June 29, 2015

Voids and Vulnerabilities

The photo above is titled Touching the Void by Darla Hallmark. I love it. It beautifully illustrates what's in my heart as I write today.

Experiencing several significant losses in close succession has left me feeling a bit off.

 It was not the feeling of completeness I so needed, but the feeling of not being empty.
 - Jonathan Safran Foer
The thing about losing people is not just the missing of them. It's the void created where they used to be. Even if we didn't see them daily they occupied our consciousness. Thoughts of them rambled around the corridors of our minds - our hearts were occupied by their essence. They were like opened but minimized programs running in the background on our computers - using energy and filling space. Now they're gone.

 There's just something obvious about emptiness, even when you try to convince yourself otherwise.  - Sarah Dessen

What's next, for me at least, is disorientation. I am a person of deep faith in an afterlife. I believe that I will see these lost loved ones again so it doesn't rise from the "What happens to them?" question that many struggle with. I know there are those who would argue my position - but I question the motivation for that. If my beliefs get me through the day, what is it to them? It's not like if I'm wrong and there is no afterlife I'm going to be met by a collective "I told you so" on the other side of nothing, so where's the downside in believing?

No, this disorientation comes from the void. The "What do I put in the place that was once occupied by time spent thinking about, visiting, and being concerned for these loved ones?"
My world is different and that means realigning. I'm no longer the "quick adapter" I was when I was younger - made possible by denial and pretending. As a teen I made believe that my grandfather, who once lived in Kentucky, moved back to Kentucky and I'd see him again on my next visit. It made having to realign unnecessary - temporarily. I've since given up on denial. Instead, I take time to feel and accept the consequences and changes that come along with separation. I accept loss as a necessary part of learning and growth and as an unpleasant reality attached to life and loving.

Acceptance doesn't change the fact that there's a vacancy - time and space that needs to be filled. That's where I'm at now - figuring out who I am without these people in my life and how to fill the void.

Youth always tries to fill the void, an old man learns to live with it.  - Mark Z. Danielewski

(I like this quote. It appeals to vanity.)

The other thought occupying my mind is that of vulnerability. Immediately following the most recent loss came gestures - unexpected acts of kindness - that I struggled with. The idea of people caring enough about us to invest time and effort to console and lighten our physical and emotional burdens wasn't a foreign concept. I try to do those things for others regularly. It was allowing that was an uncomfortable necessity.

 For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Calls came with offers of help - "anything you need." It was painful to admit that I needed anything - to accept it. If it wasn't for my husband, I'm not sure I could have. Yet in the accepting I found something I wouldn't have believed existed. 

To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength. - Criss Jamiee
I would never have believed that there was strength in accepting. It was emotionally exhausting to ask for what we needed and emotionally nourishing to allow those needs to be lovingly met.

I realize that I'm not alone in my extreme need to cling to the illusion that I'm self sustaining - an impervious mountain of efficiency and "can do."

  The strongest love is the love that can demonstrate its fragility. - Paulo Coelho

I don't know of any who share this plight who enjoys the self imposed apart-ness. It's just the price, we decided at some point, was necessary to be "safe." We built walls to hide our weaknesses and isolate us from the real or imagined consequences of others knowing we're imperfect and unsure.

Somewhere deep in our psyche is the belief that to be less than able to handle everything is a flaw that would make us unacceptable - unlovable - unworthy. What caused us to do it is of little consequence compared to what having done it now causes.

It causes us to be unnecessarily overwhelmed and stressed out by trying to do things ourselves that we could ask for help with. It shouts "not good enough" when we finally reach exhaustion and can do no more. It makes us feel outside - different than - alone.

Even worse, it causes us to become frustrated with others who should be able to read our minds and jump in without requiring us to admit we need them to. 

Walls have one purpose - to separate - and that's what even imaginary walls do. They separate us from others. They isolate us from potential pain. Walls are not discriminating however. They just "keep out." They keep out intimacy as effortlessly as they keep out assault. 

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability... To be alive is to be vulnerable.”
 - Madeleine L'Engle

I've reached the point - much too late - where I'm ready to accept the challenge to "tear down that wall!" I have no illusions that this will be a one hit with the wrecking-ball type of dismantling. My wall has been in place for a long time and was well built. It will take willingness, overcoming fear, accepting and allowing. It will take diligent attention and patience with backsliding. Most of all it will take courage.

 What happens when people open their hearts? They get better. - Haruki Murakami

I'm ready to get better!

How about you? Is it easy for you to be vulnerable? Why or why not? 

June 18, 2015

Perfectionism is a Bully!

Perfectionism is a bully. I wouldn't play with him if I were you. 
- Anita Stout

The quote above is from an email response I sent to a friend, a brilliant attorney, who also hosts a radio show. I'd written to thank him for sending an archived file of an interview he'd done with my recently deceased mother in law about her involvement in British Intelligence during World War ll. 

The interview was fascinating and added greatly to the details I'd already known. Everything about the interview was top notch. Good music, great questions, a wealth of information - the works. The response I received to my thank you was as follows: 

"You are quite welcome. As with every show that I do, so with Dorothy...I realize afterwards how shallow I have dragged my net. So much more depth than I captured." 

AGH! Not him too! I thought, and shot back the above - and it's true! Perfectionism IS a bully and no one knows this better than I. (In second place is my husband who endures watching it in action.)

Perfectionism has been beating the fun out of my life for as long as I can remember. It's the reason that millions of other imperfect bodies can enjoy being at the pool in swimsuits and I missed out on those good times with my children. It's the reason I don't try many of the things I'd love to pursue. Perfectionism is also the reason my husband and I have had to walk around in white plastic booties for the past two days looking like overgrown snow elves - but I've gotten ahead of myself.

As I mentioned, we recently said goodbye to my mother in law. It hasn't been an easy thing - made worse by the appearance of the big bad bully! I wanted to make memorial posters to celebrate her life. I spent three straight days migraining over the possibility that they wouldn't be good enough. In the end, they were beautiful but it wasn't because of the relentless fiend beating me over the head. It was in spite of it.

Perfectionism keeps me from being able to accept a sincere complement. All I see is where I've failed or could have done a bit more - or better.

Perfectionism whispers "you're not good enough" at regular intervals throughout the day just so I don't forget and actually relax. It says "everyone is judging you" and "you can't possibly ___" (fill in the blank.) It's a relentless critic who is diligent and watchful.

I don't expect perfection from others. I have mercy and understanding to spare for the human part of human nature - except my own. In a way it's almost arrogant when I stop to think of how I believe I need to be better than I expect others to be. 

Back to the white booties and snow elves. I took one look at my carpet - the same carpet I'd never have even noticed anywhere else - and realized that it absolutely had to be cleaned before the family came for Mom's memorial service. Heaven forbid anyone visit our home and find out we actually live in it! So, after convincing my husband to abandon reason in favor of sanity, the appointment was made and the carpets were cleaned.

Then the air conditioner broke down. With 94% humidity, carpets aren't in a hurry to release moisture into already drenched air so needless to say the carpets are still wet - enter snow elf booties! I had plenty to do without elf booties being a part of the equation. In fact, the carpet cleaning debacle has added yet another item for the voice to whisper about and cite as further evidence of my not-good-enoughness.

Make no mistake friends, perfectionism is NOT something to brag about, be proud of, or strive to have as an associate. It's a merciless tyrant that I plead you won't entertain.

My life has been sending me lots of clues recently that say this has to stop. Three days of migraines was hard not to notice. White elf feet? Really! 

Knowing these things about myself doesn't seem to make it easier to let it go - and why should I need to do this on my own? There are pills for everything now! Big pharma can help manage everything from our sex lives to acne.  We can wake up or go to sleep by swallowing a pill and be pain free in the worst of circumstances. Where, I ask you, is the "get over yourself" pill - because that's what I need to do - just get over myself!
I'm sorry you're mad that you realize the world doesn't revolve around you. Let me pour you a tall glass of get over it. - Unknown

I know I'm not suffering alone. I see you every day - eyes glazed over - replaying what you could have done differently - better. I see your overly concerned smiles and "not quite as relaxed as you hope I think you are" demeanor - and I feel your pain.

We need to understand that despite what we believe, the universe does not rise or fall because of what we do or do not do. None of us are important enough to cause cataclysmic concern whether we fail or succeed. Even if we get this thing right - that thing will be lurking right around the corner presenting yet another opportunity to fail miserably.

You wouldn't care so much about what people think about you if you realized how seldom they do.  -Unknown

What if we all just decided that our best was good enough - regardless? What might happen if we turned our backs on the bully? Might he just go away?

What if we could find a morsel of mercy for ourselves and apply it liberally? Might we be - dare I say it - content? How could life be different if we could stop believing it's all about us and all up to us? It never has been you know.

Even more important, what if those around us could relax in our presence because we weren't uptight? What if they didn't feel inadequate because they wonder if they're being held to the same ridiculous standards we hold ourselves to? What if we just said "enough" to the bully?

These are some questions I'd love to find the answers to. How about you? If you've already slayed your perfectionism demon, please, I'm begging you, - share your secrets!

June 8, 2015

Hellos and Good-byes

You were born a child of light’s wonderful secret - you return to the beauty you have always been. - Aberjhani

Beginnings and endings. Every story shares these two elements and this is where the similarities end when that story is of a life.

This past week I was ecstatic to welcome a new grandson to the beginning of his story and heartbroken to experience the final chapter of my husband's mother's story. 

I picked up the Book of Mom quite late in the plot. She was in her late 80's when I met her. Small, thin, white haired, and full of spit and vinegar -  a force to be reckoned with. Even in her advanced age, one look into her steely eyes said "Don't even think about it."

She was a kind woman but no one would dare call her "sweet." She'd seen too much, lived too much, and been too much for that.

She married late in life - a man 23 years her senior. My husband was the only child of that union. In her gruff, no nonsense fashion she'd told me on more than one occasion that she hadn't wanted children - but guessed it had turned out alright.

I judged her for that. Being a mother to six myself and loving the experience, it was difficult for me to process. That's something I deeply regret now as I'm starting to understand her through papers, poems she's written, and a radio interview she'd given years ago, while her mind was sharp, about her life's experience. I'm sure she felt motherhood was one job her impressive resume had not prepared her for.

Mom lost her mother early and was raised by a stepmother - who from all accounts was an iron willed, ambitious woman who was way ahead of her time, with little preoccupation for empathy or warmth. She was the mayor of the Canadian city in which she lived and on the school board long before it was reasonable for a woman to even consider such things. 

This proved to be life defining for mom. On the one hand she never ascribed to the glass ceiling placed on women and as a result, wasn't hampered by it. When the Second World War broke out, the steel company where she worked offered her the position of a man who had left to join the war effort. She accepted - on condition of also receiving his pay along with it. After a short probation, she received it.

On the other hand she never learned the softness usually associated with mothering. It wasn't in her nature to nurture though she did a fine job providing the daily essentials necessary for my husband to grow and become an independent and well educated man. I wonder now if knowing that she'd be a young widow played into her feelings about having children as well.

I never understood the distant seeming relationship between my husband and Mom - how they seemed so disconnected and contentious. I wasn't there to see how it started and they both seemed equally at fault. Strangely, it seemed to work for them. My husband took great pains to see that all of mother's needs were well met and her affairs were well attended to. They loved each other - even when they didn't like each other much.

After the steel company, Mom moved to New York alone to pursue a better paying job that was listed only as clerical. Upon arriving she found herself working with British Intelligence typing Morris code and transmitting the messages she received over the wire to the places where the information was critical.

Later she volunteered to return to Canada to a military installation where spies were trained and top secret information was distributed. "Camp X" as it was called, was only recently declassified and the operations that took place there were key in the efforts against the Nazis. Not even her parents knew what she was really doing during that time.

She lived in Japan working for the Canadian Embassy, and in Chicago as a legal secretary - eventually marrying her boss.

She skied, golfed, played tennis and basketball and was the original fashionista. She dressed to the 9's every day she was able to include pantyhose and jewelry. She was well known for her collection of berets which she wore tilted to one side - just so. I'd often muse at how genuinely regal she presented.

Then as life happens, in her early 90's mom fell and broke her hip. We were told that most didn't survive a year following that type of injury and recovery would be tedious. They didn't know mom. She recovered well enough to break the other hip a year later and pull through that as well.

With each surgery what she did lose was part of her memory. Anesthesia does that to people of advanced years apparently. Her condition declined and her independence with it.

She lived close by at an assisted living facility where she continued to sport her berets. She told me once - "When you come to this place, you'd better bring your sense of humor!" 

As I walked the halls of the facility, especially those of the "memory care" unit where those who lived there were far removed from their former selves, I wondered about the lives they'd lived. The staff and other visitors could have never known about Mom's life and all she'd been and accomplished before arriving there. What they saw was a breaking down woman who was from time to time cantankerous as independence is a state of mind that doesn't seem to fall prey to the usual decline. Even they loved her though. She was never boring!

At 96, as she lived her life on her own terms she also left it behind - putting together a puzzle one minute and gone the next. 

Mom's was a long and full story - filled with travel, friends, intrigue, theater, and fun. She saw her share of heartaches and survived and thrived through them all. I remember her saying "If I wanted to do something, I did it." What a wonderful epitaph. 

We'd each do well to follow her example. This is after all "our story." We write in and write out the supporting cast, define the plot, and choose the direction it goes. We pick the experiences - and when we don't - we pick the responses to them that thicken the plot.

As I consider my new grandson - the pen just newly in his tender hand, I hope he writes a rich and full adventure that someone will write about in years to come - at his story's end. I hope the same for us all!

So today I say - Hello my beautiful new grandson - full of wonder and potential. Good-bye Mom. I love you and marvel at the epic tale that was your life.

June 1, 2015

On Living And Dying

The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows. - Socrates

Austin Hodgens, a talented writer that I follow at The Return of The Modern Philosopher, recently posed a compelling question on his Friday Night Think Tank. It's definitely worth a read and you can find it at the link above. He has a great reason for asking as well.

The question was something like this: If given a choice, would you prefer to die quickly and unexpectedly - leaving no time for goodbyes and preparations or to know it's coming and have time for those things.

The comments were also interesting. It's enlightening to see how people respond to being reminded of the eventuality instead of the possibility of death. 

What Austin's post did for me is to remind me of how I want to live until then. Without regret.
Since I don't get to vote on my exit strategy I guess I'd better be OK with whichever way it goes. Meanwhile, I want to live in a way that leaves no doubt in the minds of those I care about whether or not I loved them. 

I also want to live in a way that leaves no guilt for those left behind. I want my family and friends to know without a doubt that I knew they loved me too. I don't want anyone nursing a case of the "only ifs." 

I've attended too many funerals where one or more of the mourners felt as though they'd bitterly disappointed the departed over some small thing they worried was left undone. That's a lot of agony with little remedy. To what end?

Yes, in an ideal world we'd have endless time to spend with our loved ones. We'd say everything deep in our hearts - expressed in flowery prose. But, since none of us were born into that world, we're pretty much left with the one we have. The one that requires us to work for our support, and invest time to raise our children. That same world where we have problems, and sickness, and yes, even a few other interests as well. It's called life and we all can get quite busy just living it!.

In my way of thinking, if I haven't given my loved ones what they need beforehand, I probably won't be able to provide it on my deathbed either. (They call it deathbed for a reason.) For me that rules out the desire to linger to say goodbye.

My husband, children, extended family and friends have done plenty over the years to leave no doubt as to whether or not they care. No one owes me more of anything to feel OK if I shuffle off my mortal coil later this afternoon. It's enough! More than I could ask for.

There's not a Hallmark card, trinket, flower, phone call or expression that I ever wanted or needed that hasn't already been accounted for. (My kids know my stance on the cards - do not buy them!)

Being able to reach this point of peace comes as a result of two things: understanding and gratitude. 

Understanding that the only person who's ever been responsible for my happiness is me. It's been up to me all along! That leaves everyone else off the hook and everything they've done on top of that has been gravy. Delicious gravy!

Gratitude for the love, kindness, support, and wonderful memories. Even on my most horrible days, my blessings have far outweighed my complaints. (And on some of those days I actually noticed!) 

Yes, there is a THE END looming at the conclusion of our stories, but while we're still writing them, why not add some classy transitions to make it easier for those closing the book on the last chapter? 

How about you? While the question can only ever be hypothetical, have you considered which exit strategy you'd prefer? Maybe the better question to consider is how to make it easiest for those you'll be leaving behind. After all, you actually do get a choice there.