So, I’ve just finished The Midnight Library. I’m still trying to process it. In some ways, it reminds me of one of my all-time favorite books, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, although I don’t believe it is the same caliber of literature. That said, this book definitely had an impact on me. Perhaps it’s because of the work I’ve been doing in therapy. Perhaps I was just open to the messages contained therein. In any case, it was a good read for my current state of mind and the point of life I am at, the point where my children are gone and it’s time to put myself first again.
Without giving away any of the plot, I can say the story will give you some bold ideas to consider. Are you living your life in the direction of your dreams or someone else’s? What is holding you back? Are there alternate realities for the life you are living? Do you consider the lives you have touched and the people you have affected? What makes life worth living? Is the goal of life success and, if so, how do you measure that? Are your regrets holding you back? Are they even worth relitigating?
Here are a selection of quotes from the book that resonated with me:
“You don’t have to understand life. You just have to live it.”
“It’s not the lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy.”
“A person was like a city. You couldn’t let a few less desirable parts put you off the whole. There may be bits you don’t like, a few dodgy side streets and suburbs, but the good stuff makes it worthwhile.”
“Regrets don’t leave. They weren’t mosquito bites. They itch for ever.”
“There is no rejection. There is only redirection.”
“But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness forever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.”
“The prison wasn’t the place but the perspective.”
All of these quotes (and many others) got me thinking about my own journey and the things I’ve allowed to hold me back. Choices I didn’t make. Paths I didn’t take. People I let go too soon. People I didn’t let go soon enough. Times I sold myself short out of fear. Times I let others tell me what I couldn’t do. And it is fine to consider all these things, just as long as the consideration doesn’t keep you from action.
I think my biggest takeaway from the book is that I need to be more intentional. I have spent an awful lot of time making excuses for things I haven’t done rather than taking concrete steps to accomplish them. It’s time for a vision board. I need to do some soul searching about this next phase in my life, to build on the work I’ve done in therapy and make concrete plans to attack some of the things I’ve been afraid of. And perhaps along the way to accomplishing some long-ignored goals I will unearth the life I have held regrets about not yet living.
I started reading (okay, fine, listening to) a new book today, now that I have finished The Gifts of Imperfection. This book is a novel by Matt Haig entitled The Midnight Library. My sister mentioned it in passing twice last week and seemed so taken by it I decided to go ahead and get on the bandwagon. I also jumped on the Wordle bandwagon yesterday, but that matters not at this point. In any case, I’m a few hours into this damn book, and my mind is in classic overthink mode. This means it is a meaty story.
The Midnight Library is about a woman named Nora Seed who, feeling lost and depressed about her life, decides she no longer wants to live. She takes some pills and washes them down with wine. She drifts off and ends up at a library. The librarian, a woman Nora knew from her childhood, shows her a book filled with Nora’s life regrets and tells her she can go to any of a million different iterations of places her life might have led had she made different choices. She simply needs to select a regret and she will be transported to that divergent life, already in progress. The books allow Nora to answer the age old question “what if.”
It has taken me a long time and a lot of therapy to land at a place where I no longer abuse myself over my “what if” regrets. I’ve discussed that here before. Your what ifs are impossible because in the past you made choices based on who you were at that time using information you had available to you at that time. Looking back now, with a different mind and different experiences, alters the light you shine on those past events, people, and opportunities you let slip away. It makes them either shinier and more attractive or duller and less attractive but, either way, your current consciousness transforms them into something they are not. All of this makes our regrets like our worries…thinking about them will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.
I am curious to see where Nora lands after exploring these alternate-ending lives. If she finds a better existence for herself or if she decides to go back to her old life or if she dies from her overdose as she had originally intended. But all this thinking about disparate endings to our one (as far as we know it) life has me stuck on one thought. We can’t go back and change our past, which has led us to our present. We are, for better or worse, here where we’ve arrived as the result of millions of small, insignificant choices and a few quite large ones. Our story, thus far, has already been written. It’s the future that has yet to be determined. In some cases, our what ifs might still be able to come to fruition if we take steps in that direction today. We just have to find the courage to believe we can change the outcome. If we couldn’t do it in our past, perhaps we can now.
And while I noodle on what I want my life outcome to appear, for as much control as I have over it, please don’t comment here about the book if you have finished it. I will likely finish it tomorrow, and we can talk about it then. I look forward to it.
“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me!” ~Jim Henson
As I mentioned the other day, I’ve been reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. It was given to me by a thoughtful, supportive friend last month, and I’ve slowly been making my way through it. The beautiful thing about Brené Brown is that her struggles and her authenticity seep from the pages of her books, making her words both relatable and heartening. She touches on so many difficult and uplifting emotions in the book that reading it has been equal parts soul-crushing reality and soul-inflating inspiration. Read about shame, guilt, perfectionism, fear, blame, and addiction and recognize how much those habits and emotions define and control you. Then read about hope, joy, play, creativity, resilience, authenticity, and self-compassion and see where you might be able to grow in a more positive direction. More than once while reading I’ve exclaimed out loud to myself in response to what I have read. Holy crap. That is me. I operate that same way. I so relate. I need to work on that. That makes so much sense. I have some work to do. I am really good at that.
The part of the book that hit me the hardest was the portion about shame. I know Brené began her work as a shame researcher, delving into the components of shame and how humans deal with or deflect it and how we can grow out of and away from it in healthy ways. So I fully expected to read about shame in this book. What I didn’t expect was to discover that for the majority of my life shame was my constant companion and operations manager. Ouch.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by this discovery. I grew up commonly hearing, “You should be ashamed of yourself” and “You’re embarrassing yourself.” Most of my reactions to events in my life were approached from a shame vantage point. Boyfriend broke up with me? Of course he did. You were acting like a needy jerk. It’s a wonder he didn’t leave you sooner. New job too much for me? Of course it is. Who do you think you are? You have no life experience. You can’t be expected to manage other human beings. Can’t stick to a diet and lose that stress-eating weight? Of course you can’t. You suck at dedication. Struggling with parenting? Of course you are. Your mother always said you were too selfish to raise childrenand it turns out she is right. Brené’s definition of shame snapped me like a wet, locker room towel: “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It was through this lens that I grew up and approached my adult life. I was an imposter, one misstep away from everyone I knew discovering my deep secret. To deal with this, I became a perfectionist. (That is another blog post entirely.)
I was continually baffled that anyone would want to be my friend or date me. I couldn’t see what they saw. I only saw my unworthiness. Still, I must have been presenting something else to these people too. They didn’t seem to see what I was seeing. The incongruity was not lost on me, but it never once occurred to me that maybe what they were seeing was the true Justine and what I was seeing was a story I had been sold. It took decades for me to figure that out, and I’m still shredding the pages of that story and working on my rewrite.
Perhaps the most life-affirming part of this book for me has been the section on Cultivating a Resilient Spirit because this is where I shine. I grew up feeling unworthy, less than, and invisible, but I persevered and took risks. Somehow, despite all the negativity and fear, I knew deep in my core I was capable. In my late teens and early twenties, I arrived at a place where I almost was able to recognize the big lie I had been sold. I was brave enough to imagine for myself something bigger. I took steps in that direction. I stepped away from guilt and forced obligation and walked towards autonomy and growth. I stepped up. At age 22, I graduated from a four-year university, the first in our family to do so. By 23, I was starting graduate school. At 24, I voluntarily sought help and signed on with a debt relief organization to pay off tens of thousands of dollars I had accumulated in loans and credit card liability. I was adulting and taking ownership, being resilient, and moving forward.
Then I realized I’d run out of money for graduate school. Rather than rising up and trying to find a way through that financial quagmire, I took my mother’s advice and I quit because I couldn’t afford it. I fell right back into the pattern of being a fearful, self-pitying, self-loathing coward and I stayed there for another two decades, operating from the familiar mindset that told me I wasn’t worthy.
I’ve spent more of my life in that shame mindset than I have spent believing in myself. I let other people’s negativity inform my choices. I asked for advice from the wrong people. I spurned the pleas of the right people who tried to guide me towards my better angels. Now I’m grateful for the difficult day that opened my eyes and taught me who was not to be trusted with my dreams and hopes. I learned to lean towards the people who raise me up, and I walked away from those who make me feel less special, talented, helpful, kind, and important than I am. I ignore those who don’t get me or who think they know me but don’t. I face my shame, talk about it, and deconstruct it. And all of this has led me to a place where I am starting to understand who I am and to like myself.
Shame grows through secrecy, silence, and judgment. Understanding this gives me a pathway out of it. You deny it oxygen by addressing it, sharing your difficult stories with others, and walking away from those who would keep you grounded in it. I am happier more often now, able to be joyful and at peace. I make better choices and I forgive myself more easily when my choices aren’t the best. I appreciate others. I try to apologize when I screw up. I am still working on self-love and I am having a devil of a time beating the judgment out of myself and my life, but I am making progress. I’m embracing my humanity and feeling part of a bigger whole rather than feeling like a lonely pariah. I am proud of myself, dammit. It feels good.
Sharing my darkness and vulnerability is terrifying, but blogging about these shadow monsters here has changed my life. Shame has no power over me anymore because I have named it, gotten cozy with it, and discovered its weaknesses. It will never leave me because it is part of my story, but it buzzes quietly in the background now, just white noise that my brain blocks out.
This is the forecast for the morning commute tomorrow. Ask me how excited I am. They might as well have written this:
Tomorrow morning your commute will be shitty. Make sure you have your insurance card ready for the accident you will likely be involved in. If you do manage to avoid an accident, rest assured it will take you a full hour longer to get where you are going. Oh….and the roads will be ice covered in snow for the afternoon commute, so that should be fun. Good luck, losers.
I mean, with recent Covid-19, work-from-anywhere transplants from Texas, Florida, California, and Georgia will be on the roads. How bad could this be?
I was reading through The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown today when I came upon this:
“The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become. Well, it’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting or taking advantage of us or walking all over us. This research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we haveto start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.”
This hit me hard because I have had a long-term struggle with boundaries. As a child, I learned that it was not okay for me to set them. So as an adult, to avoid conflict, I have continued to shift my boundaries to accommodate what someone else wanted or expected of me. Doing so made me bitter without any understanding that the bitterness was coming from my giving what I wanted and needed away to keep someone else comfortable. Giving others their peace took away my own. Not setting boundaries kept me stuck. Understanding that keeping boundaries is essential to being compassionate to myself and others empowers me to stand my ground, to make room for myself, and to find that peace I have been lacking.
Over the past year, I have been working a great deal on boundaries. I didn’t come at this through the knowledge that it would allow me to better practice compassion. I came at this because I finally got to a point in my life where I realized that not having any boundaries in place for myself was no longer a tenable situation. The pandemic, and lockdown particularly, taught me I need boundaries to stay sane and to be pleasant towards others. I learned that I need space. I need silence. I need peace. And I need to stand up for myself to have these things in my life. If I don’t set boundaries, if I am not willing to ask for (and demand, if necessary) what I need from others, then I will forever be a grumpy, negative person who feels powerless. I don’t like that. I don’t want that, and I don’t want to be that person. So, I am learning to set boundaries and to accept that those boundaries will piss some people off and completely alienate others and that is not my concern. My concern is keeping myself and my sense of self safe from those who would use my difficulty in advocating for myself against me.
“The only people who get upset about you setting boundaries are the ones who benefitted from you having none.” ~Unknown
“You are not required to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” ~ Unknown
I might start saying no more firmly this year. You might hear me saying things like, “I understand that is what you want, but that doesn’t work for me.” I may full well make some people uncomfortable by refusing to do what they think is fair and right because I believe it doesn’t align with my core values and what I need. This will be hard for me because I was raised to believe people would only like me if I made myself likable by acquiescing to their whims. But I’m old enough now to understand that it’s not only acceptable but imperative that I set boundaries where I need them and tend to them to keep them secure and impenetrable. I will ruffle feathers and others may use my boundaries as talking points to turn others against me, but I no longer care about that. I’m exhausted from being the willow tree that bends. I’m ready to be the rock that the tree learns to grow around.
We dropped Thing One at the airport again this morning for his flight back to Walla Walla. He has been in college a year now and, overall, these comings and goings have become easier for me. Not because I don’t miss him but because he has proven himself more than up to the task and I have seen that life without him after 20 years with him is okay. I am okay. My time as Mom isn’t over but the role has shifted. Joe still needs me often enough, but he’s also on his own a lot more. So we dropped him at the curb with his bags and drove off without incident. No tears. Everything was copacetic.
Everything was fine when we got home too. I was feeling pretty proud of myself. It was the easiest drop off yet. Yay, me! I got to work on life around the house, laundry, vacuuming. Then I got to the kitchen table. I removed the placements, wiped it off, and went to take the fifth chair away. That is when I got sad and teary eyed. I put the fifth chair back at the dining table where it lives and then set about taking the extra leaf out of the kitchen table and returning it to its usual 4-person size. I stood there for a minute overwhelmed over the loss of that extra seat.
A little later after I thought I had moved on again and pulled myself together, I put on a hoodie Joe left behind for me. It smelled like him. I got teary eyed again.
Letting go is a process, one I have to keep reminding myself about over and over. I know I will never stop missing Joe or being sad when he leaves, but it will become part of our new relationship contract. I told him today that I was a little sad about the table. And then I told him that it is all okay because I love him with my whole heart and I am happy that he is off pursuing his own life, but I will always miss him when he leaves. Then I told him that someday he will miss me when I leave and that is life. He told me we’d best not talk about that ever again.
Relationships aren’t easy, but they are worthwhile. And I will always have a table with an extra leaf for those times when the important people pop back into my life. Until then, there’s this little guy who is here for me.
A few months before we went to Hawaii, I mentioned to my husband that it might be a great opportunity to have some family portraits taken. So, I did some research to find us a photographer. The one I tried to book was already spoken for, so she pointed us towards another woman and we booked a thirty minute photo session with her. We ended up taking the photos right at the house where we were staying, which was perfect. At any rate, the photographer took all sorts of different poses with different groups of us. And when we received the photos today, we were happy to discover that we did all actually clean up well and take some lovely photos.
We took some more traditional, look-at-the-camera-and-smile photos, and then she said she wanted to take some candids. She asked us to look at each other and pretend like we were having funny conversations. So, we did. And this is when I discovered my true calling.
I could be a fake model. I am really good at tossing my head back and laughing as if someone just said something really funny. Now that I’ve told you about my skill, though, try to forget it when you tell me a joke.
Some times, due to time constraints, you have to cut corners and do something less than optimal, like have a plain turkey and swiss on gluten free bread for dinner. On those occasions, though, don’t think of yourself as anything less than the marvelous queen (or king, I guess) that you are. Even if dinner is just a yawn of a sandwich, make sure you cut that shit on the diagonal because you are absolutely worth it.
Love is blind. I know we have all heard that platitude a million times, but for some reason today it didn’t sit right with me when I heard it in a song. This, I assume, is because I am growing as a person and seeing life through a different lens. I used to think that phrase meant that when you love someone you are blind to their faults. Maybe that part is true when you are first falling for someone in a romantic way, but I don’t think it’s true once you are fully committed to a person or in relationships that are not romantic in nature, like with siblings or children or parents. I love my children more than anything and would give my life for theirs in a heartbeat, but I’m not blind to who they are, all of them, the good and the bad traits (some of which definitely came to them through me). And I think they absolutely could tell you what the positives and negatives are about me.
I am no expert on love, having come to know it only in the last half of my life thus far. As I was growing up, I understood love on an intellectual level. I had no real concept of it because I had experienced no real example of it. I assumed my parents loved me because they would get angry if I came home late. But if love was indeed blind, then my parents didn’t love me because they definitely knew my shortcomings and pointed them out regularly. So love confounded me. How did it work?
Here is what I have learned about love since having my own children. Love is not blind, and it shouldn’t be. Love is knowing someone intimately and wanting the best for them always, even when they are confused about their gender identity or in jail because they got a DUI or lost the thousand dollars they got from you for Christmas. If you aren’t able to recognize someone’s struggles, weaknesses, and issues, how can you be there for them, to support and encourage them, to take care of them when they are at their worst? Love isn’t about being blind to who someone is or what they do. It’s about being there for them in spite of the things about them or that they do to make you crazy, stressed, worried, angry, or frustrated.
Love is all seeing and ever present. It exists in the hard work of being present for someone else no matter what. It’s you seeing someone else in all their humanity and appreciating them both for it and in spite of it. It’s in the sacrifices you make for another person. It’s in the suffering you take on to ease their pain. Love is about showing up. It’s a lot harder to show up if you can’t see.
I went on a walk today with my oldest son and my youngest dog. I’ve been on a quest to get our puppy as much exercise as possible because he’s a really good dog when he’s tired. And long walks outside are totally feasible in the winter in Denver because it’s not unusual for us to have a spate of 30 degree days followed by an equal portion of 50-60 degree days. During those warm periods, I love to get outside, and this has been even more true in the time of Covid when any opportunity to get out safely in the world brings me joy.
But while walking today, I noticed an unwelcome sight. The cottonwood trees are beginning to bud. It’s mid January, and this is not good. We had an exceptionally warm December and didn’t receive our first snow until midway through the month, which is about two months later than we used to see our first snow of the winter. Colorado and many western states are reliant on heavy winter snows in the mountains for fresh water. We are not seeing snow levels here like we used to. Colorado had seasons when I was growing up. We’d have a cold winter with some warm days, followed by a snowy spring that eventually gave way to a warm but not ridiculously hot summer, which led into a temperate fall that was inevitably cut short by an early winter snow. More recently, we have joked (sadly) that Colorado has two seasons: winter and fire. But now I even see our winters abating.
I’ve never been a climate change denier. The scientific evidence Al Gore presented in the first Inconvenient Truth film made sense to me, and the second film 11 years later simply backed up everything he reported in the first film. I’ve accepted what the scientists have said and what the climate continues to demonstrate. We are in a bad place. Warmer, drier summers mean more drought and fires. Warmer, drier winters mean less water for crops in the spring and summer. Warmer weather means mosquitoes and mosquito-borne illnesses are likely to increase. And when plants bud early and insects appear sooner because of warmer temperatures, migratory birds become imperiled because they may arrive in the spring to find they are too late for their food. We’ve seen droughts and wildfires on the rise. We’ve also witnessed storms growing worse, flooding happening more often, and unprecedented heat waves occurring in areas that are temperate (I’m looking at you, Seattle and Portland). I’m not sure why we aren’t all freaking out about this, but I assume it’s like the fabled frog boiling experiment. Because the changes have been amortized, they are easier to ignore as one-off situations. But as these storms, fires, floods, droughts, and heat waves become more common, your head has to be buried deeply in the sand to miss their message.
One area I’ve been working on in my life is accepting the unwelcome changes that are an inevitable part of life. The Buddhists call this practice “groundlessness” or “impermanence.” It simply means working to accept that everything is fluid and nothing is constant, and it’s our human desire to expect that we can settle into and keep things comfortable and changeless that causes us pain. So, I accept that climate change is real. I accept that Colorado’s climate will never again be what it was in my childhood. I accept that the warmer, drier winters will likely mean water restrictions and rationing in the years to come. I accept that having smokey summers will be the norm. I accept that ski seasons will continue to shorten until there isn’t even enough snow to ski on anymore. I can accept all this, but it makes me sad. Sad we didn’t think this would happen despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. Sad that we are too comfortable and complacent in our lives to make the sacrifices necessary to prevent this. Sad that trees are budding in January instead of April or May. Sad there is nothing much to be done to change this unless 90% of our world’s population suddenly become Greta Thunberg clones and begin demanding more from our governments and leaders.
What I know about life, though, is that adapting to change and accepting it diminishes suffering. So, I will continue to enjoy my warm, winter walks with our dog and ignore the trees budding in January because I will take the good where I can find it.