Confession: I spent the first half of my life without any discernible personal boundaries. I have spent the last twenty years or so believing that boundaries are the holy grail of healthy relationships. And in the last few weeks, I am really beginning to question whether or not that is really true.
We are all learning a lot about our own fear responses and the fear responses of others, whether we know it or not. If you know what to look for, you can see how people around you have learned, over time, to acknowledge fear (or not), since most of us tend to fall in to our old patterns of responding when faced with a threat.
Ultimately, when faced with a crisis, whether it’s in our face and obvious or more non-specific and invisible, we rely on the things we’ve always done.
If we were taught to “suck it up and move forward,” we may throw ourselves in to work right now, crossing things off our list and attending video conferences with hair brushed, a pile of papers next to us, and a mug of hot coffee at the ready.
If we were taught to compartmentalize, set aside the alarm bells and “fake it,” we may be inviting friends over for dinner, gathering at the beach to play, heading out to the movies to take advantage of the empty seats.
If we were taught to seek understanding and plan for every contingency, we may be scouring the internet for articles to share, advising our friends on the best way to protect themselves and their families, and stocking up on cleaners and medication “just in case.”
I am reminded, when I hear people angrily commenting on how others are still out and about, or mocking those who seem disproportionately afraid, that many of us are running on autopilot because we are in fight or flight mode. Because the “fear” part of this response is jarring to many and uncomfortable for all.
We are not taught to acknowledge fear in healthy ways, for the most part.
We are not taught to sit with fear.
We are not taught that fear won’t break us in a way that is irrevocable.
But it won’t.
My ex-husband was a person who said things like “it’s fine,” “it will all work itself out.” He was someone who didn’t ever say to me, in 26 years together, that he was afraid. In many ways, I appreciated that. I was afraid a lot and having someone around who was seemingly never worried about the outcome, who was supremely confident that things would be ok, gave me a strange kind of confidence.
Except when I wanted him to be afraid. Then, his demeanor enraged me. It felt like gaslighting. I needed someone to acknowledge that some things are scary, and that being scared alone is a really awful, isolating thing. But I think, at that point, we had so firmly set our pattern that it would have taken a lot to undo it. I relied on him to be the stoic, fearless one, and he relied on me to hold the fear for all of us. It worked because my fear didn’t paralyze me. I was one of the “plan for every contingency” people who got strangely calm in the face of crisis, was able to discern and move forward with purpose. But there are some crises that call for us to do nothing for a while and I think this is one of them. I think that we are being called to learn to sit with fear and uncertainty and let it break our old patterns.
If we can learn to be scared together, and trust that it won’t kill us, we will learn so much. If we can acknowledge that the “sucking it up” and the “faking it” and the “just in case” are all avoidance mechanisms that don’t serve us and that place the burden of fear on others in disproportionate ways, we can begin to come together. It is a privilege to pretend that you’re not afraid and just go about your normal business. It is a privilege to choose not to sit with the emotions that this crisis stirs up within you. (Folks with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and those who are not served at all well by the dominant systems in place already know that – watch them, listen to them, learn from them).
We will not come out of this with privilege. We will not come out of this with the systems that serve us intact. And if we rush to either preserve the systems that are crumbling or to craft new ones before we’ve truly understood what this is all about, we are not doing the work that we are being called to do right now. We are being called to listen, to get very small and quiet and pay attention to what sustains us. Not what sustains the systems we rely on to sustain us, but what sustains us – the people, the connections, the acts that give us joy, the art and music that touch us, the nourishment and types of rest. We are being called to shed the notion that we can be independent, the idea that we can pick up where we left off without being changed by this.
While there are individual traumas happening because of this, this is a collective crisis, and it requires a collective consciousness. While there are individual people and families who are being hit harder than others, in one way or another we will all be touched by this and we will weather it much better if we recognize that. Having compassion for those who have not had to examine the way they respond to trauma before is key. Sitting together in fear (without wallowing – just noticing, acknowledging, and recognizing how we try to avoid it) is key.
I wonder how I may have harmed my ex by letting him be the one in our relationship who wasn’t allowed to be afraid. I regret not knowing that I was doing that. And I know how to recognize it now because I’ve sat with fear and I see how I avoided it. I wonder how I show up for my kids in this time and how I can shift to a way of being that is more in alignment with the collective consciousness. This will not destroy us. But if we let it, it will change us for the better.
Today would have been my 25th wedding anniversary.
I’m trying to figure out how I feel about that. Honestly, it’s not that I woke up with any particularly different feeling today. And I did my usual things – letting the dogs out, feeding the cat, making my coffee, checking in with Eve who is two hours ahead of me in the Midwest. It wasn’t until I decided to double-check the date and match it with The Tarot Lady’s daily card reading that I realized it was February 26.
And it wasn’t until I stopped and did the math that I was certain it had been 25 years. But as soon as I confirmed it, I felt prickly warmth in my cheeks and a small lump forming in my throat.
I focused on breath. Expanding my ribs outward and upward. Shifted my feet to balance the weight between both legs.
One of the headlines I read this morning in my news crawl said GRAND CANYON TURNS 100. That was another thing that gave me pause. Not because I was trying to figure out how I felt about it, but because it seems absurd.
The Grand Canyon is not 100.
The fact that human beings named it and stated that we were giving it some sort of special protection (from us, if we’re being honest) is turning 100. The Grand Canyon has been there for a long time.
I’m pretty sure that’s a big part of the problem, isn’t it? That we think everything is about us and we only see the world in terms of how it affects us, what it can provide for us, or how it can harm us.
In Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston recounts a memory from her childhood where she climbs a tree in her yard and gazes out at the horizon.
“Every way I turned, it was there, and the same distance away. Our house then, was in the center of the world.”
Today is a day. The moon is not in a particularly unique phase, there is no unusual meteorological activity happening in the part of the world where I stand, the calendar is a human construct, as are wedding anniversaries and the particular significance of one’s 25th. It is not even my 25th, as I am no longer married.
Unpacking the flush in my cheeks and the tightness in my chest requires an examination of what I think I would have received were this truly my 25th wedding anniversary. Accolades from friends and family for having maintained a marriage for a quarter of a century. Some significant gift from my husband along with a nice dinner or small gathering of loved ones. Perhaps cards from our children. All of that may have led to some pride on my part – an acknowledgment of the work and effort it took to stay married for this long – and perhaps an extra burst of love and affection for my husband as I quickly flashed back through carefully curated memories of special times.
The Grand Canyon is not 100.
I have not been married for 25 years.
We have both existed before these milestones that would define part of us.
We will both continue to exist and evolve and have value regardless of any external measure of time.
There is something powerful in recognizing the set of relationships to which I exist today – not centering myself in them and imagining spokes radiating outward, but simply pointing to them. It is nearly impossible to talk about them without centering myself, without using the words “my” or “me.” But if I can resist putting words to it, instead getting really immersed in how it feels to be part of this bigger community of people and animals and land and sky and water, I remember that I am held firmly and safely and that, here, time is not relevant.
Last weekend I went to visit my mom for the first time since she moved to a memory care facility. It’s been a long time coming and while I felt good about this particular place, it was also good to visit a few times over a few days to really absorb the feel of the place, the vibe of the caregivers, understand how it all works.
The first time I went, my dear friend Susan came with me. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years and she and Mom were friends for a couple decades, so having her there felt really natural.
Without oversharing, I will say that the first ten minutes or so were hard. There were some difficult things to witness and if you’ve ever spent time with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s, you might understand. Knowing this woman who was so independent and capable for most of my life, it is sometimes hard to acknowledge all that she has lost, how reliant she is on others to care for her.
Susan and I sat at her kitchen counter the following morning, talking about it over coffee, and I was reminded of how strong the pull is to DO something when we feel that way. And then, almost immediately, I was reminded of how grateful I am that I’ve cultivated the ability to not respond to that compulsion in the moment.
If you’re like me, you grew up being taught that any time you felt scared or uncertain or really sad, that was a call to action; that the thing to do was to assess the situation and put a plan in place to both alleviate those feelings and prevent them from happening again. Over time, I got really good at doing that – I became a control freak. I prided myself on my ability to anticipate potential disasters and keep them from occurring, mitigate the possibility that I would be blindsided.
When things happened that I couldn’t have predicted, I allowed myself a brief moment of intense emotion (flashes of anger, a crying jag, a mini panic attack), steeled myself, and moved on.
Eventually, that did several things:
- fed the false notion that I am in control (and thus, that when disaster does strike, it’s because I am not smart enough to accurately predict or prevent it),
- turned me in to a DOING person instead of a FEELING person (which reduced my ability to empathize with others and to feel the full range of emotions human beings are designed to feel),
- exhausted my reserves because I was racing around putting out fires all the time – the vast majority of which weren’t mine to put out,
- reinforced the idea that it’s perfectly normal to avoid feeling certain emotions that are uncomfortable (and thus, justified that glass of wine or piece of cake or other unhealthy coping mechanism I utilized when I ran out of ideas about how to eliminate sadness/fear/anger),
- put me at the center of the situation, as though my feelings were the most important consideration.
I have felt nauseous for two days, a feeling that’s pretty unusual for me since I stopped eating gluten over ten years ago. It’s pretty rare that I have any stomach issues, to be honest, and when I first started feeling off, i instantly began running through what I’d eaten in the last 24 hours in an effort to figure it out.
Since a week ago, I’ve been careful about what I look at on social media. I needed to step back from the Kavanaugh hearings because of some difficulties in my life that were closer, more personal. And frankly, I had noticed that even seeing the ubiquitous photos of his angry, red, yelling face in every other Facebook post made my chest constrict uncomfortably.
Angry men are frightening
I don’t know if that’s something they know and use as a tool, but for most women and girls, male anger is tremendously upsetting. Men in our culture are taught to translate their anger and frustration in to physical outlets – hitting, throwing, slamming, shooting.
And yesterday, Lola and I got on a plane to fly across the country to visit Eve who is in her first year of college. I couldn’t afford to be angry or rage-filled or incapacitated by grief. I was filled with joy at the thought of being in her presence again, the presence of both of these young women who love each other and make each other laugh. We travel together well, easing in to activities and rest with comfort, somehow managing each others’ desires without fighting.
I woke up nauseous again, desperately pleading with the Universe to help me be 100%, to feel ok, to be able to enjoy my girls this weekend. Before my feet touched the floor, I took a deep breath and tried to pinpoint the feeling of unease and when it became clear that it wasn’t inside me, but surrounding me, I finally acknowledged it. I am receiving the energy of others outside me – the overwhelming despair and rage and fury of women everywhere who know they can’t stop this confirmation despite all our efforts.
Lola and Eve politely waited until I’d hugged Eve to fall in to each others’ arms and stay there for a minute. Little do they know that while I loved hugging Eve myself, witnessing the two of them resting together, holding each other up, was the biggest gift. My heart is full.
Not far in to the day, things turned. The ride to breakfast was a bumpy one and Lola felt carsick. Eve wanted to know what the plan was after breakfast. The weather forecast was horrid – humid and thunderstorms. The wait for breakfast seemed interminable. They exchanged (quiet) sarcastic words and there were tears. As we sat at the table, the girls ignoring each other on their phones, I remembered family trips where our parents were angry with us for being “spoiled brats.”
We are spending money to bring you to this place and have a vacation, an adventure, and you repay us by bickering and complaining? Knock it off right now or you can forget about us taking you on any more trips.
I nearly laughed out loud, knowing that I could never say something like that to my girls. Not only would they think I’d been inhabited by some alien life form, but I know better. The very air is tainted right now, with anger and frustration and despair. And we are all entitled to feel overwhelmed, sad, confused, upset.
We soldiered on. And many hours later, as we sat eating lunch, our phones all pinged with the notification that Kavanaugh had been confirmed by the Senate. And I was reminded that what we are learning is valuable. We are learning, over and over again, that the solutions we can come up with within the paradigm of the current system are limited.
Had I threatened the girls, made them feel small and embarrassed, it might have made them less likely to express their frustrations outwardly, behave slightly better in public, but it wouldn’t have addressed the root of the issues. Had I dug in to the “root” of the issues, things would likely have gotten a lot worse in the short term (and they probably would have both turned on me instead of being angry with each other). Those were tactics my parents used. My tactic shifted – I created a new system. I decided that since I’m the grownup here, I would trust my girls to let me know if they needed my help sorting out their emotions, and in the meantime, I would forge ahead, doing what I thought would make me happy. We headed to a burgeoning neighborhood and wandered through bookstores, thrift shops, stationery stores. I stopped to pet an adorable puppy, mused about birthday gifts for my nieces, begged Lola to try on an outrageously gorgeous, outrageously tiny pantsuit that she looked phenomenal wearing. By lunch time, we were doing ok. Good, even. And when I suggested we head back to the hotel so Eve could have a hot bath (there’s no tub in her dorm, so it’s been a long time since she had a therapeutic soak), Lola could chill by herself and watch TV, and I would head to the lobby and write, there were huge smiles all around.
Protesting, signing petitions, calling our representatives, those are all things we do to address the problems within the system. And I’m certainly not saying that those efforts are useless. But it’s the system itself that allows for these things to happen. The system that was created by white men for white men will always benefit white men. We need to get rid of that system. We need to dismantle (smash? burn?) the set of rules and mores that keep us small and compliant. We need to get a lot more comfortable imagining what a different paradigm would look like – one that is created for all of us – and work vigorously toward that end. Especially those of us who have benefited a great deal from this system, by playing by the rules and excusing the white men who make those rules.
It won’t be easy. And it won’t be comfortable. But we can’t make substantive changes within this system that will end up benefitting all of us. While I am still furiously angry that Kavanaugh was confirmed, there is a tiny sense of relief in that now I know that this fire will forge steel. Should we still work our asses off to get out the vote in November? Absolutely! When we take back the House, should we start impeachment proceedings on Kavanaugh and Drumpf? First. Fucking. Order. Of. Business.
And then, we should not rest. We should not think we’ve won. Small victories within this broken, broken system are not enough. We have to burn this SOB down.
|Image: Low row of bricks alongside a sidewalk|
On the sidewalk in North Chicago, just outside a large, upscale grocery store, Lola and I walked past a woman about my age building this brick wall. She was likely homeless, had a disposable plastic shopping bag filled with her own homemade mortar – newspaper bits, water, mud and other things only she knows – and was bent over stacking bricks and patting the mortar. Nobody challenged her, and she spoke to no one.
The next day as I walked to the El station, she was nowhere to be found, but I noted her progress and wondered whether she’d be back or if she ran out of materials or energy or drive to do more. I wondered whether she was trying to wall someone out or someone in, or if she was making herself a place to sit up off of the ground, or if she was simply creating, making something with her hands that made her feel productive.
I like to think it is the latter.
Even after all the therapy and reading and journaling and work I’ve done to counteract the cultural and familial narratives I’ve ingested for the last 47 years, it takes effort to remember that not everything I do has to make sense to anyone else. It doesn’t have to garner a paycheck or be in service to some bigger societal machine. It can simply be me using the materials I have available to me to create, to follow my heart and instincts and do what I do best and love most.
Lola, Eve and I spent the last week in Chicago, exploring, walking, shopping, and moving Eve in to her freshman dorm room. It was, by turns, uplifting, gut-wrenching, exhausting, and hilarious. These two sisters have their own secret language such that they can read each other’s emotions and rush in like a bubbling spring of water to fill in the holes, buoy the other, amplify the laughter. They know when to be quiet, when to lighten the mood with a carefully placed insult, when to link arms and raise an eyebrow to show support. It is an absolute pleasure to witness. So many times in the last week, I sat across a table from them or followed a few steps behind on the sidewalk and felt my heart swell at my good fortune. I get to be part of this.
We complained about the humidity (it was really gross – Pacific Northwesterners aren’t built for that much warm moisture), people-watched, got makeovers at Bloomingdale’s on a whim. We sat on a beach at Lake Michigan and marveled as a swarm of dragonflies swooped around in a cluster, creating their own mini-hurricane near the shore. We laughed and ate and filled an entire shopping cart at Target with hangers and laundry soap and bedding and school supplies.
I had one on one time with each of them; watching Glee with Eve late in to the night, sprawled on the couch, talking about nothing and everything. Lola and I hit five thrift stores in one day and ate tacos in the sunshine, simultaneously wishing we were home and dreading saying goodbye to her sister.
By the time the two of us settled in to our seats on the plane for the trip home, we linked arms, tipped our heads onto each others’ shoulders, and sobbed. One of the three legs of our stool wasn’t coming home with us.
Upon our return home from Chicago, I was a little lost. To be honest, I still am. I know there are essays to be written and sold. I need to continue sending out my memoir manuscript if it is ever going to be published. I have an agent interested in seeing a book proposal for a manuscript I wrote years ago, so I could work on that. None of those things pay much, if anything. Neither does mothering. I’m a bit paralyzed – do I look for a job that does pay? What can I do that’s valuable and useful? What do I enjoy doing? What can I stand doing that pays?
There’s something in me that says to wait. Just give myself time to roll with this new phase – settle in to having one less chick in the nest and use my energy to support both my girls through this transition. I don’t often think about modern technology – even as much as I use it – but I am tremendously grateful for the ability to text my girls. It means that I can offer advice and insight no matter where I am, so that when Eve feels a tiny bit homesick or has a question about returning textbooks she purchased for a class she dropped, I’m ‘there.’ Because what I know is that I am a good mom, and relying on my strengths in that area feels good to all of us. The fact that the girls know they can ask me anything, anytime, and I’ll want to answer, jump at the chance to engage with them – that is immeasurably important to me. It is a constant for all of us, a reminder that we are a team and while the characteristics of our connections might change over time, the fact that there’s a connection there is a given. I don’t support them because I have to. There is no sense of duty there. I am truly overjoyed to be their travel companion, sounding board, keeper of memories. I am using the bricks and mortar I have at my disposal to create something, and it may not look like much, but it is strong.
When I get caught up in the “but you’re not making any money” narrative in my head, I have to remember that I’m ok right now, that I do my best work when the work I’m doing is something I love and something I’m good at. And right now, the things I love most of all are mothering and writing. In that order. Today, that’s good enough. Better than good enough. It’s great. Amazing. Phenomenal.
|By Dave Huth from Allegany County, NY, USA – Pill bug, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64866062|
My gut can be the source of some pretty deep knowing. It’s often the first place I get an energetic “hit” when something is off or really, really right. But it’s also the site of connection to my daughters and I realized this morning that if I’m not paying really close attention, it can lead me to places I don’t want to go.
I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to make parenting decisions (or, really, any decisions, for that matter) out of fear. While fear is important, it’s important as a first hit emotion, not a “let’s move forward” emotion. So when I let energy sit in my belly, it’s not good. Especially when it comes to my kids.
The alternative to acting out of fear, for me, is acting out of love, and for that, I need to be in my heart. I have to really work to open a portal from my belly upward and let that energy move to a place of abundance and openness and vulnerability. And that’s the shitty part.
When I close my eyes and think of my gut and the way fear feels there, I shrink forward like a pill bug, curling around those soft parts and protecting them. But that traps the energy there and while it feels safe, it’s not sustainable. My babies were in my belly for a finite period of time for a reason. I wasn’t meant to protect them forever. And as they grow up and make their way in the world without me, I still feel that tug just below my navel – a cord of connection that is like an early warning system. It’s always ‘on.’
These days when I am afraid for my girls, the stakes seem so much bigger. They’re driving, working, spending time with people I’ve never met and maybe never will. They are making decisions I don’t know about and maybe wouldn’t make for myself or them, given half a chance. The gut hits tell me to draw in, tug on that cord to keep them closer to me, curl around and try to protect them again. That’s fear. Fortunately, sometimes I have the presence and ability to remember that I chose not to act out of fear.
It’s time to draw that cord up through to my heart, to open and expand, to breathe and shine light and lead with love. It’s time to trust that the connection will always be there, it’s just that the nature of it is changing, like everything else does. It’s time to remember that fear shrinks, dims the light, takes so much energy, but love expands and shines and releases energy. These girls are up and on their own legs, and when they wobble, I’ll be here, with open arms, standing tall with my shoulders back, leading with my heart, because love is so much more powerful and transformative than fear.
and for the parents.
If you were raised in the 1970s and early 1980s, you might be familiar with the “tough love” approach. It was my dad’s go-to method of parenting. Figure out how to treat your kid like they’d be treated in “the adult world” and apply that. And tell them it was “for your own good – you’ll thank me someday.”
I didn’t. Ever. Thank him.
I have, on occasion, been sorely tempted to employ the Tough Love method of parenting – telling my kids to suck it up, stop sniveling. Urban Dictionary defines it as “being cruel to be kind;” Dictionary.com says it’s “promotion of a person’s welfare, especially that of an addict, child, or criminal, by enforcing certain constraints on them, or requiring them to take responsibility for their actions.” I call bullshit.
Tough love is about the parents, it’s not about the kids. When parents use these tactics, it’s because they’re uncomfortable with their own kids’ pain. Every time my dad told me to stop crying it was because he couldn’t stand to see me cry. (I didn’t know that at the time – I thought there was something really wrong with me that I cried so easily.) Every time my dad told me that I had created the mess so I’d have to figure out how to fix it, it was because he didn’t have the bandwidth to sit with me, listen to me, soothe my feelings, and help me talk through how I got here and how to move forward.
I’m not saying he was a monster. He was a product of his time, and that was the prevailing parenting wisdom in those days. But I am saying that it had nothing to do with me and everything to do with him, his discomfort with strong emotions, and his insecurity with parenting overall. If he convinced himself that he was doing what was in my best interest, “promoting my welfare,” he could wipe his hands of the affair altogether. It was mine to figure out. I’d be fine. I’d pull myself up from my bootstraps and learn (or I wouldn’t, and he still wouldn’t be accountable or have to jump to action).
How do I know this? Because the other day when I was supremely frustrated with my kid, worried about a choice she was tasked with making, and so overwhelmed with emotion about the entire situation, I considered taking the Tough Love approach. Not because she’s nearly 16. Not because I thought it was in her best interest. Because I. Was. Tired. Because I couldn’t stand to see her struggle anymore and if I just told her to figure it out on her own, then I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.
It was about me and my pain, not hers. It was because hanging in there, holding space for her angst and confusion and really empathizing with the fact that there was no easy answer felt too hard. I’m happy to say that instead of channeling my dad, I took the dogs for a walk and gave myself some space to breathe and remember that I know how to do hard things, especially when I’m doing them with people that I love fiercely. I was reminded that walking beside her, being exactly who she needed me to be in the moment of her biggest challenge, and not throwing her to the wolves is my job as her mother and her champion. I can model for her that sticking by the people you love when things are hard is what we do. I can remind her that she can lean on me when she’s tired and it all feels too much. And I can remember that, no matter how difficult this all feels to me, she’s the one living it, and the least I can do is let her know that I won’t go anywhere.
Screw tough. Just love.
My latest for parents and teachers who work with teens is here. Once you know how to spot anxiety, the next trick is to figure out what’s triggering it.