot let it go until I’ve at least made a heartfelt attempt to make things right. I have no wish to be that person who at the end of my life still has a burning desire to be forgiven.

And if someone, in turn, seeks my forgiveness, I have never refused it. I may need some time to lick my wounds, but I have always had the sense that I could just as easily be looking in the mirror. That I could just as easily have caused the same kind of injury or worse to someone I love, whether I meant to or not, so who am I to put myself above anyone else and refuse them? We all make mistakes. No one is innocent.

“Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves; an admittance that if forgiveness comes through understanding, and if understanding is just a matter of time and application then we might as well begin forgiving right at the beginning of any drama rather than put ourselves through the full cycle of festering, incapacitation, reluctant healing and eventual blessing.” – David Whyte Consolations

I think I have always intuited that. From a very early age, I recognized that I would only be hurting myself if I was determined to hold a grudge.

Whenever wounded, I would be left with a scar that would always remind me of the injury and would always be tender when touched, but by forgiving and letting go of the grudge, at least I didn’t allow the wound to fester.

There are many instances in my life that I could look back on and in hindsight see just how badly I was treated by some people who loved me. People that never once asked to be forgiven by me. These instances required a great deal of soul-searching from me to forgive for my own peace of mind, even though I was never asked to. But I’ve always felt it a necessary albeit painful part of life to do so, if not for them than for myself. I have found that they are precisely the experiences I’ve learned the most from over the years.

When I was kicked out of the home I grew up in, it took me a long time to forgive my parents, but I was able to do so once I was old enough to realize I needed to look in the mirror and redistribute some of the blame where it rightly belonged. I was a thorn in their side causing them pain, so they got rid of me.

I never gave them an excuse that would justify their actions, but there were things that I did back then, things that I got away with without them knowing about, that made me realize whether or not they ever knew about them, I was still guilty. So I guess in a way, over time, I justified their actions for them, and by doing so, I was forced to forgive myself for the part I played as well.

Nowhere in the bible does it mention how important it is to forgive yourself. Nowhere. At least nowhere that I’m aware of. But in my experience having the courage to forgive yourself is at least every bit as important. It requires you to dive deep into the dark waters where your soul resides.

In the past, there were things that happened to people that I love dearly and the way those things were handled left me feeling like I could never forgive the adults that should have been the ones to make things right. Innocent people were left unprotected and left with wounds that haven’t healed to this day. Those instances have been among the hardest for me to forgive even though I was not the injured party.

For the longest time, I blamed the ones in charge, the ones who did nothing, the ones that were too afraid to handle what was going on. I vowed to never forgive them for their inaction. But when I reflect on those experiences now, I see that I only know part of the story. I don’t know what prevented the adults from acting so it’s unfair of me to judge them without having all the facts. I also see that I too was in some ways to blame. I should have spoken up. I should have been more forceful in coming to the wounded parties defense. I should have done more to try and make things right. To try and seek justice for those whom I loved and had watched suffer so much.

But I didn’t. I did what I could, but regrettably, I stopped short of demanding more. I was young, and I was afraid, and I let that fear paralyze me, and I suspect that had a lasting negative effect that can never entirely be erased.

And I know I must forgive myself for that.

“To forgive is to put oneself in a larger gravitational field of experience than the one that first seemed to hurt us. We reimagine ourselves in the light of our own maturity and we reimagine the past in the light of our new identity, we allow ourselves to be gifted be a story larger than the story that first hurt us and left us bereft.”  – David Whyte Consolations

Standing in the light of my own maturity, in the light of my own identity, I am gifting myself a new story. I am closing the book on the stories that hurt me and left me feeling bereft, or I am re-writing them.

I am picking up my pen and writing a new story for myself because I know there is no time to waste.

I invite you all to do the same.

 

NEXT WEEK: FRIENDSHIP