Disasters all around

I see things through the filter of disaster.

If this turns into a dystopian society, will I still find this career meaningful?

If the house burns down with all my belongings in it, will I still be pleased with how I spent my money? (Note to self: also, get a good metal box for car title, etc.)

When we go hiking for 10 miles with a pack on my back, I think, isn’t it good that if we had to flee for our lives on foot, we are physically capable of doing so?

How many people could I put up, if there was a displaced people needing to be put up?

I could say it was the pessimistic genes I inherited. I could say that even reading history in grade school and high school, I was astute enough to notice that civilizations ebb and flow. Hard times followed by peaceful times followed by hard times. And if life seems like it’s been too good for too long, there must be a terrible disaster just around the corner.

But I think in a more honest inspection, I want my Joesph moment. Not that I want to be sold by my siblings into slavery and prisoned unjustly for decades. No; I just want my moment where I can say, “Now it all makes sense. Everything that happened to me was preparing me for this time.”

I tell myself, well, this is silly. Every moment is preparing you for every moment. God works a complex enough work that all of the things are interwoven and interconnected and nothing stands alone.

But the vanities of vanities sneak up on me, and I’m left struggling again to find some sore of theme or plot arc or resolution upon which I can hang some semblance of meaning. I know that in the big picture, it’s not about this life at all. But right now, I’m in the little picture, and I want to know that this is a deliberate drawing, not a mindless doodle or a dishonorable scribble.

And disasters in life are somewhat of a purifying fire. The irritating situations, the relatively minor miscommunication, the I-should-really-exercise-more-consistently, the I-guess-I’m-supposed-to-think-about-what-happens-when-I-grow-old-even-though-I-don’t-know-what-I-want-for-next-year-next-month-next-week. . .it all pales in the face of an honest to goodness disaster where basic human needs and immediate safety are paramount. The first world guilt that we could always be doing better — someone else assuredly is — narrows down to, essentially, decency: was I kind? did I try? Am I turning my back and hardening my heart, or am I doing what ought to be done even through the pain?

Romanticizing disaster? A little. I know enough of disaster to know how quickly it breaks me beyond tears, how rapidly I crumble under the weight of it. But I also know enough about disaster to have tasted some of the truth, and it changes you: the perfect little suburban home with the perfect little suburban life is ashes in my mouth. I don’t want it. I can dream up the perfect little rural life, and it’s far, far more tantalizing. . . but perhaps instead like eating just the frosting off the cake. You might think you want it, but really, it makes you sick.

I don’t want to live in a constant state of disaster. But I do wonder, I do take note, and I do uncomfortably shift. Waiting for disaster to come has a safe passiveness to it; you can’t prepare, because it could be anything. You just hold this glowy ideal in your head that your hour to shine is coming. But what if maybe I’m not supposed to wait for disaster to come to me; what if I’m supposed to acknowledge that there is disaster all around, and what if I’m supposed to rally out to meet it instead of quietly letting that be someone else’s problem?

The need is endless; we can’t drain the ocean. This I know. But I was talking to an elderly friend the other day, and we were talking about the change in culture. Health care now vs health care when the doctor came to your house. Customer service now vs then. Even how now the facility where I work is full of “SIP” rooms – shelter in place. Better to have a plan if there is an active shooter. And I said to her that the sad thing was, there was no way to fight back, to say we don’t like this and we want it to be different.

But I wondered later if that was truthful. Is there no way, or is it just hard and risky and exhausting? What if it means not washing your hands of disaster, because it hasn’t come to your doorstep yet, and what if it means putting yourself on the line? Not the wearing of t-shirts or the buying of “socially comfortable” products. But instead, using up your precious time off to go show up where it is needed to have a person, a human being, being present? What if it means taking a part time job instead of a full time job, making your future that much more insecure, in order to help those who don’t know what compassion means? What if it means showing up in the yuck, not giving graciously and comfortably from your bounty?

What if? Not definitely yes. Because when you’re already struggling for meaning, it’s wise to caution yourself against drastic courses of action, just as with not making major life decision from a place of acute grief. Life can’t always be someone else’s problem. But neither can it be something we do for our own glory or piety: the suffering of others is not about our own personal narrative.

It’s foolish to wish disaster into your life for the sake of it’s clarifying influence. At the same time, if you’ve sipped from that cup and have that awareness of what is really important in life, is it wise to ignore that? I don’t have an answer. All I have is the awareness that this line of thought is not a passing moment of guilt or idealism, but a deep undercurrent spanning decades. Maybe, in this time of life, it is a fire best left banked. But in the background, it is still there: I’m waiting for a disaster with my name on it, whether it comes for me, or I come for it.

 

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Womanhood

I am outside on the porch, cussing the people who decided to set load-bearing posts on top of floor boards, my own ignorance in construction, the project-creep that continually blossoms before me, and my complete weakness in wielding a hammer in tight and awkward spaces between joists.

My sister is inside, sweeping the floor in the kitchen. Later, she’ll be trying to figure out a simple sewing project, the kind I made when I was about a third of her age. Where was her interest to learn sewing back when I would have given my eye-teeth for a sewing buddy? She is willowy and dreamy; she is an artist–she paints. She is sweet. Anyone who knows her, even in passing, will tell you how sweet she is. She has large, large eyes, and a scant amount of practicality that she barely knows how to wield. Indecisiveness is her bane.

My other sister is upstairs. She has feet like a hobbit, wide and thick soled (but still very ticklish when I have to wake her up in the morning). She has two very long braids that dangle to her waist, and yes, of course, freckles across her nose. She reads Shakespeare for fun, even though she’s not old enough to get a learner’s permit to drive. Right now, she’s perched on the edge of her bunk (the bottom one), writing a multi-page letter to someone in jail, but later she’ll go on an hour long walk in the woods. She’ll enjoy that walk all the more if it happens to be pouring rain; she loves the feel of rain pelting down on her. It can be hard to understand her when she talks, if she can barely keep the laugh out of her voice.

I started out in resentment that my sisters are not me. Why am I out here, cussing the porch by myself? Why doesn’t anyone else around here care about taking care of maintaining the house? Rapidly, I realize they don’t even know how to help if they wanted to. Why not? Ugly rants about the older children having to do more work than the younger children spring to mind, but that’s not true, either. I must have been only five, possibly younger, when I first started following Dad around when he did repairs, keeping track of his tools and anticipating what he would need next. If I wasn’t helping my brothers with their construction projects, I was surely watching. My sisters found that stuff boring.

Well, I found it boring to spend endless time sketching clouds and learning the names of their different forms, like my one sister did. And I had not enough patience for sitting for hours in the chicken yard training chickens to sit on my lap, or slogging through translating Shakespeare like my other sister. So I am the one out on the porch, learning through trial and error how to make home repairs.

Still, the resentment lingers around the edges. When I was her age—No. No, that way lies madness. I am not my sisters, and my sisters are not me. I chose the things that interested me, and the things that interested me most often did leave me covered in dirt and sweat, and my brothers granting me the dubious compliments that I would “grow up to be a man yet.” They take pictures of me wielding equipment larger than I am. But they also mock my interests in fiber arts, and refer to my short and stocky build as being troll-like.

But these same hands that are wielding a hammer and a chisel–these hands also cup babies, and bake cakes, and comfort suffering people. And I hear the defense and protest in my own voice–I am a woman. I am. I have worked long and hard to understand what that means, and still I’m not really sure.

I know it’s not about gender stereotypes or cultural expectations. I know that if I were as delicate as my sister with the large eyes, I wouldn’t feel more a woman. I know that if I were able to grow my hair as long and a thick as my other sister, I wouldn’t feel more a woman. And I also know with great vehemence that I do not want to be a man, that there are fundamental differences between us that I both cannot and do not want to bridge. I used to think my brimming with emotions was one of those differences, but I’ve found that even among women I feel more things, and feel them more deeply.

When I look in the mirror now, I do see a woman–I didn’t for the longest time. That awkward girl. I’m not sure what changed, or how to describe it, because I feel like it’s mostly in the eyes. Those eyes, there’s things behind them. I’m not sure I could quite say they’ve lost their innocence, because in so many ways I think in the context of my peers, I still radiate so much innocence it makes them uncomfortable. People still apologize abashedly for swearing in front of me, embarrassed because my lack of swearing is so conspicuous to them.

I tell myself stories, trying on different roles of “woman.” Some themes emerge. Some gentle longings for my future wax stronger. Still, the concept seems like a design made of smoke; the harder I grasp to understand it, the more elusively it slips away. Why do I feel the need to define it? Why do I feel uneasy that I might not have achieved it? Societies across geography and time have defined it a million different ways, but I’m not looking to fill a tintype of idealized perfection.

I guess I just stumble over the fact that He made us Man and Woman. The distinctness and delineation of the difference, yet without explanation, makes me wonder what the point was. Why two? Why not, say, six, or nine or fifteen? What was wrong with one? And if two is better, if we aren’t meant to be alone, then why are so many of us so alone? People complain about babies not coming with instruction manuals, but I grew up with a baby on my hip. I’ve taken care of plenty of babies. You get experience. But there’s only one me; and me came without an instruction manual, too. I don’t really expect that there can be a neat little dissection of all the little ins and outs of our personalities and life trajectories. . .but it would seem that there should at least be common expectations of being human, being a woman.

I have seen enough of life to know there isn’t one “right” way. That we reflect our Maker more like a kaleidescope than a mirror. And I strongly suspect my questions are less of questions, and more of a confusion of life being so much different than I assumed of course it would be by the time I was this age. And when life fails to live up to our expectations, we invariably go looking for what we did wrong or what we could do to fix it.

But some of it is not that. Some of it is that I still feel like a stranger inside of my own body, a feeling that my time of sickness only intensified. I am me. My body is this thing I’m inside of, driving around. How do you take care of this thing? Never mind basic house maintenance, the human body is a good deal more complicated than most people would lead you to believe, and I’m in a profession of taking care of bodies.

Some of it is feeling like, since the the things that I’m doing seem to be echoing hollow, I must be missing something about basic existence. And since I feel fairly confident that I am fulfilling the basic necessities of “human,” my “missing something” must be just a little higher up the chain.

And some of it is the empty feeling of being unable to connect with my “peers.” The people I’m supposed to feel most akin to seem like such foreign entities to me. I don’t want to mimic them. And I know I’m not one of those people who will ever be “popular” or one of the “in crowd.” But part of you wonders if maybe everyone else has figured out something about life that you haven’t.

And part of it is the sacredness. I feel like I have grasped at least some of the sacredness of humanity. And I believe there is a sacredness to being created as separate entities. But it becomes harder to understand when the differences created by God get all mixed up into the differences created by social constructs and twisted influences, half of which you drink down without realizing that’s what you’re doing. When you become startled by realizing you’re mad that other people aren’t like you or wondering if you should be more like other people — and yet, recognizing inherently that the differences are important, and valuable, and that none of us can be All of The Things, and so we must all find different pieces and roles to fill.

And I hesitate to post this, because it’s such a politicized topic. People have strong opinions and ideologies, to the point it can be difficult to actually communicate what one is thinking without  people jumping on to say what someone should be thinking or really are thinking but don’t realize it, or what is so wrong about their thoughts. But in some ways, I also feel like it’s all the more important to speak; because when those who are hesitant stay quiet behind those who are loud, it leads to a feeling of being alone, of no one knowing what it is they’re feeling like, of being lost. And I simply cannot imagine that there is no one else in the world who wonders what it means to be a woman, without fighting it, without chasing the world’s explanations, without having an agenda or a point of arrival, but simply in observation. We are different. All of us. Men from women, and women from women. And it’s not an accident or a problem. But what does it mean?

Maybe it is one of those things that is so simple that we are the ones that complicate it. Maybe “different” is enough of an answer. The quiet agitation inside me says the intent runs deeper than that. But the part of me that has seen at least a bit of life says that the thought is one that must be experienced to be known, not determined by logic or reasoned out. But I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question isn’t out there, murmured in the background of our existence: what does it mean to be a woman?

Mr. Rochester is a Creep

Maturity is a hard thing to assess in yourself, and is made more complicated by the fact we don’t mature equally in all things. Maturity in responsibility and action, for example, is quite different from maturity in relationships. Maturity with managing money is far different than the maturity to understand the societal systems in the world.

One of the things I have struggled with is the mild addiction to being useful. As with anything, we can speculate all we like on the root of such things. . .I used to blame it on my particular parameters of my upbringing, until I read “Grace for the Good Girl,” and the author had been raised in a wholly different situation and yet seemed at time to speak thoughts right out of my head. I suppose, on a most simplistic level, feeling useful makes us feel more secure. People don’t get rid of, or treat poorly, or forget about, useful things. People value useful things. Being useful seems like a good, safe, meaningful choice.

Ultimately, of course, it’s drinking poison. Any love you earn (or think you are earning, or feel like you are earning) can be withdrawn the moment you stop being useful. And in the mean time, after the initial rush of pleasure at succeeding at being useful, it breeds all kinds of resentment and hurt and loneliness, and a raw inability to connect with people on a real level.

It frustrates me to no end that it is exceedingly difficult to see maturity in relationships modeled in anything. It would be amusing to see if you could get a “5 stages of maturity” in relationships, as a corollary to the 5 stages of grief. . . although the biggest corollary is probably just that it’s been found that the 5 stages of grief are largely not stages nor limited to 5. But off the cuff, it’s not that hard to start scribbling up a list.

There’s the “rescue me!” and it’s equally destructive cousin “I’ll rescue you!” How many stupid, disastrous tales have been told like this? It’s easy to take pot-shots at Cinderella and Snow White, but how about Jane Eyre? I like Jane Eyre, don’t get me wrong, and in many ways she was very responsible and mature and what have you. But she was out to rescue Mr. Rochester, to reform him, to save him from his blackened ways. Oh, heavens. Jane got to live happily every after, since that’s what her author wanted, but how many abusive tales can you start with that “save him” line?

Having long had to hoist myself and my own responsibility, I rarely recall looking for anyone to “rescue me!” But I clearly recall telling myself a good many lots tons of stories of “I’ll rescue you!” Horribly romantic and terribly stupid, it really appeals to the nurturing core of many of us–someone damaged and hurt and broken, and then redeemed and restored and healed by the saintly little woman who tends to him so sweetly and gently and faithfully. We’re just so good we melt the badness right out of them. No, we don’t. Life doesn’t work that way. But we’d like it to. We want it to.

I would guess that next on the list is the painful pairing of “I want someone to be useful to me/to be useful to someone.” Although it seems strangely even more twisted, and harder to ferret out. I don’t think I’ve often fallen into the trap of trying to keep someone around just because they’re useful, but I’ve nearly drowned many times in the black well of wanting to be useful, as I’ve mentioned above. There are more sad stories than I care to try to remember of children who felt their mothers only wanted them as long as they were useful, or their fathers. I would suppose spouses, but if you look around at the fairy tales, it’s mostly parents or step-parents or adoptive parents.

I think this is because there is an inherent power differential here. I mean, there is in the first example, too, but someone needing to be saved is an assumption of weakness. Someone needing to be served is an assumption of power. To be useful, someone has to set the bar of what constitutes being useful enough.

I don’t know what draws us to this. I know that I know I’m good at being useful, and that there is a satisfaction and a certain amount of pride in that. I don’t know why I tell myself stories about girl-winning-guy by means of usefulness. Why would it be a life goal, or a relationship goal, to be “useful”? Like a toaster. Or an adjustable wrench.

Perhaps this is where the thought comes in, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” Maybe we think we won’t get anything better, so let’s go with this. But I find it terribly sad and still confusing, even though this is a place I still keep stumbling. Why do I need to be so useful? Why? For Pete’s sake, what do I think will happen if I don’t? Do I really think no one will want me around if I’m just “normal helpful” not “so helpful”? I can’t figure it out. But I do know that when I fall into the trap of “affection by means of usefulness” that I am always and continually smarting under the power differential. It’s not a healthy place to be.

There is also the “I want you/I can make you want me” pairing. Somehow, this one terrifies me the most, with no rational reason for that ranking. I know it exists, and that for some people it’s a drug, and maybe that’s the reason of my fear. I’m also afraid of ever getting drunk, and the lack of control that people who swear all the time seem to have. In my mind, raw lust equals lack of control, and being out of control of myself seems like a terrifying idea. Bad things happen when people lose control. All the more terrifying, then, that so many fairy tales (Disney or otherwise) are based off of nothing more than physical attraction.

The word “control freak” would not have been invented if fear of losing control were always a good thing. And the flip side to this issue, for me at least, is the strange conviction that “no one would ever look at me like that, anyhow.” This might sound more familiar as countless tales (most recently, I over heard it on Downton Abbey playing in the background) have this charming set up where the girl thinks she is too plain to be noticed and the boy thinks she is the most beautiful creature ever blessed with the breath of life. For every girl who thinks she is too plain to be looked at, there’s a death trap of falling for whoever insists otherwise, despite other completely unredeemable qualities. Insisting you are physically unattractive is not really a safe action either.

I guess with all of that, it might sound as thought I’ve bounced from one unstable and destructive relationship to the next, but no, not really. More the opposite, of prickling like a porcupine in defense and never letting anyone close. It’s just, as I see people all around me, all beside me, struggling to understand relationships, I feel more and more that we’re often shown all sorts of dysfunctional and destructive relationships passed off as “normal” and “healthy” and rarely are shown any sort of mature, respectful, mutually beneficial teamwork — something that is not about “winning” but is instead about building with each other.

One of the few examples I can pull up easily is the relationship of Wolverine and Jubilee in the first X-Men movie, were they just took care of each other. But that “doesn’t count” because it wasn’t good enough for Wolverine, who kept chasing the hot body (to his own misery). And I guess that’s the point. We all figure the hot guy won’t be happy without a hot girl, and the ordinary girl is just that — ordinary. Of course.

But why all these horrible cliches and stereotypes? Why is it that we think that fairy tales of princess and princes are more believable than functional, loving relationships? Do we know so little about functional relationships that we’re even incapable of writing them? We know there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, but we’re so ready to accept terrible relationships as paragons. If any of my friends were hanging out with a Mr. Rochester type, I’d be telling them to get out now, and stop deluding themselves. Mr. Rochester is a creep, not a paragon of true love. Why can’t we imagine a paragon, even if we know we can’t achieve it? Why do we have to keep offering up really lousy things as though they were things to be chased after?

Maybe we don’t. I don’t know. I know the stories I’ve told myself have changed. And they’re getting harder and harder to tell myself, because when you grow-up out of the cliches, things are harder to imagine. It’s harder to imagine what a good team-mate would look like, because first you have to be able to honest with yourself about your own weakness are that you need help with, and honest with yourself about what strengths you have and how they actually should be used to help others.

It’s hard to grow out of wondering if you’ll ever be beautiful in someone else’s eyes, and into recognizing that you need encouragement to be brave enough to do the hard but right things. It’s hard to grow out of padding your relationship resume with how well you bake and the way you can handle minor home repairs, and instead understand that part of what I have to offer is really more about sitting down and having hard conversations. But the stories are about beauty and baking favorite cakes, not being too cowardly to do what is right and having to have hard conversations to clear up assumptions and hurts and miscommunications and differing priorities and values. And then somehow we wind up thinking we’re broken when we wind up having tearful conversations instead of baking sweets and singing.

It just makes maturity so much harder when no one wants to talk about what it is, and that turns maturity itself into a mystery. It’s hard, yes, but does it have to be a mystery on top of everything else? Maybe this is just something we need to talk about more, instead of leaving unsaid and left to nothing but speculation. Maybe we need more encouragement in what maturity is and how to move forward into it.

It’s a Pity to be Human

I’m holding the door open for the cat. It’s raining out, but the handmixer is running, and she hates the sound of it. Caught between two miserablenesses, she hesitates at the door, her ears laid back. I feel sorry for her and her miserablenesses, so I just stand there with the door open, watching her.

One of my brothers pushes past me, suddenly shoving his hand at her face, as though to scare her off the threshold so the door could be closed. She flattens herself to the ground, but doesn’t move.

“She wants to come in, but hates the sound of the mixer,” I explain, annoyed. I was busy feeling sorry for her, and he has no respect for my pity.

“Oh.”

But the ‘oh’ belies no understanding of the situations, because moments later, he steps past me and my open door, stands behind that cat, and nudges her through the door with his foot. Forced to chose one of the miseries, the cat dashes through the kitchen trying to escape the sound of the motor.

I am like the cat. I try to go outside to avoid the sound of the motors, and the people who are being morning people. It continues to rain, so I have to sit on the porch. Then a morning person comes out to be cheerful at me, and another brother comes out to start another motor (the ice cream maker), and my mom comes out, too, so she can offer helpful motherly advice.

“So much for my plot to escape the sound of motors,” I sigh, as the ice cream maker kicks on.

“Well, you can go someplace else,” my mom informs me. “The mixer isn’t running in the kitchen any more.”

“I know,” I say.

“The screened porch is cleared off now,” she continues to push.

“I know,” I repeat, irritably. I know. I helped clean it. The day I was practically doubled over with abdominal pain. You didn’t help clean it.

I am trying to escape the motors, and the rain. And also, I would like some pity, but these cheerful morning people have none.

***

Last night, my grandma came over, and asked me if I had a glowing halo. I stared at her at first, and then tried to cover my confusion by claiming full body luminescence. She was referring to the fact that I had just been awarded my doctorate degree, a fact so roundly ignored by people in this house that I had almost forgotten about it myself. My dad made a few jokes about it. One brother threatened to call me doctor, but I said he could only call me “doctor” while singing “Put the Lime in the Coconut.” He said it would be worth it to memorize the lyrics, but we both knew he wouldn’t. Mostly, two of my brothers will put in sly jabs wherever they can about how I would have to chose the degree with the most amount of school debt and the lowest salary.

Some of my family came up for graduation, but it mostly made the family dysfunction that much more apparent. A small handful of people, most of whom came along only because there was someone else to come along with, and a vague sense of guilt that they should want to be there. They spent hours upon hours sitting in a car, waiting through boring lists of names of people none of us knew, and cramming themselves back into the car. I got to see their miserable faces for a few moments, and I say miserable not as an adjective of the quality of their faces but of the expressions they were wearing.

Then I went to my friend’s graduation party, and sat quietly in the sunlight, watching her face light up again and again in the presence of her family and her friends. I watched her husband and her sister, dripping with pride and happiness. In the end, I walked myself back to my car a few blocks away, alone in a city that was both familiar and completely impartial to me.

***

This is normal to me. Not easy, but normal. Aside from precious isolated incidents, my memories of school, right from the beginning of my associate’s degree, are largely one bleak swath of loneliness. Of not fitting in with my classmates, and so always being the odd and awkward one in any group. Of my family not understanding why I would do such a thing, and only the more so once I moved a state away. The example set to me has always been, “if you move away, you’re the one making that choice; so you’re only getting the consequences of your decisions if it means you lose connection with people.”

I can’t say I really did any better with my brothers that went away to college. It seems far off, and your own life seems busy, and what do you say, anyway, when you’re a family of introverts who mostly socialize by sitting quietly in the same room? But I can’t say it’s an attitude I want to propagate.

This morning, my second attempt to get photos taken of me for graduation announcements fell through. And all though it hurt, I realized the feeling of a twisting knife wasn’t really about photos, or even about my imagined plans for my own little declaration of completion. It is more the pining to be understood, the pining to be celebrated, the pining to be noticed, the pining to have life go as I think it should rather than the way it predictably does. No, I don’t have a husband glowing with pride and happiness, taking pictures of me at my graduation party. No, taking pictures and sending out announcements is really no substitute at all. But it was something, and I didn’t want to have to fight for that something. Any more than I wanted to fight my family to come up and be miserable while they watched me walk across a stage and shake hands with a stranger.

***

The life we imagine doesn’t have us pausing hunched on the threshold between the rain and the tormenting motor. The life we imagine has a multitude of choices, some more pleasant than others, and always with the tantalizing assumption that if we’re very clever about dashing through the wet drops from the grey skies — well, that we’ll strike upon that golden scenario that is all smiles and no painful wincing. The life we imagine takes all of the best pieces we’ve seen from all the happiest lives, and mashes them together in this strange yet pastoral scene we tell ourselves is actually achievable.

The lives that we do have are pieces of joy and contentment that are beyond words, splintered apart by hurts internal and external, and wrapped up in painful obliviousness to what we are doing to others and even what it is that we ourselves need. And whether we like it or not, our brokenness is our humanness. We cannot escape the brokenness without superseding our mortal forms. Some mornings the pain seems more searing than other mornings, making our breath catch and our eyes unfocus in a lame attempt to ward off tears. But always it is there.

Maybe it’s faulty advice, but it is my advice: Don’t be ashamed of pity. Of giving it to others, of accepting it yourself, or even occasionally allowing the self-pity to wash over all of your raw places and then drip slowly away. You can even pity the cat sometimes. It’s okay.

Working and Waiting

For Christmas, I decided I wanted to paint a picture for my card. I’ve not really painted much, and most of what I have painted, I’ve not been very happy with. I’ve dabbled, occasionally, in plain pencil drawing — more often tracing over the outline from a photo and then practicing paying attention to shading. And people have told me, maybe more often than I realize, that I showed artistic leanings that just needed to be developed, and that I should taking drawing and such more seriously. But it’s work, and I don’t have time for work, so I mostly did nothing.

Anyhow, the Christmas card — since I had this idea in my head, very vividly, I decided I had to take this project seriously. So I did what I’ve seen described a million times before. I folded my reference photo in to a grid, and then drew a grid on my watercolor paper. Then I looked at each grid individually, and tried to represent what was in there. I was running out of time, so I only had two sessions to paint it — once for the general idea, and then again to build on details.

And you know what? The thing came out fantastic. I kind of didn’t even recognize it as my own handwork. Because when I actually applied some discipline to my efforts instead of slap-dash hurried attempts, well, who knew? I actually had some sort of talent buried in there after all.

Lately I have been thinking about my writing. Well, not really thinking about it, as much as finding it is on my mind, but having no clearly defined thoughts on the matter. The thing is, I’ve never really thought about my writing before. I’ve always just done slap-dash hurried attempts, and never really gone back to edit or refine. Never really did base planning work. It served it’s purpose in the moment, and it was good enough for me, but I’ve never really tried to apply discipline to it.

In the last few days, especially, I’ve been stumbling over half-birthed poems I’ve scribbled down places. Kind of tantalizing, but also the epitome of not really knowing what I’m doing. I need to find some sort of online course that walks you through the basics of poetry, of meter, of how to do on purpose that which I’ve only sort of felt around in the dark and taken a gut guess at.

The thing is, I don’t have anything at the moment that I desperately want to say. This is perhaps even one of the roots of my worrying over my writing — it’s not like me to feel at a loss of words, which I have for months. But I can’t escape the feeling that, like my painting, if I just applied some actual effort and discipline, I would be a good deal more impressed by what was revealed. And also, another disquieting feeling — that writing slap-dash wouldn’t be satisfying anymore. That it served it’s purpose, for it’s time, and will likely continue to serve in some kind of role. But that it’s no longer enough of a challenge to be amusing. That now I have to be writing “on purpose” to get that same feeling of satisfaction.

It’s a bit of the chicken-or-the-egg problem, though. First I feel like I need to have a topic (and perhaps an audience) important enough to deserve a little extra effort. For my painting, it was a Christmas card. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. But it does have to be more than a passing whim. One would think if the corollary were just a Christmas card, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a topic worthy of effort. But I feel like I have nothing important to say, and my mind feels pitifully blank.

I don’t know where I will wind up with all of this, of course, but I feel like the prodding is getting more frequent and more meaningful. You have something here. You ought not ignore it. Put some discipline into it.

Okay. I will. But for now, I think still at the spot of waiting for the idea that’s worth the work.

 

 

Next, I find out

Once upon a time, I had time to think and time to write what I was thinking. I look forward to getting back to that place, but I also wonder how my thinking and writing has changed since then. Even when I’m not writing in the expected sense of “somewhat visibly,” I am writing, all the time. Some people wake up to a cup of coffee; I wake up to writing two pages in a spiral bound notebook.

It’s not great literature. It reads like you might expect from someone who is still waking up. Half the time it’s probably a rehashing of all the swirling to-do lists in my head. Always, the same themes get visited and re-visited and done to death. And growth is slow. I never felt different between one birthday and another, and yet in five years time can barely recognize the person I used to be.

The last seven years have been an incredible catalyst of change and growth, in big ways and small ways, and as I see — on the horizon — some sort of chance for the dust to settle a little bit, I think I am also scared. Scared, a little, to see who I am now. I was too busy changing and growing to understand what kind of changing and growing was happening, and so now, when things start to settle, I feel like I will be rediscovering who I am.

That sounds stupid. Not to you, maybe. To me. Because I’ve always felt like “not knowing who you are” is more (to my intellectual mind) a problem with not have the courage to own who you are. How can you not know who you are? You are who you are. You are you. What are you expecting to find?

I don’t know exactly how my thinking on this has changed, and by that I mean, I’m not sure what my current conclusions are. One of the most bizarre things from being sick, really sick, is this strange feeling I have now of only “inhabiting” my body, and not being “one” with my body. Previously, my body and me were pretty much inseparable. Me and it, it and me, you don’t get one without getting the other. But when I was at my most sick, things became more and more surreal, and I felt more and more often like I was watching my body in the third person. “Me” is still me, and yet this body thing, it’s very peculiar; it’s malfunctioning. “Me” isn’t malfunctioning, but the body I drive around is. How odd. How strange.

It lingers a little. And I begin to realize other ways in which I have been rather indiscriminatory between “me” and just the things really close to “me.” I like to characterize myself as a bossy older sister, but as I come back home again and again, I find that “thing” to be slipping away. We’re all older. And I don’t want to boss. And half the time it seems like my younger siblings know better than I do, anyhow.

My stories are more grounded. I don’t mean I don’t still tell myself stories, but it’s getting harder and harder to find the romance in them. At one point in my life, I could make being a college student sound glamorous to myself. I’ve seen enough of school to make me puke, and I just can’t squeeze any glamor out of it. The less you know about things, the more softly you paint them, and in more gentle colors. Traveling half across the country is both easier than you think, and also, less adventuresome. Not because I did adventure, but because, what do you know, you have to respond to your car breaking down on a one way road up mountainside, with wildfires raging through the state, the exact same way that you, well, respond to a broken faucet. There is a good deal less romance than you might think, and even a good deal less adrenaline, and a good deal more of trying to figure out the next reasonable little step to take.

It makes life somehow a good deal more accessible and also a good deal more boring. Before you get out there and muddle around, you can pretend how interesting and exciting it must be. After you muddled for a bit, you realize that where ever you go, you still bring you. And that shapes your experiences about as much or more as your experiences shape you.

But going through a lot of stuff that you just have to grit your teeth and wade through, because that is what you have to do, because that is life, also leaves you with much more defined ideas of what you do and do not like. The imaginative brush has been hardened, and there’s less of a fantasizing about what you might liked to and how you suppose something would be marvelous. When the dreaminess starts to get stripped away, you’re left with more of a concrete list of Wants and DO NOT WANTS.

Yet the clearing away of the ambiguity starts to also unveil another problem: it’s harder to just take what comes, or to just “go along.” And then I begin to discover that things that I thought were “me” were really just things that were happening in close proximity around “me” and I was just “going along.” And if that’s not really “me” then where do I go now? What do I do now? There is less ambiguity about me, but more ambiguity about where I really belong in the world. Where’s my place?

And some of the frustration is realizing that I have been through a lot, and it has changed me, and I’m not quite sure how yet. I’m still unpacking, literally and figuratively. Part of it is realizing, rather suddenly, really, how the people I’ve been the closest to haven’t been on this journey. Hardly at all. Not only have a grown in ways that they haven’t come along with, but they have quite likely grown in other directions. Unbridgeable? No. But it doesn’t mean we fit together the way we have before, or that we ever will again. Sometimes this is good growth, but it doesn’t make it any less scary.

People ask me what comes next, and I’m kind of afraid to talk about what I hope does come next. Because I don’t want to “go along;” that’s a brutal kind of hard. What I want is something that would undoubtedly still be hard, but it would be “Me.” And that makes it better, even if it doesn’t make it easier. But you kind of get two choices: Go Along or Fight Against. And fighting against is hard. It’s hard to swim against the subtle and pervasive expectations of All The Reasonable People, in their various camps. But it’s also hard to choke out the parts of you that have survived the crucible, the things that are now known to be Me.

That might seem straight forward enough, but it’s not. Because woven and tangled into that is realization that some of the Wants are just tendrils of trying to escape the Don’t Wants, and those two are not in actuality the same thing. There is a certain aspect of wanting to live honestly, and in that sense I mean not trying to be something you’re not. But there’s also a certain aspect of, I don’t like This; what is Not This? It’s hard to sort out.

Life Takes Courage. Always.

Also, vulnerability, honesty, humility, compassion, discernment, integrity. And these things seem like cliché, because everyone says them, but unfortunately people mostly act like they would be “good” accessories to have. Not basic necessities needed for day to day survival. Yes, I did say survival. Without those things, we self-destruct. Where ever I go, whatever I do, it never seems like I have enough of those things.

And I leave that there as the ending, not because it’s an answer to the question. But it is a truth that co-exists with the uncertainty, and sometimes that is where you have to start.

 

 

Where does it end?

Someone told me the other day I had a beautiful smile. I didn’t contradict them. At this point, I’m nearly resigned it’s my trademark. Someone else told me I was beautiful, too. I had to work a little harder to not attempt to dissuade them.

Look, it’s not like I think I’m terribly disfigured and grotesque. It’s just it seems I’ve discovered a train of thought that goes like this: “If I’m talented and beautiful and compassionate and hard-working and sweet and encouraging and smart and loyal and all these other things that people seem to say I am. . .how come my life never seems to go the way I think it should?”

The denial of compliments is really just an extension of “what am I doing wrong?” or “I must not be good enough to deserve the things I want.” My mind knows this is stupid, which does not mean I don’t think it. It just means that I find this particular part of myself unpleasant, and tend to work hard to hide it in the background where I can pretend I’m not one of those people who has to deal with endless insecurity and a desire to earn a path to all good things.

I’ve also discovered another train of thought, which goes, “People say the most attractive thing is when you are honest, capable, confident and independent. Um, false.” Because everyone tells me I’m gloriously honest, shockingly capable, and sometimes independent to an intimidating degree, and I most certainly have neither friends nor suitors falling out of the sky all around me. Either that or people have been misleading me on my credentials, but either way, I’m being sold a load of hooey.

In short, if I have all the potential to be a heroine, where’s my plot?

People say that “life doesn’t owe you anything” and point out the only reason why things go the way the do in stories is because: editors. The gist is that the majority of life is really rather dry, boring and tedious, and if you’ve ever gotten the impression otherwise, it’s because someone is casting delusion in your mind (and that someone could even just be yourself). And there’s something puritanically satisfying about taking that staunch stance. You know: real women don’t complain. Toughen up.

But in the end, there’s very little difference between that, and just sticking your head in the sand and pretending you don’t feel what you feel. Spoiler alert: pretending you don’t have emotions is ultimately self-destructive.

So what are we supposed to do with emotions we don’t want to have? And also, why is it that we don’t want to have them? Do you know, I feel rather guilty anytime I recognize myself feeling like I would just like to have someone take care of me. I’m trying just now to sort out if there is anything remotely rational about that. I guess I just grew up believing that everyone has their own mess, and you have to deal with your own dish and not sit around waiting for someone to bail you out. That wanting someone to come deal with your problems was weak-minded, lazy, spoiled, and practically immoral. I have no idea how much of that was my raising and how much of that was my personality. It’s not like I have problem giving care or helping people.

But as a woman, you’re not supposed to wait for your white knight on a white horse to come and rescue you from all of your real-or-imagined problems. You be a responsible adult, and take care of your own crap. So what do you do when you find yourself wishing that there was someone else around who actually wanted to know about your problems–emotional, practical or otherwise–and actually wanted to do something about them?

That makes it sound like I never had help, which isn’t true. I get help all of the time. I feel like I practically live on help. Why, recently, some of my brothers have even begun learning they can hug me when I come home! Am I being sarcastic? Sort of. Not really. It does feel like a strange thing to crave a caregiver.

The only thing I know is that we have to give our emotions to God. All of them. Not just the neat, tidy, pious, self-sufficient ones. The messy ones, the shallow ones, the ugly ones, the longing ones, the angry ones, the fearful ones.

Other than that, I have yet to figure out where this post is going, which is atypical. Usually by now I have figured out my beginning and middle, and am driving toward the end. All I really have right now is just a raw feeling of being a girl as I’ve tried hard not to define it: delicate.

 

Dear Diary

I don’t think it’s a very good sign when you enjoy a couples company better when the two of them are not both around. It gives me a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. I enjoy my uncle’s company better when my aunt is not around, and vice versa. That doesn’t seem right.

A guy at work today looked so tired. Somehow, seeing people tired just really makes my “caregiver” hormones kick in. You know? The kind that makes you want to say, “awww. . .” and make their life easier somehow. At the very least give them a  sympathetic, “Rough day, huh?” and a comforting squeeze of the shoulder. Only thing is, that’s totally inappropriate. Sometimes it seems mean that being kind is inappropriate, but when you are single female student and the person in question is someone you hardly know, male, married with kids, and most definitely your superior — no. Just no. You don’t do that. But you can still go home feeling bad for them.

I don’t know why I always feel ashamed to be tired, but I do. I’m bone-weary tired, and embarrassed that anyone should know it. Embarrassed, even, to admit it to myself. I stayed up an hour later last night, just because it was “too early” to go to bed. Needless to say, I’m even more tired today. It just seems too pathetic to do nothing but go to work, come home, eat supper, and go to bed, and I hate to admit to myself that during times of transition and adaption, it is, for me, hugely emotionally draining and must be attended to. And that attending to it means being quiet, being alone, and doing a lot of sleeping. A lot of sleeping. On the way in, I almost wondered if maybe I was “depressed,” but I don’t think it’s depressed as much as “overwhelmed and coping.”

I guess that’s partly why I find it embarrassing. I feel like I “shouldn’t” be this overwhelmed, but I am. People tell me things like, “you’re a very intelligent, competent young woman” like that means I can do anything. Well, maybe I “can” but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come without a high cost. Maybe I am “rocking it” during the day, but that doesn’t mean that by the end of the day I don’t want to just crawl into a hole and hide.

I hear one uncle downstairs skyping with my other uncle, and he’s mentioning that my aunt is out, I’m up in my room, and he’s downstairs alone. I feel guilty, but also extremely disinclined to join him. He was reading the paper. No, he was reading the paper and shoved a piece of the paper at me and said, “here, read this, so I don’t have to feel bad for reading the paper.” We were still at the supper table. I read for a little bit just to keep him company, but the paper is not really that fascinating. I don’t want to go down now and make awkward small talk at the glowing screen. I was a nice people-person all day, and I don’t have any left.

My eyes are burning. I’m going to get ready for bed. Yes, even though it’s not yet 8 o’clock. I just can’t do today any longer.

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?

 

Wither Does Thou Wander?

I begin to think we confuse simplicity with honesty, or perhaps a better word is authenticity.

What is the allure of the Amish, the plain-clothes people who shun this digital age? They seem to have a simple life, but it’s not the agrarian lifestyle that really pulls people in. What is with the sudden explosion of popularity in “country” themed weddings, by people who have no country roots at all? Maybe we know the Hollywood glamor is full of duplicity and instability, and want to comfort ourselves with the idea that the simple things stand more firmly. What about the hipster-fueled trends toward leather and canvas? A backlash against dubious descriptions of “man-made” fabrics. Even a typewriter seems more honest than a computer – physical input leading to gears and springs and ink and paper, rather than the indescribable “electronics” shoved inside a plastic casing. The so-called Paelo diet touts that it was what our ancestors ate, back when we were still an honest race.

More simple? Perhaps. More honest? The Amish are people like any other people, with all their foibles; trading one pretension for another offers no protection; and painfully deliberate stylization offers no honesty. And even thought the typewriter seems more accessible, should the Zombie Apocalypse come along, most of us are no more capable of making a typewriter than a computer. And the Paelo diet is practically cult-like in it’s insistence there is only one way to eat.

Our school classes made us watch a fairly convincing TED talk that what people really want is authenticity. You can be fake-fake (do a bad job pretending to be something you aren’t), fake-real or real-fake (Disney experience vs. Marvel Studios, I think was the examples he gave), or real-real. Really be what you really are. The talk was presented in terms of on how to monetize things, and we were greatly encouraged to offer an “experience” to get ahead in today’s market, but I think it totally missed the point — a deeper, more elegant point about human nature. We’re looking for the truth.

I’ve always been fascinated by clothing design, and how people can shape their appearance to communicate a different narrative. Later, I learned to appreciate how a different angle or a different setting on the camera could dramatically influence what was presented as happening to the viewer. Now, I find myself with an eye on both myself, and on the culture around me, with the question in my mind: Who are you really, and who do you want to think of yourself as being?

Sometimes we romanticize things. I can rattle off a good deal of professions I can’t help but imagine are more beautiful than they are: a florist or greenhouse, a sous-chef or a baker or a caterer or even the sole proprietor of a small cafe, an herbalist, an artistic painter, an aid worker, a 1950s house wife, a pioneer, a costume maker for a theater, a volunteer fire-fighter — the list goes on, and that was a quick list. I could draw up similar lists for clothes, or living arrangements, or lifestyles. Many other people could draw up many other lists, each different than the others. But our lives don’t look like our lists, so what does this mean?

Some people would say we should be more mindfully pursuing our lists. Maybe. I don’t rule that out entirely. Do we really want our lives to look like glowing screens and poor posture and instagram posts? What would we have to change if we didn’t want our lives to look like that — and what would we have to sacrifice, and is it worth it? But maybe part of the question is, what do those lists themselves tell us we are looking for?

This is quite non-scientific, as I’ve not had the opportunity to look at thousands of authors’ lists. But if I were a betting person, I would bet that most of us are probably writing up our ideas of authenticity. I pretty much drew up a short list of artistic, honest, courageous and dedicated occupations (not each occupation drew on each attribute, but taken as pieces of the whole, I think that’s what you have there). It is not that I am specifically pining, really, for any of those. It’s just that I expose that I think that those attributes are worthy things to pursue, and while I may (or may not) find those things in my daily life, I have a soft spot in my heart for those professions that I think reflect authenticity, or trueness, or rightness, or whichever word you think best captures the idea of us trying to attain a glory we’ve fallen from.

The real-real is too much to attain. We can’t really be who we want to be. And we’re all stumbling around in various states of fake-fake, fake-real, or real-fake, and putting on a pedestal those things that seem, in some way or in some part, to reflect real-real.

I can understand this back-drop to all of our  striving, but I still struggle with the “so, what?” At the end of the day, we still have to live our lives. How are we supposed to do that? I don’t think the answer is “with cheap cliches,” even religious ones.  I guess for the most part, I challenge myself to stop and consider why I like what I like. . .and is it really what I like, or do I just like the pretty picture it paints? What things need to change, and what things are just things to learn not to be self-conscious about, or actually shouldn’t be changed, because it is chasing after something that shouldn’t be chased?

I don’t think there is or will be a definitive answer about these things. I just think that they’re things that should be examined and considered and reflected on. It’s too easy to wake up and wonder how you got there.

I have this deep seated sense that the little things do matter and do add up, and I am concerned that not only do we not pay enough value to the little things, we’re chasing the wrong little things, and excusing it to ourselves as a “safe indulgence” under the presumption that little things don’t matter. Maybe it means we don’t get a break from chasing, and we should pay attention to what we’re chasing — especially with those poisonous lookalikes, such as simplicity and honesty, who we are and who we would like to be, what is really important and what we are just caught up in, or accomplishment and character.