fighting against the dying of the light

It’s so very hard to rest. A good deal so, I think, because first you have to admit how very, very tired you are. This feels like a failure already.

“I shouldn’t be this tired.”

“What reason do I have to be this tired?”

“I didn’t used to be this tired.”

“I must be getting old.”

“I must just be a wimp.”

I was kind of trying to get my dad to think about this very thing this morning. I asked him if he thought maybe he was over-training. He said no, he thought he was just getting old. I really had to try hard to not point out that part of getting old was not being able to train as hard, and maybe if he was getting older he was over-training.

But really, the same is true for me. I had so many ideas about what I was going to over this long break. It really is long. “Working people” would give their eye-teeth for it. I should be able to just bounce back and go, and get so much stuff done. Instead. . .hah. And it makes me mad, a bit, because I don’t want to accept the fact that maybe I was just that worn out and I really did just need that much time to heal and recovery and try to store up all sorts of reserves for the next 9 months. In short, I want to be omnipotent.

The weird thing is, God is omnipotent, and He went ahead and rested anyhow. My best guess is, we not only want to be omnipotent, we’re afraid of how we’re not. Afraid we’re going to run out of time, afraid we can’t do the things we want to do, afraid that even now we’re in the process of failing. With not confidence in our power, we feel driven to make up for it by effort.

It’s kind of pathetic, really. We’re still the toddlers fighting our naps. Or, I am, anyhow.

See Me

I know this is something I’ve written about a lot, but apparently there is something about it that I’ve not quite been able to put into words, because it continues to bug me. Not in the sense of being mad about it, but in the sense of having not being able to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

The matter in question is the power of presenting perceptions, and to what extent they should be employed or kept honest, and what keeping honest is.

It really fascinates me. It fascinates me how the uniform has power. My brothers commented that simply by donning plain white aprons while working on food for the wedding we helped put on recently, everyone instantly began treating them like they were professionals and in charge. Their skills and capabilities had not changed in the slightest, but lo, the power of the apron!

Student uniforms; organizational uniforms; sports uniforms; olympic uniforms; graduation uniforms; military uniforms; even just a good suit. We like to say “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover,” but really we do. Our brains go through so much sorting and processing to try to understand who we should respond in any given circumstance with all it’s complex variables, and a lot of the data we take in is through our eyes. There was a cool study one time that showed how we take context so drastically into account: the same hand, the same glass, the same position, all presented with still photos. But by the settings the frame was shot, we rapidly interpret whether the glass is being raised in toast, raised to clear the table after a meal, or raised to throw as a means to do harm.

And I know it. I could pull up a long list of examples, but my most recent one was just the wedding I just went to, and it was almost palpable to me how much power one is perceived to have when one is well dressed. There are countless examples of people dressing differently and getting totally different reactions or assumptions about who they are. These examples are almost always presented in the moralizing light that we’re all so wickedly biased and judgemental, but I always feel as though a great point is being missed.

You have the power. You have the power to dress yourself. You have the power over your presentation. You get to decide what people see. You can wear that classy dress, you can wear those slouchy jeans, you can wear the long skirt and the head scarf. Or not.

But when people do grasp this point, the invariably seem to spill into “oughts.” So you ought to present yourself well. So you ought to worry what people see when they see you. So you ought to make an effort. But I don’t like that conclusion either. I don’t see this as a duty of which is often derelict, but rather a curious and profound opportunity for art.

That sounds far too grandiose. But I don’t think that you “have to” or “ought to.” I think that you can, and that it’s a skill. And that just tickles me pink. It’s an illusion, just as much as putting a portrait on a canvas; it’s a story, just as much as a slim little novella; it’s an act in a fleeting scene; and it’s music in the sense it can make you feel such a shocking range of emotions.  You don’t have to; but you can.

To me, the question is: aware now of the power, what shall be done with it? Some people turn to conformation: if you move to this country, dress like people in this country dress. Some people turn to rebellion: defy the current culture with an alternate message. And these are rightly so called expressions. As expressions, there isn’t a “right” or a “wrong” but a question of who you are, and perhaps more than anything it is really a confusion of who I am that keeps hanging me up.

I don’t have anything wrong with my current stock of jeans and t-shirts. I am pretty okay with what they say or don’t say about me, which mostly is summed up in the thought that on the day to day, what matters is just that my body is comfortable and covered. But there are times when I glimpse the magic, and I wish I was a more practiced changeling. I wish I had more skills and materials for painting my face and arranging my hair and becoming a different person, if only for a few hours. I wish I had interesting enough clothing in enough depth of closet to be able to tell totally different stories when I felt the occasion called for it.

I wish and I wash, because sometimes I wish I had a whole hat collection to wear, but other times I’m honest and admit that I don’t really like calling attention to myself so I’d probably never wear them in public. “Not liking attention” is a valid expression, so don’t yell at me for it. What stylistic changes can I affect, and still come across as honest? Where is the line between liking something, and liking something on me? Man, when you nail that spot of deliberately put together but not fake, understated but powerfully present, and perfectly suiting who you are–that’s some sort of rush. It feels good.

I know that as with any other skill, it’s something that some people have more of a knack for than others, but that anyone can get better with it if they actually practice. But my jealousy when I see someone who has hit this sweet spot is not that they know or have the means to do something I cannot, but that they know what they wanted to do.

Defined events help guide me. Wedding reception at the yacht and country club? Well, okay then. Tomorrow morning? Um, I don’t know? Which just seems so sad to me because it’s such a wasted opportunity. Not that I have to work that art every single day, but the fact that I can both recognize it as an art and then be incapable of figuring out how to hone that art on any kind of regular basis is to me a disappointment. Of course, there are plenty of things I’d like to get better at, from music to drawing to sewing to a multitude of other things. But for most of those things, I can grasp what the “next step” might be. Yet for this art, which I perceive to be both powerful and beautiful, I can’t seem to figure out my approach, in part because I believe it to require a certain amount of authenticity in order to be beautiful. “Faking it” doesn’t help, because the artful part of it is different ways of presenting yourself. So you need to be in it.

I don’t that I’ve gotten any closer to resolving the issue for myself, but I feel like I have at least defined two of my greatest frustrations. The first is that I don’t think it’s given frank respect it deserves. Appearance seems to be considered to equal shallowness, while art is considered to have great depth. It’s almost as though we are willfully struggling to not admit the extensive effect that appearance can have, and without respect, it remains a shallow field, which it ought not be.

The other is that I don’t know myself. I hate that feeling. I hate the feeling of being a stranger in my own body, and I feel like if I could break through that, so much would happen. The tension of self-consciousness and uncertainty holds me back from swimming (too tense to learn well), singing (vocal cords constrict), learning new skills (inherent hesitation of looking like the fool), dressing and even just carrying myself with the confidence of one who knows who they are, regardless of what humble station they might possess in this life. It kind of makes me mad, because I feel like, of all the things we don’t get to know in this life, we ought to be able to at least know ourselves. And yet so very often that doesn’t seem possible.

Being angry doesn’t help anything, but it might be helpful for me to honestly admit that might be part of why this keeps bugging me. If nothing else, I might have grasped more food for the thought.

Like a little knife

Their little legs were covered in mud, due the wonderful summer-time pleasure of catching frogs in the swamp. A spray with the hose had already been employed, but it was clear more serious measures were needed. I filled the tub with a few inches of lukewarm water, and had them strip off their shorts. Once they were sitting on the edge of the tub, I gave them both a washcloth and soap, and then took a soapy cloth for me to help them finish off the job.

It was the easiest, most natural, instinctive thing ever. . .checking behind the ankles, cleaning between miniature toes. It was relaxing and calming and obvious. The strange thing was really how normal it was. They’re not my children.

I can feed sticky toasted marshmallows to children lacking the eye-hand coordination to get it there themselves. I can get two 7-year old girls to successfully share one large ice cream cone, without it melting all over the picnic table. I am a master with mittens and boots and coats. But they’re not my children.

I’ve changed diapers, coached with walking the first unsteady steps, learned to eat with one hand with a baby on the knee. But not with my children. I’ve helped those same children learn how to drive, helped them pick out their first suit, and prayed over their interviews. But they weren’t ever my children.

I don’t want to be a teacher. I don’t want to work in “peds.” I don’t want to run a daycare, or be a nanny or an au pair. I don’t want to open an orphanage, and I don’t want to raise someone else’s child.

I want my own.

I want my own.

I want my own.

Oh, you.

I put on my 1950s style little black dress and a pair of sassy red heels, and I went to that wedding.

Not because I hardly even knew my cousin and her soon-to-be husband. Not because I like crowded spaces and loud music.

Because people are important, and important things take work. People take time, and showing up when you don’t feel like it, and making an effort to to be available, and patience to grow relationships and even extending olive branches when you really don’t know someone.

I was so pleased with myself that I know this now. I was so pleased with myself that I am consciously trying to build and strengthen family ties, even when I feel like I don’t really know the other person and that they might not even want to really know me. I was proud that I had put my money where my mouth was, and that I had whole-heartedly shown up, not half-heartedly gone through the motions.

Then I went home and found a sobering blow: my childhood best friend was married on the same day.

Or at least, I always thought we were best friends. I think I always had suspicions that maybe she didn’t think we were best friends. But I thought we were, and I thought we always would be. Because, of course.

You could say our families grew apart. That might be an understatement. You could say we grew apart. That would be trite. Looking back, I think we were pursuing (consciously or otherwise) totally different things for our relationship together. I think we had different ideas of what life was supposed to be like, what friendship was supposed to be like, and how we were supposed to relate to each other. The older we got, the harder I tried – and the harder it seemed to be able to connect with her in any meaningful way. The suspicion that I might not be her best friend grew into the suspicion that she really couldn’t care less, but that she was a nice person and would be nice to me.

That, in turn, grew into shame. Shame of what, I couldn’t quite say. Shame that I was a “needy person” perhaps. Shame that wanted a relationship the other person didn’t want. Shame that the other person seemed to have their life all together and mine was all a part, and that person was in a different class than me. Shame that I kept trying to pursue a friend who didn’t need another friend.

I think it was shame that finally did us in. I quit trying to hang on to the friendship, ashamed I’d tried to keep it going for so long. And I was the only one that was trying to keep it, so away it went. That only intensified my shame.  I should have let the friendship die a long time ago. Clearly, I was the desperate one. Clearly, I was the pathetic one. Clearly, never showing my face again was the best option.

Years later, she “friended” me on Facebook. I was startled. An olive branch? Perhaps I’d over-reacted; maybe I was too emotional — took too personally what was only a busy time in her life. Along with the request was a brief note, trying to catch up. An interest in my life? No; she friended me, but totally hid her wall from me, never followed any of my posts, and never followed up again. A nice person, who holds me no ill will, but no desire for friendship, either.

It made me sad. Actually, it made me more ashamed. Getting my hopes up over a superficial “friend request.” Entertaining the fantasy of returning to childhood friendship. Delusion and desperate as ever. She was the one who friended me, but kept me at arms length. Still, I felt a little guilty seeing pictures of her “tagged” on her wedding day. It felt as though perhaps I shouldn’t know this was happening — that I shouldn’t really be privy to this part of her life. She sent me no invitation; why should she? We hadn’t seen each other in countless years. I’m sure I couldn’t have been further from her mind on her wedding day.

But it took my breath away. I remember us as kids, occasionally mentioning hypothetically some-days when we’d be married, speculating about the future. If you told me that on her wedding day, we wouldn’t even know each other any more, I think you would have broken my heart. Maybe my heart did break, just a little.

I can extend grace to my nearly-unknown cousin from a position of superiority. I don’t know you; I don’t need to know you. But I will grace you with my presence, just so that you know that I am willing to be your family, should you ever want one.

But I find I don’t know how to extend grace to my once-friend, who at one point allowed me nearly the same grace-from-superiority: I don’t need you, but I will pity you, and extend to you some shallow friendship. I’ll friend you on Facebook – a token gesture – but not actually invest in you.

It took the wind out of my sails. Partly, I think I am still mourning a lost friendship — a loss I tried to cram down and ignore, in an attempt to escape the shame, rather than face the loss. Although I must say, it’s only been in the last several years I’ve really learned about loss and grief and mourning. But partly because I realize that while there is a sacrifice to Showing Up when you don’t really feel like it, “grace from a position of superiority” really bites.

This is where I run into my current conundrum. There seems to be no use in pursuing people who are simply not in a place or position or a desire to have a relationship. Yet at the same time, it seems devaluing of human beings not to extend the opportunity to have a meaningful relationship. But is it really an opportunity for a meaningful relationship if it is an offer from a position of superiority — of not needing, but allowing that if the weaker one wants it, to grant it? I think myself so beneficent to have attended my barely-known cousin’s wedding, but how can that really be meaningful to her? So, I showed up. Big whoop. Sure, you have to start someplace. But a real relationship is about a lot more than gestures.

I’m not hurt that my once-friend didn’t invite me to her wedding. I hurt that not all friendships are forever. I don’t hurt that I wasn’t her maid of honor. I hurt that relationships with other human beings are so fleeting and fragile that you can think you’re best friends one year and another year be lifetimes apart. I don’t hurt that I didn’t find out from her about her wedding. I hurt that we aren’t in each others lives at all any more and have no grounds for commonality or friendship. Even if  I saw her today, what what I say? What could we say? There doesn’t seem to be any scant reason for a conversation, except the distant memory that, once, we were friends. And we won’t dishonor that memory. But we can’t resurrect it, either.

It’s hard to reach out to people and to be genuine and honest. But if it’s not genuine and honest, it really stinks. Forced, shallow and polite relationships really stink. Yet real, true, honest relationships needs a lot of work. Period. Good things require time and patience and mindfulness about tending. So how do you know when to let go, and when to keep patiently hoeing out the weeds? How do you know when “showing up” is part of the patient work, and when it is almost a condescension? And why do many chasms, originally there or grown over the years, never come to redemption?