Intensely Passionate and Passionately Intense

112Yesterday, tears sprang to my eyes when I caught my younger son’s profile. He’s days from being twelve, and it’s a rare day that I don’t wipe a tear while glancing at the curve of his still-childlike cheeks or while sneaking an illicit sniff of his not-yet-teen neck. It’s intoxicating, his last months or (oh, please!) years of childhood. I savor each snuggle as if it is possibly the last for at least a while. (Because as the mom of a 16-year-old, I know that one will be the last, or at least the last before they become as rare as an uninterrupted phone call.)

Yesterday’s tears were the norm for me. No, I’m not depressed. The existential angst that hovered so close in the winter blew away by April. Now washed in the warmth of summer, I tend to see the world in less dark, foreboding terms, and hope becomes a closer companion. But still, the tears spring forth at their own whim. It’s not depression. Sometimes it is sadness, sometimes joy, sometimes just the rush of emotion that comes with change. It’s a bit unpredictable and sometimes unnerving. And it is wholly me.

When describing me to one of his friends, my dear friend referred to me as intense. Whether the raised eyebrow was seen or simply heard through the silence on the phone, I don’t recall, but he has since switched to the adjective ‘passionate,’ which seems to be taken by others as ‘intense, but in a good way.’ My mother’s word for it was ‘dramatic,’ although I imagine many parents of girls say that at some point or another. And while it wasn’t the word used in my youth about me, I’d add ‘sensitive’ to the list.  I just can’t recall a time where I didn’t feel like every nerve was exposed.

Intense. Passionate. Sensitive. The interior life behind what can sometimes be a jarring outer appearance is simply what I’ve had from the start. Having children brought it up a notch. Transitioning to parenting and homeschooling solo amped it up a bit more. (I am chronically overwhelmed by the amazing responsibility of shepherding my young.) Being in the forty-somethings kicked it all a bit higher.

But the baseline was high. As a child, I found my emotions and imagination often overcoming me. Send to my room for a relatively minor offense (Okay, talking back. My mouth has always been my nemesis.), I’d work myself to frantic tears, sure I was unloved and unwanted and terribly misunderstood, despite no objective evidence to back that up. Dramatic? Perhaps on the outside. But the interior experience was excruciatingly painful.

By my teens, my intensity centered around debate with others outside of my home. Perhaps it’s unnecessary to add that this habit of defending my position with vigor and passion was not always well appreciated by others. And honestly, I didn’t do it well. It likely cost me some friendships while cooling some others.

Come graduate school, I found I could sink some of that energy into my studies. Since then, academics and facts have proved refuge when the emotional temperature rises too high. I don’t mean I escape the tears that threaten to fall when queen anne’s lace waves in a field, taking me back to summer camp by looking up statistics on the spread of this year’s flu epidemic. I mean, that wouldn’t help. But in general, having an object of intense intellectual pursuit — writing, teaching, medicine, whatever — somehow brings me some overarching peace. I know that when I’m floundering — when I’m not focused on something larger — I find far more tears and emotional wanderings at the small stuff.

115So I anchor my passion in passion, find a bit of respite from my intensity in intensely pursing something else. Ironic? Perhaps. Escapism? No. Even fully focused, or at least as fully focused homeschooling mom working a few jobs and flying solo can be, my emotions spring up without bidding and often when inconvenient. But there is some tempering effect to being strongly mentally engaged.

I’ve also become better at weathering the emotions and intensity. As a child and even into adulthood, those tugs at the heart could be all-consuming, and trying to fight them only made them stronger. Only in the past handful of years have I learned to accept these intensities as legitimate and even positive parts of me. On the emotional end, that means letting the feeling come and fully acknowledging it. I name it. Fear. Love. Sadness. Joy. Hope. Hope dashed. Whatever it is, naming it starts me down a better road, for fighting the feelings (and tears) rarely helps and often makes me feel powerless and weak.

After naming it, I do best when I just let it flow. It generally passes on its own in short time when unimpeded by my clumsy attempts to stop a waterfall of emotion with my bare hands. I try not to judge it. Tearing up at a tender moment on The West Wing? Let it go. My son’s unlikely to notice, and if he does, he’s likely to just remember that mom does that sometimes. Angst building after an encounter with my ex? Naming the anger starts me down a better path than trying to pretend all is well. My desire to lash out with my too-sharp tongue wanes quickly when I can just remind myself that anger in itself never killed the one who was angry.

It’s helped to be walking closely with a dear friend with a deep emotional life and a naturally calm exterior. While the strength and height of my reactions may surprise him at times, he knows what it is to feel deeply and accepts my innate intensity, tears and all. I’m not sure the tenderness between us lightens my emotional load, however. My sensitivity and intensity have gained another nidus of focus. One more person to love adds a thousand more opportunities for unbidden tears of love, joy, wonder, sadness, and general intensity. It seems worth that price.

Given over forty years of intensity and passion rest behind me, I’m sure that whatever years remain will be paved with the same. I’d not change it if I could, despite the fatigue that level of intensity can bring, for it is in the intense passion of living and loving that I find my raison d’être. While I have my moments of less-than-graceful responses to the movements of my heart and mind, overall, I’m learning to live with my intensity, to form friendship with it even. It is a good part of what makes me feel intensely alive and reminds me of how deeply I can love. So I’m intensely passionate. Or passionately intense. And that’s okay.

Conflict Acceptance

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Oh, to land this gently during conflict, without sending petals dropping to the ground but yet having spoken my heart.

I’m a bit conflict-avoidant. Not avoidant of what I perceive as low-risk conflict. I rather enjoy debates about a host of issues and semantic questions. That’s mental stimulation that keeps me thinking and searching for more information while honing my argumentative skills. Not the hostile kind of argument. The persuasive sort requiring a blend of quick wit, precise vocabulary, and the ability to reason. Ethos, logos, and pathos. Those are the conflicts that feed by brain, hone my debate skills, and stir my blood.

I don’t like the kind of conflict that makes me sweat, my heart race, and my stomach to flip. I doubt many people do, although I understand that some people like adrenaline rushes, like the kind that come from bungee jumping or climbing to the top of the monkey bars. Those rushes just make me feel sick. It’s not just the physiological effects of conflict bother me. It scares me and just doesn’t fit well with my general tendency to want people not to hate me or just not to talk about me with nasty words behind my back. Cowardly? Maybe.

But conflict happens. Sometimes it’s heat-of-the-moment conflict, the kind more likely to occur with the ones you love the most. In the perceived safety of family, it’s easy to behave badly. I know. I’ve done it. Today. And earlier this week. Other times, it’s conflict with a bit more distance, the kind that occurs over the meeting table at work or church or in an online discussion with friends or acquaintances.  It’s reasonable and even preferable to avoid the low-stakes squabbles that can open rifts in these communities or our own homes. But sometimes, introducing conflict — or even potential conflict — is necessary for growth, change, and even deeper love.

In my over forty years on this journey of life, I’ve been in conflict with more people than I care to count. Too many times, the conflict was a waste of emotion and time while being damaging to the relationship and to myself. Too often I’ve sacrificed my principles in the heat of a conflict-turned-argument (and not the fun kind). In no particular order, I’ve misassigned blame, name-called, brought up old wrongs,  argued from misunderstanding another, and committed a thousand other disagreement sins. Oh, I can go on and on and on… And every time — every single time — the process shreds me. The adrenaline that carried me through my diatribe leaves me sick and sad, shameful of my loss of control and ready to slink under a rock.

I do get it right sometimes. Most of the time, I can raise my concerns in a peaceful, productive way. I tend to forget about these non-events where I say what I need to say in a way that respects the other’s dignity and worth since they don’t leave me either giddy with success nor depleted and sick of my own voice. But they happen. And that’s where I’m stuck. Why does it work so well sometimes, my ability to enter conflict — or perceived conflict? Why other times does it utterly fail?

A recent explosion at someone I love set me thinking about this. Or more precisely, our conversation after my return to sanity set me thinking. It’s far to easy for me to ignore the build up to serious conflict. While I’m generally fairly emotionally attuned to others, I’m not always so attuned with my own heart. Conflict bothers me. Perceived conflict, genuine conflict, the idea of conflict. It all undoes me. So I’ve become pretty skilled at denying I’m starting to feel it. That works at times. Most differences, after all, don’t matter and don’t really need mentioning.

At some points, though, in some circumstances, it rushes up though, unbidden and unwelcome, surprising me and, likely, whomever is suddenly in the role of opponent. And I’m off. Now, this only happens with those to whom are closest to me, the very people I want least to be in conflict with. And that’s likely the key. I’d rather pass off those first nudges of irritation as misplaced since, after all, this is someone I love. How could I be irritated? Or more to the point, how could I ever tell them that I’m irritated?

When I explode at my children — the very people whom I love the most — it sometimes is borne out of this lack of awareness. More often, it’s borne out of fear. These are the beings whom I brought into the world, and they are my responsibility. While I’m not vain enough to think how they turn out is under my control, I’m also aware that what happens as they grow has at least something to do with how they are raised, and I’m the one doing the bulk of the raising. And educating. That all weighs heavily on my shoulders, especially as my older reaches for 16. What if I’ve done it wrong? How many poor choices did I make? Why didn’t I do this…or not do that? And in that questioning whirling upstairs, something small can suddenly seem very big. Fear over the future and my own competence can make a normal tween or teen issue loom large. Kaboom.

If awareness if the first step, I’ve been standing on it firmly for a while. The next is increasing my awareness of that building of tension, the feeling I push down because it isn’t an “appropriate” feeling. My dear friend reminds me that, in any relationship, conflict is inevitable. We are just simply too different from each other to avoid it. Well, that blows my first choice — just ignoring those differences or trying to accommodate them all on my own. It seems a wiser path would be acknowledging those issues earlier. Rats.

Despite my disappointment about the inevitability of conflict between humans with differing minds and hearts, I know he’s right. Even when I don’t enter a conflict, I’m dragged down by the unpleasant sensation of feeling upset about a situation while feeling that I’m a rat of a friend/coworker/relative for just having the feeling. While I’m often called assertive, I find it hard to be so in these close situations, at least when I feel out of sorts about something between me and the other. I’ve committed to trying, and while its unlikely anyone will burst into flames if I raise a small concern, the whole idea of disagreeing about something personal that matters brings a sheen to my forehead.

And so I’ll try. I doubt I’m alone in my desire to avoid gut-wrenching (or just briefly awkward) conflict, and I’d love to hear with others about how they manage this with aplomb and peace, or just without wanting take to bed. And if you’re avoiding and exploding too, share that. I’d like to know I’m not alone in that less-than-healthy trend. And if we disagree? Hey, I hear that’s just what happens sometimes. I’m sure we can handle it.

Namaste

Responding to Osama bin Laden’s Death/Wrath and Patience (Vice and Virtue Series, Part 5)

Having retired early Sunday evening, I met the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on Monday morning.  A day late, I scanned the online edition of the New York Times, skimming for details, before clicking through to the video of Obama’s Sunday night announcement.

I’m sure he said what he was supposed to say.  I’m sure ending by invoking God’s protection of our human-created country is the politically correct way for the president of our country to respond.  Whatever one calls what is beyond the individual (God, Allah, Jehovah, Goddess, Ground of Being, or humanity), I don’t think that being blesses any one transient, human-created, humanity-dividing nation.  Especially when that nation is rejoicing the death of other humans.  Even when the target committed atrocious acts.

All that came to mind at that moment was Sunday’s sermon:  Wrath and Patience.  Wrath isn’t anger.  Anger is a feeling, a passing feeling, as is sadness, happiness, disappointment, worry, and a host of others.  If we pay attention to it or egg it on, it stays and grows.  Anger is a normal human response.  We all experience it, some of us more than others.  Anger, on its own, hurts no one.  It’s all in what we do with it.  Breathe through it, acknowledging the feeling and addressing appropriate internal and external triggers, and it goes away on its own.  Really.

Nurture it, feed it with thoughts and energy, call it righteous  and let it rule you, and anger can turn to wrath.  Wrath is the vice, not anger.  According Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, wrath is :

1
: strong vengeful anger or indignation
2
: retributory punishment for an offense or a crime : divine chastisement
Wrath is rage, often turned outward.  Wrath takes the feeling of anger and gives it the power to destroy ourselves and others, psychologically or physically.
I’ve experience wrath more times than I can remember.  Generally, the pattern is thus:  I sense a threat to my security from someone close to me, feel anger rising out of fear (of loss of control of a situation, of being misunderstood, or whatever.  I’m mad.).  I have a choice.  Either count to 10 or 100, breathing, letting the strong feeling pass into the ether with all other feelings or let it build.  Let’s say I take the latter.  I’m excessively verbal by nature, but when angry, my words can become more prolific and more biting.  The more I go on, well, the more I go on.  And on.  Ask my ex.  Ask my family.  They know all too well.
Somewhere along the line, anger morphs into wrath.  I’m indignant and everyone is going to get an earful.  My victims would say that my tirade is retribution enough to count as wrath, and they’d likely be right.  Caught up in my own selfish righteousness, I ride my own hot air.  It’s not pleasant.
The aftermath, for me, is remorse.  In particularly challenging situations (the ones that threaten my sense of self and security the most)are the ones where that wrath may cool and return at the least provocation, followed again by remorse.  It’s rather embarrassing to admit that pattern, but I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one to whom this occurs.  (An “amen” here would be quite comforting.)
Back to the killing of Osama bin Laden (and plenty of others along the way to him).  I’ll not debate the right or wrong of killing a killer here.  I’m a pacifist by nature and upbringing, but that’s not the point.  It’s not his death that shook me.  It was the response of the people, Americans, to that death.  The cheers and celebrations on the news in the restaurant we patronized last night.  The language used by reporter and our president himself:  “Indeed, al Qaeda slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries including our own. So his demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”
That’s wrath.  Welcoming the death of another, regardless of his or her crimes, is an expression of wrath.  Wrath is a vice.  It doesn’t bring us closer to unconditional love.  It doesn’t bind us together, not out of love, anyway.
I knew no one who died on September 11, 2001.  I mourned with the nation while I held my infant in my arms, wondering what kind of world would there be for my son and his older brother.  As I rocked and nursed my small one, I watched the news as we bombed Afghanistan and sought out bin Laden.  I felt sorrow, fear, and uncertainty.  I felt confusion and despair.  And I felt angry.  Some of that anger was directed at the organizations that shape young people into killers and veil it in the name of any deity.  Some was reserved for my own country and the destruction we wrought upon an already poor and suffering nation in the name of justice and retribution.   But wrath?  No.
Wrath’s corresponding virtue is patience.  Patience with ourselves, that the anger we feel welling within us and threatening to boil over is transient, if we ride the wave and let it pass.  Patience with nonviolent responses on violent actions, reminding ourselves that nonviolence has a powerful history of making change.  Patience with the wrath of others, knowing how quickly we all can travel from feeling of anger to the irreversible and damaging actions of wrath.
So that’s where I am.  I’ve allowed my initial anger with the enthusiasm so many Americans expressed upon the announcement of bin Laden’s death.   So, too, has passed my anger with Obama’s response.   All that remains is patience for peace.

Only a Dream

I woke up well before my alarm this morning, heart pounding and mad as hell.  Barely alert enough to realize the dream I’d just left was just a dream, I began to chew over my anger, nursing it along and working to get back to the dream and the person who had infuriated me.  A half hour later, when my alarm ended my mixed dream/awake state, I was still furious.  Even after a shower, my mood had hardly shifted, which was rather disturbing.  By the time I left for work, my anger was a shadow, and by the ride home, I could barely remember the dream itself, much less muster any strong emotions that I’d held tenaciously just 6 hours earlier.  Upon trying to recount the dream and subsequent anger to a friend, I was left bumbling around with the fuzzy thoughts dreams usually leave and the frustration that what made so much sense at the time is nearly impossible to retell now.

During that powerful yet completely useless emotional episode, I had a realization.  Over the years, I’ve grown to understand that our emotions about people and situations spring from our often limited and always biased understanding of a situation.  Being painfully human and limited thus, our perception of an event is only that: our perception.

In this lateral view, the cerebral cortex is the outer folds. The limbic region is in the center. It can be hard to bridge those few inches.

In this lateral view, the cerebral cortex is the outer folds. The limbic region is in the center. It can be hard to bridge those few inches.

It’s not the truth.

It’s not the whole story.

It is, at best, like looking through a telescope at the night sky.  That single magnified circle is hardly the entire heavens.

But it’s easy, comfortable, and natural to assume that what I see is the omniscient view of the situation.  Sure, in my rational part of the brain (which is silenced as soon as a strong emotion comes along), I know my view of a situation is limited. In the middle of the tempest of my fury, however, that rational part of my brain is difficult to access.  When that emotion-generating limbic system is activated, we have to force ourselves to use the thinking cerebral cortex. Simply put, it takes effort, practice, and training to think when angry.

So anger management is a two-part process. One must override the lure of the limbic system and return to the thinking cortex and then use that cortex to remember that one’s view of the situation is just that — one view.  Simple? Not for me, but it gets more doable the older I get and the more I practice.  Let’s assume that I’ve (at least some of the time) mastered returning to my thinking brain when my anger flairs.  I have two choices then:  stew mentally about why I’m justified to be so angry or back up and remember there is always more to the other person and situation than apparent from my viewpoint.  It’s not hard to do the first, but the second takes far more mental will-power and tenacity.

Since I no longer have a domestic partner with whom to be angry (they are such a convenient source of limbic activation), I find my anger usually directed at my kids.  I don’t go around yelling and furious all day long or anything close, but they’re the ones I see much of the day, and we all have a tendency to vent onto each other.  Let’s take a, well, hypothetical example.  Let’s say a child fails to complete an assignment.  Again.  Let’s say instead of getting to that assignment like fur on a bunny that he’s leafing through a Star Wars book/comic/website.  Again.  Let’s say his other work has been, to be generous, less than focused that day.  And wasn’t any better the three days before.  Let’s top it off with a mom who worries that if her son continues to behave like typical 13.9-year-old boy instead or morphing into a mythical 13.9-year-old crazy-about-schoolwork kid that he’ll live in her house until he’s 37.

Through mom’s eyes, her son is slacking again, defying her instructions, wasting time on meaningless drivel, lolling about, and doesn’t he smell kinda ripe?

“Did you finish your essay on Handel?” she asks, knowing full well he hasn’t.

“Oh.  No.  What was I supposed to do?  I’ll get to it later,” says typical 13.9-year-old son, never looking up from his current preoccupation.

Mom’s limbic system goes nuts.  Anger rises, and along with it, her voice.  Maybe the word lazy slips out.  She goes on for a while, about opportunities missed in life, the importance of follow-through, how kids who don’t turn in Handel essays end up jobless, in the streets, or worse, in their mom’s basements forever.  Mom rants.  The boy looks dejected. Soon both are miserable.  The essay?  Still unwritten.

What went wrong?  Mom got mad because her son isn’t doing what she told him to do.  Is it justified to feel angry, disappointed, and, perhaps, a bit anxious about a pattern developing?  Perhaps.  Is mom justified in venting all that onto her son?  Perhaps not.  There’s at least one other side to their situation.  What’s up with the son?  Is he low on sleep?  Is he feeling down and out?  Is he unsure of what to do, despite multiple (but, to him, possibly vague) instructions?  Is he angry at something, avoiding the assignment in protest?  Is he afraid of doing a poor job on the essay?  Is he just a kid on the cusp of puberty completely focused internally?

Let’s back up the conversation.  Instead of yelling and accusing, mom asks (calmly) why the work isn’t done.  If her son is uncertain, she may list a few options, such as lack of understanding, worry, lack of interest.  After all, she’s not in his head and can only imagine what her 13.9-year-old might be thinking.  Sure, he’s not done what he was told to do.  That’s an indisputable fact, but mom can only dream what his motivations may be to have been noncompliant.  And dreaming up those motivations is what’s leading to most of the anger, not the non-compliance itself.

Most of that anger is based only on a dream, on imagined reasons for the problem.  Limited by our own limited perspective and hampered by our personal angst, expectations, and experiences, it is easy to react strongly to what see though our pinhole through which we view the world.  Ask some questions, and the pinhole widens.  Even acknowledge that the target of your angry feelings has his or her own angst, expectations, experiences and limited point of view and you have a better chance of  checking your anger before it leaks out your mouth.  So much of the drama we experience in our minds is the product of our rather active, wholly human imaginations.  Just like our dreams.

Blowing Up

The eruption of a galactic “super-volcano” in the massive galaxy M87, as witnessed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and NSF’s Very Large Array (VLA). Okay, I didn’t blow up that much. (Image is thanks to NASA’s Image Gallery)

I blew it.  Okay, I blow it fairly often, generally with those closest to me, my boys.  I love my children dearly and value our homeschooling time and life together beyond words, but all that closeness can lead to some less-than-ideal parenting if I’m not paying attention.   And I’ve certainly had not-so-kind words with my ex-husband, but that’s been generally smoother as well.  I’ll make no excuses for those transgressions of patience and compassion, but they’re not the focus of my disappointment in myself now.

I can count on one hand the times I’ve succumbed to using angry words against another adult (ex-spouse excluded), and yesterday I added one time to that total.  While I still think I can hold the total in my palm, it’s one more time than I want to have occurred.  I’ll not share the details here, but suffice it say I was off guard and feeling highly protective when the encounter occurred.  Again, those aren’t excuses.  I didn’t rant or rave, swear or curse, or act violently, but I didn’t speak with respect and compassion.  And I believe strongly in cultivating respect and compassion.

Yes, I followed my strong words with a written apology.  I’ve replayed the scene over and over in my mind, knowing the exact moment when I started to protect my ego and not my friend.   That’s where the problem started.  As soon as my speech was more about protecting that outer sense of self, the ego, I was no longer protecting a friend or acting out of love.  As soon as my words were made to sting rather than repair or even explain my position, I’d crossed from of being caring friend and to cranky, rude person.   I lost my center, simply put.  I lost touch with that connection with other humans, the connection that touches, in my view, the divine.

A psychologist I saw during the end of my marriage gave me some wise words about anger.  Anger, she explained, is based in fear of loss:  fear of loss of a person, a thing, or of control.  Since that conversation,  over two years ago, I’ve examined my anger and looked for where my fear of loss was. With the boys, it’s generally from my fear of loss of control of a situation.  Dealing with a child who causes delays, interrupts a call/book/thought/nap, or screams at me has led to my fear of loss of control of the situation.  I don’t generally have a desire to control my kids (I really have way too much to work on with myself to put effort into that, even if it were a good idea.), but I do find that sometimes I just want things how I want them, darn it.  When I can stay in the moment, drop my expectations, and just let go of the idea of having to control the moods of the people in the house, no anger occurs.  And, surprise, surprise, the child’s issue generally resolves quickly.  Hmm.

With adults, I generally don’t have the fear of loss.  I had plenty of that fear during my last few years of marriage, the separation, and divorce.  I feared loss of my spouse, of my home, of my ability to homeschool my boys, of my children’s well-being.   Some of that fear came out as tears and sorrow.  Some came out with angry words.  As time has progressed, I fear less, although I still occasionally feel anger flare when I fear for my kids’ emotional well-being.  But in my general dealings with adults, while I may be opinionated and vocal, I rarely have an angry exchange.  Perhaps I don’t perceive much to be at risk.  No fear of loss, no anger.   Perhaps I just can work through those fears more successfully.

So what happened yesterday?  I’ve thought at length about that and despaired plenty.  I can still touch the anger I felt, but finding the fear behind it has taken some effort.   Our exchange started without incident, but I know the moment my fear came up and bubbled out as anger, the point where I was no longer speaking out of compassion for my friend but out of fear voiced as anger.  Not fear of bodily harm, loss of possession, or anything tangible like that, but simple fear of loss of what I see as true.  Those of you who know me likely know I hold and voice some strong opinions (generally voiced with respect to those around me).  I tend to over-identify with being right, although I’m aware that being right is subjective most of the time. (My younger has tried to argue math problem answers with me.  In the math he’s doing, if you’re wrong, you’re wrong.  That’s a different post.)  It’s a bit of a personal pickle for me, and I know it can extend beyond the personal and bug others.  I work on it, sometimes with more success than other times.

But this time, I blew it.  I went from fear to anger in a breath.  I lost my focus on connection, compassion, and love and slipped into judgement and anger.  And while I can’t take it back, I can apologize, again, and start over again.  With my next breath, I can begin again, aware of my fear and anger.  Aware that they’re intense feelings.  Aware they’ll pass.    And hoping that the pain I caused another with my expression of anger can pass as well.

Backing Up

I love trimming my trees and bushes.  Mowing is satisfying although loses its pleasure come mid-July.  Dead-heading and trimming back spent blooms improves appearances for a while, and sweeping spiffs up the place in a flash.  But for pure gardening pleasure, nothing beats lopping off large, low-hanging branches from my crab apple, or thinning out my weigela bush, rose of Sharon, and lilac bushes. 

Enjoyable as the task is, I’m prone to over-zealous thinning and trimming.  Just removing a branch here and there to improve air circulation results in a one-sided crew-cut on occasion.  I’ll blame that trimming over-kill on the sheer joy of large branch removal.  There’s nothing like the satisfying snap of the trimmers or branch cutters.  I avoid the power tools because I’d likely bring a bush down to a stump in no time.  At least with hand tools, I’m more likely to avoid executing the plant.  Risk of maiming and deforming – still high.  Risk of plant annihilation – low.

Last week, as I set out to the back forty (feet) of my plot of land to plant basil, parsley, cucumbers, and turnips, I noticed shade.  Shade over the vegetable garden.  Shade that wasn’t over that garden last year.  I didn’t need to look far for the cause, since the branches of the nearby crab apple were just inches over my not-so-far-off-the-ground head and spreading far across my sun-needing veggies. 

I headed for the garage, returned with my long pruners, and went to work.  While the pruners won’t handle anything larger than one inch in diameter, that restriction merely  prevented me from completely removing the north side of the tree.  The branches fell all around (and on) me, up to 12 feet long and an inch in diameter, as I whacked at all my pruners could manage and as far up as my arms could reach.  Then I paused and looked down at the branches around my legs.  Whoa.  Time to back up.

Call it missing the tree for the branches, to mangle a cliché, but, in the past,  I’ve done enough damage with pruners and clippers to learn an important lesson.  Back up.  Look from a distance.  Examine your subject from many directions.  To omit this perspective leads to lilacs that flower on only one side for many, many years and rose of Sharon with an unnaturally thin region in one quadrant.  Pausing to back up, no matter how sure I am of being in the right in my trimming frenzy can prevent damage (ugly damage at that) to a perfectly healthy, vibrant specimen.

So perhaps you see where my metaphor is going (and if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know a metaphor is inevitable).  I argued with my older son today.  Sadly, this isn’t a new phenomena.  We’re all adjusting to changes in his father’s home and changes in my life, and he’s having a rough time of it all.  Awoken by him early today for a reason I deemed ridiculous coming from a teen, I grumbled loudly and started a lecture on interrupting (one of our big discussion points lately).   I’ve found thirteen to be a self-absorbed age, to put it quite kindly, and I’m fatigued of it, frankly.  Since he’s only been thirteen for two months, I’ve been assured there’s plenty more of this self-absorbtion to come, and this knowledge fatigues me more.

Lecturing away, unaware of how much trimming of his spirit I was doing, I found myself warming quickly to my subject stoking his already hot fire.  His anger has been intense lately, and I did nothing to cool the flames but instead fanned away.  He smoked and ranted; my lecture morphed to yelling.   Time to turn off the power tools and back up.  We took a few minutes to breathe.  I stopped cutting away at him, seeing the whole child and not just the parts blocking my sun and obstructing my planned path.  I saw his rapid growth in mind and emotion, the coming growth in his body.  Our voices dropped in pitch and volume, and with that, my anger melted and his subsided enough to talk rather than rage. 

Yes, I believe some trimming and shaping is necessary when raising our children.  I’ve no desire to remove his spirit or damage his soul, but as a parent responsible for this young being, I’m charged with teaching him how to conduct himself in ways that respects others and to cope with strong emotions.  I’m aware of my tendency to see the offending branch, reach for the pruners and hack  away at the bad habit or troublesome behavior without looking carefully from a safe emotional distance at the whole picture.  I’m usually able to step back, breathe, take that look before my words trim too vigorously.  As for the times when I stay too close for this bigger view, I’m grateful that children rebound so quickly, and, in my better moments, see my failings as chances to discuss what I’ve done wrong, hoping to teach him better ways of coping.

So I stepped back from the crab apple, taking in the whole tangled, overgrown, beautiful organism.  I walked around it, returned to look from beneath, seeing where branches cross, rubbing other branches raw and blocking air flow for the plant and light to my garden.  I’d done no damage with my trimming, thanks to my break for perspective and thought, but I’m far from done with the tree.  Bigger branches need removal if the tree’s to thrive, leaving room for sun to reach the growing vegetables nearby.  There’s room in the yard for both to exist. 

I like that tree, and I love my son.  I see where both need some gentle shaping in order to maximally grow without stepping on those around them, without choking off the air they each need.  And for each, I’m charged with guiding that process, always first remembering to back up, look from a distance, and to breathe.