I'm Done

After all the messages about getting a secure job with good benefits are given and received on the deepest level, after all the years of learning to enable addiction as a matter of pragmatism and safety, the messages become the “go to” dogma and the enabling becomes the default behavior.  When the messages and behavior lodge somewhere in the solar plexus of the soul, fear begins. Fear of ignoring the messages, fear of stepping outside the ring of comfort and safety however troubled. Of anything that doesn’t speak directly to security and anything that isn’t the odds on favorite for limiting risk.

But underneath that fear is the philosophy of scarcity. There were times, most of them as I remember, when scarcity was all we knew. My parents started out hopeful but as the economy worsened in our town, they worried about their own job security. Jobs gotten but ultimately lost. Any appliance purchase had to be set up with monthly payments. And as the years rolled on and my father’s alcoholism consumed him, we pretty much descended into poverty.

It’s not a stretch to see that all the fear was grounded in scarcity and a chronic concern of what to do next as options became increasingly limited.

Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful for the determination I showed in order to find those good, secure jobs that scarcity and fear provided the impetus for. I’m grateful for the fruits of those jobs:  our home, our cars, the ability to visit loved ones in faraway places. But there has been a heavy toll paid:  years of self-denial on virtually every level “for the good of the Service.” Abusing my body and ignoring its needs for good food, rest, and stress reduction. Feeling so flawed because I didn’t fit in but desperate enough to belong somewhere, even if the “somewhere” was so toxic that it killed slowly and inexorably, from the inside out. Self-flagellation and self-destruction resulted because I drank deeply from this poison well, so strong was my thirst. Years of never even knowing what my soul needed, given that the messages and enabling began at such a young age.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, during a week’s staycation, when I fell into a minor depression. Unconsciously, I felt fine. I still fed the wild birds and squirrels, enjoying their antics in the water bowls and baths. Consciously, it was a very different story. My mind, running through the familiar litany of looking for some way — any way — forward, kept bringing me back to the same point of feeling trapped in a life that had never bloomed. 

Shortly after my time off ended, on a Friday afternoon driving home from work, my perspective changed, not with the elation of an epiphany or the drama of a seismic shift. It came as a deep sigh, the kind that happens when sleep arrives and the tension in a body eases, a release from the internal grinding away at something that no longer fit.

“I’m done. I can’t do this anymore.”

And a gentle calm came over me, like a low tide lapping at my feet.

I would make every effort to retire next year from my good, secure job with benefits. I know my work has allowed me to bring joy to others, to those I served and those with whom I served. I enjoyed some days immensely. But I am tired and nothing I can do there would matter much personally.

It is not my real work. It never was. 

It was the work I did and the life I led that brought me to this point of self-awareness. I have to speak my truth now, on my own terms, without resorting to “government speak” — that odd way of saying things without actually saying them. Of saying things in person rather than in writing so that the listeners have plausible deniability, resorting to written documentation only if I needed to cover my ass. I’m kind of tired of looking over my shoulder and always having to modify my actions so they don’t reflect badly on the “Executive Office.” 

I’m done and it’s time to move on.

And for the first time in eons, maybe even for the first time ever, I am approaching this retirement of mine knowing that it’s my time and my life to design as I wish. The curious explorer inside is ready to follow her moral compass, the philosopher is courageous enough to share a nuanced knowledge of her own.

The Wistfulness Only Holidays Can Bring

Our culture tells us the holidays are a time when more is better, families are wonderful, friends abound, and the season is jolly.

Well, I’m here to tell you:  “more” gets people into debt and looking for validation from externals; some families really suck, especially if the families tend to keep score or hold grudges or don’t allow for individuality; some friends are moochers who count on our good-natures; and the season brings out competition for everything from parking spots to who gets or buys the best gifts.

I think it’s safe to say that the holidays bring out both the best and worst in people.  While many spend time with loved ones, others try hard to forget them.  While some spend their time drowning in self-indulgence, others are homeless and hungry and cold. While some worship in candle-lit churches, others kill each other over which religion is the “right” one.  

The holidays aren’t really any different from other periods in the calendar year but they can exacerbate the differences between us.  They bring a certain wistfulness to lay upon our shoulders like snowflakes and deliver a certain vague feeling of regret to our door.  We long for something and can’t always identify what.  Christmases past or future?  Maybe both?  

For me, historically I’ve been very wistful around the holidays and it’s only this year I’ve managed to identify why - thanks to the journaling I’ve been doing.

I don’t long for the past.  I don’t really miss the house and neighborhood in which I grew up.  I don’t miss the noisy relatives arriving to visit my maternal grandmother.  (We lived with her, for better and worse.)  I don’t miss being an “angel” at Midnight Mass, singing Slovak Christmas carols, and getting new sweaters as gifts.  (But who doesn’t love a new sweater?)  I don’t miss my crazy in-laws or their huge Christmas Eves.  But I am grateful for my past and feel downright merry when my sister and I reminisce about it.

What I long for, regretfully or otherwise, is a sense of connection.  Not a connection to family or birthplace, not a connection to the past or present, but a well-rounded connection between who I was and who I am.  The truth of it is the holidays show me - in glittering, bright lights - the separation between those two separate versions of myself. I don’t miss the past as much as I long to find a way to connect it to who I am now, to find a way to bridge the past to the present so that I can move into the future as the truest version of myself. 

Maybe the thing to do is to create a storyboard of my life, much like an author creates a storyboard of a novel - or at the very least, a timeline.  Perhaps by visualizing it, I can see my life’s nuances and view myself as the protagonist of my own story.  Perhaps a theme will emerge and show me the direction to move toward in these waning days of my working career.

Holidays are both good and bad.  But I think they’re best when taken with slower steps and in more measured doses.  And if you find that wistfulness comes knocking on Christmas Eve, welcome her in.  She might not be reminding you so much of Christmases past or bringing hopes for Christmases future.  She just might bring a reminder to stay in the present and as the New Year approaches, to focus on your life now and integrate it with all that’s been and yet to come.

And if you don’t really want wistfulness around, give her a cup of eggnog, a bite to eat, and send her on her merry way.

Make it a merry one.

Touchstones


Last year around this time, I was deep in the fatigue of post-Hurricane Irma. I’m sure anyone touched by Irma felt that way. The days of ever-changing landfall predictions; storm-shuttering the house; stocking up on food and batteries; buying gas for the generator and looking for it afterward in long gas lines; witnessing a magnificent but sobering display of natural fury as wind ripped trees from the ground and rain raged against the house — all of it was exhausting.

Our neighborhood was wonderful, though. We rode with each other, checking phone apps for gas stations with gas. We grocery shopped and bought each other food and other supplies. We shared what we had. But in the true darkness that comes with nights spent without any hint of artificial light, with only the drone of the generators giving witness that others shared my world, I had time to think about what really spoke to my spirit and how far I strayed from what mattered in my desire to “get ahead.”

By the time the power came back on, I felt cast away and unmoored. I needed a respite from the heat and humidity and the place where “bundling up” meant pulling on a pair of long pants and a heavy sweater on those few-and-far-between forty-eight degree nights. I yearned for snow and a visit to real winter, the favorite season of my childhood. I missed my sister and needed a visit with her, in snow country. 

But I don’t like to travel as much as I once did and I really, really don’t like to fly. I have these attacks of anxiety-that-borders-on-panic. Once, while flying, I felt the intense need to keep the plane in flight by sheer willpower. This time was different. I calmed down a few days before my departure, unafraid and looking forward to the reconnections.

The first flight into Atlanta ended okay, despite the plane bouncing once and skidding a little to the left. No reason to panic, right? The connecting flight into Cincinnati lifted off the runway, just minutes ahead of the storm that dropped nine inches of snow in the city and surrounding parts of northern Georgia. Temperatures in the twenties greeted me in Ohio, not a snowflake in sight but a heart still believing it would snow that weekend.

Snow has always been my personal touchstone, the one thing that brings me back to the most elemental child who still resides within me but is often left to play by herself in the corner while the adult me pursues other activities. Maybe snow-love was deposited into my mitochondrial DNA the night I was born:  a wild night, I was told, with wind and sleet-that-turned-to-snow challenging my dad’s driving skills as he took my laboring mother to the hospital. Maybe its purity somehow re-ignites hope in my soul or somehow reassures me of the world’s goodness.

Going out to dinner that first evening didn’t quite pan out because one of my sister’s dogs injured her eye bad enough to force an emergency trip to the vet in temperatures that had dropped into the teens. The wee one had to spend the night and my sister was told to pick her up the following morning.

A few lazy snowflakes drifted down as we prepared to go to the vet the next morning. I felt a rising joy. By the time we reached the vet’s office, snow coated the grass and swirled across roads already dusted by it, blown by a fiercely cold wind. As we drove down the winding roads toward the river, the snow still blew, more gently but no less beautiful and exciting than its wild counterpart on the hill. The snow, the blue light of a wintery day, and wreaths hanging on the perimeter fence around my sister’s house, dusted by snow, were perfect backdrops to my sister’s warm house. While we waited to make sure the dog navigated well with her Elizabethan collar, my sister and I talked, read magazines, and laughed over projects that we could do but would never get around to.

During this quiet time I realized my sister is another of my touchstones. We not only share our mitochondrial DNA, we share a lifetime of experiences and those experiences bind us together despite our different personalities, life paths, and trajectories. Those experiences help us hold similar values and share a heritage replete with memories. And as I get older, I am so grateful for her and the refuge she provides me when I most need connection and a reaffirmation of me.

Snowy days with my sister.  Two touchstones I experience in real time as well as in memory; the things that keep my heart happy and soul nourished.  And this year, we’ll be heading off for an adventure in Nashville.  

In November.

I hope it snows.

Another New Year!

    For many years, the New Year presented another opportunity to make a resolution and forget all about it weeks later; choosing a word of the year and then forgetting the word itself; and a bunch of other things destined for the internal scrap pile. But over the last several years, I’ve realized a tendency to look at things more globally.  What would I want an entire year to look like? And what would it take to make it that way?

    I called 2016 “The Gift of a Year.” I gave myself an entire year to explore, internally and externally. I read a great deal (from paleontology to poetry), hired a business mentor to create a project that I decided to shelve for the time-being (since I didn’t feel the timing was right and details weren’t quite nailed down); moved away from a very toxic work environment into one that would simply prove itself to be a slightly less toxic work environment. I began carrying a small notebook with me (Best thing!) in order to jot down sentences and thoughts that percolated up on my early Saturday morning “dates” with myself at First Watch. (I now know most of the staff well enough at each location that they have coffee waiting for me and my order put in.) I gave myself some space and grace to deal with a great deal (think ginormous) of baggage from years of dealing with my father-in-law and a lingering sense of having to prove myself in a male-dominated world. And, as a result, ultimately realized resolutions come in their own time

    Last year, 2017, became “The Year of Watchfulness and Listening.”  Watching and listening require presence-in-the moment, as well as a storing up of things learned so I could benefit from them at a future point of “present.” What I learned throughout the year seemed random:  a lesson here, a lesson there, all seemingly unconnected until October brought one great, big “POW.” An incident so small that it shouldn’t have mattered. Except that it did. One small atom of incident meeting up with a number of atoms of vulnerability, then nuclear explosion inside. Fortunately, I remembered what cognitive therapy had taught me years ago and I was able to use those tools to untangle the knots, smooth the threads, and see the messages:  “I will not be silent” was the first. “I will not empower men as my go-to response,” the second. I felt bruised and battered when the explosion happened; as the year concluded, I felt nothing short of grounded, girded, and moving forward. I’m here to tell you that good really can come from bad.

    So now 2018 has landed. This year has two themes, one of which is so personal and new and vulnerable that I’m not sharing it just yet. It is just too fragile to risk being placed into the world.  It needs a little age and has to be held close for its sake and my own, at least for now. The second theme, though, is “The Year of Recognition.”  It’s my year of recognizing the worth of each person, each place, and each thing in the world. It’s about making the way a little better for anyone I meet and anything I contact. The goal isn’t complicated:  a hello and smile; sitting with someone who is in pain and needs an ear; paying for someone’s order in the line at Dunkin’ Donuts; dropping off cookies or biscuits to the homeless person on the street corner; complimenting someone’s tattoo or dress or tie; composting; planting flowers for the bees and creating shelter for the wild ones. It doesn’t have to cost a lot - maybe not even at all - but the rewards are huge, both to the giver and the receiver. It really is about realizing we are all sister and brother species after all, in a world we all share, and recognizing we all have something inside of us worthy of recognition and celebration.

    I hope you’ll join me in my attempts at recognition. I’m so grateful you are here to share this with. Happy New Year.

A First Foray Into Politics

     Let me tell you that this is a post about politics. But not the type we’ve become accustomed to, where the writer starts on one side of a debate and preaches either a liberal or conservative platform. I hope to present something different:  a view of politics as seen through my personal history and value system. The seed of this post began when I heard the following exchange between two of my co-workers.

     “I vote a single issue:  pro-life. I don’t care what else a candidate stands for.”

     “Let me understand this,” the other said. “You’d vote for some guy who would grope your daughter or granddaughter? And then joke around about it?”

     In my job, we’re not supposed to talk about politics at work, given the nature of the work we do. But this short snippet of conversation was enough to get me thinking.

     I know my co-workers well enough to know that when the one uses “pro-life,” she really means “anti-abortion.” Just within the last few decades, the whole concept of being pro-life has been constricted to that single definition, so much so it demands an opposing position, which is equally constricted:  pro-choice.

     In my mind, when considered from the perspective of an entire life, being “pro-life” means just that:  in favor of an entire life, not just the one which hasn't been born into the world. "Pro-life" when seen over the course of a full life, seems more liberal (more social programs, more government services) while being for “pro-choice” more conservative (less government, more personal choices). For me, “pro-life” is layered with meaning. It covers everything from summer food programs for kids, Meals-on-Wheels, the Harry Chapin Food Bank, and the homeless shelters (among many others). It means caring for the elderly, work for the unemployed, and - dare I say it? - healthcare that’s available to all, especially those who cannot afford to pay for it.

     How we got to the point where things got so convoluted is beyond the scope of a single blog post. But the commonly used meaning of “pro-life” has become a rallying cry - and a very narrow one at that - specifically against abortion rather than a cry on behalf of all aspects of life. It tries to reel people into a single arena, dupe us into buying into that tiny definition, and strip us of our personal values and morality while replacing them with a group morality. It’s gutted the values of Christianity, Judaism, and the Religion of Islam - the mandates to feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick, visit those in prison - and contorted the discussion in such a way that to vote against abortion is to also vote against these other great mandates of our faith traditions. This “group” morality makes an issue black or white when, in reality, it’s an issue of such breadth and depth that it defies a single definition. 

     How have we come to allow ourselves to be so duped?

     It’s dangerous, this going down too-narrow pathways in our politics (and even our lives, for that matter); of ignoring the varied and rich diversity of intersecting pathways; of buying into “Only this way is the right way.” There’s a certain deadliness that comes into play when we lose our capacity to know when we are being duped and, worse still, suspecting that we’re being duped but not able to articulate the whys and wherefores or knowing that we are and continuing to cling to the dishonesty anyway. It’s a deadly game when we stop thinking for ourselves and considering things from different angles. 

     We have to allow others to travel their own paths without forcing them to follow a single one. We have to stop handing over our good sense to charlatans and racketeers, all in the name of something they’ve chosen to define as “pro-life.”