Tag Archives: reciprocity

Behind the Shield

Four years ago someone said to me “women and children should be behind the shield.” The impact of that statement was like a kick in the gut. I was shocked by the way the words made me feel; a tidal wave of fury, grief and despair. It was so overwhelming I didn’t poke at it right away, but ever since then I’ve been playing around with the idea of shields, my version of circling around a potentially dangerous object with twitching tail and ears pricked, curious but wary.

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A shield is a piece of personal armor used to actively intercept specific attacks. Traditionally, shields varied in size, shape and thickness and were made of wood, animal hide, woven reeds or wicker. Shields have probably been around as long as we have.

A shield implies protection.

I think my initial reaction to the phrase “behind the shield” was painful because of my fierce, primitive longing for the kind of protection and safety that image implies to me. I’ve always been hypervigilant and concerned with identifying safe places. I know where the exits are, physical and emotional. I maintain bolt holes, if-the-sky-falls plans and a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency.

Because my own anxiety and fear have been such sources of private and mostly hidden anguish, I’m extremely sensitive to others who suffer in the same ways, either specifically or generally. In the days when I was doing volunteer fire and rescue work, I frequently took the role of lying on the highway in the glass, spilled gas and ruins of a vehicle calming and reassuring a trapped victim, monitoring a pulse if I could get to a pulse point, explaining what was happening as we tried to extricate, establishing responsiveness and orientation and taking a history while the fire department deconstructed the car around us and the EMTs and paramedics passed me pressure bandages, a blanket or anything else that was needed and we had room to use.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

In short, I give others, animals and human, the kind of calm reassurance and protection I’ve always craved myself.

It might be this longing is buried within all of us, a kind of deep and primitive desire to return to the ultimate safety of the womb or a longing for the in-arms experience every baby needs and has a right to receive. Except that the womb is not always safe, and many of us do not get sufficient in-arms experience as babies. It might be that I’m uniquely broken in this, but I doubt it. I suspect much of our irrational and destructive behavior has to do with trying to feel safe, sheltered and loved, including sexual and behavioral acting out and addiction.

In any event, my desperation to be shielded motivated me to become a willing shield for others. This adaptation was greatly assisted by being female and then further strengthened when I became a mother.

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I never thought of myself as a shield. It never occurred to me such a role was a choice. I defined myself as a protector, a nurterer, a figure of maternal and female strength, a life-giver and a peace maker. I thought of myself as a good woman. I automatically placed myself between the inconvenient, frustrating, dangerous, tedious and harsh edges of the world and those I loved. I protected my husbands and partners from the necessity to deal with anyone else’s needs (including my own) and threats to their egos (including me). I protected my sons from the immaturity and selfishness of my husbands and partners. I tried to protect people from their mental and physical pain, from the consequences of their choices, from their own feelings and from any other irritation, hurt or harm.

Shields were originally made to protect from specific kinds of attack, but I tried to shield others from all kinds of danger: blade, arrow, blunt weapon, words, pain, consequences, inconvenience, feelings and worry. I was determined to be a perfect shield for all my loved ones.

Predictably, I failed, and nobody likes a shield that fails. I regularly heard about my inadequacy.

No one ever suggested to me that I protect myself, and no one invited me behind their shield, even for a rest. I approached every relationship with a craving to be taken care of, to be held, to be loved. I believed in romance and part of romance certainly included being taken behind the shield of some kind, competent man. If you’re thinking this was needy and dangerous behavior, you’re right. Somehow, I always ended up with one more person in my life I needed to shield, instead of the other way around.

The inability to trust and the craving to be protected and cared for can tear a woman apart. I’m certain there have been people in my life over the years who wanted to give me safety and security, but I refused to let anyone get that close. I don’t want to rely on anyone. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid asking for help. At the same time, I’ve spent much of my life working happily with children, animals, in hospice and as a first responder.

For a long time I thought if I could get a good enough job and earn or save enough money I’d be safe, but I was wrong about that. We live well below the poverty line, but I feel safer now than during any other time in my life. I’m also less concerned about money than I’ve ever been before. Money is not safety. I also thought if I could just find the right home I’d be safe. I found the right home and discovered that wasn’t the solution, either. Wrong again.

Since I came to Maine, everything has changed. Now I live in a situation that does not require constant emotional labor. I live with an adult who does not need or expect me to protect him. I have found reciprocal relationships.

This morning, as I went about my daily breakfast routine, it occurred to me that I’m no longer looking for a shield to crawl behind. The need for safety doesn’t drive me now. I’m not even sure I know what I mean by safety. What is the threat I’m trying to protect myself from? Aging? Poverty? Being unloved? Abuse? Getting my feelings hurt? A blow to my pride? Abandonment? Betrayal? Internet trolls? Loneliness? Crazy people with guns? Illness? Death?

Yes. All these and more. And most of these have already happened, some more than once, or are happening right now.

In spite of that, I’m okay. I’m better than okay. I’m great. I’m resilient. I believe in my ability to survive and thrive. I don’t mind aging and I’m not afraid of death. I’m emotionally intelligent and I understand power dynamics. I’m as safe as anyone, and a lot safer than millions.

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I have my own shield now. I made it (without knowing what I was doing) out of dragonfly wings, cobwebs, stardust and the sound of bats flitting around my head in the dusky barn on their way out to hunt. I made it out of integrity, passion, dance, laughter, creativity, ritual and spirit. There’s room behind my shield for others to rest, breathe and make shields for themselves, but I’m not spending my days searching for those in need of such a shelter. I can’t make a shield for you or even my most beloved to carry. I can’t keep everyone or anyone safe. I can’t shelter the world.

The only person in charge of my safety is me. The only person I have a responsibility to keep safe is me.

I am not a shield. I don’t have to take the blows or go to war. I don’t have to buffer, neutralize or ameliorate the experience of life for others. I don’t have to prostitute and beg in order to be dragged behind someone else’s shield. I made exactly what I need for myself, and no one can take it away from me.

Knowing I have what I need, I’m no longer approaching interactions with others from such desperation to be cared for. I still don’t like to ask for help, but I’m practicing doing it anyway. I’m much better at taking care of myself and no longer put the needs of others before my own. I’ve developed useful coping mechanisms that help me feel safe.

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We all construct shields emotionally, intellectually, behaviorally and with our choices. None of them really protect us from our fears or the experience of life. There is no way to shield against generalized fear and anxiety. It’s counterintuitive, but the best path I’ve found to feeling safer and more secure is to drop my armor and open my arms to my fears. I don’t know why that works, but it does. Monsters are ten times larger when I’m running away from them. When I run toward them they shrink before my eyes, and sometimes they even run away from me. That’s why I build my shield from things like iridescent hummingbird feathers and milkweed fluff. It won’t stop a harsh word or a bullet, but I carry with me joy, wonder, awe, mystery and beauty. My shield is a story of love and a story about what makes life worth living. It reminds me to stand tall and unafraid, looking life in the eye, confident in my ability to endure, heal, laugh and learn.

From behind the shield: My daily crime.

Photo by Henry Hustava on Unsplash

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

Parenting, Raven Style

 

Photo by Tyler Quiring on Unsplash

We have the great privilege of living close to ravens. These intelligent and entertaining birds make the area off our deck part of their daily rounds, because that’s where we fling the mice that are caught in mousetraps in the kitchen cupboards, as well as the occasional discarded egg or food rubbish. They’re wary birds. Any flicker of movement in a window sends them aloft, no matter how tempting the morsel on the ground. They make a variety of sounds, but can also be as quiet as a shadow as they wheel over the house, circling and examining the grassy slope below the deck.

This year a pair nested nearby and raised at least one fledgling successfully. Both parents feed the nestlings. A few weeks ago, some instinctive wisdom told the raven parents it was time to stop feeding the fledglings and all hell broke loose in the neighborhood.

The first we knew of it was a plaintive croaking cry, vaguely like a canine yap. We heard it over and over again, clearly coming from something on the wing. It began down over the river and moved up the hill to the house and then I could see the birds. The fledgling was pudgy and puffy, the way all young birds are at the adolescent stage. It looked a little bigger than the adult birds, but not nearly as sleek and not as skilled a flier. The adults flew around it in what looked like a mixture of distress and encouragement, and the youngster complained. And complained. And complained. For hours. Then for days. From first light until sunset it went on.

We watched the parent birds, looking more harried by the day, try to go about their usual rounds up and down the road for roadkill, over our place, over the river and pond, followed everywhere by their noisy, clumsy, demanding offspring, who certainly had the ability and strength to feed himself, if not the desire. At rest, the youngster would gape pathetically, begging each parent in turn for a regurgitated mouthful. Repeatedly, the parents turned away, flew away, dogged and determined.

Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Ravens are great generalists in terms of their diet. I’m sure the fledgling watched his parents eat carrion, fish, frogs, small reptiles and mammals, insects and plant matter. What we were witnessing was not starvation due to lack of available food, or lack of parenting. What played out before us was nothing more or less than adolescent outrage and parenting far superior to anything I ever achieved.

Both my partner and I are parents and worked for years with parents and children. We watched the ravens with a mixture of amusement, empathy and irritation. “Go find your own dead thing,” my partner muttered, imagining the parent birds’ conversation with the importuning fledgling and making me laugh.

When my two sons chose to leave the little mountain town where we lived and finish out their high school years with their dad in the city, I knew it was the right thing for them to do. It was sooner than I had anticipated, true, but we all recognized they had outgrown the school, the town and me. We were no longer living in harmony.

When I found myself alone, I grieved for a long time. I also sold the house and started shaping a life for myself with the good feeling of a difficult job done to the very best of my ability. I’d given all I could and it was time for them to fly and find their own lives. In the space where they had been for fifteen years I could build new freedom and possibility.

Except that they were nearly always in my thoughts. We had long phone conversations. I fretted because I couldn’t interact with them face-to-face and I knew many things were happening in their lives that they weren’t telling me about. They did tell me of jobs, roommates, broken-down cars, financial difficulties, bars, music, both new and old friends and romantic entanglements. They called when they were broken-hearted, scared, confused or just pissed off. Frequently, by the time I got off the phone, I was in tears and spent the rest of the day upset, or lay sleepless wondering what I could do. What I should do. What I should have done as a parent that I didn’t do that might have avoided the current crisis.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

I discovered that parenting adults is extraordinarily stressful and difficult, with none of the sweet pay-offs I had when we were a family living together. I didn’t see them playing and laughing anymore. I couldn’t touch them or hold them. We couldn’t hang out quietly together. I couldn’t cook for them or watch their faces and bodies mature, marveling at these two people their father and I created.

I’ve recognized in the years between their leaving me and now that I wasn’t the excellent parent I thought I was. I was, in fact, merely adequate. I made a lot of mistakes. I was in many ways ill-equipped to parent. Single parenting is an almost impossibly hard road.

I talk to other mothers of adults. Some talk at length about their kids — how proud they are of them, how close they are to them, how successful their kids are. Those parents need no questioning or encouragement. Their conversation is full of their kids all the time, without prompting, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the offspring in question is ten or thirty.

Other women, though, acknowledge kids, grandkids and great grandkids, but are not nearly so forthcoming. I’m of that tribe now. Given a sympathetic listener and a relationship of trust, these women tell stories of various addictions, mental illness, toxic relationships, unplanned grandchildren and great-grandchildren, financial struggles, pain, anger, grief and guilt. We find ourselves raising grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We co-sign for loans we can’t afford to pay off. We wonder what we did, or said, or didn’t do or didn’t say that resulted in our kids’ addictions, struggles and unhappiness.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

The love that was once the center of our lives and priorities, the strongest, purest feeling we’ve ever had, gradually becomes bewildered and confused. We look everywhere for the children of our memories, but they’re gone. Now, in front of us, are adults. From adults we want responsibility, appropriate boundaries and reciprocity, but our adult children want the unobstructed flow of our nurturing, support and unconditional love to continue uninterrupted, just as it did when they were children.

I didn’t think it would be like this, and neither did my friends.

My thoughts and feelings about my experience as a parent are so tangled I can’t see anything very clearly. Perhaps that’s why I was so taken with the ravens. The animal kingdom has a kind of brutal simplicity with regard to parenting, an instinctive wisdom that’s followed without concern for what anyone else thinks or cultural and societal norms. The raven parents knew what to do and they did it and endured a few days of discomfort.

Does that mother bird now worry about whether the young adult is happy or not?

Sigh. Probably not.

I notice that I never even consider blaming my parents for my happiness or unhappiness. Why, then, do I persist in blaming myself for my adult sons’ choices? Why do I think it’s any of my business at all?

Because I love them.

And so?

And so I want them to be well, and happy, and have good lives.

There are deeper truths, though. I want to be able to think of myself as a great parent. The proof? My adult kids have happy, healthy lives. See how great I was? I also want them to be happy so I don’t have the discomfort of knowing they’re unhappy. How’s that for a piece of maternal selfishness?

So, what, exactly, does a happy, healthy life look like? Is it a life we can boast about in company to illustrate the competence of our parenting? Is it the life “everyone” approves of? Is it the life I approve of? Why do I think I know what a happy, healthy life is for anyone except myself? Most important of all, why do I think I had the power to determine the kind of lives my kids would have?

As parents, we have a lot of power, at least in the beginning. But our power is all mixed up with other factors which are not in our control, like genetics, culture, geography and politics. If we judge our parenting effectiveness by the perfect happiness of our adult children, we’re all monumental failures. Life is not one unbroken experience of unadulterated happiness for anyone. Happiness is, in any case, a lazy, childish goal. What does it mean? Something different to everyone, probably.

What about competence? Yes. I want my kids to be competent. I want them to be able to learn. I want them to have the power to make their own choices and the strength to deal with the consequences. I want them to know how to self-care and love others. I want them to be compassionate, respectful and responsible.

I want those things for them, but I also want them for me so I can feel that I parented well and gave them the kind of start every child deserves.

Parenting is an odd business. We enter into years of chaos and hard work and watch our children grow up, never realizing we’re growing up, in many ways, alongside them.

As parents, is it about us, or is about our kids?

I suppose the honest answer is that it’s always about both, although it feels shameful to admit that out loud.

On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Who knows?

Ravens are solitary. We still have a couple in the neighborhood. I wonder if the youngster has left to find new territory. In time, he may find a mate and raise his own fledglings. He may be killed by a car, a gun, or a predator. He’s on his own in the big world to live his life, however that is, and die his death, however that is. Will the parent birds know? If they know, will they care? Would their knowing or caring assist the young bird in any way, or have they given everything needed already, including forcing the adolescent to begin feeding himself?

I don’t have answers. Nobody I’ve spoken to has answers, but we’re all asking these questions.

I wonder what the ravens would say.

I’m off to find my own healthy and happy afternoon and give my concerns about everyone else a rest.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

My daily crime.

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

What is Your Harvest?

I follow the Neopagan Wheel of the Year. I’ve never felt satisfied by the calendar holidays we currently observe, but when I began to research older, more traditional cultures and found the Wheel of the Year I recognized a spiritual home. Unsurprisingly, the Wheel is built around seasonal cycles and the solstices and equinoxes; all important markers and milestones for people living close to the land and animals.

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August first is Lughnasadh (LOO-neh-seh), the first harvest festival. It marks the halfway point between the summer solstice and fall equinox. The light is decreasing at the same time the harvest is increasing. Traditionally a Gaelic festival, Lughnasadh ushered in weeks of backbreaking work to gather in the harvest, plant as well as animal, and prepare for winter. A good harvest was often the difference between life and death over the winter, and people took advantage of the still lengthy daylight and warm nights to work long hours in the fields.

Each of the eight turns of the Wheel of the Year (about six weeks apart) is an opportunity to pause and reflect on some particular aspect of our lives in the context of the natural world. Lughnasadh is one of my favorites because it is at this time I ask myself how my harvest is.

For me, this is a much deeper and more honest self-inquiry than New Year’s resolutions. I don’t want to try to re-make my life or myself. I want to examine how I’m living the life I have and expressing the person I am. The Wheel of the Year is about spirit, not consumerism.

This time of year, as we prepare for the longer nights and cooler weather, the school year ahead and the fading of this cycle’s growth and abundance, we rural people notice how our gardens and orchards are. We notice the fading flowers and the leaves starting to look dull and tired. We observe the effects of this year’s weather on our fruit, vegetables and herbs. Hunters look forward to hunting season. We count canning jars and pull out our dehydrators to deal with a tidal wave of produce. We consider how the haying season was, if we need to buy more hay to see our animals through the winter, and which animals to cull. In Maine, it’s berry season.

Photo by Bartłomiej Jacak on Unsplash

Rural or urban, this natural and ancient cycle and rhythm can be reflected in our private lives. How is our harvest this year? What did we reap from graduations, weddings, reunions and vacations over the spring and summer? Did our investment of energy, time and love provide abundance? How did our choices work out? Are we happy? Are our needs met? Do we feel connected to ourselves and others?

Did we try to plant too much in an inadequate plot? Have we exhausted our resources in any particular garden or field? Is there land in our soul that needs to lie fallow? Is our spiritual well dry, or sparkling and full? Are we allowing discarded material to compost and break down and returning it to the soil of our life? Does the tree of our life need a good pruning? Have we been lightning-struck, or blighted, or had branches torn off by storms? Do we have enough sun? Enough water? Enough nutrients? Do we need more shelter from wind and storm?

Are we still growing?

Can we bloom where we’re planted, or do we need to grow in another place to nurture the roots of our being?

Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash

This is the time to reflect on seeds, literal and metaphorical, that we’ve previously planted. Lughnasadh is a teacher, slightly past middle age, benign, ample of body and experience. She helps us look back at the previous cycle when we prepared and planted for this growing season, evaluate our current harvest, and ready new seeds for the next growing season. It’s now that I begin to form intentions, review my hopes and dreams, and have long conversations with my fear. Where I’ve been is behind me. The next cycle is before me. Here, hip-deep in a field of golden grain and poppies, is this year’s harvest. What do I want to do with it? How do I want it to be different? Do I need more, or less? Will my choices sustain me through the winter?

Lughnasadh is not about mistakes or failures. It’s an honest assessment of needs and feelings, observation about what grew well for us and produced value in our lives and what did not. A bountiful harvest does not occur strictly through the efforts of human beings, but as a happy outcome between favorable external conditions (out of our control) and the choices we make (in our control). Perhaps we have no harvest at all. Perhaps our internal terrain is blasted and scorched and we feel we’ve lost everything. I’ve had years like that.

Maybe the harvest during those times is the most valuable of all — a clean slate. A newly cleared field.

An entirely new cycle.

So what is my harvest, and how do I feel about it? How are my boundaries? Do I experience reciprocity in my close relationships? Do I feel safe in my relationships? Do I express myself authentically, or do I keep secrets? Do I feel my feelings? Am I effectively managing my rightful power?

Am I my own best advocate, parent, lover and friend?

Evaluating my harvest and planning for the next cycle of sowing seed and growth are not social media activities. This kind of self-inquiry is private, shared at most with a trusted partner or friend, or perhaps a big-hearted dog. It can’t be done superficially or quickly. Traditionally, there are three harvests, and this is only the first. The last is on Samhain, which we call Halloween. By January first, I’m resting. The work of harvest is well behind me and spring approaches. I’m watching the light return and feeling the gathering power of the new cycle.

It takes time and courage to look honestly at our lives and evaluate where we are. It takes self-love to celebrate our triumphs and mistakes. The search for teachers, friends and support to improve our harvest next year is a journey in itself. If we recognize we make ourselves small and limited and thus have a small and limited harvest, we’re not going to magically change that on January first. Now is the time to begin to challenge the fears and beliefs that keep us small and silent. Now is the time to begin to run, walk or even crawl away from toxic relationships and situations that destroy our harvest.

The Wheel of the Year turns. Fall approaches. Change continues to flow through our lives. Notice it. Feel it. Dance with it.

I wish you the joy of the season, friends. What is your harvest?

Photo by Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash

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