The Post that Almost Wasn’t

In all the years since the inception of this blog , I have never come this close to NOT posting on a Thursday. The reasons for this are both simple and complicated.

On the simple end of the spectrum, it was Christmas week. A week that did not go according to plan, so was more rushed than intended, but was also wonderful in spite of a few set-backs. The busy week meant that I had not written a post in advance of this morning, so when I awoke at 3:20 a.m. nauseous and chilled, the next eight hours of physical illness and discomfort did not really lend themselves to sitting at a computer capturing my thoughts in words. When I felt well enough to sit up and log on, I also felt empty. Which leads to the complicated reasons for almost missing a Thursday post.

Had I found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about the incredible example of patience and acceptance provided by Mike. We got on the road at 6:45 a.m. Monday, intending for Mike to be at an important appointment for his son, leaving directly from there to head to Iowa for Christmas. We blew a tire less than four miles from home, during rush hour on I35W. Not only did he remain completely calm while maneuvering  out of traffic, he was remarkably sanguine about missing the appointment, despite the fact his son had made it clear he wanted Mike there. While I was starting to ratchet up toward hysteria, he refused to be flummoxed, reminding me there was no point to drama – there was nothing we could do but make the best of it. Through a long morning of waiting for the vehicle to be road-worthy, missing the appointment, and eventually getting on the road, his calm demeanor remained intact. Even though it meant missing dinner and an evening hanging out with his sisters, Mike entered fully into our stops in Cedar Rapids, visiting friends who had newborns to show off. Not once did he attempt to rush our time with friends in order to get back on the road, no matter how much he may have wished to. Yes, if I had found the time to write on Monday, I would have written about patience and gratitude, and the deep examples of each from that day.

If there had been time to write a post on Tuesday, I would have written about being cared for by family – even though the family was not my own. From the delicious home cooked breakfast, to a Christmas Eve celebration 27-people strong. Laughter ruled the night, dinner was direct from Pizza Hut, and love was expressed in hugs and words and hijinks. While I missed my own big family, there is something recognizable as “home” in spending a chaotic night with any loving, large family. Had I somehow, miraculously, found time to write on Tuesday, I’d have written about the spirit of love at Christmas, and how wonderful it is to bask in its glow.

Then there was Wednesday, Christmas itself. If I had found the time, between bouts of sitting and chatting in three different homes, between moments of sharing and silence, I would have written about kindness and generosity. I would have written about the happiness of watching someone you love relax completely and be at home. I would have written about a surprise Christmas gift that touched me deeply. I would have written about how little it mattered that we never showered – after all, there was a phone call which said, “Come over, I’m frying eggs”, but which meant, “Come over and I’ll show how much I love you by cooking for you.” A shower doesn’t rate next to that. If I had written yesterday, I definitely would have had plenty to say.

To say I feel empty today is only half true – physically, my body rebelled against and rejected all of the rich indulgences of the past few days and emptied itself in the early morning hours. Emotionally, I feel flat, not empty. The rich experiences of family and friendship over the past few days make today seem flat by contrast. But the reality is so much more complex. All of the amazing feelings and examples of the past few days – the love, kindness, laughter and generosity – were not fleeting. They are abiding and real. That we don’t taste, touch, see, feel them daily is our human failing.

So, when I finish writing today’s “post that almost wasn’t”, I am going to put on some Christmas music and sing along. I’m going to reconnect with the many feelings of the past few days, and I’m going to celebrate them all. Why waste a whole day feeling empty and flat when I can feel  filled with light and joy?!

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Un-guard!

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I stumbled yet again. In the murky half-light just before dawn, I had only been able to see a few feet in any direction. Now that day was fully upon me, I could make out dry, furrowed and rocky terrain stretching to every horizon. I saw no distinguishing features, just the promise of further punishment on my bare feet and the continued threat that they would see me. I clutched the vessel to my body, attempting to shield it from both the sun (lest its radiance betray my location) and from splintering on the unforgiving landscape. When I glanced behind me, I did not see them, but I could feel their pursuit.
 
My one protection was the long cloak I clutched about me, woven of thread which so closely matched the featureless plain that is served as a form of camouflage. Because my hands were not free to assist me in remaining upright, I often stumbled. And the length of the cloak caused me to step on it with regularity, tripping myself when the stony ground did not…I know not how long I toiled to carry the vessel. Time became meaningless on that journey.
 
Eventually, however, I saw a small something on the horizon, which turned out to be a simple square building, open on two sides. I approached it warily, fearful of what or whom I might encounter, but desperate for rest and water. I entered what could only be described as a temple. The room, open to the land on two sides, contained a simple pedestal in the center, on which nothing resided.
 
“Welcome. We have been waiting for you.” I turned toward the voice, to see a man and a woman, each garbed in simple white robes.
 
“Please,” said the woman. “We have prepared a place for your burden. Don’t you wish to rest? It will be safe here.” She indicated the empty pedestal, and gestured toward the vessel I carried.
 
It seemed like forever since I had been wishing to set the heavy vessel down. But now that it came to it, I was loathe to do so. It was my burden, entrusted to me. Yet, these two looked at me with compassion. They made no move to take the vessel from me, simply waited patiently for me to choose.
 
Carefully, I unwrapped the vase from the folds of my torn and weathered cloak and placed it on the pedestal. At first, it appeared a small and unlovely thing. And then a shaft of sunlight found it, and everything changed. It lit up the room with its brilliance, a myriad of colors in its ingeniously worked glass. I was overcome by its beauty.
 
“But it shines so!” I cried. “They will find it and destroy it!”
 
“I promise you,” replied the man, “its light is meant to be seen. For this it was created.”

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When I woke from the dream recounted above, I couldn’t shake it. The haunting quality of it, the visceral emotional impact of it. Most especially, I couldn’t shake the truth of the dream.

I say truth because I knew immediately upon waking what the dream intended me to learn: that the vessel I had so carefully protected and shielded from the eyes of others was my self. The vulnerable, beautiful, shy, powerful, loving, shining self that I was born to be. That I had worked so hard to protect from hurt. That with my misguided efforts and protective coping mechanisms I had hidden not only from the world, but also from me.

There is a quote, often attributed to George Eliot, which says, “It is never too late to become what you might have been.” I love that quote, but it is about what we do with our lives. What my dream showed me was a slightly different truth:

It is never too late to be who you ARE.

You have journeyed in silence, fear, and discomfort long enough.

Come out of hiding. Let your true self be in the light, instead of shrouded in secrecy and webs of self-preservation.

Will everyone love the true self you reveal? No. Will their rejection, if and when it comes, hurt? Probably. But not as much as the self-rejection implied by staying hidden. By keeping yourself small and unobtrusive. By pretending that you are not who and what you are.

This last bit I didn’t learn from the dream. I learned from practicing the lessons of the dream: by opening myself to vulnerability; by painstakingly making the conscious choice to stand in my own center when outside forces (often people I love) buffet me; by allowing a moment to pass so I can respond from my truth instead of knee-jerk react. I learned by trusting others. And I learned by trusting myself.

Have I learned these lessons perfectly? No way! Each day has its own set of conundrums, of tests and trials. That said, letting my true self live in the light of day has been significantly more fulfilling than keeping myself hidden. Shame and Guilt, who were my frequent companions, have mostly disappeared. They don’t thrive in the light.  They have been replaced by Acceptance and Grace – companions who encourage me to grow into my best self. And my self, who I am, is a gift to the world.

If you recognize yourself in my dream, or know in your heart that you have been guarding your true self from the light, I encourage you to take the steps necessary to let the you that is unique and beautiful and essential come out. Take tiny steps forward, if you must. But don’t deprive the world any longer of the gift that is you. It is never too late to be who you are – who you are shines, and is worthy of love.

From my journal, after waking from the dream.
From my journal, after waking from the dream.

Defending, not Defensive

One benefit of entering your 50s (and believe me, I’m on the lookout for benefits) is that you not only know but have learned to accept who you are. With your strengths, your weaknesses, your shiny bits and your warts. In my case, this acceptance came late and as the result of a lot of self-examination – always the late-bloomer! Regardless of how hard-won, or how much forced growth was required, I can now say I know myself well.

When I was 19, this was far from the case. That New Year’s Eve, my beautiful three year friendship with a guy named Richard ended. We fought when he believed his girlfriend, who told him I had gone out of my way at his party to make her feel uncomfortable. I was insulted, incensed, hurt. And I was feeling too defensive to admit that maybe, while not 100% consciously, I may have had a slight motivation to make her feel a tiny bit the outsider. I ended the argument by saying, “If that’s the kind of person you think I am, then maybe we aren’t really friends.” I slammed the phone down. To my lasting regret, we never spoke again. Looking back, the fact that he called and wanted to discuss his concerns speaks volumes. As does the reality that I didn’t want to look critically at my own behavior and motivations.

Thankfully, these days, I am not so easily pushed off-center, nor do I feel the need to be particularly defensive. I know and apologize when I’ve behaved badly; I have little difficulty taking responsibility for my mistakes; I am willing to engage in reflection when someone offers criticism. Occasionally, though, someone fundamentally misconstrues who I am at my core, or accuses me of behaviors which are anathema to me. These experiences are rare, and invariably catch me by surprise, unsure how to respond.

When these interactions occur, they are almost always based more in perception than in concrete experience. Because concrete experience is only concrete in the abstract – it is always filtered through perception in order for humans to apply meaning. A simple sentence, such as “I like blue” can simply mean what it says. But when I say it to another person, they may hear it as “I like blue more than I like all other colors” or “I like blue, not green” or “Blue is the best.”  It doesn’t occur to me to clarify, explain, or qualify the statement, “I like blue”, and so the hearer and I walk away from this exchange with completely different perceptions of what has been communicated. Much later we may have another exchange in which the hearer says, “You only like blue.” I am surprised, because I’ve never said such a thing, nor felt it. However, how do I correct a perception that has existed now since the original conversation? That has been reinforced in the other person’s thinking every time it has been remembered?

There is a lot to be learned by staving off defensiveness and trying to understand the experience or perception through which another person sees you and/or your choices. Most of the time, I truly try to do this – and most of the time insight into my own psyche is the result or reward of maintaining a nondefensive stance. Sometimes, though, it is important to stand up for yourself, to defend yourself. In these situations, how do I manage to be a self-advocate without also giving in to the temptation to go on the offense? When my ethics, values, commitments are questioned, how do I speak on my own behalf without crossing over into the territory of counter-attack?

This is where being in my 50s becomes an asset. I’m more comfortable sitting with the situation for a while before responding. Letting the “feedback” sink in first, especially if it is hurtful or  potentially damaging to me. In my 50s I’ve learned that not everything leveled at me has merit, and this pause lets it sink in far enough to gauge whether merit exists or not. I’ve finally learned that not everyone launching stuff my direction has the best of intentions – and when this is the case, I don’t have to be touched by their criticisms or accusations in the tortuous, self-doubting manner I would have in my youth. This understanding is critical to engaging in the appropriate level of response. I don’t have to attack, I simply have to stand in the truth.

In my 50s I’ve also come to understand that I can’t control the outcome of these events. I can only control my response to them so that it is in alignment with my Self: my commitments, ethics, integrity, beliefs. Holding to my own center is such an important component of feeling empowered – especially if, despite my mature and reasoned response, I get smacked down by false attributions and/or the outcomes are crappy. As Dr. Wayne Dyer has famously said:

“How others treat you is their karma. How you react is yours.”

I opened this post with the observation that knowing myself well is a benefit of being in my 50s. I am going to hold fast to that idea – in part because, in my 50s, I finally believe that the person I am is worth knowing and standing up for. There will be no hanging up on people who challenge or criticize me, neither will there be laying down to be walked all over. Instead, knowing me, there will be more standing centered in my truth.

The Way of Love

When I was in high school I belonged to an inter-faith youth group. It was a special experience, but for the purposes of today’s post, I will just say that we used to sing. A lot. One of our favorite songs, often requested by churches when we sang at their services, was based on 1st Corinthians, the chorus saying, “If I have not charity, if love does not flow from me, I am nothing…Jesus reduce me to love.”

In the intervening years, I’ve heard and read these verses from 1 Corinthians many times. When I was in youth group, they were new to me, but even then they held a kind of deep call which has never disappeared. Although they are most frequently read at weddings, I have never associated them primarily with romantic love. Rather, the definition of love, the clarity provided about what love is and what love isn’t, has always seemed (and I believe was intended) to encompass a way of being in the world and an ideal to strive for in all relationships.

In college, I read the book, Unconditional Love by John Powell, who says “Unconditional Love means that I cannot always predict my reaction or guarantee my strength, but one thing is certain: I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will always accept you. I will always love you.”  And the idea of unconditional love became coupled with the verses from 1 Corinthians in my heart.

In graduate school counseling classes I became familiar with the phrase “unconditional positive regard“, which refers to a manner of being in the therapeutic relationship. But David G. Meyers, in his book Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules, describes it beautifully and fully as something that can, it seems to me, be practiced in any relationship.  “This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.”

We live in a world that encourages us to disengage from our truest selves. Whether that is because we have been victimized or traumatized, or whether we have been led to believe that who or what we are is “not normal”. In such a world, we are taught that the safest thing to do is keep our true selves hidden, covered over in tough, protective layers. In such a world, how is a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship even possible?

The only available course I see is the way of love, as outlined in 1 Corinthians, or John Powell or one of dozens of other thinkers and spiritual leaders over the years.

In recent years, I have learned to open those closed chambers within myself and let the daylight in. It is never easy, even now that I’ve had practice. But I have discovered that there are others in my life who have committed to me unconditionally, who are willing to see me in the light of truth and still choose love. In spite of what this world we live in led me to expect, these people have chosen to love odd, imperfect, quirky, neurotic me in spite of seeing my darkness.

To the friends whose recent life events and revelations have led to this reflection, I promise to give as good as I’ve gotten. I can’t guarantee my strength or my ability to help you through your own protective layers. But this much is certain: I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will endeavor to be a safe place where you can drop your defenses, confess your worst feelings, and still find acceptance.

I cannot promise to approach perfect in any way. But I can strive to practice the way of love in my daily interactions. As Tom Cruise’s famous character Jerry Maguire says, “We live in a cynical world.” However, the way of love has no room for such cynicism. Love, after all,  “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”