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Meditations on the Golden Rule While Removing Cat Hair

I was cleaning cat hair off our furniture a couple of days ago and thinking about the Golden Rule. I muttered about it, too. To the cats, who had no opinion but thought the whole removing-cat-hair-with-a-dish-glove business highly entertaining and a good game. They wanted the cat hair back. I wanted to get rid of it.

Ozzy 2021

Sometimes I feel I’ve spent my life cleaning.

Don’t get me wrong. Cleaning can be a sacred activity, a Baba Yaga kind of activity. Few things are as satisfying to me as making order out of chaos; sorting the unwanted and unnecessary from the useful and beautiful is something I always enjoy.

On the other hand, cleaning is emotional labor. Physical labor, too.

When I say “I love you,” part of that is a commitment to provide a clean, comfortable, healthy space. Part of my own self-respect and self-love is providing myself a clean, comfortable, healthy space.

It’s not a question of money. Paint is peeling off many surfaces in this house. That doesn’t mean those surfaces need to be dirty. Yes, the floor is pitted, stained and scarred. That doesn’t mean I don’t bother to scrub off the grime. Yes, the front door gaps and sags. The metal screen door is getting rusty. That doesn’t mean they have to be filthy.

So, cleaning. For all of us, myself, my partner, and the cats.

I know some people will say the cats don’t care. My partner has said he doesn’t notice.

But I care. I notice. And I don’t know the cats don’t care. Why should they live in unnecessary squalor?

Anyway. The Golden Rule. Do unto others, etc.

I think the Golden Rule is a good way to live. I live by it. The problem is the rule itself implies others will do unto you as you do unto them.

And that’s simply not true.

Photo by Evan Kirby on Unsplash

It’s like tolerance, or respect, or reciprocity. Treating others by those standards does not mean we’ll receive the same treatment.

I’m angry about that. Living by the Golden Rule is expensive in time, energy, and patience. I choose to do it because it’s part of my integrity as a human being, but it’s not easy, and it’s not an investment that always pays off. Which is sad. And disconnecting.

I’ve asked it before and I ask it again. When have we given enough?

Then I received a post in my Inbox from Joshua Fields Millburn titled ‘The Boundaries of Discontent’ about this very subject. Tolerance, he says “can be a magnet for neglect.”

Amen.

The Golden Rule is an effective guide for choice. I feel good about myself and the way I show up in the world when I employ it. But it’s only the first step.

The second step is observing whether it’s reciprocated in any given situation and continuing to make healthy, self-supportive choices based on that observation.

It’s wonderful to give positive things to the world and others, but we need to notice if we’re not receiving in kind. Giving out of an emotional deficit is not sustainable. We deserve more than that. We can find people who live the Golden Rule, people like us.

Millburn says we encourage what we tolerate, and he’s right. Tolerance is too heavy to carry alone in a relationship, and unbalanced tolerance is simply clutter. When we stop tolerating the absence of reciprocity, or more than a few days of cat hair on the furniture, we can move into a simpler, clearer, cleaner life.

Healthy boundaries are not intolerance.

I don’t want to be the friend who never reciprocates. In fact, I’ve voluntarily left more than one relationship because it was clear that who I am was making others unhappy or uncomfortable and I was unable to find a way forward into something healthier with them. I don’t want toxic people in my life, and I won’t be a toxic person for anyone else, either. Do unto others has sometimes meant letting go and moving on for my sake and theirs.

Tools for healthy relationship and connection like the Golden Rule work best when both parties bear their weight and use them. If that’s not happening, the tool becomes ineffective, even destructive, and the relationship falters.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. To a point. But don’t get too carried away. And don’t build expectations of reciprocity around it. Follow it because you believe it’s the right thing to do and let go of the rest.

Photo by Roderico Y. Díaz on Unsplash

Parting

I lost a friend two weeks ago.

I have, of course, been thinking about her. She was a friend from my past, a part of my past. I had not seen her or even spoken with her in some time, but she remained in my memory as part of the place I called my home before I came here to Maine.

Photo by Andrew Montgomery on Unsplash

Death. The axis around which our lives pivot, and yet what can we say, or think, or even react with that isn’t entirely banal?

Starting, beginning, changing our surroundings and jobs, meeting friends and lovers, having children, reaching milestones, are all obvious, and loud, and exciting. We look ahead to such experiences, strive and work for them.

We forget that all of these involve parting, too. Parting can be so quiet, like a canoe sliding from the land into the early mist on the lake. Hardly a ripple. No fanfare. Just floating soundlessly away into the unknown, while we stand on the shore, watching it disappear.

Sometimes we lie asleep in our beds during the moment of parting, oblivious. We rise, and brush our teeth, and make breakfast, watching the mist burn off the water through our kitchen window, and we realize suddenly someone or something has left us. They’re gone. We didn’t know this was the morning. We didn’t say goodbye. The inescapable moment of parting came and went without us.

Then again, parting can be so subtle we don’t recognize it’s begun. Our gaze is ahead, at the next task, the next goal. But behind us, or off to the side, out of our awareness, the time of parting, long or short, is upon us. The flow of connection has turned to an ebb, and, inexorably, we drift apart from what once moored us.

Someone put my friend on PostHope, an online place for people to schedule visits, write messages, and update on a loved one’s condition. She was unable to communicate herself, but PostHope gave us a place to send our love and support to her and follow her progress.

This was a great gift to me, so far away. I snail mailed a card she will never receive. I posted a message. I read all the updates as they came in, and there was reason for optimism, a possibility for at least partial recovery.

Then, in an idle moment I checked my email and found a message that she had died. I felt all the things we do feel in such moments. Disbelief and denial. Grief. A little later, a sorrowful peacefulness, because she would have been unable to live independently after her illness, and she was a fiercely independent woman.

By Vladimir Gladkov on Unsplash

What do we leave behind when we are gone? We talk about legacies, and children, and brilliant achievements of art or science or service, but what do ordinary people leave? My friend had no money. She had no children or close family. She lived alone. She was not famous.

In the days after her death, many posted words of sorrow and comfort on PostHope. I did not. Her place is no longer my place, and I am a different woman than the one who left. Many of her friends were strangers to me, or nothing more than names I remember from my time there. My heart is too full, and I was not ready.

I do not want to talk about her. I want to know she is still there, teaching art to children, taking a spin class, working in the art gallery, painting, dancing, and caring for the homeless cats who came far and wide for food, shelter, and love. I want to know she’s giving massages, making her herbal salves, wildcrafting sage for smudge sticks, and cooking.

But she’s gone now. Her house, which was the house in which I raised my sons before she bought it from me, is empty. She’ll never paint another picture or make another jar of salve.

I did not know, the last time I saw her and said good-bye, that it was forever. I still have a picture of that evening, but it’s color on a flat sheet of paper, and unsatisfying.

My memories are better. I still smile when I remember how we danced together, whooping and laughing, and how she tore off her shirt and danced in her sports bra as we gave ourselves to the music and our blood ran swift and hot.

I remember, too, how fascinated I was with her authenticity. She liked to talk. She was loud, and opinionated, and without tact. Her blunt honesty made people around her squirm sometimes. As a lifelong people pleaser, peacemaker, and soft-spoken fawner, she appalled me frequently, but she also amused and amazed me. How could anyone risk being so real? She taught me about living unapologetically true to oneself.

My friend had a big, soft, generous heart. She was a woman who loved and worked tirelessly for the community. That community will be less vital, less challenging, less interesting, and quieter without her.

Death is banal. But life isn’t. Hers was a beautiful life. She gave what she had to give without counting the cost. She loved. She lived without holding anything back. Now we have parted. She’s gone into the mist, beyond my sight.

Good-bye, my dear friend.

Photo by Erik Stine on Unsplash

Authenticity

I’ve been thinking about authenticity during the last couple of weeks. What, exactly, does it mean? Oxford Online Dictionary defines it as the “quality of being genuine or real.” It seems simple enough, until one pauses to think about what “real” means, especially in the current cultural and political context of “alternative facts” and disinformation.
Recently I went through all my old photographs from the days when we took our film somewhere and had it developed. As I thumbed through photos of the first fifty years of my life, looking at all those younger versions of myself in the context of family, friends, and places, I was struck (not for the first time) by how one-dimensional a photograph is. One single moment in time recorded visually. As I was there when the picture was taken, I remember the emotional context of those recorded moments, the relationships, the quality of my experience; but showing the pictures to someone else is like taking the cover off a book and trying to convey the story with just that. We know this, yet we continue to take selfies and be utterly seduced by pretty pictures, nowadays filtered, air-brushed, and otherwise enhanced. Some part of us believes in that fantasy, envies it, longs for it. Is a picture authenticity? No, of course not. But my pictures do record visual moments in a real life: My childhood, long-dead pets, family, trips, school years, my first job, my first day at college, and my years raising two sons. A real person experienced all that, but not quite the same real person I am today. Authenticity, then, changes as we change. We age, we grow, we learn, people around us come and go, we move from place to place.
Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash
I think of authenticity as a positive quality, one to aspire to and practice. I admire real people, and find them attractive. In some relationships, however, practicing authenticity is dangerous and severely punished. When children repeatedly experience negative consequences for their authenticity, they are effectively crippled in their ability to self-express and form healthy attachments. In order to survive emotionally, they create a pseudo self. For some, being real or genuine is a horrifying risk. Here is a quote from Patricia Evans, author of Controlling People: “I have heard many people … say that even when they use all their strength to maintain patience, to carefully articulate their truth, to share their deepest feelings, to explain their personal reality … they don’t receive understanding but instead encounter disparagement, subtle trivializing, or outright rage. People with excellent communication skills, sensitivity, and honesty can’t “get through.” … the Controller experiences this depth of authenticity as an enormous assault.” When we are children, our sense of self is curated by the adults around us. Too many children internalize relentless criticism and contempt from their caregivers and carry it into adulthood in the form of a vicious internal critic. In this case, what feels like authenticity becomes a lie based on negative beliefs. The genuine, worthy human being is invisible, especially to him or herself, under a crust of trauma and abuse that’s so old it feels real. Ironically, a palliative for this is to risk authenticity with a healthy other and be able to hear a challenge to the false beliefs obscuring our true selves. Sometimes a loving, compassionate onlooker can see us much more clearly than we see ourselves.
Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
I found an article in Psychology Today about authenticity that was thought-provoking. The author lists qualities of authentic people, including emotional intelligence, the ability to learn, and being able to perceive reality. Perceiving reality has become an enormous cultural problem recently, as you may have noticed! It makes sense that a person practicing authenticity must be able to recognize what’s real and genuine externally as well as internally. Being authentic sounds so easy. A simple choice. I haven’t realized before writing this post how difficult it is. We can’t choose it if we don’t know what it is, and discovering what’s real, both inside and outside us, is a daunting challenge. Authenticity is approached by many paths. The practice of minimalism is one. Peeling away layers of stuff and clutter leads to peeling away toxic habits, thoughts, feelings and beliefs, which helps us peel away weight, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, and a multitude of other unhealthy debris. Another road to authenticity is creativity. I myself discovered decades ago I’m incapable of expressing anything but truth in my writing, particularly journaling for my eyes alone. Our creative work can expose our deepest selves. Yet another path is emotional intelligence and healing old trauma. The habits of mindfulness and self-inquiry, the willingness to reveal our scars and wounds and express the truth of our experience to others, help us discern the difference between who we really are, who someone told us we are, who we’re afraid we are, and who we wish we could be. As I work on my new site (yes, yes, it’s coming!), one of the things I’m working with is reorganizing and recategorizing my content, which amounts to 250 posts. Going through all this content chronologically, starting at the beginning with my first post during the summer of 2016, has been a fascinating and lengthy process. Each post is entirely authentic, but I can clearly see change and progress from week to week, month to month, year to year. The woman who wrote that first post is not quite the woman who writes this one. Yet both are (were) practicing authenticity.
Photo by Khoa Pham on Unsplash
I can’t think of anyone more authentic than a newborn baby. Maybe life is a journey from a state of absolute, completely innocent authenticity, through chaos and identity confusion and enormous cultural and societal pressures, and gradual reclamation of who we were born to be, less innocent, but more fully ourselves, as we grow old. Certainly, I feel more authentic in this moment than I did when I wrote my first blog post. Will I be more authentic yet in a year? In two years? In five? Interestingly, my new site says “A Journey Into Power” on the landing page, and authenticity is one of my categories. To be seen, heard, and loved for our real selves is a core human need, a longing we all share. The power of authenticity. My daily crime.

The Public Eye and other Controllers

I recently came across a haunting question in my newsfeed:

Without a public eye, who are we?

Wow.

This single question encompasses much of my uneasiness around social media and identity politics.

I don’t believe the public eye is capable of defining who we are. It certainly can’t define who I am. The public eye does not make us real.

All the public eye can know about me is what I choose to show or tell about myself. The rest is a game of let’s pretend. Much of what the public eye sees, both on social media and in real life, is a carefully crafted pseudo self, a false façade behind which a real person hides.

I’ve just finished a book called Controlling People: How to Recognize, Understand, and Deal with People Who Try to Control You, by Patricia Evans. It’s taken me a long time to get through it; it was such an intense experience I could only read a little at a time.

I’ve learned, thought and written a great deal about power and control, as regular readers know. I would have said I didn’t have much more to learn.

I would have been wrong.

I’ve never come across such a cogent and compassionate explanation for why so many people try to control others. I’m no longer a victim of controlling people, because I recognize the pattern and refuse to engage with it, but understanding why we develop the often unconscious and always toxic compulsion to control those we care about most is useful. It reinforces the fact that the need others have to control me is not about me – it’s about them. Understanding also helps me engage others with compassion and dignity.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

Controlling people are like the public eye. They pretend they can define us, that they know our thoughts and feelings and our motivations. They apply labels to us. They tell us who we must be and who we cannot be. If we are noncompliant with their expectations and fantasies, they bring us to heel through tribal shaming, scapegoating, deplatforming, silencing, and other abusive tactics. Sometimes they kill us.

The biggest threat for a controlling person is an authentic person. When we insist on being ourselves, with our own preferences, thoughts, needs, and feelings, the controller feels as though they are losing control, and thus losing themselves.

This is why saying ‘no’ can result in such violent reactions.

If our sense of self depends solely on the public eye, or a controller, or a pseudo self, or a label, or a role or job, we’re in trouble.

When my sons decided to go live with their dad in the big city in their mid-teens, I fell apart. My sense of self dissolved. If I was not their mother, who was I?

I had no idea. It was a horrible feeling. I’d been a single, struggling mom for so many years I had no other identity, nothing private, no connection to my own soul.

For weeks I got out of bed in the middle of the night, opened their bedroom doors and stood in the dark, silent house, looking into their empty rooms, grieving and utterly lost. For a time, I didn’t know how to go on living.

Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

It passed, of course, as times like that do. It was simply rebirth, or rather, birth. Before the kids I’d been a wife, and before that a daughter and sister, and those roles, too, absorbed me utterly. When the kids moved out, I finally began to make friends with the stranger who was me. Not a role. Not a job. Not a people-pleasing pseudo self. Not a label.

Just me.

I’ve never forgotten the pain of that time, the dislocation, the feeling of being erased. I didn’t know it then, but it was the beginning of everything – dance, storytelling, writing, healing, and growing.

It was the beginning of breaking away from the control of others and the ‘public eye’.

The public eye is merciless. It makes snap judgements. It’s critical and abusive. It has expectations. It makes up a story about us and calls it truth. It punishes those of us who dare to be authentic, thoughtful, complex, unexpected, or independent.

We are not paper dolls. We are not entertainment. We are not mere reflections in any eye, public or otherwise. We pretend what others say, perceive, and think about us is the ultimate truth of our identity; we give that game of pretend enormous power. We pretend we can define others from their dating profile, Facebook activity, or outward appearance and presentation.

No. Our true identity does not depend on the public eye. Nobody was erased during lockdown or quarantine. Those of us not on social media are real people leading real lives. Introverts or extroverts, lounging in our sweats with bed head at home or sleek and groomed out on the town, we are an authentic person, even if we reject that person utterly, or have never known them.

True identity is built from the inside out, not the outside in.

With or without a public eye, we are ourselves.

My daily crime.

Doing it For You

I don’t like commercial television and rarely watch it, but I caught a muted ad one morning this week from the corner of my eye that intrigued me. I saw Passiton.org on the screen and looked it up.

Photo by Hian Oliveira on Unsplash

I encourage you to go explore this site for yourself. It’s a treasure trove of beautiful videos, billboards, articles, and stories about real people. It’s positive, optimistic, and heartfelt. One of the videos, titled Caring and set to lyrics by Bryan Adams, particularly touched me.

For some time, as I go about my life, I’ve thought about the practice of love. It’s a hard subject to write about because I don’t have good language, but it’s the idea that loving and caring for the people I come into contact with is a kind of substitute for loving my, well, loved ones.

I told you the language was inadequate!

Sometimes our loved ones are dead or otherwise unavailable for a healthy relationship, or unable to accept or reciprocate our love for them. I’ve suffered decades of emotional pain over my inability to successfully communicate my love to some of the people in my life. I realize now love is a two-way street. Some of us, and I count myself among them, have a hard time accepting or receiving love, no matter how well it’s communicated.

Let’s just say the basic communication and reciprocity of love isn’t always there. We call this unrequited love, or “skinny” love. When I search the Internet, however, romantic unrequited love is the only topic I can find useful information on, and that’s not what I’m thinking about.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I have many times wondered, bitterly, what the point is of having such a loving heart, if the people I care about most are unable to receive my love.

Since I began my current job working in a rehab pool facility three years ago, I’ve been vividly aware that making positive contributions to others is in some ways a substitute for my inability to share love with the people to whom I cannot make this contribution, for whatever reason.

Sometimes I imagine a cosmic balance of giving love to others. If we’re unable to reach our closest connections with our love, we can give it to someone who is able to benefit from it. We may be no more than an acquaintance or professional in their lives, but love is love, and most of us recognize it when it’s extended, though we may not be skilled at accepting it with grace.

Perhaps, at the same time, my loved ones are receiving love they can accept and recognize from someone. Someone who substitutes for me.

When I say love, I’m not thinking about a single idea. I think of love as a container for many things: tolerance, respect, compassion, kindness, patience, presence, service.

Photo by juan pablo rodriguez on Unsplash

This is not a new idea. Stephen Stills famously sang about it in “Love the One You’re With,” and Bryan Adams sings about it in video above, which opened me up to the feeling of unrequited love, the grief and anguish of it, and this substitution method of easing its pain.

I won’t amputate my ability and willingness to love, even if it’s unwanted or unwelcome in the places I most want to practice it. What I can do is step sideways, turn aside, and share it with those I come in contact with, those who can benefit from it, those who will receive it. In this way, my love becomes an offering to my loved ones, my community, myself, and the world. Everything I do, I do for you, for them, for myself. For all of us.

My daily crime.

Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

Doing it Right or Doing it Real

One of my favorite minimalist bloggers gave me something to think about last weekend with this piece. In it, she proposes we work on doing things real rather than doing them right.
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash
As a reforming perfectionist, she got my attention. When I imagined approaching my life with the ultimate goal of authenticity, the relief was stunning. On the heels of the relief, though, I felt appalled. How can doing things real ever be good enough? As I’ve thought about this the last couple of days, I’ve realized this doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing choice. Maybe the most effective goal in most cases is to be authentic and do things right, whatever that means. Surely balance between the two is possible? The difficulty lies in defining the word “right.” Who decides what’s right? How do I know when I’ve done things “right?” I hate the answer. The answer is I know I’ve done things right if people are pleased. Back on that cursed slippery slope! A dear married friend said to me recently, “My life would look very different if I was on my own.” My friend’s honesty and the quiet sadness with which the words were spoken touched me to the heart. How do we recognize ourselves, our real selves, in the confusion of our lives and relationships? How do we balance authenticity and cooperation? How do we mitigate the damage to our connections when we choose to be right (what the other wants) rather than real for the sake of those same connections? It hurts me to ask these questions. I can’t begin to answer them. I admire authenticity when it doesn’t trample over the needs of others, but what about when it does? What about people who appear to have no regard for those around them, who are unwilling to hold space for any authenticity but their own? I don’t want to be one of those people.
Photo by SHTTEFAN on Unsplash
Doing it right, which is to say making choices based on what others view as appropriate, seems at first glance to be an excellent way to stay safe. The truth is, such a practice tears one apart in very short order, because there are too many onlookers and we can’t please every one of them. Here’s an example. When I’m teaching a private swim lesson, do I work effectively and appropriately with the student; please the onlooking parent or adult (in the case of a child); please my coworkers and colleagues, all of whom are very fine teachers and at least one of whom watches from the lifeguard stand; please other staff, patients and patrons who might be present; or do I forget everything but the connection between the student and myself for those 30 minutes in the pool and just be real and please myself? Teaching, for me, is like swimming or writing or dancing. It’s a place where I don’t try to do it right. I do it real. Real is a long way from perfect. Right seems closer to perfect than real. Real is intuitive, experimental, frequently messy, uninhibited. When I choose to be real, I choose joy. I try not to think about what that looks like to others. I try not to care. I rest in it and feed myself with it and feel fully present and alive when I’m being real.
Photo by Leon Liu on Unsplash
But then, so often, out of nothing and nowhere, comes the message: “You didn’t do that right.” No. Of course not. I almost never do. But I did it real, and for a few minutes I was happy there. This is not about an inability to accept feedback or instruction. People close to me will tell you I frequently ask for feedback, for someone to teach me a new skill, for someone to help me improve. Feedback is not the same as being told I’m doing it wrong. I’m always interested in doing it better. What’s curious about right vs. real is so often I run into this with trivial things, things like ironing, or washing dishes, or opening a can. They way I organize my stuff. The way I store my clothes. The way I live in my space. As I live my life, when someone tells me I keep the broom in the wrong place, what I hear is I’m wrong. I’m broken. I’m Failing To Please (again. Yawn.) Why can’t I store the broom in the right place? Usually, I acquiesce. For the sake of peace. For the sake of the relationship. Because it doesn’t really matter, after all. I can be flexible and adaptive. The difficulty is living inauthentically is an unbelievable amount of work. Everything is effortful, because I don’t do anything naturally. I repress my authentic impulses and desires. I feel numb, apathetic, and cut off from myself. It’s entirely disempowering. But it keeps things peaceful. It pleases others. It’s cooperative. I comfort myself with the fact that my willingness to do it right (according to them) makes others happy. I don’t believe my realness will ever make anyone happy, except me. I’m willing to hope for a balance, though. I have no idea how to find it, or even if I can find it. Maybe my real is too wrong to ever balance out? Doing it right or doing it real? My daily crime.
Photo by Diana Măceşanu on Unsplash