Monthly Archives: May 2018

Emotional Labor

A couple of years ago my adult son and I had a heated exchange during which I asked him exactly what he wanted from me. It was a useful question. For a moment we stopped being adversaries while he thought about it. “Umm, I don’t know. What I’ve always had, unconditional love, I guess.”

That moment has stayed with me, because as I asked the question I realized I really didn’t know, and I was both curious and interested. What does a fully emancipated twenty-something-year-old man honestly want from his mother? It was the first time it ever occurred to me to ask either of my sons what they wanted from me at any age or stage.

I never thought of anything except what I wanted to give them.

I’ve been reading about emotional labor recently, which leads me irresistibly to the concept of benign neglect.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Emotional labor is the often invisible process of managing feelings and their expressions as part of a job or relationship. The idea often comes up as part of the ongoing discussion about gender roles and equality, but I’m thinking about it in a slightly different context.

Benign neglect is a term that originated out of city planning politics and now also describes an attitude of inaction regarding an unproductive situation one is commonly held to be responsible for.

I’ve written before about pleasing people, boundaries and reciprocity. Emotional labor is embedded in all of these, and it’s been a primary dysfunction in my relationships over the years, though I haven’t had any language or distinction about my experience of it until recently.

If you Google emotional labor you find definitions, descriptions, assertions about the disproportionate burden of emotional labor on women, and the powerful but invisible expectations regarding who is responsible for emotional labor in any given situation. What you don’t find is discussion about how to make visible and support the vital aspect of emotional labor in community, jobs and families. The discussion stops at equal rights.

Equal rights is an important discussion to have, but in the meantime we’re dealing with families, friends and jobs today and emotional labor is an inescapable need right now.

I think of emotional labor as glue. You don’t see it, but if it’s missing everything falls apart. If it’s applied carefully it holds things together. If we don’t keep a calendar and glance at a clock now and then, we can’t manage our lives. Either we learn to cope with appointments, deadlines, commitments, grocery lists and feelings ourselves or we rely on someone else to do it for us. Part of adulting is learning emotional labor.

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I’m a button sorter by nature, and I take a lot of pleasure in being organized. My life works better when I take the trouble to be effective and efficient, and it gives me pleasure to share with my loved ones the benefits of thinking and planning ahead and taking care of business. Remembering special dates, buying tickets, planning for bake sales and decorating for the holidays have all been offerings symbolizing my love and willingness to provide support to my family, along with the daily activity of simply showing up in my relationships.

I said that recently to my partner — “this is me showing up in the relationship.” He had no idea what I meant.

I was staggered. What do you mean, what do I mean? You know, asking if you slept well because you didn’t the night before. Or inquiring about the status of that headache you complained about yesterday. Or asking you what’s in your attention and what you’d like to do today. Listening. Sharing. Showing concern. Demonstrating that I appreciate you enough to be present. Reminding you that we’re almost out of cat litter. Thanking you for patching the mousehole in the cupboard. Showing up in the relationship!

Photo by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash

Yeah. Aka emotional labor.

He listened and shrugged. I didn’t describe anything he could relate to. He lives his life with me without showing up or not showing up. He just does what he does, says what he says, is interested in what he’s interested in. He doesn’t check in with himself every day to be sure he “showed up” in a way that reassures me of his ongoing affection and caring.

I do.

I’ve thought a lot about this since that conversation. I’ve been conscious of a huge annoyance and, underneath that, amusement.

All my emotional labor is completely unneeded. He never asked me to do it. It’s not useful. It’s invisible to him.

This made me wonder if that’s been true in all my other relationships as well, including with my kids, historically and presently.

That’s not right, though, because I’ve been with some real man-babies. My husband once called me at work because the baby had a soiled diaper. (Okay, it was a real blow-out, but still!) Then there was the guy who wanted a dog to fish with, but didn’t want to walk it, poop scoop after it or stay up all night on July Fourth holding its paw because it was terrified of firecrackers and invariably went into seizures (it had epilepsy).

And then there were the kids. There’s no question at all that raising kids takes a lot of emotional labor. It’s both needed and required.

Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

I guess I just got into the habit. Emotional labor has been my offering, my contribution, in every relationship. I’m good at it. Until very lately, I never considered reciprocity and I had no definition for emotional labor. I just thought of it as being a good woman.

When my son said he wanted what I’d always given, unconditional love, I had a moment of real satisfaction. I made so many mistakes, but at least I did that right. On the other hand, can those two simple words ever encompass the totality of heart, pain, frustration, energy, loyalty and years they represent? Unconditional love. That’s all.

Right.

I was with a man for a long time who had no interest in emotional labor. Once he had me hooked, he was never decisive, confident or clear again. He initiated no physical contact. He resisted making any plans. He made no effort to develop rituals, routines or regular check-ins. His job was stressful, he had some sleep and health issues, and his favorite excuse was “I forgot.” I gave and he withheld.

Eight years later (slow learner) burned-out, anguished and desperate, it occurred to me to wonder what would happen if I. Just. Stopped.

So I did. I stopped e-mailing. I stopped calling. I made plans without him. I let go of all my expectations and started trying to glue myself back together. I worked, took care of my own responsibilities, enjoyed time with friends and family and went on with my life. I set down all that emotional labor and walked away from it.

Guess what happened?

He floated away.

I’d essentially had an eight-year relationship with myself.

He did eventually (weeks) notice I wasn’t around any more and got in touch, mildly puzzled and reproachful. I was casual and said I’d been busy.

He told me he didn’t feel like he was getting the attention he needed from me. We were sitting in his car at the time. I’ll never forget it.

Until now, I’ve never put that experience in context with all my other relationships. After my recent conversation with my partner about showing up in the relationship, I changed my behavior. I stopped worrying about “showing up” every day. I’ve engaged with my own needs, daily tasks and schedule. I enjoy our time together, but I’ve stopped trying to make it happen. I switched my focus to making sure I show up for myself every day.

What I’ve learned from all this is that emotional labor is real and largely unconscious. Many of us give our lives to it. I’ve also learned it’s a choice. When it remains invisible and undefined and we’re operating out of unspoken cultural expectations, we become unconscious of much of our decision-making and motivation. Our desire to be a “good” wife, mother, daughter, lover, sister, whatever, becomes all-powerful and we throw ourselves into it without ever thinking about whether that’s what others want and/or need from us. We don’t consider asking for help or professional support if we’re caretakers. In fact, we feel hurt when our emotional labor of worrying, for example, is not received with gratitude and appreciation! If whoever we’re connected with does want our emotional labor and provides none themselves, we don’t notice. We just work harder.

This is where benign neglect comes in. Benign neglect is an attitude of inaction regarding an unproductive situation one is commonly held to be responsible for, remember? The culture may hold us to be responsible for a lot of things, but that doesn’t make it true.

What if we challenged the “commonly held” belief that all emotional labor is our job in any given relationship? What if we decided it’s not our responsibility, in addition to not being useful, to worry, fuss, organize or manage the feelings of the people around us? What if we took back our power to choose?

Photo by Bruno Nascimento on Unsplash

If I had stopped worrying about doing laundry for my teenagers, or insisting on family mealtimes, or keeping track of their schedules, what then? The sad truth is I was afraid people would think I was a bad mother. I knew I would think I was a bad mother. The kids didn’t do those things for themselves, so I had to do it in order to demonstrate my love, commitment and competence. What kind of a mother lets her kids wear dirty socks?

I didn’t consider the difference between organizing schedules for toddlers and organizing two big, smart, capable boys who saw no reason to bother themselves with boring things like schedules, grocery lists and clean socks. I was so busy demonstrating my feelings, especially my love for them, I never stopped to wonder if they were learning to express their feelings. I didn’t ask.

It annoys me that only now am I seeing ways in which I could have been a much more effective parent, partner, daughter and sister.

At bottom, I don’t think emotional labor is about equal gender rights at all. I think it’s about choice, and choice is about power. We can’t choose if we don’t recognize there is a choice, we can only stumble forward blindly, doing our best with what we think the rules and expectations are, external and internal, until, overburdened, overwhelmed and exhausted, we fall down and don’t get up again. Meanwhile, the people we love, the ones we’re doing all this labor for, are not saved by our labor. Kids grow up, have car accidents and bad relationships, choose crappy diets, fall into addiction, catch an STD. Parents grow old, have health problems, and become dependent. Siblings, friends, lovers and mates are not assisted by our worry, our ability to manage their feelings or our “showing up” in the relationship. All our loved ones might be a great deal better off if we hadn’t taken on all the emotional labor ourselves, because when life happens, as it inevitably does, they lack the skills we never let them learn because we were so busy being good women.

Also, when was the last time you were thanked for all your emotional labor? (What do you mean, “showing up” in the relationship?)

You gotta love the irony of the whole thing.

What would my relationships look like if I kept my emotional labor in balance with the labor of those I’m connected to? What if I could be more like my partner and trust that my affection and love for him (and others) are communicated and understood without such deliberate emotional labor? He just naturally demonstrates his feelings for me in our day-to-day life without all this effort and trying.  What if I relaxed and redefined what being a “good woman” means?

I’m going to find out.

My daily crime.

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Guns and Reunions

Sometimes being a writer is a pain in the ass.

I had several ideas for this week’s post, but when it came down to it all I produced was something I didn’t want to think about, remember or write about at all. I tried to stop and go back to one of my original ideas, but no matter where I went I ended up in the same place.

I’m old enough to know it’s much easier to ride the horse in the direction it’s going, so I’m writing the damn thing, but I want you to know I’m resentful about it.

Two seeds contributed to this piece. The first is that my partner will be attending his fiftieth high school reunion this summer, and deciding whether or not to accompany him has been a thing for me.

The second seed is the latest (as of this writing) school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, and the story about the girl (who was killed) who allegedly rejected the shooter and how that may or may not have been part of the motive.

I don’t know what happened between these two young people, of course. I certainly don’t believe everything I read. Perhaps the shooter was bullied. Perhaps he wasn’t. Maybe the girl simply said no, and some people interpret that as bullying. Maybe he refused to take no for an answer and the girl was trying to get the message across with ever-increasing force. I’ve been in a position like that myself. I don’t know, and for the purposes of this post it doesn’t matter.

I think we all can agree that we have a problem with school shootings in this country, even if we don’t agree on the causes and solutions. I also think all the data gathering, debate and problem solving around this issue is extremely important. Along with everybody else, I have my own opinions about how we got here and what we might do about it, but my opinion isn’t part of this post, either.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

The reason I’m writing about it (the shooting, one of the alleged triggers for the shooting, and the entire problem of school violence) at all is because of the way it makes me feel.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

These are the same feelings I’ve had about the entirely trivial decision about whether or not to attend my partner’s high school reunion.

My days in high school were a black time I’ve worked hard to forget. I led a strangely reversed life then, like a photographic negative. My real life was the volunteer fire and rescue work I was doing, my family (including many animals) and reading, the frame around the central core of school. The fire and rescue work often took place at night, of course, and I well remember the fellowship, the macabre hilarity, the practical jokes, and the heartbreak, terror and death we saw on the highway. There were impromptu middle-of-the-night meals at Denny’s after delivering a patient to the hospital, when we were stinking of gasoline and had glass splinters in the knees of our jeans. I was the baby, the youngest, but I was trained and certified and did everything I could to pull my weight.

It was the first time I ever felt I belonged anywhere, or was of any use to the world.

School days, by contrast, were endless bleak hours of clocks, bells, the metallic slam of lockers, figuring out what was necessary in order to maintain straight A’s (which thankfully did not involve much attendance in most cases), and fatigue.

I can’t remember eating a single school lunch in either junior high or high school. Isn’t that strange? I must have, but I have no memory of doing so, or of the cafeterias. What I do remember is the high school library, where there were rows of study carrels — remember those? They were 3-sided square boxes on the desks so that each student was cut off and private, in his or her own little undistracted and unobserved space. I had one particular favorite, the farthest away from the librarian and activity, out of sight, out of mind. It was where I slept. I wore an old hand-me-down men’s quilted navy blue coat that I cherished, and I wadded part of it up as a pillow, pulled the rest over my head and slept for long stretches through lunch and classes.

I was (and am) very organized. I knew what my teachers expected. I always showed up for tests and did all my homework. Papers and projects were planned and completed well before they were due. I did all the reading, homework and classwork. If extra credit work was available, I did that. When I could take AP classes, I did. I never ditched AP English, which I loved. I also went to Latin, another favorite. German was fun, too. I was never any kind of a problem, in class or out of it. Most of the time, I was numb with boredom.

I wished only to remain invisible and maintain a 4.0 grade average. The invisibility was for myself. The grade average was because it was expected of me, and it was easier to just do it than to rebel. Also, I wanted to be finished with school as soon as possible, and the quickest way out was to pass all my classes.

Most of the teachers and all of the students were alien species. I moved among them like a ghost, a wisp of fog. I hardly opened my mouth. I occasionally raised my hand in class for the teachers who required participation for an A, but I’d learned in grade school not to volunteer too many answers, even if I did know them. I dawdled over my tests so as not to be the first one finished. I took pains to keep most of the teachers at a distance so as not to be identified as a “teacher’s pet,” another lesson from grade school.

I was never bullied, though I saw and heard bullying every day. I was adept at blending in and attracting no attention, positive or negative. I didn’t hate the other kids. I didn’t think much about them at all. I didn’t hate the teachers. I even respected a couple of them. I was angry all the time, but it wasn’t focused on anyone in particular, and I only recognize it in retrospect. I didn’t blame the teachers, the kids or my parents for the hell I was in. It never occurred to me there was any other option. Everyone had to go to school, period. My parents were busy people with lives of their own. There wasn’t anything they could have done and I saw no point in whining and complaining.

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

The school day was bracketed by a 40-minute bus ride morning and evening, and I did my homework on the bus, which effectively shut out the noisy horseplay, teasing and other socialization that happened on it. I always chose a window seat somewhere in the middle and immediately set to work, never looking up from my notebook and books even if someone sat down next to me. If I had no homework, I read.

When I was a senior I finally learned to drive, somewhat unwillingly. I’d seen too much trauma on the highway by then to be enamored of driving. In the end, though, I learned and sometimes I drove our old Chevy truck to and from school, a battered tank of a thing that could cope with any kind of weather and wouldn’t crumple like a tin can at the slightest bump or ding. It was a faded brick red. If I had the truck, I abandoned the library and stretched out on the seat to sleep after parking on a quiet side street, cracking the windows and locking the doors. It felt very safe.

I do remember, as a great treat to myself, buying lunch in town when I had the truck, either at McDonald’s or a little health food store that made wonderful egg salad sandwiches.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

I remember one student I graduated with. One. I think I remember him because he was also a friend of my brother’s, who was a year behind me, and he was on the summer swim team with me. He was in my AP classes and became a scientist. He wasn’t a friend. He’s just the only one I remember.

On the other hand, I remember the fire station very well, and the rescue barn. I remember the smell of exhaust from the ambulances and big trucks. I remember the little offices where the phone and radio sat on the counter. I remember the meetings, the folding chairs, the scarred tables and the pancake breakfasts. I remember the battered coffee urns and the stained sinks, the water fights, the endless and hilarious practical jokes, the laughter, the weekly meals at the local diner, the parties, the trainings and the people. I later married two of the men I volunteered with in those days (not at the same time, of course!) I remember running up and down ladders for training, the impossible weight of portable water pumps (we called them Indian pumps) for fighting brush fires, the eerie sight of burning trees crowning in a blossom of flame against a dark sky and watching a house burn to the ground. I remember the sour smell of cooling “hot spots” after a brush fire. I remember the live feeling and weight of a charged firehose, enough to knock me over, and the way it peeled the shirt off you during a water fight.

For this treasured, meaningful part of my life, though, there was no acknowledgment. Rather the reverse. It wasn’t quite nice, a teenage girl running around with a bunch of older boys and rowdy, often bawdy volunteers, never mind that I took First Aid, CPR, EMT and IV training and loved it all. It also meant that I occasionally showed up in the company of the police at wild parties where someone got hurt or overdosed, which did not endear me to my high school peers. Not to mention that the first dead body I ever saw happened to be one of my schoolmates. I’ll never forget the broken-doll look of him as he lay on the highway, the glass glittering in his hair under the emergency lights. The only reason it was possible for me to do that work was that my mother did it too. She was quite a good paramedic, in fact.

My experience with high school took place in the late 70s and early 80s. We had a completely open campus. Certainly, things are different now in terms of security, at least. I wonder, though, how many kids are sitting in public schools across the country this very minute who are largely unseen, unheard and simply trying to survive.

Every time a shooting happens we get hours and hours of interviews, social media posts and videos of parents, teachers and students and their perceptions of the perpetrators, and I always wonder — did anyone, does anyone, can anyone really know their student, brother, son, teammate or classmate? How well does a high-school-age kid know him or herself? How much perspective can they have, how much experience in the amazing ways life can change over time? What has been their experience of connection with themselves and others? What is the level of their willingness and ability to communicate? Have they ever, in their whole lives, been given a reason to believe that asking for help or telling the truth helps, rather than making everything much, much worse?

My family cared about me. I remember going to counseling once or twice, both in school and out of it. Do you know what happens to kids who get in-school counseling? They get pulled out of class, right in front of God and everyone. Every single student and teacher in that class knows where they’re going. Not exactly a help when you’re trying to remain invisible. Also, the counselors are just as worn-out and frayed as all the other adults in a school, with an endless array of troubled kids, emergencies, difficult or distraught parents, and they’re trying to support the teachers as well. I was ashamed to be part of their burden and take up any of their time.

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

We say some of these at-risk kids who become shooters are identified and “in the system,” and I think many components of “the system” have an honest desire to make a positive difference and work usefully with young people. That doesn’t mean the young person is able to avail him or herself of the support, though. I trusted no one at that point in my life. I wouldn’t have ever told the truth about my private thoughts and feelings. I’d already learned the danger of rocking boats, and I also knew that I was privileged because I was smart, we were comparatively wealthy and I had a family that loved me. I had nothing to complain about, and I didn’t. Nothing would have induced me to shame my parents and my extremely intelligent, talented and much more normal and attractive younger brother.

Now, thirty years later, kids are dying, and teachers, and school staff, as well as an occasional parent. We’re trying to understand. Some are trying to find someone to blame, as though that fixes things. But the parents of the shooters aren’t killing these kids. Neither are teachers or security personnel. Bullies and peers aren’t killing these kids. “The system” isn’t killing them, either, or the NRA. The one who pulls the trigger is the killer. I think it’s important to be clear about who’s ultimately responsible. The question is, what came before the trigger was pulled? What are all the intricacies and complexities that led to that moment of choice, and how do we begin to explore that terrain without the input of the shooter, who might or might not survive, and if alive, might or might not tell? If we can ever fully understand, how do we make changes in the roots of parenting, emotional intelligence (or lack thereof), public education (so-called), and our culture’s broken sense of connection and ability to be authentic?

If my school records could be magically produced, what would they show? Straight A’s. Honors student. Maybe a counseling note or two: Isolated, frequent absences, no behavior problems, no sign of abuse or cutting, not a danger to self or others,

Photo by Joshua Fuller on Unsplash

People, that’s a paper doll, not a person. I’m smarter than most people I know. If I’d been a danger to self or others, do you think I’d have told anyone? Come on. I know we have social media now, but how much of what shows up on a teen’s social media is Truth? Teens compete, exaggerate, dramatize and make stuff up, just like the rest of us. Often there are clues, but they’re a lot easier to see after the fact, and that’s not much help, is it? It takes years to develop self-knowledge and insight, even if we’re willing to.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

I’m a parent. When my two sons were teenagers, I worked at the same school they attended. It was a small school and I knew every student, every staff member and most of the parents. I had a whole reality in my head about who my kids were and how they were doing. I loved them with my whole heart. I absolutely trusted them. I frequently knew when they were ditching school, smoking weed or leaving the house in the middle of the night. I didn’t bail them out of consequences or micromanage them. I was a single mom, working desperately hard to keep us afloat and trying to deal with my own experience.

I knew I wasn’t okay, but I wanted to believe they were. I was doing the best I could, loving them as hard as I could and making sure they knew it.

They did know it, just like they knew I wasn’t okay. They weren’t okay, either, but they knew I was doing my best, they didn’t want to burden me and they didn’t really know what they needed for things to get better anyway. Exactly the same position I’d been in two decades earlier.

The truth is, given the right circumstances, either of my boys could have been victims — or shooters. So, in fact, could I. That’s a hard thing to believe and a harder thing to write, but it’s true. Every single one of us has a snapping point, whether we admit it or not. High school can be a place of prison and torture, a place of no hope, an infinite incarceration, a daily experience of humiliation or fear. It can be a nihilistic experience, a daily exercise in powerlessness, in making oneself small, in concealment, in survival.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

And then there’s the other side of high school. Some amazing people in every class go to endless work and trouble to keep track of their classmates and plan and organize class reunions. For someone like me, this is both astounding and appalling. When my partner told me about his reunion this summer and asked me to come with him, it took me a minute to understand he was serious. Sure, and then can we go get our legs chopped off with a dull blade? Please, oh please?

But I know many people have great memories of clubs and sports teams, teachers and classes, proms and homecomings. My partner has lifelong friendships from high school. Imagine it, 50-year-old friendships! I met my closest friend when I was 30. What would it be like to have that kind of history with another person, that kind of intimacy? What would it be like to know someone liked you enough to be friends with you for 50 years?

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

High school. Guns and reunions. Looking for quick, inexpensive, politically attractive fixes. Heated debates. Demonstrations and walk-outs. Active shooter drills for schools and law enforcement and mass trauma drills for hospitals. Blameshifting, fear, mistrust, profiling. Blood, vigils, funerals and graves. Bullying, mental illness and lasting trauma. Lost kids. Disconnected kids. Dead kids.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

The cacophony of debate, press conferences, social media, opinions, interviews, political maneuvering, nonstop news feeds and raw videos goes on and on, and somewhere in the center of the maelstrom is the core of the problem — the young people who shoot, who die and who witness. Some of them have been swept into the hurricane, but I wonder how many are simply sheltering in place, trying to survive another bewildering, hopeless, pointless day of tech, teachers, rules, grades and peers. I know they’re there, because I was one. They could tell us a lot about futility, despair and disconnection. They’re keeping painful secrets. Are we willing to hear their truth? Do we deserve their trust? Do we have time or energy for them? Can we change anything for the better? Or would we tell them to get over it, that everyone has to do things they don’t want to do, that high school will be over one day? Do we paste a neat label on them and write a prescription? Do we insert them into a “system,” because that’s the best we have, and turn away to deal with our own jobs, responsibilities, stresses, scar tissue, labels and prescriptions?

I’m back where I started.

Sick. Sad. Scared. Angry.

Photo by Aimee Vogelsang on Unsplash

All content on this site ©2018
Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted

Making An Offering

The seed for this post was a podcast by Pat McCabe, also known as Woman Stands Shining, who is a Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist, artist, writer, ceremonial leader and international speaker. In the podcast, she speaks about the idea of making an offering as part of our spiritual work.

Photo by Chinh Le Duc on Unsplash

That idea started me thinking about offerings, what it means to make one, to whom we make them, and why. Spiritual and sacred practices are a strong theme in the trilogy I’m writing, starting with The Hanged Man. Mother’s Day has come and gone and Father’s Day is ahead. Many of us mark these days with offerings of some kind. For Earth Day, I joined a small neighborhood group and picked up trash, and I framed that activity as an offering. Yesterday I cleaned up my summer-only dance space and danced there for the first time this season. As so often happens, during that hour of dance this week’s blog crystallized.

An offering is “a thing offered as a gift or a contribution” according to a quick Internet search. A gift is “a thing given willingly to someone without payment.”

The act of making an offering is ancient, a practice we began long before we could go out and buy a gift. Various cultures have historically engaged in ritual sacrifice (an act of slaughtering an animal or person or surrendering a possession as an offering to God or to a divine or supernatural figure), an altogether different degree of gift from a cute coffee mug.

I’ve long struggled personally with gift giving. There’s something in me that resents and resists the cultural mandates we’ve created to give gifts of a particular kind on certain occasions or days of the year. It seems to me modern-day gift giving has moved away from making an offering and into a demonstration of possessing money and spending it on some new piece of something, just for the look of the thing. We may feel real love, or gratitude, or whatever, but the only way we know how to express it is by buying a card (never mind the trees) and some kind of a gift.

I know that’s how we do things, but what does it accomplish, aside from contributing to our capitalist economy? Is that what we most want from the people in our lives — more stuff — or is that what we take because we can’t get what we really want? Is a coffee mug all we think we have to offer? Is a coffee mug all we think the other will accept? Are we unable to recognize and cherish an offering unless it comes gift-wrapped?

Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

I’m thinking a lot about Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, because I’m writing about her in my second book. (This began before the recent trouble in Hawaii.) Traditional offerings to Pele involved tobacco, brandy, silk, crystals, tropical flowers and food. Offerings to Pele and other divine figures around the world involved ritual, prayer, music, song, dance and sometimes a sacrifice. Things, yes, although many were objects from the natural world, but also time. Presence. Creative, sensual and/or erotic expression. Community celebration, guided by spiritual leaders. Reverence. Appreciation. Gratitude. Acknowledgement of the Divine’s connection to the people and the natural world they inhabited.

Making an offering on this level is a demonstration of commitment and willingness to participate in the complex web of connection between people and nature. It’s a practice, not a one-time event. It’s flexible and not limited to the calendar or the clock. If there’s a community or individual need to speak to the Divine, time is set aside to do so. No money or commerce need be involved, because the offering is of self.

The offering of self, however, is often invisible, especially to our nearest and dearest. It’s so fatally easy to take one another for granted. The very act of feeding those we love is an offering we’ve been making and accepting since humans began. The acts of growing, harvesting, gathering, hunting, sharing and preparing food, absolutely necessary for survival, are almost obscured now by money and time constraints, ecological concerns, health issues, ideology and who does the dishes. Whether we recognize it or not, feeding another person is an offering of life. Parents know that making that single offering to just one child, let alone other family members, is a colossal, exhausting, unending task. Yet it’s so often completely invisible, and who has time to enjoy the act of offering food to another (or ourselves, for that matter), or incorporate ritual, play or creativity into our eating? It’s just another chore in our busy days.

So, if our offering is invisible, unrecognized, unappreciated or even rejected in favor of something like a coffee mug, does it mean we’re worth nothing, we are nothing?

Of course not, but it feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?

Making an offering means letting it go into the world and having faith in its worth. An offering is a gift, and a gift is a thing given willingly, without payment, remember? There isn’t a scorecard. It’s the practice of offering that enriches our spirit, not the outcome. Unfortunately, everything about our modern culture trains us to depend on immediate reinforcement. We’re hooked on likes, claps and our stats. We gloat over the number of our friends, subscribers, comments and shares. Deadliest of all, we compare our popularity and performance with the popularity and performance of others.

What others think about us and how the world perceives us is becoming more important than our own integrity and the authenticity and quality of our offerings. We’re forgetting how to trust and have faith in silence, in invisibility and in not knowing. We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.

We’re forgetting that our worth is not defined by others.

What about the offerings we make to ourselves? What about our ability to meet our own needs,  spiritual, physical, creative and emotional? Do we have any self to give ourselves? Do we tell ourselves there’s no time, no money and no point? Do we tell ourselves that whatever our self-expression is, it’s not worth anything, meaning we can’t sell it to someone or no one will approve of it?

Woodshed

I danced yesterday in an old woodshed that was attached to a local one-room schoolhouse more than 100 years ago. It leans and tilts. The roof leaks. The windows and doors aren’t square and the wind blows through gaps. I swept out the winter’s accumulation of mouse and bat droppings, leaves and dirt. It was a warm, sunny day and as I danced I gradually peeled off my clothes until I was naked. The sun came in the west window and made a square on the floor.

I thought of trees and stones offering their bodies to moss and lichen, the earth offering itself to plants, and blossoms offering themselves to sunlight and insects.

I thought of smiling into a stranger’s eyes and complimenting a cashier on the color of her blouse.

I thought of the creators of the music I was dancing to making an offering of their talent, enabling me to offer my dance.

I thought of homes, rooms and gardens I’ve created that are long erased. I thought of people I’ve loved with my whole heart and volunteer work I’ve done. I thought of my partner, who was running an errand in town so I could eat bacon the next morning. I thought of picking up trash on Earth Day and the new trash that’s been thrown out car windows since then, and how futile that makes me feel.

I thought about words, all these words, all these stories and ideas and thoughts in my head that are here, and on Medium, and in my books. I thought about all the words written by others that I read each day and appreciate, share, clap for or comment on.

I thought about procreation, the red tide and the milky seed our bodies offer to life, to hope, to continuance. I thought about offerings of tears, of blood, of pain, of rage and of surrender.

Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash

Offering is a circle. Life offers itself to us, and we can choose to offer ourselves to Life. What better offering can we make than our fully engaged participation and presence with ourselves, our experience and others? Such a gift can’t be bought or sold. It might not feed our fame, popularity or bank account. We probably won’t get validated by statistics or Twitter. Some people may never recognize or value it.

But our self-esteem will bloom. Our joy will increase. Our words and choices will add to the positive energy in the world. We will become self-empowered and spiritually strong and resilient.

I smiled and laughed and shouted as I danced, whirled and stamped and clapped. I offered up my white, winter-tender skin to the sun and air. A mosquito bit me on a knee; a blood offering. No one saw me, except maybe an astonished spider or two. No one cared. It was an offering of self to self, a private thing. It gave me joy. It gave my body a chance to move and be grateful. It fed my creative well.

It was nothing.

It was everything.

It was my offering.

Thank you for reading.

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Jennifer Rose
except where otherwise noted