Today is the Autumn Equinox. It’s cool, cloudy, and damp here in central Maine. My attic windows are open and I can hear acorns falling from our oak tree and cars going by, tires hissing on the wet road.
I’ve been reading The Enchanted Life by Dr. Sharon Blackie, and yesterday I laid the book in my lap as I sat outside in the bright sun and boisterous breeze and cried.
Dr. Blackie’s book is about reclaiming our relationship to the natural world. This process necessarily begins with reclaiming our relationship to our bodies and physical experience. We can’t feel at home in the world if we don’t feel at home in our own skins.
Blackie suggests that each of us is a part of the world, just like a flower, a tree, a bird, or a cricket. I’ve probably read something like this a thousand times in my life, worded a thousand different ways, but I’ve never read it without an automatic unconscious resistance. Others might be part of the world, but not me. I’ve never believed I had anything worthy to offer.
My lifelong feeling of being an intruder has kept me slightly divided from people as well as the natural world. A sense of pure belonging is so rare for me I can count the experience of it on one hand. The water. My children. A crippled cat, long gone. My dance group, also far away and long ago.
As I read about belonging to the world yesterday and relished the beautiful autumn day and the waning September sun, my resistance was unexpectedly absent. The words arrowed straight into my heart. For the first time, I seriously considered that maybe I am not just a tourist, a spectator, someone passing through. Maybe I belong in the world as much as any other form of life.
I realized then I’ve lived most of my life as a sort of apology for existing. I’ve felt gratitude, appreciation, even awe in the presence of the natural world, which I love and cling to. Most of my life I’ve lived in rural areas and revered the landscape, the plants, the animals. Yet I always felt ashamed to be intruding on the loveliness of the natural cycles and seasons and the wild places. As a member of the human race, I felt like a destroyer, a besmircher, part of what’s wrong with the world rather than what’s good and beautiful and natural.
Blackie writes of reciprocity; of listening to the voices of the leaves rustling on the trees and responding with our own voice. She writes about a woman who sings to the jungle, joining in with the myriad songs already there as a rightful part of the ecosystem.
When I touch a tree in reverence, is it touching me back? Is the feel of my hand as sacred to it as the feel of its bark and body are to me?
Healthy relationship is about reciprocity. I know that from my study of emotional intelligence. Communication is reciprocal, which is to say it moves in both directions. Moving fully into belonging, then, would mean not only learning and marveling at the liquid notes of the wood thrush, but sharing my own voice with him. He is in my world, and I’m in his. His song and my song are both part of the chorus of this place. We are, perhaps, woven together.
Could it possibly be that the world is richer for my presence, rather than burdened by it? Might my step, my breath, my voice, my touch, and my prayers be to others what the coyotes’ night song, the morning mist over the river, or the falling leaves and browning ferns are to me?
This shift in perspective is staggering. I don’t quite know what to do with it. It assuages a longing within me to belong, to be more than just tolerated.
When I look around from this perspective, I see gardens existing because of me. A variety of mushrooms grow in and around the compost pit because of me. Herbs, flowers, and vegetables thrive together, feeding insects and birds, creating habitat for snakes, amphibians, and rodents, because of me. There is greater plant diversity in the landscape because of me.
The most remarkable thing about this new perspective is that it lies at the heart of my fiction trilogy. I have a firm intellectual grasp of interconnection; I’ve just never included myself. I’ve been an outsider looking in. I haven’t seen myself as worthy enough to be part of the web.
Writing can be an exercise is discovering intuitive or unconscious truths we have not yet fully integrated. To date, I’ve written 700,000 words about interconnection, but not until yesterday did my heart accept that I’m part of it too, not as a stain but as a uniquely beautiful organism within a tapestry of uncountable other uniquely beautiful organisms. As I touch, hear, see, and smell the presence of others, they touch, hear, see, and smell me. As I communicate with others, they communicate with me, though I may not know it.
Life, the weather, the COVID virus are not happening to me. They are in relationship with me. We are woven together in a changing, dynamic dance of becoming, minute by minute. We belong to each other. I am neither alien nor separate.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In Controlling People by Patricia Evans, I read about group control connections. She compares and contrasts healthy groups with unhealthy ones.
As social beings who need connection, humans form many kinds of groups: family, tribal, cultural, religious, political, formal, and informal.
Healthy groups, according to Evans, bond together for, not against, others. In this type of group, members are open to information exchange, questions, and learning, not only among group members, but with other groups. Healthy groups support their members and do not work to harm others. Such groups are dynamic, flexible, and consistent. Group members build trust, respect, and integrity. They communicate clearly. They don’t pretend they can define others. They don’t need to win and be right and they understand the value of diversity. They seek to share power. They understand interconnection. Unhealthy groups bond together against another person or group. They are not open to information, questions, or learning. Unhealthy groups pretend they can define others. They make up derogatory labels and apply them liberally. Unhealthy groups generate sweeping generalizations, memes, and disinformation. The bond in these groups is based on an agreement, sometimes spoken and sometimes not, to act against authentic persons to sustain an illusion the group is invested in. Such groups employ coercive tactics like silencing, scapegoating, deplatforming, and tribal shaming. They employ black-and-white, either/or thinking. They seek power over others, and these groups are often led by an authoritarian leader who rigidly controls group activities and expects absolute obedience.
Discerning the difference between these two groups is tricky. Individuals and groups don’t necessarily state their agendas honestly. An organization or group may say their purpose is to work for equal rights (healthy) when in fact they seek to disempower others in an effort to increase the power of the in-group (unhealthy).
Working for equal power, or a more level playing field, is entirely different from the intention to grab more power at the expense of others.
A key to assessing the true purpose and health of any individual or group is consistency, and judging consistency requires close observation and time. A disconnect between words and actions is a visible red flag.
Another key is the position of power a group or individual takes. Not their stated position, but their active position. A group working for equal rights and power, or working to support a disadvantaged or threatened group against power predators, is not a hate group. Calling it so doesn’t make it so.
An individual or group operating out of integrity will be consistent in their words and actions over time. Integrity doesn’t mean perfection in expression or action. It means the individual or group are honest and thoughtful about their purpose and goals and endeavor to focus their actions in effective ways that serve the whole, not just their own interests.
The ability to judge the difference between healthy and unhealthy groups has never been more important. Many people are swept up in unhealthy groups because they’re starving for connection and don’t have the skills to assess the situation. Leaders of unhealthy groups are often charismatic, glib, attractive liars and manipulators, seductive wolves looking for sheep. They do not share power.
Such people are invariably inconsistent in their words and actions, and a close look reveals it. Ideology supported by coercion and gaslighting is dangerous.
If we seek loyalty, trust, respect, creditability, and to positively influence others, we must demonstrate consistency. If we seek to contribute ideas, art, or material products to the marketplace, we must be consistent.
If we seek to be part of healthy groups and connections, and we believe in equal rights, opportunity, and justice for all, we have a responsibility to maintain integrity and consistency, and demand it from others. Ours is not the only story. Ours are not the only needs. Our personal power is not the only power that matters.
I read an article about using this holiday season to clean up messes, not just physical messes, but relationship messes.
This struck me because one of the things my mother taught me, both by example and frequent repetition, was to leave the planet better than I found it. Not fixed or transformed, but a little bit better. I always loved that. It made me feel that I had the ability to do something good.
This article suggests that we leave every relationship better than we found it in every interaction. A new twist on an old lesson.
So, what does that mean?
If you’re like me, your first impulse is to go into full people-pleasing mode. But people pleasing doesn’t make relationships healthier. In fact, it has the opposite effect. A healthy relationship is based on two healthy participants, and people pleasing enables emotional tyranny on the one hand and inauthenticity and burnout on the other.
Been there, done that. Not doing it again.
If we’re going to leave our relationships better than we found them the last time we looked, we need to know what a healthy relationship looks like in the first place. This all by itself can be quite a challenge. A good way to check on the state of our relationships is to ask ourselves if we’re happy in them and our needs are being met. Our feelings will quickly tell us if our connections are healthy or not.
Hopefully, most of our relationships are closer to healthy than destructive, so if we want to leave them better than we find them all we need to do is find at least one way to strengthen them.
Relationships are tricky, because we only have 50% of the power in any given connection. We can’t force others to change their behavior, communicate more effectively, or otherwise meet our needs. All we can do is focus on our own behavior and communication skills. If our relationship is toxic, we can’t clean it up alone.
Here’s the hardest thing of all. It may be that the best way to make some relationships healthier is to end them.
I know. Let’s all wince and cringe together. Ready? One … two … three! Wince. Cringe.
If there’s anything worse than ending a relationship, I haven’t found it yet.
Still, setting aside loyalty, duty, obligation, fear, investment, love, and all the rest, if two people are making each other miserable, or even if just one person is miserable, the relationship is destructive and someone needs to end it.
We could be that someone. And when I say “end it,” I don’t mean ghosting, lying, making excuses, shaming and/or blaming the other party, changing our phone number or moving out of state. I mean telling our truth, gently, clearly and firmly: “I’m feeling unhappy in our relationship. I want us both to have healthy, supportive connections. I’m ending our relationship so we have room for someone who’s a better fit. I value the time we had together.”
An unhealthy relationship is not better than none at all.
Many of our connections are not toxic, however, and coast along fairly well. In that case, how do we leave them better than we found them the last time we interacted? Not perfect, but a little bit healthier, juicer, happier?
I’ve been thinking about this question because I’d like to apply it to my relationships this holiday season and beyond. It occurs to me that making relationships healthier doesn’t necessarily mean making them more comfortable. I know much of what has made my own connections so dear in the last few years has involved a lot of discomfort as I risk being authentic and vulnerable. I also know from my own experience that my strongest and healthiest relationships are truthful, and hearing the truth about another’s experience of us, or responding truthfully to hard questions, can be quite uncomfortable. This kind of discomfort fosters trust, respect, and strong relationships.
Here are some ways I have the power to leave my relationships better than I found them:
Am I giving time with my loved ones my full presence and attention?
Do I listen at least as much as I talk?
Do I rush in and try to fix problems that belong to others or ask good questions, provide resources and tools, and convey my belief that my loved ones can manage the challenges in their lives?
Do I take everything my friends and family do and say personally?
Do I make assumptions and jump to conclusions or ask for more information?
Do I maintain effective boundaries and honor the boundaries of others?
Do I express my gratitude and love to those I’m connected to?
I’m surprised how long this list is, even without much contemplation, and reminded of how powerful we are as individuals to influence those around us.
We humans are highly social, and we all need healthy connections. The most valuable gift we have to give others and the world is ourselves. Nothing we can buy comes close. Working on relationships is messier and more complicated than buying a gift, and requires us to be honest and vulnerable. Yet we are the gift that can keep on giving to those around us, and they are the gifts that can keep on giving to us.
Cleaning up messes in the world and in our relationships might be as simple as picking up trash in our neighborhoods or reaching out to someone in our lives today and telling them how much we appreciate them. Or perhaps we have a big mess we’ve been putting off dealing with, or a relationship that needs to end.
As always, we mustn’t forget about our relationship with ourselves. When we go to bed tonight, will we be a little happier and healthier than we were this morning? If our relationship with ourselves is fundamentally broken, we don’t have much to give others. The list above works equally as well when applied to the way we treat ourselves.
Leaving the world and the people around me better than I found them. My daily crime.
I don’t mean Facebook “friends.” I mean real people with whom I frequently spend time talking, working, laughing and crying. These people honor my life with their presence. They inspire me.
One of my friends responded to last week’s post with depth and wisdom, opening me still further to the value and beauty of brokenness. Here is her comment, lightly edited:
I too felt broken, but stronger for it. Because of your “broken pieces” I’m stronger throughout. And as I piece back together into something different, I too take my “broken pieces” and try to help others as you did me. So maybe all our little broken pieces don’t fit together anymore, but we can give those pieces to the next person and it helps start a foundation to put them back together in their new beautiful masterpiece.
What my friend is describing here is the heart of any community: contribution. If we decide to value our brokenness as well as our wholeness, we can offer ourselves without reservation to others. We can contribute everything we are without shame.
We can be authentic.
In my own life, I’ve found more healing and support in the broken pieces others offer me than the shiny new ones. I’m chipped and frayed myself in so many ways, it’s hard to connect with someone who maintains a perfect façade and admits to no flaw, mistake or weakness.
We all know people who hoard every bit of their damage jealously in order to use it as justification for destructive choices and behavior. We also see people taking terrible experiences and making an offering of them to others through example, service or art.
Once again, it boils down to a chocolate-or-vanilla choice. We will certainly experience wear and tear in our lives. What will we do with the fragments? In that respect we have complete power.
The idea of offering our shreds and scraps to one another delights me. Not only am I inspired to greater creative and spiritual possibilities for my own reshaping with broken pieces from others, I can offer remnants that no longer serve me to my community. We can all build and repair foundations together, creating a network of grace, wisdom, and strength.
Perhaps we each have a broken piece someone is looking for, and some stranger we have yet to meet has a piece we need.
Last week’s post was one of my broken pieces, offered with a slight shudder, as always. I still, after more than 200 posts, have a hard time pushing the “publish” button. There’s still a small voice in my head that tells me I’m worthless, I have nothing to offer, and everything I think, feel, say, do and write is wildly inappropriate, inadequate, or (worst of all) is displeasing someone I love.
I do it anyway, because writing is what I do.
But when someone steps forward and fits one of their jagged, ragged, splintered edges against one of mine, I’m touched to the heart and my faith in myself and the enduring power of the human spirit is renewed.