Tag Archives: reciprocity

What Are You Up To?

Family time this Christmas took the shape of phone calls and e-mails. I don’t live near any of my family now, though they are often in my thoughts and prayers. I noticed, during one of these phone calls, a pattern I’d not been fully conscious of before.

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When someone asks me what I’ve been doing with myself, what’s occupying my attention and time, I’m tongue tied. Something about that question stops me in my tracks. I hear myself give a stilted what-I-did-during-my-summer-vacation kind of report rather than a true, heartfelt answer. After these conversations, I feel like an idiot. I love hearing about what my loved ones are up to. Why can’t I give an honest answer to the same question? What’s in my way?

The answers to that (so far) are complicated, and interesting, and sad.

One thing I can say is that I much prefer listening to others rather than talking about myself. Talking about myself is embarrassing. Underneath the embarrassment is my persistent feeling of being a freak. All my life I’ve felt that I don’t fit in very well, and all my life I’ve endeavored to hide that fact. The best way to do that is to keep the focus firmly away from me!

Another obstacle has to do with schedule shaming. When I was younger, my days were filled to the brim with emotional labor, earning a paycheck, and taking care of others. I was busy all the time. I raced from one need to the next, none of them mine.

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Whoever or whatever I was existed only in a tiny cage in the center of an ongoing hurricane of necessity and demand. I could talk (a lot) about doing. I had few chances to just stop and be, and if I did, I felt ashamed for wasting time and making no contribution to anyone else.

This, of course, is absolutely normal for women in this culture. The expectation is that women with children, women with partners, women with family elders, live in just this way. It’s what women are for, and I asked for nothing better. It gave me great pleasure to take care of others, manage relationships, and live up to expectations, my own as well as everyone else’s.

What I didn’t realize until I stopped living that way was the terrible price I would pay for stepping out of that role and choosing to live for myself. Now, when someone asks me what I’m doing with my life, the true answer is NOT taking care of anyone else. NOT managing the lives of others. NOT burning myself out in unending emotional labor. I am able to choose Failing To Please anyone but myself.

Now I’m being. I’m meeting my own needs. I’m still busy, but not with running errands, doing housework, and general caregiving. I’m creating a life plan in the context of holistic decision making. I’m making a writing business plan as part of my life plan. I’m taking SEO tutorials and applying what I’ve learned to this blog. I’m taking tutorials on Excel and making spreadsheets as part of my writing business plan. I’m reading. I’m writing. I’m herding cats. I’m looking out the window. I’m doing midwinter ritual and welcoming the returning light. I’m loving people. I’m loving myself. I’m exercising. I’m searching for an editor and agent. I’m submitting writing for publication. I’m looking through seed catalogs.

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The part of me shaped by the overculture is deeply ashamed by these honest answers to what I’m doing with my life.

I was not able to be responsible for myself while taking on responsibility for others. Maybe some women can balance successfully between self and others, but I couldn’t. The demands were too many and too great. For a long time, I chose to be responsible to others without counting the personal cost, but then things changed, my kids grew up, and I committed the ultimate act of selfishness and betrayal.

I chose to begin taking responsibility for myself and let go of managing others. Managing, not loving.

Doing more of what I want to do (and less of what I don’t want to do) seems to be unforgivably selfish.

When my kids moved out to live with their father and finish high school, I was completely lost. Being their mother was my biggest piece of identity. Without them, I collapsed like a wet paper doll. That collapse was also a rebirth. With the help of friends, time, and my community, I gradually began to excavate who I was apart from a single mother, a daughter, a sister, a romantic partner. I discovered a woman I’d never had time to get to know, a complete person in her own right. I liked that woman. I loved her. I wanted to share her, proudly, with my loved ones.

But somehow I couldn’t, and can’t. I struggle with a largely unspoken (directly to me, anyway) background vibe of disapproval, resentment and wounded feelings. For the most part, my needs and choices aren’t openly challenged, yet reclaiming my power to have needs and make choices is met with a feeling of subtle withdrawal and withholding of true connection from some of those who have known me for decades.

I’ve written before about Baba Yaga, a crone figure from Slavic European folklore. The world is full of women like me, an army of Baba Yagas. We are postmenopausal and no longer objects of sexual or procreative interest. We are a generation of grandmothers, either literally or figuratively. We’ve learned and suffered much, and have a storehouse of wisdom. At our best, we’re earthy, bawdy, rich in experience and texture, honest, and direct. We can laugh at ourselves. We take tears and tantrums in our stride. We’ve made friends with ebb and flow, cycles and seasons, life and death. We are largely invisible and frequently undervalued and underestimated. We’ve played many roles in our time, been many things to many people. We’ve finally reached a stage of life in which we’ve become a whole greater and more powerful than any of our previous single roles.

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We have paid the price and reaped the rewards of being emotional slaves to others. Those of us on the road to cronehood have also paid the price and reaped the rewards of insisting on the freedom to be more.

I hate my shame. What kind of a culture, which is made up of individual people, shames a person for self-care and rewards emotional slavery? Are any of us born solely to serve others? Is that the only meaningful contribution we can make? Are women worthy of love only in proportion to our caregiving?

The most evil twist of all in this is that caregivers, people pleasers, and performers of emotional labor are quite often overlooked, undervalued, and taken for granted. I frequently felt unloved and unlovable in those roles, too. My choices were socially approved, but that was cold comfort. I want to be valued for all that I am, not just my socially-compliant roles.

So, what to do? Will I be less tongue tied now when someone asks me what I’m doing? Will my shame wither and die, now that I’ve examined it?

Probably not. I can commit to being more honest about what I’m up to in spite of the shame, but I suspect a part of me will always feel that I let everyone down in choosing to live my own life. It’s ridiculous to frame it in that black-and-white, either/or way, but we’re all shaped by our tribe and culture, and I’m well aware that many onlookers expect (even if unconsciously) women to stay in their place, which is to say remain as pillars of strength, support, and nurture for others to the end of their lives.

Even so, I won’t go back. I have Baba Yaga work to do now, work I was born to do, work life has shaped me to do. I earned my freedom and my own love and respect. My love for others has ripened into a powerful current, but it’s not slavish. It’s a gift I choose to give, not an entitlement or a duty. Loving others is not all I’m for and I won’t prostitute for reciprocity.

That’s what I’m doing with myself. Thanks for asking. My daily crime.

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Sharing Happy

Is it possible to share our happiness? More specifically, is it possible for me to share the things that make me happy with others? I ask because my immediate answer to the first question is yes, of course. My immediate answer to the second question is no. Well, rarely. Let’s say rarely.

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Martin Seligman makes a statement in his book, Authentic Happiness, that I’ve been thinking about for several weeks. He writes that seeking out others to share our happiness with, and telling them how much we value the moment “is the single strongest predictor of level of pleasure.”

I’ve struggled all my life with an intense desire to share my happiness with loved ones and an inability to do so.

It works well the other way. For me, one of the joys of connection is allowing myself to become enlarged by the presence of others. I’ve always loved being exposed to what those around me enjoy: new music, new movies, new books, new ideas and new ways of doing things. All my close relationships have made me bigger and contributed to who I am in this moment, and I’m deeply grateful for it.

But I rarely seem to find reciprocity. Or flexibility. Or curiosity. Or something. I’ve never been able to figure out why. Is it that the things that make me happy are stupid, or inappropriate, or boring? Is it something about me? Is it that some people don’t value sharing emotional experience and joy and I have a genius for wanting to connect with those kinds of people?

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Maybe some people have no happiness to share?

My inability to share my happiness and enjoyment with others has left me with a painful feeling of guilt, as though it’s disloyal or a betrayal if I enjoy something others can’t. Or won’t. Guilt turns me inward; I pursue my happiness in secret, stifling my longing to share it, struggling with feelings of rejection and resentment. I show up in their lives to share. Why don’t they want to with me? Am I needy? Demanding?

Around and around I go as I think about this, getting nowhere useful.

When I encounter a hairball like this in my life, I look at it through the lens of power dynamics. The fact is I know what makes me happy. I value experiencing the happiness and delights of others. Both are entirely within my power. I do long to share my own happiness, but sharing requires the participation of another, and that is not in my power.

Guilt and shame are not useful burdens to carry around. My happiness takes nothing away from anyone else. Making myself unhappy doesn’t ease someone else’s unhappiness. Hiding my happiness doesn’t seem like a useful choice. As for resentment, holding on to that only hurts me.

Another problem with my strong desire to share my own happiness is that it reinforces people pleasing. I tie myself into knots thinking about exactly the right timing and approach in order to get someone else to be interested in sharing something I enjoy. Or I tie myself into another kind of knot trying to optimize what I think makes others happy, regardless of the personal cost to myself. If we can’t share happiness, and if something other than what I have to offer gives someone happiness, I disappear as much as I can so there’s maximum room for whatever I think is most wanted.

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It sounds so easy. Find someone to share our happiness with. Tell them what the moment means to us. Enjoy the pleasure.

What am I doing wrong?

As I think about this, I wind up in a familiar place—with myself. Exploring happiness during these last weeks has made me newly conscious of my experience. Over the last couple of decades, I’ve gradually learned to befriend and care for myself, replacing old habits of self-destruction and self-loathing. I see now that much of what I’ve done for myself, rather than waiting for someone to read my mind and do it for me, or give me permission to do what gives me pleasure, have been the same things that make me happy. It’s just not a word I’ve felt very friendly with or applied to myself before.

I’ve thought about all this during my Thanksgiving break. I spent hours and hours cutting greens and making holiday decorations. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was extremely stressful and uncomfortable. I enjoyed it because I love working with my hands, giving gifts, and sharing (there’s that word again) the glory of our evergreen trees and the spirit of the season. It was stressful and uncomfortable because I feel so much anxiety about sharing those things that give me such pleasure. Would I be making people uncomfortable, imposing a gift return obligation? Were the decorations ugly or inappropriate in some way? Would people already have wreaths and decorations and have no use for them? Were they too much? Too little? People probably can and have made or bought something much better.

This is familiar territory, as it’s always the background to posting on this blog. I push through it when I’m writing, but I usually talk myself out of giving spontaneous creative gifts. I decide whatever I want to do is a dumb idea, a waste of time, and, frankly, it’s too scary to be that vulnerable and risk rejection, misunderstanding, or making someone uncomfortable.

It’s too scary to share the things that make me happy.

Sigh.

Working with Seligman’s book and thinking about happiness has changed things. I decided I was going to do something I love to do, share my enjoyment with others, and damn the consequences, or, better yet, completely let go of outcomes. Even if what I made gets thrown directly into the fireplace, what have I lost? My enjoyment of gathering, making, and giving remains intact. My happiness and expression of love are still free in the world instead of hidden and imprisoned in my own heart.

Sharing happiness. My daily crime.

Reciprocity Again

It’s no secret that many small businesses are feeling devastating impacts from coronavirus. There’s a general push to support local small businesses, which are the lifeblood of neighborhoods and communities. In rural areas, many of us are also doing our best to support local farmers.

Before the pandemic, my partner and I had a weekly breakfast date at a local diner. We enjoyed the food. We enjoyed the people, both employees and other patrons, and we often met friends there for a leisurely, friendly, old-fashioned diner breakfast. The diner is a small, family-run place, and was an important part of my community and routine.

As the pandemic swept over the country, the diner closed, and we stopped eating out altogether. We did get take-out from them a few times, but we found that the food alone did not satisfy our desire for connection and community, and it seemed a chore to make the rather lengthy round trip when we could more easily, cheaply and safely cook for ourselves at home.

As the summer wanes, conspiracy theories abound, and the election approaches, fear, frustration, hostility and division are everywhere. I heard that the diner has reopened, but I’m not comfortable eating in a restaurant right now, although I do frequently support a local sandwich shop that provides take-out, has CDC recommendations posted, and is staffed by employees with masks.

Yesterday I heard that the diner is heavily advertising the owners’ political allegiance and the employees are not wearing masks.

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I felt upset by this and chewed on it yesterday and last night. My initial reaction was loss and sadness, followed quickly by the feeling that I’m being intolerant and unsupportive of my community. I took a walk at dawn this morning, listening to a couple of owls carrying on a lengthy conversation at the same time the birds were waking, and it occurred to me that community support is a two-way street.

I’ve written about reciprocity before on this blog. At the time of that writing it was a fairly new concept to me. This was no surprise, as I realized most of my relationships, past and present, were remarkable for the absence of reciprocity. It was a relief to be given language and concept for my recurring feeling of giving every bit I had to give to a relationship and getting nothing in return.

Now I recognize the lack of reciprocity in interpersonal relationships much more quickly and take steps to limit or exit from those connections.

This idea of community support, however, is a new angle on reciprocity, and it took me a while to see it.

Small businesses are valuable and it’s hard work to make a success out of them, mostly because giants like Amazon and Wal-Mart undercut them so easily. One of the things I love about living in rural communities is getting to know the artisans, farmers, and others engaged in unique and high-quality arts, crafts and food production. I’ve never owned a small business, but it seems to me if I did I’d work hard to provide my customers with the best product and experience possible. In return, I’d be grateful for those who patronized me and told others about me, as I’d want to attract all the customers I possibly could.

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This is reciprocity.

As a customer, it doesn’t occur to me to wonder about the political views or underwear color of a small business owner. My interest is in the business’s product or service, not the owner’s personal choices.

I have no need or desire to control whether or not people wear masks or social distance, unless I’m at work and it’s my responsibility to do so. If I’m uncomfortable with lack of masking and social distancing out in the world, I leave rather than making a scene. I also feel no need to lead in any situation with my politics or ideology. Neither are the most important things about me.

I still patronize most of the places I visited and bought from before the coronavirus, although I go a little further out of my way now, even if it does take extra time or an extra dollar or two, to support small businesses. I have encountered some hostility and glares in various local businesses that I assume are about me masking, but nobody has said anything to me about it, and (being an adult) I know how to ignore dirty looks.

However, the diner is a different proposition. Plastering a small business with political signs and posters feels to me like a Keep Out, as their presidential pick is not mine. It feels hostile and hurtful. As I said, we aren’t in a hurry to eat in anywhere just now, but it was my intention to return to the diner and resume our weekly habit one day.

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Except now I don’t feel welcome.

I also don’t feel safe. I can only assume people who refuse to mask in their business feel no need to take other precautions, and I don’t want eat food prepared and served by those who don’t follow CDC guidelines, both at work and in their private lives.

I’m sad about this. It’s hard to feel like a part of a community and then suddenly feel I don’t belong, after all. My affection for the diner, the people there, and the food is real, and I wish them all well. I thought we were friendly acquaintances and it never occurred to me that differing political views would disconnect us.

But I wasn’t responsible for the disconnection. I’ve missed the diner all these long weeks, and looked forward to the day we could resume going. I want to support this particular small business, and I feel unable to. I won’t go out into the community and bad mouth them, but I won’t be giving them my business, either, or recommending them to others.

Maybe they don’t want support from people with my politics and coronavirus concerns. Maybe their choice is to support the false equivalency of the two. Maybe we as a culture are deciding that divisiveness and politics are more important than good will and community, but that’s not and never will be my choice.

During these times and all times, we need to support one another. The best support is mutual, reciprocal. Communities need small businesses, and small local businesses need communities. I want to be a part of that, but I need some support as a customer in order to show up and buy.

My conclusion about all this is that breakfast at the diner is yet another sad loss. I’m not going to compound that by distorting my efforts to stay as healthy and safe as possible into intolerance and lack of support. Neither are true of me. Both might be true of others, but I can’t do anything about that.

Supporting businesses that support me. My daily crime.

(This is the fourth post in a series on reciprocity. See also Parts 1, 2, and 3.)

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