Tag Archives: boundaries

In the Spaces Between

Barn and house

One of my favorite things about this land we live on is the old barn. Circa 1832 in the original part, it dwarfs the house and consists of four stories topped by an attic space under the roof. The cellar contains several rough animal stalls and is the occasional residence of a skunk, raccoon, woodchuck or grumpy porcupine. Phoebes nest every year in the cellar and first floor rafters. We store wood on the first floor. The second and third floors were an old hay mow and now are a repository for discarded furniture, miscellaneous remnants of wood, and old windows and doors. This is New England. These Yankees keep everything!

The barn is a tenement for rodents, bats, insects and birds, along with creatures like the aforesaid porcupine, who wander into the cellar in search of shelter.

New England Barn
Barn Cellar

When I moved to Maine, I stored some of my things in the barn; things I didn’t have room for in the house but wanted more accessible than the storage unit. Now that I’ve moved out of the storage unit and everything is here on the property, I’m determined to go through each box and discard what is no longer useful.

I work in the second story of the barn. The south wall contains a row of windows, several of which are broken. The west wall also has a broken window, and plentiful bat guano on the floor under it tells us this is their favored access point.

My hours in that space are strange, almost otherworldly. I sit on an old round lidded metal bucket that once contained popcorn. My table is the lid of a large plastic storage bin. I unpack the boxes I taped and labeled more than four years ago in Colorado, in a different life and half a world away. The barn is alive with stirrings and fugitive drafts. The wood floor dips and sways, creaking underfoot and showing cracks between the planks. The scent of apple blossoms floats in through the windows, along with the sounds of insects and the sweet calls of the phoebes as they hunt those insects. Once I’ve settled down quietly to work, squirrels, mice and chipmunks forget my presence and begin to scurry overhead and in the walls around me. I know bats are clustered under the roof, a floor and a half above me. Light comes in through countless cracks and crevices in the walls. The roof leaks in many places.

The body of the barn is loosening and thinning, much like my own skin, but as it does so it’s becoming rewoven into nature.

I’ve gone through boxes and boxes of beading material, sewing supplies, wreathmaking tools and elements, camping gear, seasonal decorations and kitchen items. The quiet barn fills with my memories as I review where I’ve been and recognize the steps that brought me to this place and this moment.

Photo by Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash






We love increase in this culture. The journey of childhood to adulthood. Increasing income in order to increase spending power. Upscaling, upgrading, updating, trading in. Increased choice, increased technological power and speed, increased likes and friends, increased access to “information” and entertainment. Bigger, better, newer, faster, more.

Now, suddenly I find myself strangely captured by the beauty of decrease. Perhaps what I’m feeling is a kind of surrender, a letting go. The barn lets go of its glass window panes, its nails, its roof shingles, the mortar in its foundations. As the fabric of its structure thins, life pours into it. The world inhabits it. The boundaries between the building and its setting are softening.

New England barn in winter
Winter barn

Observing this process of gradually increasing boundary ecstasy is breathtakingly, almost piercingly beautiful. My appreciation of its magic mingles with tears, memories and nostalgia as I unwrap and handle my things, once so beloved and important in my life, now boxed and stored.

As I load up the car and donate to our local charities, sell or give away what I no longer need, the storage space in the barn gradually empties. Sunlight fingers the floor where a stack of boxes stood. An errant breeze swirls dust into a brief glittering cloud.

Is empty space, or an empty moment, ever really empty? Can it be? Is a quiet afternoon without distraction or entertainment sterile and boring, or filled with peace and possibility that we no longer recognize or welcome but are starving for nonetheless?

Watching the reflection of moving leaves or water and sunlight on a bare wall feeds my creativity and joy in a way the finest piece of manmade art never could.

As I empty my life of so many objects, it becomes like the barn. I allow the cracks of long use, weathering and aging to show. I allow my memories and experience to mingle with the light, the moving air and the life outside my boundaries and barriers. I feel less isolated and more grateful, less anxious and more peaceful.

What is a life defined by the spaces between objects and tasks rather than the objects and tasks themselves? What is life in the spaces between our debts, bank balance and paychecks? What are the gifts hidden in decrease, in the slow passage of time, in loosening skin and softening bone? How much creativity and wisdom fill the spaces between our obligations, habits and addictions?

What hidden infinities lie in the spaces between each tick of the clock, each heartbeat and each breath? How much light can come into me as I widen the cracks in my physical envelope? More importantly, how much of my light can shine out into the darkness around me?

Widening the spaces between. My daily crime.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Garden of Thorns

The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.

Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that could puncture tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.

The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds that mated, nested, hatched, quarreled, sang and lived their lives among its thorny branches.

Honey Locust Tree

I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.

I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.

I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned that thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.

Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.

Photo by Andrey Grinkevich on Unsplash

This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.

Just like my beloved locust tree.

Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.

It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood that nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but I it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.

Honey Locust Thorn

I need to protect myself.

That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.

I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.

The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience that pleasing people and having no boundaries lead to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.

This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me that revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.

Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.

I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.

Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high that I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.

I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.

I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to be like that.

My daily crime.

A Contest of Generosity

As I sit in my attic space this afternoon, the wind is roaring in the bare trees. Last night it rained. This morning on the way to our weekly breakfast date at a neighborhood diner there were snowflakes in the air as we navigated the crumpled, buckling, pot-holed roads.

Photo by Ludde Lorentz on Unsplash

I’m still listening to David Whyte, and he’s still inspiring me. Listening to him speak is similar to reading his poetry. Each repetition unfolds new layers and depths in my heart and mind.

Today I’ve been reading, sorting, paying bills, and taking care of the oddments we all accumulate on our work surfaces and in our technological tools while we’re out in the world working or doing other things.

Outside the wind rocks the trees, which are just beginning to swell with buds, and David Whyte talks to me of friendship with life, with others and with ourselves. He suggests that healthy relationships are a continuous contest of necessary generosity in which we develop a discipline of forgiveness and allowing others to forgive us.

Photo by Ivan Jevtic on Unsplash

I think of forgiveness as a blessing.

It occurs to me that the more I forgive myself, the less I need the forgiveness of others. If I love my choices and decisions, I don’t need anyone else to do so.

Do we need forgiveness for who we are? Sometimes we need forgiveness for the boneheaded choices we make, but do we need forgiveness for who we are?

It seems to me the only reasonable answer is no, yet I’ve spent my life apologizing (and in latter years trying not to apologize) for who I am, what I need, and what works and doesn’t work for me in my life.

I have a dear friend who frequently apologizes for the way she expresses herself and interacts. I understand. We have that self-judgement in common. When she apologizes anxiously for something she said or wrote, or didn’t say or write, I smile to myself. It sounds like she’s apologizing for who she is, but I love her because she is who she is. I have more space for her than she does for herself.

Photo by Jenelle Ball on Unsplash

She has more space for me than I do for myself as well. I hope, with time, our friendship will help us both be less critical of ourselves.

I’m great at giving other people space to be who they are. It’s always been one of my strengths and gifts in relationship.

I’m so good at it, in fact, that several people with whom I’ve been closely connected quickly took it for granted that I would accommodate whatever they needed and/or wanted. Rather than a contest of generosity, such a relationship becomes an endless exercise in trying to please (on my part) and demand (on the part of the other).

The bad news is that the only way I can see out of this loop is to learn to say no and enforce boundaries, two things guaranteed to send any person who expects to control my behavior and choices into meltdown.

I hate scenes.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Naturally, my history of allowing others to take control in any given situation positioned me to attract into my life people who insisted their own needs and desires trumped mine. They had no interest in the thoughts and feelings behind the choices I made and did everything they could to manipulate my compliance with their expectations.

The wind blows because that’s its nature. Does it ask forgiveness from the trees? As I gaze out the window, looking for nothing and trying to see everything, I glimpse the possibility of living in such a way that I give myself the space I’ve always given others. The wind blows. The water flows. Mice nibble holes in cushions. Woodchucks dig up the Echinacea roots and eat them. None of it is personal. All act according to their nature, and there’s a kind of inexorable beauty about that.

I want to be beautiful like that.

Yet I have often sought to limit and even hurt myself. The twin disciplines of self-forgiveness and giving myself space have been exceedingly difficult to undertake and maintain, especially in the context of relationships with loved ones. My generosity has been for others, not for myself.

When people come into our lives and force us to make a choice between their expectations and our needs, they’re playing to win at any price, and the only way for them to win is for us to lose.

Not a contest of generosity, but a competition for power.

I have no interest in playing power games, and even less interest in “winning,” particularly if it means someone else has to lose. I’ve never been competitive. On the other hand, I’m finally committed to extending generosity to myself, and I love the gentle persistence in David Whyte’s language: “a continuous contest of generosity.”

Can I enjoy my own thoughts, feelings and expressions with the same generosity that I enjoy the boisterous spring wind, or my dear friend? Can I honor myself even when people around me tell me I’m bad and wrong? I fought as hard as I could to protect my children and give them a good start. Now, can I surround myself with that same fierce loyalty and generous love? Will I?

Yes.

My daily crime.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash