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.

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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

One Rule to Bind Us

Poster available through Scarboro Missions.

I can’t recall when I first learned the Golden Rule, but I’m sure I’d heard it plenty by kindergarten.  I didn’t know it had a biblical basis until a bit later, and I was well into adulthood before I realized Christians hadn’t cornered the market with their primary rule of engagement:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:1).

It’s a fine rule, from preschool through old age.  It works in a variety of circumstances including, but not limited to, the sandbox, the schoolhouse, the home, the church, the workplace, Congress, and social media.  Its versatility is complemented by its clarity: if you like being treated with respect and kindness, treat others that way.  No caveats, no disclaimers.  The Golden Rule is elegant in its simplicity. Continue reading

Color Me Blue

The last month or so finds me a bit down.  Stressors are running high, and schedules are too tight.  Life’s just moving a bit too fast.  I’m not depressed: I’m sleeping, eating, and otherwise keeping up with all my obligations.  But I’m on the blue side now.   Not permanently so, but perceptibly off.

I have the crabby kind of  blues that wash from the blue one onto the family when care isn’t taken to build up the psychic levee system.  My  younger son calls me on this quite often. “Mom, just because you’re mad at (his brother, the IRS, the outside faucets that won’t release their hoses and will, I’m sure, cause hose bursting come a cold spell), doesn’t mean you should yell at us,” he declares.  He’s right.  And his blunt message generally hits its mark.  But despite my good intentions, my stresses often find their way through to my voice, which grows loud, pinched, with rather blunt messages that say more than need to be said.  And then repeats them. I hate that voice.  It’s not the voice I grew up hearing.  It’s not the voice I ever wanted to use as a mom.  Yes, I can plug the levee hole and shut up.  I can apologize and start again.  We’re together 24/5.5, and it’s inevitable that I won’t be soft-spoken every moment.  But I still despise it.

I have the weepy kind of blues that make my eyes leak at certain songs.  And the kind of blues that draw me to play those songs again and again, directing pent-up pain toward those tear ducts.  Sure, I could make other listening choices, but a sad song matches a sad mood, and that emotional matching releases a bunch of emotion.

I have the kind of blues that fit the rainy, cold days of November, which is a serious plus, since that’s what we have in Michigan now.  It would be a shame to waste May with a mood like this.  I’m no fool.  I know the longer nights and shorter days contribute to the blues, but like the music, the match of mood and weather work for me.

I have the kind of blues that evaporates with the presence of a laughing child and fades gently in the presence of friends.  The kind that is banished by love, hope, and joy, at least for a while. So I find time each day to make contact with those who care about me, who make me laugh, who listen with the heart.  Ah, so blissful to have so many places to turn with life seems so hard.

I have the kind of blues that run when I run.  Or, given this time of year, walk, rake, weed, sweep, vacuum, or otherwise move quickly.  A bit of a blue patch is great for my yard and home.  Bringing control to a controllable area of my life softens the blow that so much of life is necessarily uncontrollable. Anyway, my basement is clean and the leaves are raked.

I have the kind of blues that remind me that my life is generally fine.  My children are healthy, whole, and happy (usually).  Likewise, I’m healthy and whole.  And, when I stop to think about it, generally happy.  Really.  These blues are a blip, a passing period of time, a time that will likely come again, only to be worked through and passed through once more.

I have the kind of blues that lift when I feel a sense of focus and purpose.  Writing, even about being blue, banishes them, and not just for the brief time I’m writing.  Teaching my younger about verbal phrases, discussing math with my older, or working on a project for someone else also whisks them away.  Any creative work expunges the sadness, at least for awhile.

So I write.  I knit.  I rake and clean.  I laugh with my children, and I apologize when I need to. I cry to sad songs,  and I reach out to friends who care.

Yeah, I’m a bit blue.  Like the seasons, moods  — happy and otherwise –come and go, and I’m certain this one will do the same.

 

Transition Lenses

Truth be told, I don’t transition easily.  That’s no shock to my friends and likely explains a bit for my acquaintances and meeting cohorts, but somehow, my reaction to shifts in routine, location, or even the weather still catches me by surprise.

This time, I’m just a few hours back from a fine three days away with my One Good Friend (main squeeze, significant other, whatever).  Three days of hiking through the woods and fields of the middle of southern Michigan, canoeing on the Kalamazoo river, eating meals neither of us had cook, and enjoying general companionship with one of my favorite adults.  While the trip relaxed and renewed me, by the last day, I was itching to write.  While we delightfully drew out the last day, taking the long way home to hike Hidden Lake Gardens and stalled the journey’s end with a meal just minutes from home, I was eagerly anticipating an evening alone at home before my boys return tomorrow morning.  I had it all planned out.  I’d unpack enough to throw a deserving load of laundry in, read through the mail, check for phone messages, and settle into write.  An impromptu trip to a small publishing company in Marshall reignited my book-writing fire, and sleep had challenged me the previous two nights as I tried to recall my outline for my book, a list written last summer and revisited since only by accident when shuffling through my files.  With a few chores out of the way and a full stomach, what barriers between me and writing could arise?

Me.  That’s the barrier.  Not the house.  Not the return to responsibility.  Not the shift from half of a duo to all of a solo.  Just my general difficulty moving from one mindset to another.  New shoes?  I need several days or more to adjust.  Expecting oatmeal for breakfast and find the canister empty?  Briefly consider a run to the store, ruminate about toast, and eventually make do.  My ex-husband has to swap a planned night with the kids for another night?    Silence.  Long silence.  Perhaps a verbal pause or so, all the while mind whirling and readjusting expectations, with (generally) calm acquiescence.   While I handle transitions far better now than even ten years back, I still find they leave me stunned, either speechless or overflowing with (generally the wrong words).

A few years back, my older son, tired of bright sun in his eyes during soccer games, tried those lenses that transition from sunglass-like in the daylight to almost clear glass inside.  Data indicated that they’d shift in a minute, making for visual comfort in no time at all, no matter what the lighting.  My son was excited, at least initially.  It turns out a minute is a long time when you walk into a dimly lit house after being out in the sun.  It turns out to be too long, at least for my then 11-year old son, who ditched the transitioning lenses for good-old clear polycarbonate at his next annual exam.  Seems the transition time just didn’t work for him.

My brain often feels like those glasses when a sudden change occurs.  I knew that the move from vacation to home would be rough.  I knew I’d likely feel at loose ends and a bit lonely after several days of companionship.  I planned accordingly, parsing out chores and writing, planning for a glass of wine at 7 or so, with a snack at 9.  Surely, with all that planning, the transition would be barely noticeable.

Upon arriving home, I stalled my reentry a bit longer, chatting with a neighbor for a while before even opening my front door.  Once she returned to her gardening, I unpacked the car, cleaning up a bit as I went.  Since that process was surprisingly swift without two boys to prod along, I quickly moved to laundry and guinea pig care before settling down to write.

But my mind went silent, dark as could be.  The stillness I’d sought quickly became unbearable.  Unwilling or unable to let my emotions and thoughts adjust, I read email, surfed Facebook, checked my voicemail, and generally fidgeted in body and mind, fighting the angst.  No luck.  My tension continued to mount, and I continued to fight.  I was furious and took myself to task.  I’d been eagerly anticipating this time without child or One Good Friend to start work on a writing project (at best) or to blog (not a bad choice either).  I’d spent two days with my mind flooding with ideas and energy, and here was my chance.  And I was blowing it.

But I was sad and lost.   A bit lonely, even. And simply out of sorts, dark lenses in a dark house.

When I could acknowledge that pain, the tears came.  Not the long, jagged tears soul-wrenching events evoke, but just some sad tears to honor change.  I also messaged a few friends, sharing a bit of my sorrow and quickly moving on to other subjects.  Before long, the lenses had cleared, just a hint of tint from my trip remaining, enough to remind me and bring a smile.

Like my younger son (although to a lesser degree), change challenges me, stalls me out or induces stonewalling and anger.  Sometimes, that emotion flies out.  Often it turns in, tying me up in knots until I face it and allow it simply to be.  Disapproving of my feelings during my transition today didn’t alter the feeling.  Acknowledging it, sharing it, and letting it pass on its own did.   I’m not ever likely to be free-wheeling and easygoing with transitions, and that’s okay.  Just honoring that part of me makes all the difference and makes that transition time less distressing.

 

 

 

 

Planning for the transition didn’t ease the transition at all

 

It’s Life and Death

Woodstock, the early years

By all accounts, today has been unusual.  It’s also been a bit hard on the heart, too.  This morning, the boys and I were surprised to find Woodstock, our six-year-old guinea pig, dead. Now, six years is a respectable lifetime for a guinea pig, who have a life expectancy of six to eight years, but his death was a bit of a shock.  Somehow, I assumed Alfie, his older cagemate, who is about seven-and-a-half, would go before Woodstock.  And, given the slow demise of a gerbil a few years back, requiring a trip to the vet for euthanasia when his suffering became obvious, I guess I expected death after at least a brief illness.  Coming to the cage and finding him dead never crossed my mind.

Woodstock was my first furry pet.  As a kid, I’d had two goldfish, each named Goldie, and a cricket, named Arthur.  I can’t recall my reaction to the death of each Goldie, but I do know I wept bitterly at the loss of Arthur, which occurred three weeks after his capture from the wild and imprisonment in my room.  Allergies (mine and my dad’s) and an aversion to pets to care for (mom’s) made all non-aquatic or insect pets out of the question.  So aside from the occasional weekend caring for a class gerbil or hamster, furry pets (or any pet interested in a relationship with humans) was out of the question.  The first mammals in my care were my children.  When I’d kept them alive until the sturdy ages of seven and three, they hit me up for a pet.

“How about a fish?” I countered.

My older firmly informed me that fish were not real pets.  You couldn’t hold them, at least not more than once.  No, he asserted, he wanted a pet with fur.  A real pet.

So we reviewed our options.  Dogs and cats were out.  I was allergic to both, and that was far more care and committment than I was up for.  Rabbits?  Allergic to them as well.  Dreadfully.  Mice?  Too micey.  Gerbils?  Too much like mice.  And don’t they bite?  Hamsters?  Stinky.  My younger discarded howler monkeys on his own — way too loud and howly.  Guinea pigs?  Hmmm.  I was stumped on that one, not having been around one since elementary school classrooms.  Research was needed.

So we delved into guinea pig books and websites.  From our reading, they seemed fairly sturdy (good when you have an inquisitive 3-year-old around), generally unlikely to bite, and generally unlikely to escape.  Off to the pet store we went, where we found Woodstock, an eight-week old American Smooth, brown and black, bouncy guinea pig.  We were smitten, and we set on making his life as good as possible, with the best food and hay, a large cage we made from Coroplast and squares of metal shelving, and comfy fleece bedding.

But soon, our reading led us to belive Woodstock was lonely.  Guinea pigs need a buddy, it seemed, and while ours seemed content with our ministrations alone, we set out to find him a friend.  How we stumbled onto the Guinea Pig Lady (our name for her), I don’t recall, but we drove a half hour south to see this woman who gave much of her home to be a guinea pig shelter.  In addition to some 30 sheltered pigs, she had 20-odd pigs of her own, living in the most elaborate three-or-four story (pig stories) structure.  At some point, my younger mentioned that the pigs might want a snack, and the cacophony of squeaks that followed his words was nearly deafening.  Somehow in all that, we found Alfie, a white and brown Abyssinian who was between one and two years.   He was the friend for Woodstock.

And the handsome guy on the right is Alfie

Cautiously, we introduced them, first putting them in adjacent cages, then supervising time with them out of the cages, and finally caging them together.  And they didn’t care.  Sure, they chuttered at each other a bit over which shelter to use, and for the first few years of their cohabitation, they would mount each other, with no clear dominance emerging,  but really, they just didn’t seem to care about each other.  Ah, well.  We decided they were friends.  And we’d become bona-fide pet owners.  My parents were surprised.  Honestly, I was surprised.  I hardly needed more bodies to care for, but I really did bond with the stinky, messy guys (the guinea pigs, well, and the boys).

Gerbils followed, then aquatic frogs.  Mealworms, ants, guppies, fighting fish, slugs, and snails all found shelter in our home for prolonged periods over the years.  And while the gerbils and most of the rest have passed on or been released, only the guinea pigs and those immortal aquatic frogs remain.   The pigs were our gateway drug of sorts, opening our doors to an ark-load of creatures over the years.

And, over the years, we’ve lost fish and gerbils, ants and slugs.  But this was different.  Woodstock was my first furry pet, and, for a rodent, he had a remarkable amount of personality.  He was the one who squeaked every time the fridge opened, hoping for lettuce, carrots, curtains, fleece, plastic… he was hardly a discriminating eater.  He was the one who greeted each foster cat that batted a paw between the bars of the cavy cage with a hopeful sniff, looking for food.  Yeah, he was a bit slow.  We didn’t dub him least likely to survive in the wild for nothing.  But he had personality.

My older was initially sad, although not as bereft when, several years back, we had his first gerbil put down.  My younger was a bit scornful of his brother’s and mother’s long faces and sad tones.  “It was just a guinea pig,” he scolded.  “It’s not like it was a cat.”  Ah, priorities.

But life goes on.  Alfie seems unphased by the loss of his cagemate of six years, and I imagine he’s glad to have the food to himself.  And the three of us are rather distracted.  Today, February 22, the boys’ half-brother was born.  They’ve been excited about his coming, which is a contrast to their reactions when first hearing about him seven months earlier.  In contrast, I’ve been sad and pensive over the past few weeks, as birth became imminent.  I’ve ridden waves of anger and sorrow, tempered by the hope that my children and this child can bond and grow to love each other.  I’m watching what I feel become colored by my thoughts and vice versa, and simply watching that process reminds me how easily I can confuse those thoughts and feelings with the reality of the situation.  Reality is that one life has left the world and another has entered.  Reality is a universe taking care of itself, ever maintaining balance.  So I keep breathing, sometimes crying, sometimes simply being, and, occasionally  — just occasionally — smiling.

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.

Looking for God, Looking Within

A fine friend and  fellow blogger, Keith Yancy, recently mused on the following question:  What if people invested as much energy and patience in their spiritual relationship with God as they do with their human relationships with people? 

As a spiritual searching, not-so-sure-what-to-call the bigger forces, Unitarian Universalist gal, I might have worded the question somewhat differently, replacing “spiritual relationship with God,” with “spiritual practice:  Why do we invest so much energy in our relationships with others and so little into our relationship with the greater being/greater good/God/whatever?  One could state that pouring time into human relationships is pouring effort into a greater being, and, depending on the approach to relating to other, I’d agree.  But investing only in those external relationships is not the sole (or soul) answer.  Now I’ll take my turn to explore Keith’s question.

Much of the relationship improvement advice coming from books and the media seem centered on getting what one wants for him or herself.  They may talk about the other’s needs in the relationship, and a few really focus on the connection between two people built on compassion and unconditional love, but most are all about me, me, me.   When my marriage was crashing, I read a few of these advice books for couples in distress, but I found little that resonated spiritually.  Much of the advice focused on what to say to make your opinion/needs/desires known to the other.  Many did hold some standard but decent advice regarding communication, and I have no beef with any of that.  Deep listening is a skill that’s poorly cultivated by many in a time of email, tweets, texts and distracted cell phone conversations.  Sitting down to talk face-to-face with all those nonverbal cues present isn’t our norm any more, and I do think learning communication skills is helpful for any relationship.

But being in relationship is far more than reflective listening and “I” statements.  Being in relationship with others requires a solid relationship with something/someone beyond our ego, beyond what we generally think of as self.  I maintain these relationships need to be rooted in a sense of something beyond self and other.  Is that other God?  If you like, although I think any sense of connection with the universe and humanity will do, theistic basis or not.  That connection takes effort and time.  Whatever one calls that greater reality, cultivating a relationship with it/him/her/them takes work.  And, just like our human relationships, that relationship with the divine (that’s my term at this point of life — please substitute your favorite term, be it God, ground of being, the universe, whatever) isn’t passive and receptive. It’s an active, dynamic relationship, just like healthy human relationships are. 

Sure, the divine isn’t going to wander off and find new friends or leave you for a younger, more attractive partner if you blow the divine off for a few years.   In my (UU, nontheological) understanding, the divine is always there, available for that connection.  Not critical, demanding, father-like, mother-like, impatient, expectant, or any human trait, but merely existing.  It’s when I make the connection that the relationship blossoms. 

Again, I agree with Keith that folks on the whole just don’t work at that connection.  Sure, we may talk about what is bigger than us, read about the words and ideas people have used to label and limit the divine, go to church and hear about it, even spend time blogging about it.  But that’s not forming a relationship, any more than talking about a person, reading about relationships, naming relationships, going to talks about relationships, and writing about them is. 

The relationship is in the relating.  For me, that means meditation, generally mindful meditation.  It’s not a language in which I’m fluent (more on that in another post), but I’m learning how to touch that divine that connects the greater reality.  It’s awkward and slow, not always what I want to do, and yet incredibly enriching. 

And the relating change my relationships.  For in building a connection with the greater reality, the divine, I can more easily see that divine in others.  Our services at UUCF close with the word Namaste.  Namaste can be interpreted in many ways, but the interpretation that stick with is, “The divine in me recognizes the divine in you, and when we recognize the divine in each other, we are one.”  Note the order of that.  Recognizing the divine comes first.  Unity comes when that recognition occurs.   Our human relationships depend on that recognition of the divine in self and other, which, perhaps ironically, melts the division and self and other.

I don’t have this down perfectly or even close.  It’s not always easy to push aside ego and egoic agenda and reach toward the divine in myself, the stranger on the street, my neighbors, or even my children.  That difficulty is human, but the more I cultivate the relationship with the divine in me, the easier time I have recognizing the divine in others.  When I recognize the divine in others, I’m more likely to listen well, to be compassionate, to act and speak with love.  All that deepens my relationship with the divine. 

There’s a simplicity and beauty to the circular nature of the relationship with the divine and our relationships to each other.  I nurture my relationship with the divine, and I find it easier to see that divine in others.  As I attend to the divine in others, my relationship with that bigger reality deepens.  Both relationships need attending to, and I’m apt to find little fulfillment in either if I’m not giving that attention.  The fulfillment comes in giving the attention to each.

Perhaps that’s what it comes down to.  Attention.  We live in a fast-paced times, and fast fixes are the norm.  Fast, relatively effortless fixes.  But slowing down to give the attention to the greater reality, to sit and bathe in that reality, is by far a more sure fix to the disconnection and distance so many feel.  And this attention is, I’d argue, our soul purpose.

What follows is a list of relationship books.  Not the typical get-what-you-want relationship books, but books that, in my opinion, approach relationships  with a Namaste attitude.  All address mindfulness, some with more Buddhist than others.  Regardless of your religious bent, I’d bet you can gain from a mindful approach to the relationships in your life.

If the Buddha Married:  Creating Enduring Relationships on a Spiritual Path (Charlotte Kasl)

True Love (Thich Nhat Hahn)

Buddhism for Mothers (Sarah Napthali)

Everyday Blessings:  The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting (Myla and Jon Kabat-Zin)

Hand Wash Cold:  Instructions for an Ordinary Life (Karen Maezen Miller)

Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky:  A Buddhist Path Through Divorce (Gabriel Cohen)