That feeling that something has to change … or else.
We’ve all felt it at one time or another.
Some people seem to feel it all the time.
Here’s the thing about insisting on change: the world will not change for you. Other people will not change for you. If you’re unhappy with the status quo in anything, job, relationships, your health, your financial condition, or anything else, the change that needs to take place is within yourself.
Not without yourself. Not your hair color, your clothing style, plastic surgery or a magical cure for whatever your particular health challenges are. Not winning the lottery. Not a drink from the Fountain of Youth. Not more of your favorite distractions and addictions. Not a new family, new friends or a new lover or partner. That’s all just gloss, and it will chip and crack and peel away like fingernail polish and there you’ll be. Again. Same old you. Same old challenges.
I don’t mean that we don’t need change in the world. I don’t
mean that at all. I’m not suggesting we all just throw up our hands and ignore
the injustices and cruelties, the greed and hatred around us. Working for
positive change is important.
Of course, we don’t necessarily agree on what positive change is … And there we still are, after that debate, with the feeling that something has to change, something big, something now, or we can’t hang on another minute.
The change I’m talking about is the hard kind of change, the kind we don’t want to make because it’s too much work. It would be so much easier if we could force others to accommodate us. Some people spend their whole lives trying unsuccessfully to control others and control their worlds. Wasted effort, and wasted lives.
Some people wait their whole lives for someone or something to change so they can be happy. A lifetime on hold waiting for customer service.
Real change is deep and dirty. It’s cleaning out our lifelong septic tanks for the first time and discovering they’re cracked and leaking stinking, sticky sludge into every aspect of our lives. It’s anguished memories and invisible habits. It’s toxic influences from those around us. It’s suppurating wounds and shame.
This is not victim shaming and blaming. This is a call to action. We can choose to stop being a victim.
That one choice, all by itself, is a huge change for someone who identifies as a victim.
It’s the hardest thing in the world to face our demons, to embrace our fears, to feel our feelings, to let go, to forgive, and to take responsibility for our own change. It’s messy, imperfect, deeply confusing, terrifying, and vulnerable.
On an impulse, I Googled “intimacy” this week. My partner and I frequently talk about connection, and I think a great deal about relationships, past and present, trying to understand the psychological dynamics of being human.
I expected a simple definition. I found a lot more than that.
The older I get, the more disgusted I am with public education. Why don’t we teach emotional intelligence to kids? Why do we fail to provide an adequate education in biology, sexuality, complexity and holistic management? Why don’t we model and teach critical thinking skills and how to research properly? And why, oh why, are we not taught about connection, love and intimacy before we become adults? Aaargh.
Intimacy turned out to be a rabbit hole, and I started taking notes and bookmarking sites. I read an article about eight kinds of intimacy. Count ‘em. Eight! Before I even read the piece, I knew I was in new territory. The simple definition of intimacy is closeness, but I never thought of closeness as having so many different facets. Well, of course it does, we all know that, but I didn’t know there was any kind of a theoretical model that broke intimacy down.
So I clicked, and read, and made notes. I’m not going to
rehash the article. You can read it for yourself. However, here are the
categories of intimacy in this particular model:
It wasn’t clear to me whether these were listed in any
particular order of importance. The article was written by a woman. That’s
important, because males and females are very different in their language,
styles, agendas and motivations.
The piece doesn’t propose whether all these forms of intimacy are equal, which I appreciate, because I suspect we each want and need an individual balance of these eight pieces, and we’d probably list them in different orders of importance.
The first thing that really strikes me is the discernment between physical and sexual intimacy. The blurring and confusion around the boundaries between the two reflect what I see as our cultural brokenness around sex and sexual expression. Rape culture is inherently distorted and unhealthy for men and women. I’ve written about touch before. Where are the lines between sexual and physical intimacy? Are there solid lines, or are they more fluid, depending on context and the people involved? How do things like trust and consent factor in? It seems terribly complicated and fraught with potential for misunderstanding, manipulation and abuse. When I read or hear the word “intimacy,” I think about sex, but this model demonstrates many other facets of close connection, including nonsexual physical touch.
As I’ve looked over this list for the last couple of days, it seems clear to me that our ability to participate in healthy intimacy is only as robust as our ability to be intimate with ourselves. Without the foundation of a loving, connected and authentic relationship with ourselves, nothing else works. If we don’t explore, accept and validate our own physical, emotional, spiritual, creative and sexual needs, we’ll never be able to share these intimate facets with anyone else.
Conflict intimacy really caught my eye. Huh? What does that even mean?
It means the ongoing experience of successfully managing tension, disagreement and conflict. It’s closely tied to experiential intimacy (the history of experience we build in relationships) and emotional intimacy (which requires trust and authenticity). I’m charmed by this one. I never would have come up with it on my own, and I wouldn’t have recognized it until the last few years with my partner, who is the first person I’ve ever been intimate with who behaves like an adult.
All my life I’ve wondered why simply getting along seems so impossible. I’m willing to listen, negotiate, try to understand, be tolerant and be authentic. Why can’t two people who are connected and have some degree of mutual history and commitment simply talk things through?
They can. If both are responsible adults who are prepared to be honest and vulnerable. It’s not hard at all. It’s interesting, stressful and brings up a lot of uncomfortable feelings to manage conflict, but it’s also a marvelous way to deepen understanding and, well, intimacy! Working out conflicts is every bit as useful and connecting as I always thought it could be. It also gives relationships stability and deep roots. I have absolute faith that my partner and I can manage any conflict or disagreement, whatever happens.
Experiential intimacy is complicated. My partner and I run into this all the time. A good example is stacking wood, which we’ve recently been doing as next season’s firewood is delivered. For him, stacking wood is a task based on a lifetime of skill and experience. He has a system in the barn where we store wood. He sorts it according to age, he stacks it just so, and the whole thing is carefully planned and managed.
Me? Stacking wood is an opportunity for connection, for us to do something that helps sustain our life together. The task is nothing but an excuse for good exercise and together time. I’m happy to take orders and let him have total control. (Stop laughing! In this case, I am!)
So we have wood dumped in the driveway, and I’m all excited because we’re going to spend several hours together stacking it. After breakfast, he goes into his office to do his morning thing and I go upstairs into my aerie to do mine. I get immersed in writing, or a book, or a rabbit hole like intimacy, and lose all track of time. At some point, usually because I have to pee or want another cup of tea (could these be related?), I come back to consciousness and discover the music is on, the barn door is open, and he’s happily stacking wood without me! I drop what I’m doing, grab my gloves and go out to join him, usually just at the point he’s ready to take a break.
This has happened many times, and every time I’m pissed off and feel rejected. Every time, we talk about it, and he’s sorry. “I forgot to call you,” he says.
He forgets because to him it’s a task to be done competently. I’m hurt because to me it’s a chance to do something together, and that’s always my priority. The competency and skill involved mean nothing to me. I want the connection.
Same activity, but entirely different ways of experiencing
It works the other way, too. He likes to share certain movies and TV series with me. For him, that’s important connection time–experiential intimacy. It can be for me, too, but sitting through yet another Star Trek or Star Wars or superheroes spectacle is at best boring and at worst overstimulating. It’s something I do out of love, but I’d rather stack wood together.
Another aspect of intimacy that highlights the confusion between men and women is creative intimacy. At first glance, I assumed this meant sharing our creative selves in our relationships, but that’s not quite how it’s defined. Creative intimacy is showing our affection for one another creatively. At this point I checked to see the sex of the writer of this piece and found it was a woman, which I would have predicted. In my experience, things like surprises, unexpected cards and gifts and other small (or large) playful tokens of appreciation and affection are much, much more important to women than men. A special card means a great deal to me, but my partner hardly notices such a demonstration. I know this because I sent him one—once! I got tremendous fun and pleasure out of it, but he was unimpressed. Watching the latest Star Wars with him would have meant more. Sigh.
I once spent a couple of weeks planning a birthday surprise for an intimate partner. Few things have given me as much pleasure. I went to his workplace and taped a card to his steering wheel before filling the cab of his truck with balloons. I couldn’t wait for his reaction.
He was furious. He said I had humiliated him. I was beyond crushed.
I never again tried to do anything like that for him or anyone else. It left a
Intimacy is one of those tricky aspects of relationship that’s
probably equally longed for and terrifying. We fear losing ourselves, being vulnerable,
being authentic. We long for connection that feels safe and real, for people in
our lives we can trust and rely upon. We’re terrified of spending our lives
alone, yet we resent having our freedom limited. Old traumas or health issues damage
our ability to participate in physical or sexual intimacy. We have no emotional
intelligence. We have no spiritual life. We avoid conflict at all costs.
We’re lonely. We’re lonely. We’re lonely.
Intimacy is one of our primary needs, but it’s messy and complicated, and now I wonder if it means different things to different people. We use the word, but there’s no consistency about what, exactly, we’re talking about. Is a relationship “real” if one or more of these elements is missing? How many of these aspects must be present to keep different kinds of relationships viable, and in what combination and balance?
I experience committed relationship as one long negotiation and contest of generosity. It’s hard work. The rewards are great, and such a connection requires ongoing, consistent investment; investment in ourselves. What do we need? What do we want? What can we say about what doesn’t work for us in relationship? What are our deal breakers? How do we manage conflict and uncomfortable feelings like anger and fear? What are our priorities? What are our expectations of ourselves and the other? How do we maintain healthy interdependence? What is our strategy for getting resource, help and support outside the relationship? How do we repair trust, manage the peace treaty of tolerance, practice forgiveness and manage power?
What does intimacy mean to us? How are we prepared to create and participate in it? What kinds of intimacy are we unable to offer? How close is too close? How distant is too distant? How will we handle the ways all these elements of intimacy might change over time? (They will.) How does intimacy show up in all our relationships—friends, family, romantic partners and community?
When I was 20, life was so simple. Intimacy was sex, and sex was mostly enjoyable. I didn’t find out until it was too late that sex is perhaps the most one-dimensional aspect of intimacy, and certainly not the longest lasting. When I was married at 21, I could feel some mild concern and eye-rolling from my family. I heard quite a bit of the “marry in haste, repent at leisure” thing. But no one stepped forward to give me resource and education about human connection. No one talked to me about the intricacies of a longstanding, committed relationship. No one had any emotional intelligence or a clue about its importance. No one talked to me about romance or expectations or intimacy. How could they? None of them knew about any of those things. No one had taught them.
Well, better late than never. I’ve learned a lot since I was
I’m having a hard time keeping track of the date and day of the week. The shape of my time has changed, and my life now feels uncomfortably uncontained. I no longer navigate by my old landmarks and routines.
I notice, as I intentionally reach out to friends, that our interactions no longer revolve around weekend plans, leisure activities and local events and opportunities. I want to hear their voices, talk with them, be with them, but I have no real news, nothing that seems exciting or interesting to say. We all have projects to help us feel productive and give ourselves something to focus on, but my projects don’t feel important enough to share in any detail. In fact, after the initial question, no longer a casual politeness, but THE question: How are you?—I don’t have any sparkling conversation to offer.
Not that I’m usually a sparkling conversationalist.
And what about that question? How to answer? Yes, I am well physically and grateful to be so. Sometimes I’m scared. Sometimes I despair. I don’t feel safe out in the world. I’m infuriated and appalled by conspiracy theories, protests, misinformation and willful ignorance. I’m anxious about the future. I’m loving being outdoors and having so much time to write. I’m horrified by the sense of inescapable slow-motion collapse that I have no power to stop or alleviate.
I love all this unstructured time.
I hate all this unstructured time.
How are you? Same, same. Same as you. Same as yesterday.
But not really.
Not really, because life is not a brightly colored video
game with music, sound effects, fast action and a replay button. We know that,
of course, but we forget that we know it as we move faster and faster, consume
more and more, racing to keep up. So many of us structure our time with various
kinds of instant gratifications, even if that’s just an alert that we’ve got a
text message or an e-mail.
Now, all of a sudden, the plug on our video game is pulled and we’re reintroduced into a slower, more natural flow and rhythm. Events unfold subtly and sometimes invisibly. Deep forces are at work that we can only intuit.
We were informed yesterday that one of our best local
long-term care facilities has a resident who has tested positive for COVID-19. Central
Maine, so far, has been comparatively lucky in terms of numbers of infections
and deaths, partly because we have a low population and are mostly rural, and
partly due to the dedicated teamwork of our governor and CDC representative. My
partner and I are very careful when we are in public, wearing masks and gloves
and observing social distancing. Many others are, as well.
Some are not.
During all those same, same days last week, coronavirus was
incubating, invisibly and silently, in that nursing home. It wasn’t identified
until yesterday, but it was there, replicating, infecting, and probably
spreading. We just didn’t know it yet.
Today, the whole facility, staff and patients, will be
tested. If there are several positive tests, we’ll have an outbreak and widespread
community transmission will have come to our small city.
I often have the thought, as I rake, help my partner stack firewood, plan for gardens, clean the bathroom, wash out a mask or cook a meal, that all this busyness is pointless. What’s it all for? Who’s it all for? What is the shape of the future?
Is there a future distinct from these times, or will we go on, same, same, day after day, until we grow old and die, or get sick with coronavirus, whichever comes first?
At this point in my thoughts, I find myself leaning on my rake, staring blankly at the next patch of ground to clear, or standing staring out the kitchen window with a soapy plate in my hands, and with a click time and I begin moving again.
I remind myself that of course there is a future. I simply can no longer predict the shape of it. I’m too small and too limited. Time, life, the cosmos, never stop. Change is always with us, but we’re not big enough to see or understand most of it, or it happens too slowly for us to discern, so we assume it’s not happening. We feel stuck in some unchanging, endless stasis.
There’s so much we don’t know. Sometimes all that we don’t
know terrifies me, and other times it comforts me.
And there are things I do know. Life is change. Change itself is neutral. We can welcome it and work with it, or we can resist and fear it, a chocolate or vanilla choice. The small choices we’re each making in this moment are shaping the future in ways we’ll never know about or understand. The future is literally built on this moment, and we all influence it.
Raking won’t fix coronavirus, or the economy, or the terrible damage our national leadership is inflicting. It won’t shape a future I can look forward to and invest in. It’s not fast and sexy and addictive; something I’ll post on Instagram or Facebook with a selfie and get “likes” or thumbs-ups or hearts. On the other hand, it makes me happy to be outside working on the land. It keeps me strong and healthy to be in the sun and fresh air. It satisfies me to be clearing the ground for mowing. It’s an activity that’s keeping me going right now, providing fuel for my love and creativity, the best offerings I can make to others and to life.
How are you, who are reading these words? Same, same, but
not really? I hope you’re well in mind, spirit and body. I hope you stay that
I’m raking and stacking firewood. I’m writing. I’m holding tight to my friends. I’m picking up seedlings, buying local eggs, transplanting a rose. I don’t know when I’m going back to work. I don’t know what work will look like when I do go back. I don’t know what my economic future looks like, or if we’ll be able to buy the food we need. I don’t know anything about the deep, invisible changes and currents that are always present in life and mostly hidden from my awareness. This day blurs into all the others since the day I stopped working. I have to look at the calendar to know the day of the week and date. I’m not even sure what time it is.
Outside my window, the wind is blowing, stirring the budding trees and buffeting against the house. Things are happening, visibly and invisibly, here at home, in the community, in the state, in the country, in the world. This day is different than yesterday, and tomorrow will be different again, in spite of this long, weary grind of being stuck at home and uncertain about everything. It looks the same as yesterday. It feels the same as yesterday. But it’s not the same.