I’m really quite bleary eyed tonight, but I’m going to post this, rough and rambling as it is, anyway.
This morning I opened my email to read about the virtue of ‘monotasking’, paying attention with a singular focus. Funny that word should slip into my awareness on a morning when I’d awakened from a dream pondering, yet again, how it is that I can possibly attend to all the loves in my life without sacrificing the others. I’d opened my eyes thinking about the 9 legged seastar my sister had found washed up on the beach of Sanibel Island, remembering the chapter in Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic, ‘Gift from the Sea’, where she describes the lives of so many women as ‘Zerrissenheit’- ‘torn-to-pieces-hood’. The author of this morning’s essay reminded me that one form of medieval torture was tying the penitent’s limbs to four wild horses and literally tearing her, limb from limb.
This week, my dear friend was hurting quite deeply, in need of a friend with whom to just sit for a few hours over a pot of tea, a gift I might easily offer, one that feels healing and calming for us both. Instead, I was able to provide to her a mere phone call while driving to visit my mother at the rehab center. My daughter, likewise, is feeling quite lost these days, at times on the verge of despair, her sense of identity suddenly stripped away. I was able to give her an hour on the phone yesterday morning too, the cell phone propped up to my ear as I chopped and cooked, beginning, with the stubborn hope of winter, to prepare the nurture that will carry me into the water and woods this summer. My shoulders and neck felt that tension this morning, too, as I woke.
My husband needed yet another surgery this week, a minor procedure (I think) on the same day that my siblings had scheduled a visit to a potential new home for our mother, smack dab in the midst of my old neighborhood. I’m reeling in quite a few ways from this sudden closeness to my mother after all of these years, trying to fit that realization into my own sense of self somewhere. I had already been forced to cancel my promise to be with a granddaughter that day, because of this sudden scheduling of my husband’s surgery, and now it seemed likely I would not be able to keep the appointment with my siblings either.
I wanted to be there. I needed to be here. I was torn by that as if down the middle, felt it tear right through my heart. But that morning in the hospital, waiting for word that my husband was out of the operating room and into recovery, I noticed, even more markedly than that ripping, a more pervasive feeling of guilt. I would, once again, fail to prove myself good enough. And on the heels of that particular realization came a third dog gnashing – being so very tired of feeling guilty all the time.
I really love all of these people. Truly I do. Every day I realize how blessed I am to have such a problem as this… too many people to love. So then, I wonder, where is this invisible line I step across between love and guilt? Do I believe that love means Doing for? Being present with? Is that true? Is it true, as they say, that attention is the most concrete expression of love?
“ What you pay attention to thrives. What you do not pay attention to withers and dies”
Then comes the forth horseman, Jealousy. Yep, that ugly one’s there too. Projecting is always dangerous, I know, but I find myself feeling jealous of the grandmother with just one grandchild to pay attention to. Jealous of my friend, who can fly across the continent to help her one daughter settle into a new condo. Jealous even of my sister, who has had the time and space to take on such a vital role in the care of my mother, a role that has stressed her to the extreme.
And of course, then I feel guilty about feeling jealous.
Sometimes I wonder just how many intimate relationships one can hold in one’s heart at any given time. So often I can feel precious relationships, so important to me, slipping through my fingers like sand. I have lost important friendships in my life when my arms were too full to hold them. If relationships need nurture in order to not shrivel away, how does one even begin to feed them all? Suddenly this one, with my mother, seems to be siphoning a lot of what I have to give.
You see, I have been estranged from my mother for many years. Perhaps I am trying now to make up for that, make up for the guilt I feel both in relation to her and my sisters. If I check in with myself, it doesn’t fully feel that way. It feels more organic than that, something more like the flowering that comes with just the right mixture of season and soil –timing, healing, readiness, hope, maturity, peace, wisdom and forgiveness (of both her and myself). Suddenly, I feel like I belong in my family of origin again for the first time in a VERY long time… perhaps since I left home at the age of 16 so many long years ago. Perhaps there is something in me that craves such a primal place of belonging as this.
I am always the bad one, in my mind, I suppose. The bad daughter. The bad sister. The bad friend. The bad grandmother.
The day after my husband’s surgery, we had a full docket of elder-care homes to visit and to consider. He promised he was ok (it was a skin graft on a foot wound that had not healed). He could care for himself. He was allowed to get up to the bathroom , walk the 10 feet to the well-stocked kitchen for food. He was neither drugged nor in a lot of pain. Please go, he’d said.
So I did.
And when I was there, I was there, present, body and mind, whole-heartedly with my siblings. I didn’t feel divided, I didn’t feel conflicted, I didn’t feel guilty. I was simply present, attentive, and immersed in the moment. The belonging felt good too, perhaps too good after such a long time of brokenness there. Perhaps I basked in that possibility of healing a bit too long. Perhaps I wanted on some level to prove my worthiness, assuage my guilt. I did check in with my husband between stops (one of those times, I admit, because I was asked about him and then I felt guilty for not remembering to check in…. I mean, what is WRONG with me?)
It wasn’t until I got home, after the dinner stop for the debriefing that my siblings had suggested, that my failure fully flogged me. On one of those in-between phone calls, I’d mentioned to my husband that I was tired and hungry, having missed lunch, asking him ‘Should I come home or go on to visit the next place?’ I had already visited that particular facility earlier in the week, after all, and they didn’t really need me. What right did I have to any input after all of these years anyway? It might be easier for them without me.
When I got home, much later, as we spoke, I noticed the grimace in my husband’s paled features. He was clearly in pain. It was a ‘6’, he said. Later, I noticed the glass of wine, poured in the fridge. For me. How terribly sweet. Soon, the rest of the scene unfolded… the containers of sauce and cooked meat, the spinner of salad. He’d gotten up, wanting to surprise me, cooked dinner, made salad, set the table with candles… then with my last phone call to check in before going to dinner, washed the dishes, packed up the food, eaten a salad alone.
While driving yesterday, I listened to a TED talk, which explored the linguistic implications of the subjunctive in the English language, giving us the ability to explore all of those ‘what if’s’ rather than being bound by indicative ‘what is’. It was suggested that the subjunctive offers to us speculation, and so the potential for both hope AND regret. The speaker suggested that for persons who grow up without having the subjunctive tense as a part of their language, they simply can’t form in their minds the concept of compunction. Perhaps I need to learn a new language, then, in order to think differently. A new love language, perhaps. But I am afraid my mind has been too well-formed by the language I learned from my birth, those brain neurons that held the potential for some other language pruned back when I was a child. New languages at this age must always eventually pass through that translator.
I thought about that Seastar again, remembering another friend, who asked me this week if I was really supposed to be the center of a wheel with many spokes, or if this place was intended instead to be more like a spider web with many interconnecting threads. That made me think of Indra’s net, a traditional Hindu and Buddhist story given to us as a metaphor for understanding our place in the vast interconnection of things. In the story, each of us is a necessary jewel, suspended by and holding our particular knot in the web by being who we are and reflecting the light to one another, and so it is that the world is kept from unraveling.
Wait, that image doesn’t really help me at all. I don’t want to be that important.
This evening, I recall the stories that came from the research being performed with a community of trees in the northwest temperate rainforest. Those discoveries revealed the ways in which those trees reciprocally care for one another, sending a little extra nurture to one of their forest-mates in need, for one instance, or antidotes to plagues to another, through roots that are entwined and intertwined, threadlike and jumbled, all the while individually standing firmly and rooted, completely still, while reaching for and gathering light.
What has helped me this week is to nurture myself in place in that way. To reach out my tendrils and phone that friend. To chat with another via the internet. To receive the wise counsel of a stranger on radio. To sit with my sisters. To write a brief note to a brother. To connect with a son.
Still, the rooting that has truly kept my limbs from succumbing has been to draw deep nurture and strength from the earth, even if only to bask in a short nature film at the end of the day – or to gaze at the dark, reaching sky on my walk to the car – or to throw open the bedroom window to a blustery night, where wave after wave of wind in the trees helped my heart to recall that I was being held by an ocean of love. Like Mary Oliver’s, Wild Geese, each of these reminded me of my true place in the family of things.
“Each night, I have nothing to do but look and listen, to see and hear how smooth and changeless the water becomes, how indifferent it is to my presence. Far from other people, I feel a certain calm come over me. I am glad I am not great enough to be missed by the busy world, I’ve left behind” – John Muir
It’s always good to remember my smallness at times such as this, to be humbled by the presence of something far greater than me. Sometimes, kneeling my wounded ego down to my own insignificance is just the antidote to my not-good-enoughness that I so desperately need. Of course! I don’t need to be God, after all. The idea that I am supposed to be all things to all people in order to be good enough to be loved is perhaps the one thing that I need to stop feeding, let that learning wither and die by not feeding that belief it with my attention.
Here comes the Star Thrower now, not tearing me limb from limb as I feared , but walking the beach, picking me up and tossing me back into the vastness, which is the sea where I belong.