Tag Archives: relationships

Responsibility

One of my favorite things about life is that changing one subtle thread in the pattern of our behavior and identity can change the whole picture in unexpected but beautiful ways. The overculture promises this if we buy the right product, but that’s a hollow promise. If we really want change, we have to work internally, which is messy, confusing work, often filled with anguish—much less sexy and fun than buying a new pair of shoes or trying a different hair color.

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As I navigate through the process of submitting my first book manuscript to agents and publishers, the necessity to write a strong and appropriate query letter, synopsis, autobiography and pitch has forced me to come further out of hiding than I ever have before.

While sitting on the lifeguard stand at work last week, it occurred to me that one word sums up the change spurred by my creative ambitions and rippling into all areas of my life.

Responsibility.

This is an amusing twist of irony because I have always been overly responsible about everyone and everything other than myself. I’ve believed myself responsible for the health and happiness of every person and animal around me since I was a child. When things become challenging or unpleasant, I’ve blamed myself. When accidents and misunderstandings occur, I’ve blamed myself. When others make self-destructive or boneheaded choices, I’ve blamed myself.

It goes without saying that I’ve certainly blamed myself for all my own real and imagined flaws, weaknesses, mistakes, blue eyes, wide hips, wild hair, cellulite and countless other things.

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Futility doesn’t begin to describe the kind of life this behavior creates.

The literary submission process was not the only catalyst prompting me to reverse my old pattern of taking on responsibility that doesn’t belong to me and ignoring that which does, but it’s certainly a big one.

I’ve been so uncomfortable with trying to present my creative work in a professional, objective, supportive, respectful manner that I haven’t had the time or attention to sit back and view the last two or three weeks with any kind of objectivity, but that particular hour of lifeguarding gave me the pause I needed to see the changing pattern of several different areas in my life.

In my primary relationship I’m gradually becoming more authentic and less concerned about taking responsibility for the needs, wants and preferences of my partner. He’s a grown man, intelligent and able to speak for and take care of himself. He’s also able to adapt, adjust and take his lumps like everyone else. It’s not my job in life to see to it that he (or anyone else) is never uncomfortable. I’m uncomfortable all the time, and I manage to live through it.

Letting go of what I was never responsible for in the first place is an enormous relief, but the truth is I’ve always preferred caring for others to caring for myself. It’s not that I don’t know who I am and what I want. I’m not a bit confused about that. Since I came to Maine, I’ve learned to know and love myself.

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What keeps me caring for others rather than myself is the belief that I’m the only person who can love me. Choosing to be more open and real about my own needs, wants and preferences, even though they might conflict (and often do) with those around me, seems like a life-and-death risk. Even sitting here writing about It gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t want to be responsible for myself in this way.

I have a warm, gregarious, big-hearted friend who frequently invites me on activities and play dates of all kinds. At least half the time I say no. I cringe when I say it. I worry. I brace myself for the end of our friendship every time. But no is the honest answer—the real me. I’m a hermit. I like nothing so much as a quiet day or evening at home. My few social needs are well met, and I have no desire to be out and about in the world more than I already am. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty …

See? There it is again. My friend and our relationship deserve my honesty, as do I, and that means I must take responsibility for my truths: knowing them, speaking them, and accepting that others will inevitably be affected by them.

I don’t want the responsibility of making anyone uncomfortable or unhappy. Ever. Under any circumstances. (Well, unless I’m really pissed off, like when the fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy at the pool announced during an exercise class that people with tattoos don’t have jobs and he wouldn’t have any such person in his house. Note: I have a tattoo on my left shoulder that’s quite obvious in my bathing suit, which is my work attire (you know, for my job), and I was present at the time. Also, two of my colleagues have tattoos, clearly visible in their bathing suits, not to mention many of our patrons. Fortunately, I’m able to be professional and keep my obnoxious opinions to myself in public.)

One of the greatest gifts of my current relationships is how often I’m forced to be authentic and speak my truth, trusting that those I interact with are adults who can deal with their feelings about my choices (I’m talking to you, fat, white, bigoted, entitled guy), just as I deal with my feelings about theirs. If others are not adults and refuse to take responsibility for their own feelings, well that’s not really about me at all, and those are not the kind of relationships I’m available for.

Suddenly, everywhere I look, I’m watching myself openly say yes or no, ask for what I want and/or need, state my feelings and preferences without apology or justification, and present my creative work with pride, love and belief in its value.

When I reread this, I smile. It sounds so smooth! It’s not, though. I feel a lot of anxiety as I come out from under cover. Challenging these old patterns gives me a greasy feeling of imminent doom. How can I expect anyone to love or even tolerate me if I insist on being a real person with needs and preferences? How can I admit openly what I think, feel, need and create?

No, it’s not smooth. It’s terrifying and exhausting.

It’s also exhilarating and freeing. Life is a lot easier when I give up taking care of anyone but myself. One of the great gifts of aging has been my gradual journey from a people-pleasing shell to sensual creativity, warty wisdom and vigorous connection to my own power and intuition.

Responsibility for myself. My daily crime.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Way Ahead

I recently read an essay about honoring our past from one of the minimalism blogs I follow. I moved on to other things without saving it, but it continued to echo in my mind and I realized it held a deeper meaning for me than I first recognized. Of course, now I can’t find it again! Still, the blog is well worth exploring.

As I embrace minimalism , I spend time every day consciously assessing not only my internal clutter but also the objects around me. I’ve moved things around, put things away to see how my space or life felt without them, and let go of many objects and ideas.

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We carry a lot of our past around with us. One belief I’ve carried all my life is that it’s disloyal and even hateful to change, to grow, to yearn for more or to leave jobs, relationships or places. That belief (Who taught me that? Why do I believe that? Is that true?) has caused a lot of pain in my life. It’s made me fearful, ashamed and inauthentic. It’s encouraged me to be much less than I am.

The essay I read proposes almost the opposite idea. The author expresses deep gratitude for her past experience and the people who influenced her, and she honors them by going forward into the future.

What a disconcerting idea! At the same time I recognize some kind of truth in it, a truth I don’t discern in my own beliefs about honoring the past.

As a mother, I want to see both my sons being bigger than I am. That doesn’t mean I want to see them with more to have and to do. I want them to have more to be.

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I want them to fly free, the memory of our time together and the strength of my love and our connection the wind beneath their wings that takes them onward and upward.

Yet I don’t give myself the same permission. I’m not sure I’ve ever taken a big step forward in my own growth, health and understanding without feeling it’s at the expense of someone else’s happiness and well-being. It always seems wrong—a betrayal, an abandonment or a rejection.

It comes down to a choice between my own needs and the needs and demands of others. I never seem to be able to accommodate both myself and those around me. Until very recently, I’ve inevitably chosen to meet the needs of others rather than my own.

Today is built on all our yesterdays. If I lived in an empty room with nothing in it, my past would still have shaped today. I’d still remember my personal history, my family, my children, old friends and places, beloved animals, old activities and interests. Past loves and influences wouldn’t disappear from my life without my things. Forgotten or remembered, my past would still be with me and within me.

I can’t live in the past, though, any more than I can in the future. I can only live now.

I love this attic workspace, but one day I’ll leave it, as I left my beloved little home in Colorado four and a half years ago. It’s not the lack of love, respect or gratitude that moves me into the future. It’s the ebb and flow of my life, the call of possibility, the itch of curiosity. My future self calls out to me, holding out her hands in encouragement, and I must answer the call.

Maybe our cultural obsession with things is about fear, or greed, or numbness or nostalgia. Maybe it’s about all those and others, too. I don’t know. But the idea that the best way to honor the past is to be fully in the present and consent to move ahead into the future seems blessedly simple, uncomplicated and unencumbered.

I’ve always longed for security. I’ve longed for relationships that don’t change, love and tenderness I can count on, the ability to give and receive promises and vows that never break.

I’ve also longed to be wild and free, to live a life that feels real and true, to be with others who both give and receive unconditional love and don’t seek power over those around them.

Objects will give me neither security nor freedom. Today I have a few favorite things that I wear, use or live with. Some are new favorites and some are old favorites, handed down from my family.

Everything else is just stuff that’s here. I don’t really notice it unless I think about it, but I don’t need all these things and they’re weighing me down. A year from now my current favorites might no longer serve and I’ll let them go in turn.

As I write about it, this process sounds healthy, normal and natural. As I do it, guilt and shame tear at me. It seems to me that even growing up was hurtful; a deliberate betrayal and abandonment of my family. The least I can do is hang on to all the objects inherited or gifted by earlier generations.

But why? Does hanging on to such things really demonstrate love, respect or gratitude? Would my great-great grandmother expect me to cherish and care for something that belonged to her but has no meaning for me? If she did expect it, are her expectations more important than my wants and desires? Would she want me to make my life a shrine to her memory or go forward into my own life and follow my own path? What honors the memory of our ancestors the best?

Honoring the past by moving toward the future. Could it be that clean and easy? Could it be that elegant? If I live a life of meaning and purpose that does not include reverence for every object, tradition and idea I was brought up with or exposed to, are the ghosts of my past pleased or will they turn away and disown me?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. I know what I need to do.

Making my way forward in order to honor my past. My daily crime.

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