Category Archives: Authenticity

Same, Same, But Not Really

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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.

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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.

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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 way.

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.

How am I? Same, same. But not really.

My daily crime.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Good Girl, Bad Girl

Last week, Thursday approached, arrived and passed, and I had nothing. Nothing to post; no insights, inspiration or coherent questions. No journeys, organized notes, serenity or discipline.

Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash

What I did have was the feeling I was inadequate, ridiculously undisciplined and failing to manage my stress and anxiety. I had a collection of entirely made-up apocalyptic stories about the future and a migraine headache. I had worries about friends and their families, people who were sick and couldn’t get seen or tested for coronavirus or anything else. I had rumors about numbers of infected community people that couldn’t be either confirmed or denied. I had pacing, restlessness, climbing the walls, apathy, and a feeling of futility and disconnection I called depression. I had hours invested in online Mahjongg solitaire.

I also had squirrels in the ceiling of my attic aerie, scampering, wrestling, playing, gnawing, and making soft sweeping noises that sounded very much like making a nest. By day, the noise was distracting, even if I did smile in sympathy because it sounded like they were having so much fun. The gnawing, however, was maddening, as we could neither locate the exact location of the animal(s) or the access point(s). It sounded like they were going to come through the wall into the room any minute.

By night, their noisy activity was beyond distracting. As I lay staring up at the ceiling over my bed, I thought bitterly that they were having much more fun this spring than I am. They also had a lot more energy than me. Nice for some people to have a night of romance, play and planning for a family in a cozy, sheltered place.

Squirrels are rotten roommates.

My partner and I missed walking for a few days due to weather (cold, windy, and more snow—Aargh!), and just feeling out of sorts in general.

When we finally did get out again during a breezy but reasonably mild sunny afternoon, as we walked up the hill my partner asked me a question:

“Have you ever felt yourself to be a good girl?”

Wow. What a terrific question. Nobody had ever asked me that before. I had never asked myself that question before.

It didn’t take any thought.

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One of the first things I knew about myself is that I was not a good girl. I am not a good girl. Not in any sense of the word. I’m not a good female. I wasn’t a good daughter, sister, mother or wife (especially wife!).

After that immediate knee-jerk response, though, I really thought about the question, at which point I wondered what, exactly the definition of good is. A little bell began ringing in the back of my head. Hadn’t I written about good and bad in some other context lately?

As we walked that day, my partner and I played with the concept of being good or bad, how we form such pieces of identity, and how we are shaped and influenced by our self-definition. My partner said that being a “good girl” means being an obedient girl.

Well. If that’s true, no wonder I’ve never been a good girl! My best friend couldn’t truthfully call me obedient. I noticed that I immediately stopped feeling hopeless, worthless, tearful and miserable, thoroughly distracted by the conversation. In fact, I suddenly felt amused.

Somewhere inside me is a three-year-old who equates being good with feeling loved. I know, intellectually, that’s nonsense, but evidently I can’t quite get it emotionally. I keep thinking I’ve dealt with this thing as I’ve worked on my pernicious habit of people pleasing and deconstructed so many old beliefs and patterns, but a certain kind of stress and experience dumps me right back into my three-year-old self before I know what’s happening.

At that point, I temporarily forget every step of the long journey I’ve made in reclaiming myself and my power.

I went back and found my post about good and bad creative work. It made me smile, because as I wrote it, it never occurred to me to take the concepts of good and bad a step further and think about them as they apply to who we believe we are as people.

Here’s a brief review of the definitions of good and bad from Oxford Online Dictionary:

Good: “To be desired or approved of,” “giving pleasure, enjoyable or satisfying.”
Bad: “Of poor quality or a low standard,” “not such as to be hoped for or desired; unpleasant or unwelcome.”

So what have we got? Two entirely subjective black-and-white descriptors, that’s what we’ve got. Furthermore, neither have a thing to do with unconditional love, which is the only kind worth giving or receiving, as far as I’m concerned. “Love” predicated on compliance and obedience isn’t love at all, it’s a toxic mimic and a control tactic.

If being good is being obedient, I have no interest in it. Neither do I have interest in being bad. Both are non-concepts. Good and bad have no power unless I have no power.

Goodness and badness are as impotent and limiting as compliance and obedience. There is no there there, no wildness, no creativity, no complexity, no gravid chaos, no resilience or flexibility, no authenticity, and no personal power.

Am I a good girl?

God, no! My whole life I’ve been so much more than that!

My daily crime.

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Speeding

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I’ve known for a long time that I don’t manage my empathy very satisfactorily. Several years ago, I found a couple of books by Rose Rosetree (here’s my first wince, because my own last name is Rose; too many roses!), Empowered by Empathy and Become the Most Important Person in the Room. (Here’s my second wince: from empathy to narcissism—becoming the most important person in the room! I’ve never wanted to be the most important person in the room. My lifelong ambition has been to become the invisible person in the room!)

I’m embarrassed to admit that these two books, which sound entirely woo from the author’s name to the titles, have been remarkably important tools for me.

Life is strange.

Empathy is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” (Oxford Online Dictionary). Whew. The definition, at any rate, is not woo! I’ve heard people use the terms empathy and sensitivity as though they mean the same thing, but they don’t. Highly sensitive personality types and empathy are strongly correlated, but sensitivity and empathy are not identical.

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Furthermore, being a highly sensitive personality is not the same as being histrionic. Histrionic personality disorder describes a person with a pattern of uncontrolled attention-seeking emotions. Highly sensitive people are generally not attention-seeking; rather the reverse! If you are interacting with a histrionic personality, you’re walking on eggshells, never knowing when outrage, offense or other extreme (and loudly expressed) emotions are going to be triggered. You’re also being drained and exhausted by the constant demand for attention and validation the histrionic personality requires. Think: Intense, unrelenting drama and trauma.

Highly sensitive people think, feel and process deeply; are insightful; are often introverted; are frequently highly creative; and often struggle with overstimulation and overwhelm. We’re more likely to deal with our trauma privately and silently from under the bed or within a closet.

But I digress … I was writing about managing empathy. Rosetree’s books are filled with various exercises designed to help people figure out how to use their empathy effectively and appropriately, which is to say control it.

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It may seem strange to a non-empath, but uncontrolled empathy is a recipe for mental, emotional and physical breakdowns. Unskilled empaths unconsciously push their own feelings, needs, and experience aside in order to absorb the unacknowledged or unwanted feelings of others. Hence, the need to learn how to become the most important person in the room, at least to ourselves, or even as important as everyone else.

Much of learning how to manage empathy boils down to managing our attention and presence. The exercises are ridiculously simple, and at first glance seem like a waste of time.

For example, one of the first exercises is to sit quietly and comfortably and do an eyes open and eyes shut two-minute counting exercise. The assignment is to create a habit of doing this a couple of times a day, just to remind yourself that you are you, having your own internal thoughts, feelings and experience, you are not someone else.

What could be simpler? It takes almost no time, it’s unobtrusive, and it seemed an easy thing to try.

It was easy. I sat in my comfortable chair, in my quiet workspace, the clock on the wall helpfully ticking off the seconds. No sweat.

Right. But the whole point of my space is that it’s mine. I don’t have to share it. Nobody is here to interrupt or distract me. I control the temperature, the clutter, the noise level, and everything else. Neither my empathy nor my sensitivity are challenged in my own space, which I have designed to be exactly the haven and refuge I need.

So I took the exercise to work. I obviously didn’t do it while I was lifeguarding or teaching. Somehow, I felt uncomfortable doing it during a break or while on desk duty, although technically there was time for it. There’s one place, though, where we’re all guaranteed a modicum of brief privacy.

Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

I waited until I needed to visit the bathroom, locked the stall door, shut my eyes and started my count.

There were other women in the locker room, chatting, changing, showering. They seemed a lot more important than me. I should be out there. I should exit the stall in case someone else wanted to be there. I should say hello, greet patrons and patients by name, run a paper towel over the sink to pick up stray hairs and other ick, make sure there’s no trash on the floor. I should make sure that middle shower that drips is firmly turned off. A young mother is looking for a baby changing station. She must be new to the facility and doesn’t know there’s one next door, in the handicapped toilet stall. What’s going on out at the desk? Do they need me? Is the phone ringing? Is someone having to cover for the ten years I’m in the bathroom?

My chest felt tight. I couldn’t breath easily. Anxiety overwhelmed me. I concentrated and got through the first 30 seconds of the exercise. At that point, I felt as though I’d been sitting there for at least an hour, and I was so stressed I felt sick. The compulsion to hurry, hurry, hurry and get back to work was overwhelming. I was either going to cry, vomit, or wind up huddled on the floor next to the toilet.

I was amazed. I felt ridiculous, but there was no denying my physiological panic response to pausing for two minutes to do the exercise, even when combined with a legitimately needed bathroom break. I exited the stall, humbled, horrified and fascinated, washed my hands, said hello to everyone, introduced the young mother to the baby changing station, and went back to work.

I haven’t tried to do the exercise again at work. I don’t want to feel that way again. I had no idea the degree to which I’m compulsively and unconsciously speeding through parts of my life. I know I hate to be pressured or rushed, so I take great pains to give myself lots of time as I navigate through my days. I thought I never rushed anymore.

This experience stirred up one of my earliest memories.

I was trying to help my mom. She had some problems with pain, and I got it into my head that it was my job to do as much physical work as I could for her so she would have less pain. Empathy in action. What this meant to me was learning to do things like sort the laundry, make the beds, care for the animals and my younger brother, etc. I vividly remember how important it was to me to learn to tie my shoes, not only so I could tie my own, but so I could tie my brother’s, thus helping Mom avoid stooping, bending or squatting.

I had a little rhyme I’d made up that I’d say to myself as I “helped” (probably I was in the way more than anything else—sorry, Mom!). I never said it aloud, of course, but to myself I would say, “Hurry, hurry, biff and burry,” over and over as I tried to make perfect hospital corners, tuck in the sheets, pick up toys, or measure out dog food. Even then, I was playing with words. I was about three years old at the time.

That rhyme brought back a flood of memories and feelings, all feelings of what I would now call panic or anxiety. Feelings of intense pressure to be good enough, big enough, fast enough, competent enough, perfect enough, strong enough to help those I loved, to really make a difference, to communicate the depth of my caring.

Speed. I don’t know how or why speed became so important, but clearly it did, as my body reacts so violently to even a two-minute pause.

Although I’ve largely extricated myself from rushing through my personal life, when I’m working or interacting with others that unconscious pattern obviously still rules, completely invisible until I tried this simple little exercise at work and uncovered it.

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As an intermediate step between doing the exercise in my own space (easy) and at work (impossible, at least for now), I decided to try doing it in my workplace parking lot. As I’m always early everywhere I go (that’s what books are for), I’m usually at work early. Now I park, turn off the car, and start counting. As I close my eyes and begin, I feel compelled to check the time again, though I just checked it seconds before as I turned off the car. What if I’m late? I can’t sit here in the parking lot. They’re counting on me at work! I can sit through the compulsion to exit the car immediately, but it’s uncomfortable.

I feel better with my eyes open, but it’s hard not to be distracted. People are coming and going, some staff, some patients, some patrons. They all seem more important than me. I feel obliged to smile and wave, exchange a friendly word, offer to assist those with mobility problems or poor balance. I can’t just sit here and ignore all those important people. I’m at work! Sort of. Almost. What will they think?

Closing my eyes gets progressively harder. My anxiety kicks in and I feel unsafe. I have to open my eyes to be sure I’ve locked the car. I hear people leaving, arriving, slamming car doors. I need to watch what’s going on around me. I need to see if there’s some kind of a threat. This is hypervigilance, and I’m familiar with the feeling. I need to get out of the car, leave the parking lot, get into the building and go to work. Why am I sitting here sweating, trying to get through this stupid exercise? I’m supposed to be at work!

All this on a sunny winter afternoon, in a small, safe hospital complex parking lot, where I’m heading for a job I love working with wonderful people, and I’m not due to clock in for another fifteen or twenty minutes. Nobody notices me sitting in my car. Nobody is paying me the slightest attention, and if they are, they probably assume I’m looking at or listening to my cell phone! For a whole two minutes!

Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

I realize I can’t develop the skill to manage my empathy more effectively until I’ve figured out how to stop speeding when I’m around other people. I’m not sure how I’m going to pull that off, but I’m determined to find a way. The habit of speeding is a deeply rooted coping mechanism that spares me from the intense anxiety and panic that occurs when I try to take my energy and attention from those around me and focus on myself. As I weaken the habit of speeding, I’ll reclaim part of my life, including control of my empathy.

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Often, as I write and post these essays, I do so with a mixture of amusement and chagrin. Amusement because being human is amusing. We’re all so convoluted, so illogical and complex and flawed and beautiful and ridiculous. Chagrin because many people think it’s not quite nice to tell the truth, to reveal our flaws and weaknesses, to talk about sitting in a toilet stall or the mess inside our heads, to reveal our dirty laundry. My rebellious streak is showing. Again. Maybe it’s not nice. I don’t much care, having no particular ambition to live up to “nice,” whatever that means!

I do care about honest connection, and to participate in that it’s necessary to tell the truth and risk being seen. I know I’m not the only person with dirty laundry, or the only person who sits in toilet stalls or flees there for a moment of privacy! I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person speeding in some way, either. Perhaps many or even most of us have a treadmill in some shadowed attic of our psyches to which we’re chained, be it an addiction, a compulsion, a to-do list that’s never satisfied, or any other behavior that steals our time, attention, energy and power.

I don’t want to live like that. Do you?

Speeding. Fumbling for the brake pedal. Hurry, hurry, biff and burry.

My daily crime.

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