The Big Lonely

Avoidance and denial, my old friends. Back in the day, we hung together pretty tightly – in fact, we were what you might have called inseparable. I fed them all the emotions I preferred not to feel, and they shielded me from facing the harsher realities of my life. We made quite a team, living together inside the 352 pound flesh shell we built – soft, warm, protective.

Looking back, I know we weren’t exactly happy. But most days we felt like we could face whatever came our way. Or deflect it without much emotional impact. My friends would say, “I’m lonely,” or “I just wish I could meet someone”, and we would respond, “Why dwell on it? You can’t change it, and it only makes you unhappy.”

Man, have times changed. I kicked Avoidance out somewhere around 280 pounds, and Denial, while more tenacious, left shortly thereafter. For the most part, I haven’t missed them. My life has, in virtually every way, been so much lighter (brighter, less weighty, happier) without them. Oh, they visit briefly, from time to time, but its much easier to say goodbye each time. We just don’t have that much in common anymore. Breaking up was hard to do, but I don’t miss them as my BFFs.

Well, except in one way. These days, I’m feeling my feelings. Something that I never really had to do before if I chose not to – Avoidance and Denial (and the protective layer of 138 pounds I don’t carry now) took care of that for me. I’ve alluded to this in previous blog posts, mostly as one item in a list, or as something that I was acknowledging but didn’t want to get into. But here’s the honest truth: I have never felt this lonely.

How strange to say that at this point in my life. After all, I am – truly – happier than I have ever been. I have better, more fulfilling, relationships than I ever expected. My family and friends are with me, daily, enriching every experience and showering me with love and blessings. From the midst of this embarrassment of riches, I feel like an ungrateful or spoiled child to admit that I am still lonely. And yet, there it is.

Many times, I have refrained from talking about this, because I don’t want to appear pathetic, or upset my friends, or worst of all become a broken record on this point. Talking about my loneliness makes those who love me uncomfortable, because they can’t fix it. Instead, they try to cheer me up with stories about those who found a soulmate when they least expected, or by sharing their belief that one is waiting just around the bend for me, or by urging me to turn my eyes and heart to God.

Let me tell you this, so I can get it off my chest once and for all: I will be 50 years old this summer. I have never been part of a couple (not in the sense of two people who live together and make decisions together). Certainly I have given and received love, but never at the level of true intimacy which requires full participation and commitment from both people. And I have wanted this. Even when Avoidance and Denial helped me to hold the longing in check, and hide the depth of my loneliness from others (and, to a certain extent, from myself). So there is a reservoir of emotion which grew wide and deep all those years I had it dammed up. Without my old BFFs, I am swimming in it.  And for crying out loud, don’t bring up God right now, because the anger I’m not directing at myself is being quite forcefully directed at him. Right or wrong, that’s how I feel.

And there you have it. Once you stop denying that you have feelings, and start feeling your emotions, you feel them all. You don’t get to pick and choose. And the truth is, its really ok, even experiencing “The Big Lonely”, or deep anger. In one song, Lady Antebellum sings, “I guess I’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.” I would amend that to “I guess I’d rather feel it all than feel nothing.”  And feeling my own anger or loneliness is a small price to pay for also feeling the joy that I sometimes experience with those I love – or for the contentment that mostly suffuses my days.

Joy and Contentment – way better BFFs than Avoidance and Denial, at any price.

Breaking: Apart or Open?

Have you ever looked at the first card in the tarot deck, The Fool? In many decks, The Fool is setting forth on a journey. He has packed lightly, a small bundle slung over his shoulder. He looks ahead, not down at the path which, to onlookers, appears to be a precarious one. A dog nips at his heels (or in some drawings, his bum) but he appears unconcerned. In fact, he sets forth with a face full of joy and hope, blithely unaware of the dangers that await wherever he is headed. The Fool appears foolish, indeed.

What an apt image for us as we set out into our lives – especially as we set off into the uncharted lands of relationship. We rarely see what is before us, even when there are markers in place (I once dated someone who told me on our first date that his favorite song was “Love the One You’re With”. Perhaps I should have read that marker.) But often, there are no easy-to-read road signs. I don’t know about you, but I am cautious by nature, and it is rare for me to put my feet to a path I can’t see the end of. So, I have ventured out into the territory of love relationships timidly, afraid of the unknown future ahead and of the possibility of experiencing emotional pain.

Which brings me to the topic of this post: broken hearts. Despite my caution, my heart has indeed been broken a time or two. No one, I think, really experiences life without heartbreak. In the throes of real emotional pain, I have wondered, “What am I supposed to do with this? With this broken thing that was my heart, with these feelings that have nowhere to go now that they have no one to be invested in?”

In one such moment recently, I read the following paragraph, and it gave me some much-needed perspective:

“But there are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken. One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about — a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid. The other is to imagine the heart broken open into new capacity — a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.” (Parker Palmer, from A Hidden Wholeness)

When I read this, it immediately reminded me that I have, in fact, experienced my heart being “broken open into new capacity”. One such experience was a trip I took to Ireland a few years ago. I had never travelled overseas, and had dreamed of visiting Ireland – then got the opportunity to travel with a group from the university. I fell in love with Ireland, and with the person I became on that trip — a person who lived as fully as possible in every minute, who didn’t leave a drop or a crumb behind. It was amazing. When we boarded the plane to return to the States, I put my jacket over my head and cried for two hours.  But the experience of leaving that perfect moment broke my heart open. A love of travel and an image of myself as fully alive were the new capacities born of that experience.

When our hearts break due to relationships not working, not going where we want them to, ending, it is difficult to accept. To then, on top of learning to live with the brokenness, expect or hope for something new and good to be born of it almost defies us. It feels beyond our reach, and yet…perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps we’re meant to learn that looking like a fool isn’t the end of the world. Perhaps we’re meant to discover that hearts are resilient muscles — and like all muscles, they get stronger the more you use them. And perhaps the capacity that will be born is the ability to love without reservation, because you begin to understand that the journey itself (rather than its end) is what makes it worthwhile to do so.

And so you, The Fool, journey on. You feel your feelings, especially the ones that hurt. You look for the good, for the things you may have learned or discovered in yourself. You flex your heart muscle and find that it still works. And eventually, as a Missy Higgins song puts it, “you’ll wake to find, you’re a little unbroken.”

The Rememberer

My Nana, Marie, was one of a kind. While I didn’t know her in her hey-day, I’m told she was fun-loving, funny, and had a great personality and sunny disposition. At one point in her life, she owned a business, a diner I think. Nana gave birth to six children, the first of whom was born while Nana was a teen, and who was raised as Nana’s sister. Nana’s adult life, and consequently the life of her family, was not easy. Among other things, Nana was an alcoholic, at a time when very little was understood about that crippling disease – and when the “treatment” was to lock her up for months at a time in the state mental hospital. (If you think they didn’t understand alcoholism back then, believe me, the understanding and treatment of mentally ill individuals was worse.) As the son who lived in town, my father often found himself in the role of caretaker to his mother. His stories, told with the distance of time, are both funny (in a macabre sense) and hair-raising.

I was a kid and didn’t know anything about that stuff. To me she was just my Nana Marie, and I loved her. Nana was a great baker. I can still remember the coconut cake, decorated with silver dragees, she made for my sister’s first communion. I also remember baking bread with her at her house. We made a tiny, child-sized loaf just for me, with a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar on the top crust.

Unlike my siblings, I got to spend some quality alone time with Nana. As luck had it, I was the only one who attended half-day kindergarten at the school across the street from her house. I have truly happy memories of time with Nana, going with her to the beauty parlor, baking, walking on errands in her neighborhood. After kindergarten, I moved on to the Cathedral grade school, and my half days with Nana ended. She passed away shortly after that.

Years later, in graduate school studying counseling, I first learned about the disease of alcoholism. Not that I hadn’t known of it before, but I learned details about its long-term effects and generational impact. I also learned more about the gritty realities. And I was horrified to realize that my parents had knowingly allowed me to spend time alone with someone whose alcoholism made her, by their own admission, untrustworthy.

That summer (when I was working on my MA), my father’s youngest sister visited from her home in Florida. We sat outside one warm, June or July evening, chatting and telling stories from the distant past. My aunt, who had been removed from Nana’s home to live with my grandfather and his second wife, made a comment about not understanding how a mother could let go of her child and never want to have contact again. And suddenly, a side of my mother emerged that surprised us all. She was on fire for the truth: and out came the story of how badly it had hurt Nana to lose her youngest child. Though kept secret from my aunt, Nana had written and called. Had begged for contact and been denied.  Mom said, “I can’t let you go on believing she didn’t want you. Losing you broke her heart.” I can’t speak for anyone else who was there, but hearing that story broke mine.

As the vehemence of the conversation wound down, I remember saying, “Still, I’m a little shocked you let me spend time alone with her. I was awfully young, only five, and you knew she didn’t have good control.”  And my mother, the woman of fierce compassion, responded, “She would call and beg me. I almost always said no, but sometimes, I just couldn’t bear to. She always promised she wouldn’t drink if I said yes, and she knew that if anything ever happened to you, it would be the last time.”

I sat on my parents’ porch late into the night, after the conversation had quieted and people began moving inside to get ready for bed. I thought about the sad stories I’d heard, and the things my parents saw and experienced in caring for my grandmother. I thought about how it was not right for children to endure these things, to have such grim pictures of a parent indelibly imprinted on their memories. And I realized something that has brought me a lot of joy ever since. I saw that my mother had given Nana more than quality time with one grandchild. What my mom did for her was to give her a rememberer: someone whose only memories of Marie are good ones. Shouldn’t we all have at least one person who remembers us as our best self? I am so happy to be that person for my Nana Marie.

How to Love People: A Misanthropes Guide to Relationships

First off, I used the word misanthrope because it is a great word.  I don’t really qualify as one, but it also serves the purpose of letting you know right off the bat that I’m no relationship expert!  I once read an article in which a woman said, “I love mankind. Individual people annoy the hell out of me.” That’s fairly representational of my feelings, or at least of my natural, introverted inclinations. However, inclinations change. At least mine have, and I’d like to share some things I’ve learned about loving others which (now that I know them) have changed my life. Really. They’ve changed my life.

I am not required to tell others what I really think about them, their choices, their actions. Once, I was with a friend who was telling me that he and his wife were thinking about having a child.  His wife was really pushing for it, but he wasn’t sure. He shared his reasons for being unsure, and I told him they were, essentially, stupid.  He responded, “You know, some friends would just listen and empathize.”  This particular friend, at that particular moment, needed someone to hear what he was feeling, not someone to argue against him.  The trick, and the art of being a good friend, is learning the difference between these times, and those moments when what your friend is looking for is someone to help them face a hard truth.  Parker Palmer suggests (in Let Your Life Speak) that we must “avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other”, that we must learn to “hold another life without dishonoring its mystery”. In other words, sometimes just being quietly yet fully present to another is enough.

I am not required to tell others everything feel. I used to avoid telling anyone what I felt, and that included myself. In order to open my life to more and healthier relationships, I’ve had to learn to acknowledge my emotions and, yes, to express them. Finding that sweet spot, you know the one where you allow others to know your heart without knocking their feet out from under them like a riptide, is terribly difficult. Frankly, I still suck at it. Sometimes, I don’t share my feelings when or how it is most appropriate (usually because I am arguing with myself about whether I should), then I blurt them out at moments when others are completely unprepared. Sharing honestly without hurting or knocking others down – practicing this skill is key to mastering it!

Being RIGHT is overrated. Let’s face it, we all love being right. We love being in the right. Sometimes, this is important. But not as often as we think, especially in relationships. I’m a middle child, and early in life was known for over-using the phrase, “That’s not fair!” I would go to great lengths to prove I was right. And when I did, it was almost always a hollow victory. It turned out I was either the only one who cared OR my need to be right had taken the spontaneous fun out of the moment. Now, when my entire family gets together, I enjoy staying out of the fray. Let others fight for control, for the decision-making power, or for the sheer delight of fighting to be right. The gift of this approach is that I get to stay in peaceful connectedness with all my loved ones. I just wish I had known this at 18. I would so have avoided that unfortunate kick-fight with my 19-year-old sister one morning before going to college classes together!

I am capable of loving people whom I know to be flawed. One day, I was hanging with a friend whom I just love. I mean, this friend is really special, wonderful, funny, loving, kind, beautiful inside and out. And then, something was said by this person that completely shocked me. It revealed a weakness in my friend’s character. The kind of weakness that, in the past, I might have considered a “fatal flaw”, in that it could have killed our friendship. And that’s when it hit me that I could choose to extend my love and friendship anyway. That I could see someone’s weaknesses and flaws clearly and still love them. That blindness to these traits is not a requirement of love.  In some cases, I am actually learning to love the flaws. No, really! Being in relationships intimate enough that I actually know these things and see them as an endearing part of the whole package is a gift beyond measure. It is a gift I hope to learn to extend to myself, as well.

When in doubt, choose the most loving course of action. This suggestion, while akin to “being right is overrated”, takes the concept a step further. There are often times in relationships when we don’t know the right thing to do. Should I go over there? Or give her space? Say something? Or hold my tongue? Take a stand/give an ultimatum? In my experience, the right path can proceed forward from whichever step I take, as long as that step is taken with a loving heart. Importantly, my action needs to express love for the other, and for myself. And that tends to be the hard part. It is easier to step into the role of martyr (“See how I sacrifice for you?”) or that of the self-righteous (“I don’t deserve/need this!”) than it is to carefully navigate a loving response.  Yes, there may be times that the most loving response is to walk away. But, by and large, the great beauties of relationship develop when we work through these tough issues and come out stronger on the other side.

I don’t think there’s anything new or earth-shaking in this guide. I am an imperfect practitioner of each point. But I’m learning how important each one is to deepening relationship. I also don’t think its any coincidence that each one refers to maintaining a balance between self and other in relationships. I no longer think it is possible to have loving relationships with others if I don’t have one with myself.

One last thought: being a misanthrope (allowing minor things about others to annoy me) was a defense mechanism that kept people at arm’s length. If I could be blunt or dismissive or right, I didn’t have to risk letting people close enough that I could be hurt. Recently, I was talking to my friend Tricia, who is a mental-health counselor. I said, “I cry a lot more often than I used to.” And her response was, “Thinking about the person you used to be, and how your life has changed, would you really want to go back? Isn’t crying, even if it is a little every day, a small price to pay?” And, of course, she’s right.

Love, Magic and Being Grown Up

Many things about my childhood predisposed me to believe in magic.  The mighty Mississippi, limestone bluffs riddled with old lead mines, our proximity to the library which had an amazing children’s room.  Five siblings with creative imaginations, and parents who encouraged the use of them, also helped.  So I grew up believing in many kinds of magic.  Supernatural magic, such as Santa Claus, elves and pixies, wishing on stars.  Religious magic, like patron saints or my very own guardian angel.  And there was everyday magic: the longing induced by a lone barge whistle, snow falling softly through lamplight, the profusion of lilac blossoms in spring.

For most of my adult life, I’ve tried to hold onto the magic.  The tension between being a grown up (making decisions, earning a living, surviving the hard parts like illness and despair) AND a believer in magic is oftentimes difficult to resolve such that you can successfully be both.  I frequently get it wrong, and discover that I have ventured into territory in which one or the other is lost, to the detriment of my ability to function well.  If I am overbalanced on the side of “magic”, I stray into magical thinking and dreaming and lose the present moment in which to create my life.  If I stand too deep in the land of grown ups, I forget how to be touched by beauty and wonder, how to welcome grace when it enters my life.

Love can be an instructive example of what I mean.  In the grown up world, we learn to love in spite of weaknesses, human foibles, habits that we don’t care for (both in ourselves and in those we love).  Love is about learning where people are in life, then accepting ourselves and others exactly there.  In the world of magic, love is about soul mates who just get us, moments that propel us into a feeling of flow, our perfect selves connecting with another perfect self who dreams with us about all the perfect possibilities out there.  This is true for all kinds of love, not just romantic love.  Too far to the “grown up” side, and we lose the childlike joy that relationship brings; we leave out the “…and all” part of the phrase, leaving us with just the “warts…” part.  Too far on the magic side, and we end up in a lovely castle made of air, which may blow away at the first puff of rough weather.  Love needs both our grown up selves and our magic-believer selves.

Love has taught me a lot this year, both about being a grown up and about believing in magic.  It turns out that the magic of love happens in ways and places we don’t expect.  Sometimes we get one thing when we were hoping for something else.  The grown up in us needs to learn to be content that this is so.   Because every bit of it is miraculous, every incarnation of love is magic.

I was thinking about this at my friend Ryan’s birthday party last weekend.  He was a 19-year-old college student and I was a 36-year-old administrator when we met.  An unlikely pair.  Yet, words cannot express the depth of feeling I have for him — brother, colleague, co-conspirator all wrapped up in one big ball of love.  You will never convince me that is anything but magic!

So, I try to hold that old tension.  Try to be both grown up and believe in magic.  And really, now that I think about it, love in all its forms is the perfect melding of the two.

The Oracle

If you’ve ever visited Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota, you’ve seen him:  The Oracle.  A rock formation that, for all the world, looks like the profile of a wise tribal elder.  I have a postcard I’ve saved for years showing a photo of The Oracle, part of a collection of items and tokens representing places I’ve visited where humans have discovered some special “power” – predictions for the future, healing miracles, spiritual knowledge which arrives via interaction with the place.  I have always felt the pull of these magical sites, and I am not above finding some belief or power in these places myself.

In my late 20s, I visited an astrologer who drew my natal chart for me.  In my 30s, I visited a well-known psychic, who told me, among other things, that no one understands exactly how much I love the odd and unusual.  In my 40s, I had a very powerful experience during a massage with a spiritual healer.  For the most part, I engaged in these interactions out of curiosity and a sense of play.  However, part of me would have been quite happy to receive a little advance glimpse of things to come — if only one of them had been able to chart at least a small part of the future for me!

Most of my life, I’ve tried to predict the future in small ways — if I do this, what will happen?  if I put myself out there, will I get the result I want?  if I try, will I succeed?  As a result I have often opted for the safe path, the path I can predict.  Since predicting the future can only be done with success for the very near future (say, the next ten minutes) my vision has been pretty short. And my choices have been painfully short-sighted.  I have failed to try many things out of fear about the outcome.

I copied a quote years ago from a book called Ecodynamics, which was way above my head, but which contained this scary thought (scary to me, anyway):  “We may have ten possible images of tomorrow and for each one of these there may be ten images of the next day, giving a hundred possible images  of the day after that, and so on, which means that the uncertainty of the future increases rapidly as we move our imagination into it.”

Coming across this quote again recently, I realized that I’m not so frightened by it now.  The truth is, I am in love with today, which makes the future a much less scary proposition.  Do I still dream and fantasize?  Sure!  But I am learning that entering fully into each day means that I expend less energy worrying about what might happen tomorrow.  What will happen will happen — I may fail, I may succeed.  Either will lead to the next experience.  No need to consult an Oracle, or bless myself with the holy mud I carried away from El Santuario de Chimayo.

This new approach is proving to be both challenging and exhilarating when applied to my relationships.  So often, I have tried to take relationships to specific places — sometimes having whole conversations with others inside my own head as if I know before an interaction how it will go.  Imagining that I can create an “if this, then that” equation in my dealings with other people.  Letting go of definitions, of predictions, and of specific outcomes can be scary because it makes you aware of what has always been true:  you have no control over what other people feel or how they respond.  Thinking you can control others is just another form of magical thinking.

The country group, Lady Antebellum has a new song (which I heard on Pandora this afternoon) called “Ready to Love Again”, and the chorus speaks to this lack of attachment to a particular outcome.  It says:  “Yeah, I’m ready to feel now, no longer afraid of the fall down. It must be time to move on now, without the fear of how it might end…”  The future holds lots of endings, and equally as many beginnings.  My current plan is to follow today where it leads, and fall in love with tomorrow when it comes.

Silver and Gold

This week has been one of reconnecting with the past, and forging relationships in the present.  When you are young, you think your friends will always be your friends, that you will be the same person moving through time on a continuous and straight trajectory.

Then life happens.

Your hopes and dreams change, your livelihood changes, you change.  And the people you count on, spend time with, love, change too.  Sometimes, the people who come into our lives are meant to also leave our lives once their role in our growth has been fulfilled (or our role in theirs).  Others we lose to pride, envy, greed, indifference, unresolved issues.  These are the losses that can weigh on our hearts.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reconnecting with some old friends with whom I parted under such circumstances.  For years, I’ve thought sadly of these people, wishing we were still part of one anothers’ lives.  I’ve felt guilty, because in most of these cases, I was the one who stopped calling or writing.  However, even though I regretted these losses, as I felt less confident in myself due to my weight and to the dips in self-esteem stemming from my inability to get a grip on my life, I lacked the heart to make overtures of reconciliation.

What I am surprised by is the generosity of friends who welcome us back into their lives after years of silence. What I am humbled by is the capacity of the human heart to go on feeling friendship and love over gulfs of time. 

Since November, I have learned so much about friendship from those of you who have supported my journey.  Many people make up the chain of connection that allows me to feel confident stepping beyond my comfort zone, and who help me create the person I am striving to be.

As I bring old friends into my current circle, I feel a sense of wholeness I haven’t felt for a long time.  I am reminded of that lovely song I learned in childhood, at Girl Scout Day Camp, Eagle Point Park, Dubuque, Iowa:

                   Make new friends, but keep the old.  One is silver and the other gold.

Perfect analogy, because friends, both old and new, enrich our lives beyond measure!