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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