If anyone is wondering, I am finally sick of my own bullshit.
I am tired of my whining about people who put me in a box, closed the lid, and then sat on it to keep me in my place. I got strong enough to topple them, to push my way out, and then I complained about being held down for so long. I spent so long bitching about it that then I was holding myself down. I think that is a common pattern for people recovering from abuse. You have to process it to make your peace with it. And part of processing is wallowing. It’s the wallowing that makes you sick of yourself. And getting sick of yourself is a good thing because it pushes you out of the track you’ve been running in and allows you to begin a new track.
I understand now why I operated the way I did. And now I know how to operate differently. I don’t always get it right, but forward progress in any measure feels like a win. I will never let anyone speak for me again or tell me who I am or what I like or what I should do or be. I might solicit advice, but that doesn’t mean I’ll take it. No one is an expert on me, not even me. I am in the middle of an evolution.
“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.
You have to pay attention because, if you don’t, you will miss the best things.
My mind has been parsing the notion of loss lately. I’m not talking only about losing a person or pet to disease or losing my children as they grow and become their own people, although these two particular losses have been weighing heavily on my heart recently. I’m also talking about losing things like my hair or the bottle of peppermint oil I had in my hand a minute ago or the astounding piece of wisdom I was about to share but which vaporized before I could pry it from my brain. I seem to be losing everything these days.
When the universe persists in presenting me with opportunities for growth, eventually I catch on to the pattern. And the current rate at which I have been facing loss has given rise to non-stop mulling about the loss and what loss even is and where it comes from and how I can best deal with it in the moment and how to survive it long-term and what I can learn from it to help me along my path. Searching for meaning is what I do as a double Gemini.
Buddhism teaches that suffering is a constant condition of the human experience, and our inability to deal with all types of suffering (from physical pain to the pain of persistent change to the pervasive conditioning that finds us repeating the same negative behaviors from which we need to escape) keeps us from experiencing true happiness. If you are born, you will suffer and you will die. It’s how we choose to approach suffering that determines the quality of life before we leave.
Loss is painful because we have a misguided notion we have some right to claim ownership. We don’t. We don’t own our bodies, we occupy them. We can’t keep them from aging or changing. We may be able to lessen the visible effects of our unhealthy behaviors and the constant pull of gravity and genetics, but we cannot stop our march towards death or the visible proof of that continual process. We don’t own others. They too have a timeline and will move through this life on their own path. Our inability to accept that life is transitory and that the people in our lives are as impermanent as we are creates a path to misery because loss of life is unavoidable. In the poignant words of Walter White, “Every life comes with a death sentence.” We don’t even own items we own. A burglar can take my computer. An auto accident can wreck my car. A fire can incinerate my home and everything inside it. And there is very little I can do about any of it, really.
This morning I looked out my bedroom window into the park-like backyard I am fortunate enough to enjoy. There were finches and nuthatches clinging to the feeder. Squirrels chasing each other around the tree trunk. A mouse scurrying away with a fallen bit of feed corn. A small bunny gnawing a dandelion. This is not the same bunny that inhabited our yard before (I will never forget you, wherever you are, Wobble Bunny), yet our yard still has a bunny. The dead squirrel we found last week has been replaced by another squirrel happy to stake his claim. The players are different but the play is the same. This, in a nutshell, is life.
Loss is certain. Change is inexorable. Pain is compulsory. How we approach and what we take from these guarantees is a choice. My children are almost grown, and I can wallow in sadness about their impending departure or I can appreciate them now. People I love will move on. My hair will get thinner. Items I have lost may show up eventually or they may not. But squandering time perseverating about the loss of people or belongings I could never stake claim to in the first place is useless. I am going to practice appreciating life and its players now. So, I am going to close up my computer, drag my sons out of their basement cave, and take them outside to appreciate the carousel of revolving life in our yard because the only loss I can avoid is a wasted opportunity to own the fullness of this moment just as it is.
I took this photo today because I noticed the light and shadow and angles and reflections in the doorway as I walked to my bedroom. There was something elegant in the simplicity of it all. I love how the sun works her magic. Plants grow. Fabrics and paint fade. People like me burn, while others tan. She shines and in her wake leaves reflections on water and shadows around items that would dare get in her way. I never tire of noticing the ways she makes her presence known. Today was no different. There she was, sneaking through the narrow opening in the doorway. She paid no heed to the imposing darkness of the interior hallway. She would not be silenced. Her audacity is inspirational.
There’s another reason that doorway spoke to me through my camera today. It’s a metaphor for my life lately. I’ve come to a point where I am seeking clarity and lightness. I’ve squandered enough energy on tasks that didn’t matter, people who took me for granted, and paths that led nowhere. Maybe this is coming now because Mercury has recently come out of retrograde? Or maybe I am tired of a year spent living with tasks but no goals? While I am not sure what is causing my fervent need for change and direction at this early point in the new year, it feels long overdue. I am sick of the status quo. I’m finished boring myself. I’ve been a real yawner.
Now that I reflect on it, I’ve been a bit like my dog…standing by the sliding door waiting to be let out, but not quite being sure about crossing the threshold once it was opened. Perhaps someone should have yelled an impatient “In or out already!” at me months ago. It might have helped. Today, though, I stood in the hallway and saw the sunlight coming through the doorway and made my decision. I want out. I’m not exactly sure what that means yet, but there will be changes. There will be some cuts in my line up, some trades for better players, and a few acquisitions to round out the roster, but I’m ready to put something meaningful and real together.
Yep. It’s time to fish or cut bait, and I think I’d like to fish and see what I can reel in this year.
We spent most of our weekend cleaning out the home we lived, loved, laughed, and lazed in for thirteen years as we witnessed the growth of our young boys. The home lists for sale this week. I like to think of myself as a thinker more than a feeler, a pragmatic philosopher and not an emotional romantic. I am, after all, the self-proclaimed Queen of Rationalization. But everywhere I looked in that house this weekend I saw the breadth and depth of a time in my life that I sped through, head down, focused on the step in front of me like a marathon runner on Mile 20, telling myself I could get through if I just kept moving forward. All the moments, all the memories crept back in as I tried to harden my heart and make conscious decisions about what to pack and what to deposit in the gargantuan roll-off in the driveway. In a word, it was, well, suck. There was an overwhelming, unwelcome deluge of emotion. And it kind of pissed me off because, Christ, dislodging over thirteen years of your life isn’t difficult enough without tears weakening the brown paper boxes you need to move? As I worked, my head tried to distract my heart. It’s good to clear through all this junk. We’re lucky to be doing this consciously and over time. We were long overdue for a cleanse. And this slow, intentional adjustment has been good for the boys. They are so happy in and committed to their new habitat. Still, the goddam tears welled and I cursed while I imagined Luke lying on the kitchen counter under a tanning bed of bilirubin lights, Joe sculpting his own sandbox Pangea in the backyard for his plastic dinosaurs, Steve sprawled on the basement carpet causing “stormy seas” for the young sons who were passengers in his imaginary boat, and me sitting on the back patio on a spring day with a coffee and a constant soundtrack of meadowlark songs. This is suck.
Towards the end of the day yesterday, Steve brought me a box. This particular box had been sitting on a shelf in his office for six years. The box contained the ashes of our sweet Lab/Springer mix, Buddy. I’d like to say we’d held onto the box and his ashes out of a soft-hearted inability to let him go, but the truth is we’d always planned to release him back onto the open space where he occasionally stole an afternoon frolic by jumping our fence, an act that left me in a pickle with toddlers in the house and a dog too far away to capture with a shout. Time got away from us. We never seemed to find the perfect moment. It was too cold, too muddy, or the concern over rattlesnakes was too great. Or we were just too damn busy. And so Buddy languished in a plain, wooden box for years, buried only in good intentions. Yesterday, as the acknowledgment of limited time in this space surrounded us, we decided it was time to say goodbye and set him free at last.
So, on a cloudy, cool, dry day (devoid of snake business), with the exhaustion of moving and daylight savings time mellowing us out, the four of us hiked out onto the open space a ways behind our house, found a lone yucca plant that looked like a spot where Buddy may have once relieved himself, and said our final goodbyes. I watched as the lighter ashes swirled and drifted in wind, the heavier remnants of his bones spilling onto the soil. It brought me a beautiful peace in the midst of all my sadness, a sense of closure not just to our time with Buddy but also to our time in this house that holds so many of our memories. While I intellectually appreciate the idea of ripping the band aid off wounds quickly, I guess I have always been more of a slow, painful band aid puller, someone whose penchant for overthinking causes long-lived and painful goodbyes that I suffer without a peep, wearing a poker face and telling anyone who inquires that I am fine.
We all grieve in our own way. We spent years mentally preparing our sons for this change. They have at times over the past few months expressed their sadness about leaving. We’ve made sure to let them know that sadness is to be expected. We’ve talked as a family about the last memories we would like to make in our old home. All the while, we’ve been pointing our noses in the direction of our new home, creating a space we love and can fill with new hopes, dreams, and memories. There have been times when I wondered if all this dragging on was a wise choice, but after our memorial service yesterday I no longer doubt our decision. We’ve had the perfect amount of time to make our peace with change and to allow our hearts to grieve and to grow. We are ready to say goodbye. And while there certainly will be tears shed in our last few hours in our old house, it is now our old house. Let’s hope it sells for a lot of money. I could really use a trip to Maui!
My sister and her husband have been house hunting. They sold their house last month and need a new one. In a week. They’ve done a lot of looking, put in some offers that didn’t go through, and they’re about to be homeless. (Not that they’ll be living in a van down by the river or anything. Instead, they’ll be moving back in with parents. I think I’d take the van down by the river.) I’ve gone to look at some houses with them and even proffered my sage wisdom about the homes they are looking at, and they are still undecided. Tonight, my family and I went with them to look at a house I accidentally found for them yesterday while driving to pick up lunch for the boys. It is a small, but beautifully restored mid-century modern home. It’s affordably priced, has a two-car garage, and it is like getting a perfectly wrapped package with your favorite gift ever inside. Not that I have any opinion on mid-century modern homes or whether they should buy this one. (They should.)
My sister was a bit iffy about the whole thing. She’s concerned about the lack of decent storage and not thrilled that it’s only two bedrooms. (She wants a guest room. Seriously, though, everyone in their families lives in the same city. Why do they need a guest room?) I think my brother-in-law, who was not present because he’s a coach and was working a high school track meet, would love it. It might not be their forever home, but I totally think they could make it work for a while. And, it’s a perfect situation because it was a house flip and they seller needs the money and they could move in fairly quickly because no one is living in it.
While my sister was unconvinced, my husband loved it and was trying to figure out if we could push a wall out and put an addition on. He was ready to move in. We’ve been talking for a while about downsizing. We’ve got too much stuff, and our stuff is vexing us. I feel the unused “company” dishes throwing shade at me every time I open the cupboard. We want to lighten our load, save money, and travel a lot more. This house would be too much of a downsize for us. We’d lose 2/3rds of our current space. That would be one heck of a downsize. If we’re going to go that small, we should just sell our house, buy the Airstream he’s already wanted, and travel the country while homeschooling our boys at picnic tables like gypsies.
“I think it’s too small,” I said, trying to reason with him.
“We could make it work. It would be an adjustment.”
“The boys cannot share a room. Sure they’re small and cute now, but they’re on the precipice of becoming real teenagers. They’re not going to fit on that bunk bed forever.”
“That’s why we’d push that wall out and make another bedroom.”
“Steve, we are not getting this house,” I said very slowly and clearly, in case he wasn’t hearing very well.
“Okay,” he replied, sullenly. Then I saw him perk up. He’d had a brilliant idea. “We could build our own mid-century modern house.”
This is the point where I looked at him like he was crazy.
“You can’t build a mid-century modern house now. By definition, that’s impossible. Mid-century moderns were built in the 1950s. That’s what made them mid-century.” You never, ever miss with a writer. Words matter.
“You know what I mean,” he replied. “We could build a house like a mid-century modern.”
This is the point where I looked at him like perhaps he’d gone past crazy and straight over the cuckoo’s nest.
“Dude…that would be like repainting the Mona Lisa. It can’t be done.”
He just looked at me and got in the car. I guess I told him.
This is our marriage in a nutshell…my husband, the eternal optimist, and me, the perpetual pragmatist. Someone’s got to keep him grounded, and someone has to remind me to lighten up and dream a little. Nineteen years and we’re still dancing the same waltz. We are planning to move in the next couple years. We’d like to reduce our carbon footprint and go from living large to living less. It’s time to jettison things, like panini machines that collect dust, and lighten our burdens. I don’t know if we’ll build the straw bale house he’s talked about forever or end up in a classic mid-century modern, but we’ll get it figured out. We’ve made the biggest decisions of our lives in minutes. Just don’t ask us what we want for dinner. That’s when things get really ugly.
The first quote my sister messaged me from Bunny Buddhism was this one about carrots.
The carrot may be eaten, but it is never completely gone.
Now, in terms of Buddhism-themed quotes, this one was admittedly not one that grabbed my attention immediately. It’s a bit abstract and not as easily applicable to my life as some of the others, so it was not one of the ones I marked. Still…as a first impression it was good enough. I knew I would buy the book because, holy cow, it’s bunny Buddhism. What could possibly be cuter than that? Penguins wearing knit sweaters? Babies and puppies napping together? The only thing I had previously experienced that was nearly that darling was the lawyer our son Luke told us he’d hired, Harry Flufferpants, Esq. And you have to admit that a teacup Pomeranian wearing a black, satin top hat and monocle and sporting a distinguished handlebar mustache comes pretty dang close to deep thoughts about bunniness.
Still…this particular bunny quote threw me, perhaps because I’m nothing if not pragmatic and I could not see the immediate wisdom here. I mean, let’s face it. If you consume a carrot, it is gone. Gone into the depths of your acid-machine stomach where it will in fact cease to exist in its current state. It will emerge later, but it’s not going to be recognizable and you’re not going to want to stop to reflect on it. Or at least I hope you’re not.
So what exactly is the meaning of this quote? Although I’ve been sitting and reflecting on it for a while now, I am stymied. When I apply it to a life experience, like travel, I can make some sense of it. You take a trip and it ends, but the memory of that trip is never gone. You could also apply it to a person. You know a person and they leave you, but they’re never completely gone from your mind. Is that the lens through which you need to examine this widom? Perhaps the author was thinking of my husband who has an incredible memory for meals in obscure restaurants decades ago in foreign countries and would never forget an eaten carrot (even if he can’t seem to remember that I asked him to pick up carrots at the grocery store)? I’m drawing a blank on this one, and it’s vexing me. I never studied philosophy or religion, so I have nothing to go on. And I really hate feeling obtuse.
As I was searching for an answer to this mental puzzle, though, I found this quote that might help.
The wise bunny becomes wise by asking what he does not know.
You know how you know something is happening, but you don’t really see it until you have photographic proof? This happens to me a lot with weight gain. I feel okay about putting on that extra ten pounds until someone catches a shot of me at the dinner table at Christmas and suddenly I’m thinking, “Whoa…wait a minute. What happened here?” as if I am shocked and hadn’t actually noticed that my pants haven’t been fitting lately. Well, today, my sister took a family photo for us at the corn maze we were at with our boys. As I was going over the photos again just a few minutes ago, I was shocked to find that my oldest son is now tall enough that the top of his head reaches my shoulders. I looked at the photo a few times to verify this. Then I called for a second opinion.
“Steve…I think Joe has grown. He’s almost up to my shoulders,” I told him.
“Yep. He sure is,” was all he said. I’m sure he was thinking I was a complete numbskull for not having noticed this before.
“When did this happen?” I asked.
“It’s been happening,” he said. “You haven’t noticed?”
“Well, yeah. I mean, I knew he was getting bigger but I guess I hadn’t realized how much bigger. Someday he might actually be taller than me,” I said.
“Let’s hope so,” he replied.
“Do you think he’ll get facial hair too,” I asked.
“If he’s lucky, he’ll even get more of it than me,” he quipped.
“You know…when I said I was okay that they were growing up, I wasn’t really focusing on this part of the actual growth process. I’m not prepared for them to go through puberty, start shaving, and lock themselves in their bedroom for private time. I don’t want their cute little voices to change. How will I know they’re still my babies when that happens?”
My darling husband looked at me as if I’m a loon which, let’s face it, I am.
“Let me see the photo,” he said. Then he peered at my laptop. “Huh. I don’t think I’m that much taller than you either,” he continued, clearly thinking something was amiss with the photo.
“You’re six inches taller than me,” I informed him. How can he not know this stuff?
“Are you sure you’re not standing in a hole?” he asked.
“What kind of crater-like hole I would I be standing in while in a flat corn maze? Maybe it wasn’t me at all? Maybe you were standing on a hill?” I shot back.
“I’m just saying that maybe he’s not really quite as tall as he looks in the photo,” he continued while ignoring my snarky attitude.
Joe’s in bed right now, and he’s actually sleeping and not just watching My Little Pony on his iPad. (Oops. Wasn’t supposed to mention that my 11 year old son is currently enjoying watching that show on Netflix because that tidbit might embarrass him. Oh, paybacks. How I love thee.) It would be counter-productive to wake him up and ask him to stand next to me so we could measure his height. At his last physical, though, he was measured at just over 54″ tall. I like to say I’m 65″ tall, but I fudge that number by at least half an inch, maybe more. All of this means that it’s completely possible that he is shoulder height to me. When did this happen? Just three years ago, he was teeny.
It’s funny how sometimes it takes photographic evidence to convince us that time is marching on and our children are growing up despite our best wishes. We go from day to day in such a dizzying rush, trapped in the now of running here and there, and we truly can’t see the forest for the trees. My boys are growing up. And, although I know that as they inch higher and higher in grade school, it’s not the same as seeing them standing up to my shoulder in a photo. It’s not real until I try to pick up Joe and find it to be an incredible struggle now that he’s finally 70 pounds. I guess it’s easier to float along as a parent, just swimming in denial. Damn you, George Eastmann for pioneering celluloid film and the Brownie camera that led us down this slippery slope into a world where our images are continually being captured. It’s a lot more difficult to live in oblivion when you’re staring at the proof.