Tag Archives: courage

The Art of Being Led

 

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I went to Morocco alone for a month to find “that girl” again. I’d grieved my Empty Nest for the six months I gave myself.  A grief “gift,” I called it. I observed the end of this stage of my full-time motherhood in committed vigil.  And I realized that I can live with dinners for one and a very quiet house, (even if it’s been heavy on Mrs. Maisel, Chef’s Table, and Anthony Bourdain re-runs. Okay, and Modern Family too). I’m glad I’m not driving carpool or slinging mayo and peanut-butter at 7:00am or racing to a lesson or a school meeting or a game, too often borrowing from my kids for my work, or vice the verse, and usually coming out feeling “less than” somewhere, no matter how hard I try to be all things for everyone. Except maybe…me.

I haven’t felt that way in six months. There’s been elbow room. My blood pressure is down. I’m taking long baths again. I’m reading poetry again. I’ve grown accustomed to waking and going directly to my writing and reading in that soft trance of dawn before the day steels/steals the muse. I have much more than a room of my own. I’m writing a new book or two. I’m getting a novel published in a year and I have the intuitive space to give it the finishing touches it deserves. My Haven Writing Retreats and Workshops are filling fast. The future feels bright. And Morocco was my deep bow for what I feel was the most important work of my life:  raising two stunning young humans.  I am so proud of them both…  But mothers don’t get diplomas, and Morocco was mine, so it was much more than a trip.  It was a pilgrimage to find out who I am now.

But just before I left for the airport in Minneapolis, on a quick layover to visit my son in college, I dissolved into his arms and wept. It was the last place I wanted to come undone. I wanted to be his kick-ass mama going off to see the world, head high, energetic and ready.

He looked at me somewhere between stunned and horrified and said, “Mom. Out of all the people I know, you are the most capable of pulling this off! Why are you crying???”

I bit my lip and swiped away my tears. “I’m just…a little…scared.  It’s not that I’m afraid of traveling alone. I can’t wait for that. It’s that…I’m afraid I won’t find my joy again. My wonder. My smile. I’m afraid I won’t know what to want without being the mother or the teacher or the caretaker of something besides myself.” I cracked a fake smile. “I’ll be fine. It’s probably just the lack of Vitamin D and the excitement. Stay in touch on our What’s App family group, promise?”

He nodded, but slowly.

What I didn’t tell him was that I was actually afraid of holing up in a hotel room and not having the courage to join in the throng of the world out there beyond my Montana bubble. This aroused righteous refusal from my inner critter, ranging from good to bad to ugly.

Don’t be so dramatic. When have you ever been that person? You’re a throw the window open and leap out into the streets kind of person. You just haven’t done it on your own for a long long time. Like…since you were nineteen, traveling in Europe, Turkey, Greece, the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. You can find her! She’s in you!

And then she’d morph into a posse of people in my life—the loudest and least helpful: Why are you going to Morocco of all places? And why are you going alone? Why don’t you go to Paris like most women your age?

The Paris card ruffles my temerity feathers. “I said it when I was nineteen and I’ll say it now: I love Paris. Who doesn’t? But Paris is easy. I need to go someplace hard. Where my habits and world view and thought patterns get all stirred up and spit out and even forgotten, to make room for new ones that don’t sabotage me. That serve me. I am doing what the poet Emma Mellon suggests. I am going to allow myself to be spelled differently!”

Blank stare. “Well, I think Paris is fabulous.”

You just have to let go, or as I’ve said for many years: allow yourself to be misunderstood. Even though you want to say, At least I’m not going to Syria alone. Or certain parts of suburbia. Wink.

I just smiled in those moments…so seemingly stalwart on the outside, but so puny and scared on the inside. And even worse, the fear wasn’t about the usual things people are afraid of when they travel. I was scared of not being able to spell myself any other way than what I’m used to. Which for the last six months, with the exception of my retreat work which I adore, has been pretty emotionally…well– low. And that is far more terrifying to me than the prospect of a terrorist attack. (And p.s., party-pooper posse: There have been way more terrorist attacks in Paris, than in Morocco!)

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I arrived in Morocco at night. I chose the oldest city, Fes, known for its authenticity and “rawness.” I’d done my homework and knew that the Fes medinas are labyrinthine, thin corridors where you get lost lost lost and have to ask for help, but only from shop keepers and women. Not because it’s dangerous, but because you might be brought to a dead end, and asked for money before you’re guided to your destination. I wasn’t afraid of that. I think what I was scared of most was asking for help at all. Even if I ended up in a dead end and I needed to pay for it. I’m just not good at asking for help.

So I’d arranged to be dropped off in a parking lot and met by the small hotel (riad), as cars don’t drive in the medinas. Donkeys, yes. And bicycles. The driver had kind eyes. I’d soon learn that Moroccans have kind eyes as a rule. A man appeared with a cart, piled my luggage into it, and without a word, walked into the dark medina, winding past cats and closed doors until we arrived at a wooden door with a knocker in the shape of a hamza (hand of God). The owners were out of town.  The manager spoke enough English to tell me so, but that was about it. It helped that he had a terrific smile and a girlish cackle for a laugh. He showed me quickly to my room with huge ceilings and a tile floor covered by one long Berber rug and stately antiques, no heat, and quickly took me up to a small dark room where my place was set in a corner of what looked like a professor’s study. There were books everywhere and a low table with a brass candlestick holding a flickering candle.  He motioned for me to sit on the pillow-covered bench, and I did.  And he left.  No other people in sight.  Dead quiet.  Dead dark.  I reminded myself:  this was the sort of moment that I’d longed for.  To be far away and out of control and having to trust in the central goodness of people.

He came back with a huge tray filled with what I soon learned were Moroccan salads—vegetable dishes full of spices like cumin, ginger, turmeric, sweet paprika, saffron, cardamom, cinnamon. Dishes of olives and a basket of bread. I thought it was dinner and that was just fine by me– it was delicious! But then he came back with a lamb tagine with apricots and almonds and couscous and the most musky heady sauce. I devoured all of it, like I hadn’t eaten a meal in days. And I started to feel a coming alive with this food in this dark room, alone by candlelight.  I slept in sweaters with a hat, since there wasn’t any heat.  I felt a little kick-ass.  A little puny.  But I wasn’t scared.  And I wasn’t sad.  I felt far away from my life and like the happiness pump was being properly primed.

Then it was morning, and I heard what I’d in-part come to Morocco to observe. Adhan: the Call to Prayer, an hour before dawn. I sat in bed, and then folded over into Child’s Pose and listened to this voice, stirring the dark cold and the waking faithful, and I felt it stirring what had felt so dark inside me.

I lay there like that for a long time, and then tucked back under the covers, keeping my mind as empty as possible.  If I was going to find my joy, I needed to keep the regular noise OUT.  As dawn slowly emerged, red, blue, amber, and green shapes cast themselves across my room, moving with the sun. Then there was a loud knock on my door. “Madame! Breakfast is now!”

I’m not really a breakfast person. But I could hear this man standing outside my door, and I quickly put on some clothes and stepped out into what was a gorgeous courtyard, open to the sky, with stained glass windows casting the same colors all over the two stories with intricate green and mustard yellow and black tiled floors and walls, and a fountain in the middle with orange trees and light! Song birds! And a little table set just for me looking over the 1500 year old medina of Fes. Fresh squeezed orange juice, Moroccan tea with a lovely silver teapot and a velvet cozy over its handle. Palm dates. Yoghurt, goat cheese, thick dark honey. Sweet potato jam. Three kinds of bread: flat, crepe, pancake. I smeared the goat cheese on the pancake, and drizzled honey on it and ate it and I felt it again: a shade of happy.

“Come, Madame,” said the smiling man, and he led me down to the courtyard where an elegant, tall man in a traditional hooded djellaba robe and striped scarf waited. My guide. The riad had suggested it in our email correspondence. I’d resisted it. Getting lost was a good thing, yes? “I like to do things on my own.  I’m a good traveler.”  But they had insisted, “Not in the Fes medina.”  So I’d succumbed, but I wasn’t happy about it.

“I am your guide for the day,” he said in a sort of British accent, smiling with his kind eyes and salt and pepper well-groomed beard.

I looked into his eyes.  This was not a typical tour guide.  There would be no selfie-stick.  This man’s eyes had centuries in them.  Immediately, I gave myself to his care, with a relief I didn’t know I needed.

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There began this coming alive that never arrived in one big rush. But in small moments when I would catch myself smiling, and usually following someone who had been designated to help me find my way. I followed this man for two days, eight hours each, all around the bustling sardine-peopled medina and outside its walls too, learning about artisanal arts, still so alive and well in this country– the hammering of copper pots, grandfather to son to son, in a small square, the ancient tannery, still operating as it had from the start, with pigeon droppings as the key ingredient, holding a bundle of mint to my nose. Following his long and stalwart steps to the oldest university in the world, University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD. Showing me the signs of Muslim tolerance in the mosaic designs—an observance of the line of Abraham, from Moses, to Jesus, to Mohammed and the eight gates of Paradise. I caught myself smiling as I skipped forward to keep up with him, weaving around fast-walking women in hijabs and kaftans buying butchered lambs hanging from hooks, and chickens from cages, and spices in pyramids on stands next to a mind-blowing variety of olives and preserved lemons. Dodging bicyclists and donkey dung. And so many many cats. He was the first of a host of guides/teachers/sages who led me through Morocco.  I will never forget him.

IMG_888738e6e069-467d-4547-ad70-620b04d96547And I got used to it– this being led. I’ve never hired a guide in my life. Not for anything. “I can do it alone.” Why? How does doing it alone make you more powerful?  I never could have possibly learned all that I did without these guides, yes about Morocco and culture and humanity, but these guides also brought my smile back.

The man who drove me to and from the Blue City of Chefchauen in the Rif mountains and stopped at groves of olive trees and orchards of oranges because I lifted my camera to the window and he wanted me to stop and soak it in. His country. Where they till the fields with donkeys and horses. “No tractors,” he smiled proudly.

The woman in Marrakech who taught me to cook tagine and pigeon pastilla, and who when I said, “I don’t have anyone to cook for anymore,” excused herself to run to the market and buy me a small red clay tagine to take home. “For one,” she smiled, also a single woman.

And the man who walked me through the thin alleyways of Marrakech by night to eat like a local in spirited hole-in-the-wall places that I would never have had the guts or know-how to navigate, to eat sheep’s head tangia, (I did not eat the eyeball, but the cheek was heavenly), snails, prickly pear, street food that I would never have dared to try, unless Bourdain himself popped it into my mouth. (Turns out he was a fan of these same dark alleys and nighttime haunts).

And the woman who bathed me. Who lay me on a hot marble slab in a hamaam fired by olive branches in an24a62db0-f1c5-4f49-a075-cfa74751034f oven below, covered my skin in a black soap mask, and scrubbed me with a kessa glove…almost everywhere, noting the layers of dead skin that I didn’t know I needed to shed. It hurt. And it healed. I walked out feeling new. “Every week,” she said, smiling, and gave me the cleaned glove to bring home.

And my GOD…the horse guide on the beach whose only English word was gallop, and I did. On a Barb Arabian stallion, at low tide, not a rock anywhere, just hard wet sand for miles.  And he filmed it, galloping alongside me, and gave it to me as a gift.  I’ve watched it probably a hundred times.  I look as free and as happy as I’ve been for a long long time.  And I felt that way too.

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There were so many other people who guided me, taught me, showed me. And I so happily followed. Most of them took my phone out of my hands and said, “Good place for photo,” and took several of them. “Beautiful,” they said. “Look.” Normally I don’t look at photos of myself. They pain me. But they were insistent. “Look!” I looked. With each photo, from each guide, there was a new width and depth to my smile. Lit from within like the hamaam.

I also heard it from people when I had wifi and checked in online along the way. “Your smile! You look so happy! You look so different!”  And yes…some of them were the naysayers!

I hadn’t known I’d let my six months of sadness show. And as I was saying goodbye to Morocco…the fear washed in again.  I was scared again.  What if it comes back when I go home?

Answer:  I’m not going to let it.  That’s all.  I am the gatekeeper, and yes the guide, to my joy.  But…in going home, I’m going to remember to ask for help, find masters and teachers and guides, and open myself to being a joyful follower.

I made these photo collages as a reminder.  Every shot, taken by my guides: (and when I say “guides”…that means all of the kind people who met me lovingly along the way.)Image-1-1

If you are longing to radically rearrange yourself, whether or not you have the ability to go away somewhere bright and new for a month, I highly recommend that you do things way out of your comfort zone. And that you find a kind guide that can show you the way. You don’t have to do it alone.

***I will be writing an extensive piece about my month in Morocco with helpful links and tips for a publication near you, so stay tuned…

One of the best ways I know to be spelled differently, is to come to a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana!

March 20-24 (full)
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Sent from my iPhone by Laura Munson

IMG_7407I haven’t lived in a city since cell phones or emails or the internet infiltrated our civilization.  So as much as I long for my inner-child Chicago city fix, especially in the deep midwinter dormancy of Montana, when I get that fix, I’m always stunned, disoriented, and frankly worried for our world. The romance of the city, the beat and brash and bravado, the sensory glut, the shiny slick, and the glorious edge…all come at me catapult.  I want to feel every bit of it.  So I fight to keep my Montana filter-less-ness.  I want to do a daring dance with empathy, staring it all down…knowing that I will have to turn away sooner than later, blur my eyes, hold my breath past remarkable stench and heart break.  Still, I ask my heart to pound in pace with city vibrato, until I have to ask my better-sense to grab the back of my neck and force it forward. Downward. Observing only my boots and the sidewalk.  You can’t take it all in, in the end, but I like to try for a wide-eyed aperture for as long as I can stand it.

I try to make that filter-less-ness last as long as I can because I want to see who we’ve become.  I want to see that screens and satellite beams criss-crossing invisibly around us haven’t wound us so tight that we won’t be able to find our way out of this world wide web, if need be.  (I sense that there will be a Need Be.)  I want to believe that these buttons we push without a click or a feel to them, are making our lives easier and our propensity to wonder about the person crossing the street, greater. I want to believe that because it is possible to know so much now with those buttons and those screens and satellite strings…that we’re using that knowledge to linger in our longing to know each other.  Yes?  To sit longer at a meal and ask an extra question of our colleague or daughter or friend. To smile on the subway, especially at sad eyes, or to meet them with our own sad eyes. To step out of the sidewalk sea and sit on a bench for no other reason than:  all of this knowledge has turned us into supreme seeking beings and it begs us to stop.  Watch.  Feel.  See.  Know. I want to believe all of that.  But sitting there on a bench, watching the sidewalk sea…I don’t.  I see people walking faster and faster and the beat driving them harder and harder.  So serious and so purpose-driven and so confident about what’s around the bend.

Last week in San Francisco, after leading Haven Writing Workshops, helping people to figure out how to write a book and how to find their voices and figure out what they have to say…I sat there on a bench and I asked myself:  How purposefully and confidently can we really walk when we depend on a small rectangle of light and its buttons and arrows to tell us where to go right and left, and when to walk straight or take a slight turn…or re-calculate. Or push in a few numbers and have a car appear that takes us where we want to go so that we don’t have to look at all.  We seem so cock-sure.  But my Montana-ness knows that it’s such a thin veneer and I wanted to cry out, “Don’t you all know how incapacitated we have all become???  How reliant?  How clueless?  Don’t you realize how fickle our power is if it depends on a cord or a battery or a plug???”  Where oh where is our true power?

Because if and when the beams stop beaming and we are released from the satellite string…nay, rope….will we look up and at each other and say, “Woah. That was a weird dream.  I dreamed I was fine.  Great, even.  But I’m not fine.  Or great.  At all.  And you don’t look much better.  Let’s not even ask each other how we are.  Let’s just be with one another.  That looks like a nice park bench. Come, let’s sit for a while and tell each other our stories. Without looking at that little rectangle of light thingy, whatever it is. Let me see your hand.  It looks tired from holding that flat ‘smart’ thing. Remember when your hand used to hold reins and gallop to the river? Or hold the plow? Or palm the seed by the light of the full moon? Was that better then? Did we look at each other more? Did we not know where we were going but for news from the next town over from a wayward traveler? Or from the way cottonwoods flank river beds across a valley? Or that the shape of a nine-month pregnant belly meant that the world around that woman needed to ready itself for another miracle?  Get the hot water boiling.  Sterilized rags.  Call the midwife?

Is our midwife named Siri now?  (At least mine has a British accent, so I feel “smart” to have a chum like her when I wander around at her discretion, muttering to myself, this is not the zombie apocalypse.  This is not the zombie apocalypse.)

Because that’s the thing:  I have to be careful not to pretend like I am above any of it just because I don’t live in the thick of it.  If Montana has taught me anything, it’s that I know I’m not above anything.  In fact, being so removed from our city civilization for twenty-seven years, often has me in a state of less-than, full-FOMO, feeling like an underconfident and yes, under-competent Rip VanWinkle.  Like when I’m in the city, I’ve been jolted awake from my own deep sleep, the opposite dream, in which I’ve been too long nestled in the cleavage of Mother Nature, going days without speaking to anyone, my only witness, the white-tailed deer.  My cell phone doesn’t even work at my house.  My wifi is fickle and so is my power.  The fireplace is not decorative.  It’s a hearth that would burn if all else failed in the way of technology, and there have been plenty of winter nights when it’s the keeper of my hope too.  And I lie there staring at its flickering coals and feeling its heat, thinking that fire is where it all started.  Fire was the initial step that humans took to what has become our giant step into our current state of things.  How different was that first spark from what happens in Microsoft think-tanks in Palo Alto?

So I wonder:

Have we always been like we are now, just with different gizmos and the same ambition?  So cock-sure in our questions and so hungry for answers? Did we claw our way up the invention ladder to this world of technology that has become our norm, yes even in Montana, (though my best friend still has dial-up and doesn’t have a cell phone at all), and has our technology really made life easier? Has it really connected us? How do we really feel…alone in the dark with our little rectangular screens giving us answers about where to go and what to do and how someone else is feeling and what they are doing?

All week long, walking the city streets, I saw despair, is what I saw.  Emptiness.  A lot of people in comfortable, yet chic, shoes, a yoga mat slung over their shoulder, ears full of headphones, Bluetooth, earbuds, talking into the ozone.  Loudly.  I saw people looking into screens for answers, not into each others’ eyes. The conversations that came easily were with– get this: Uber and Lyft drivers…most of them new to this country and trying to figure it out too.  And thus, also looking at screens for answers—shortest route, traffic, construction.  But still, into the rearview mirror, asking me how my day was going. I didn’t tell them any of this. I told them “Great!” Like everyone else. I guess a filter can only last so long, unless you want your heart to break.

So before it did, with two more days in the city, I promised to linger longer at each table with my little rectangular notebook instead of my phone. Pen to paper I wrote what I could see and recognize about our city civilization that lasts, regardless of how we have, and will continue to, develop as a species. I asked myself:  what’s been here from the beginning and what will be with us always, besides the fact that none of us is getting out of here alive.

It was the stuff you’d think it was.  I wrote:

I believe in people’s central goodness.  Just look at the way that man helped that older woman with the cane get to her seat, and waited with her until she was settled.

I believe in our need for community.  Just look at the way this restaurant has a communal table and that it’s fuller than the bar.

I believe in our fear.  Everyone’s talking about the earthquake last night and recalling 1989.  And no one is cavalier.  “Isn’t there a way for them to know when they’re coming?” I asked.  No.  Not even Siri can tell us that.

I believe in the collective.  Otherwise, why wouldn’t we all do as my literary hero, and perhaps me too:

“The world that used to nurse us
now keeps shouting inane instructions.
That’s why I ran to the woods.”
― Jim Harrison

I believe in our ability to stay.  Hold vigil.  Keep the hearth warm, whatever that means for each of us.  The tenacity of the homeless who brave the nights in doorways with one blanket and maybe some cardboard.

I also believe in our hope.  When it’s time to take a new step in a new direction.  And it might be a surprise step.  I believe in our ability to believe that there’s something around the bend that might change everything, and it might change everything for the better.  Better being a relative term.

And I think all of these core beliefs apply to any sort of living—country, city, suburban.  But it does require us stopping from time to time, moment to moment, and removing the filter to check in on where our civilization is and isn’t.  So find a bench.  A stoop.  Some steps.  And stop.  Take pause.

I’m about to go to Morocco for a month of it.  Alone.  This is my deep bow after all these years of day-to-day hands-on mothering.  It’s also my call to action for what’s ahead—to live into it bravely and whole-heartedly.  And who knows if my cell phone or my GPS will help me navigate the labyrinthine medinas and markets and if I’ll find my way effectively across the desert.  I don’t speak Arabic, or even French.  I’m going to get by on these core beliefs.  I’ll be writing about it along the way.  I think we all need to take a giant step out of our lives and see who we really are, alone in the world, without technology.  Become disoriented and wobbly and look our fear in the eye and each others’ fear too.  I found some good walking shoes.  My daughter gave me a beautiful blank-paged journal for Christmas.  I have a good book.  I have my beliefs and I have my central goodness, which I have to believe is greater than my fear.  Just like love.  Just…like…you.

Bon Voyage.

Love,

Laura

Now Booking Haven Writing Retreats 2019

You do NOT have to be a writer to come– just a seeker who loves the written word, and longs to find your unique voice.  It’s here…in the stunning wilderness of Montana!  Click for more info.

March 20-24 (full with wait list)
May 8-12 (ah, the sweet month of May in Montana…darling buds and all.)
June 12-16 (great time of year for teachers. Time to fill YOUR cup!)
June 26-30 (ditto)
Sept 18-22 (my favorite time of year.  Still warm during the day.  Fire in the fireplace at night.)
Sept 25-29 (ditto)

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***Haven Wander:  Morocco (February 2019) is full

 

 

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Managing Expectations: Or how to drive a U-haul in San Francisco

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Now booking the fall 2018 Haven Writing Retreats! 

From book writers to journal writers and everything in-between, Haven will meet you where you need to be met! Come find your voice in the woods of Montana!

September 19-23 (FULL)

September 26-30 (one spot left)

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Well it’s summer and likely, if you’re anywhere over ten years old– actually even if you’re ten and under…you’re managing expectations.  Your mother’s, your father’s, your sisters’ and brothers’, your boss’, your children’s, partner’s, house guests’…everyone’s expectations.  And it’s also likely that you feel like you’re letting someone, or a lot of people, down.  It’s also likely that you feel that someone is letting you down.

Except for maybe the Culligan Man.  He showed up this morning and I looked out the window hearing that familiar diesel truck moan and sputter, and I smiled and ran to the front door because I knew it was for one thing and one thing only:  to find out if we have enough salt in the softener.  Salt in the softener so that we can have the best of our well water.  And then maybe he’ll check the filter to see if our reverse osmosis thingy is working well, or whatever he does in my basement.

All I know is that he shows up with big bags of salt like he’s Santa, smiling– always smiling, takes off his shoes at the door, knows just where the light switch is for the basement, (I’ve lived in this house 20 years and I’m never sure which of the three switches it is on the panel, but he does!), and marches down my stairs.  He doesn’t balk at the mouse droppings, or comment on the disarray of my son’s Man Cave.  He plows right through it all to the mechanical room that I try to enter as seldom as possible, and does whatever voo-doo he does.  I don’t follow him.  I don’t micro-manage his little tete-a-tete with the bowels of my home.  He has it under control.  He knows we need him, and it’s his job to show up and he does, like Swiss clockwork.  I even feel the house being relieved that someone competent and consistent is in charge of its digestive system.  The house has expectations too.  I try to meet them.  But sometimes…I just fail.  The refrigerator, lawn mower, and front stove burners are all currently broken.  The gutters are spilling over, and there’s a significant ground squirrel problem under my porch, and I missed last month’s electric bill.  I just can’t do it all or be it all.  I have to fail something or someone.

As I explained to my daughter, home for the Fourth of July:  you just can’t be all things to all people, even the ones you love most.  You’re just gonna let people down from time to time.  Even and especially when you’re doing your best.  Something’s got to give.  But there’s no shame in that.  You have to learn to let yourself off the hook.  And to let others off the hook.  And sometimes…all the people you think should be there to help you, won’t be.  And you’ll need to pay people instead.  Or you might be surprised at who shows up when the primary people don’t.  Or can’t.  Or won’t.  No matter how hard we try…people fail each other.  You’re going to fail people.  And I hate to say it, but ultimately…it’s not your problem.  It’s theirs.  Even if it’s your mother.  Or your child.

I can say this to her…but do I really believe it?  Truth is:  I haven’t had that much experience royally failing someone I love.  Recently, I had to.  I had to choose:  Move my mother?  Or move my daughter and son?

Pretty much every primary person in my life is in a major transition right now:  moving, going to college, going from college into the work force, down-sizing from house to apartment, changing jobs.  Everyone needs each other’s help and no one has the capacity to give it fully.  They can barely give it to themselves, teetering in the untethering.

Some of this is help we can pay for.  But a lot of it isn’t.  Like who gets Dad’s World War II army blanket?  And who gets Mimi’s crocheted afghan, lovingly knit with arthritic fingers, even though it’s in every shade of diarrhea?  And who gets the monogrammed wedding tray?  And what to do with the old letters?  And who will meet the roommates and get just the right toiletry case and put the Montana flag on the dorm wall, or christen the apartment with a bottle of prosecco after getting the right kitchen table that exactly fits the nook.  And who will drive the U-haul through the streets of San Francisco?  This isn’t just stuff you can do with a credit card online.  This is stuff that needs a daughter, a sister, a mommy.

I’m all three.  And I just can’t be all three right now.  Not well.  My plate is so full, it’s over-flowing.  I can barely be one person, never mind three.  I have to choose.  I have to say “no.”

Sure, I can take on a portion of the help that’s been asked of me, but not all of it.  Most of all, I hate that I can’t freely offer it, because I know it’s hard for people to ask—even loved ones.  I have to leave it to them to divvy up their needs with other people, paid and volunteered.  No matter how I shake it, no matter how much I know that I have to say “yes” where I must and “no” where I must…still, there’s shame.  Guilt.  Because I know that there are old, engraved, ingrown expectations attached to every request, especially the ones which are non-verbal.  People show up for people they love.  That’s just the way it is.  Especially family.  Especially when they are in big transition.  They get on planes and roll up their sleeves and help pack boxes, and bring tea and food and comfort and love to the one in need.  They don’t say, “no.”

Until this summer, I have never been in a position where I just…can’t…give everyone the support I want to give.  My physical world won’t let me.  No matter how hard I try to juggle my life, it’s just not possible.  I have to say, “no” to most and “yes” to the ones who truly are incapable of doing what they need to do, without me.IMG_3464

That means that I just drove a fifteen-foot U-haul through the streets of San Francisco with both of my kids in the front seat, to move my daughter from college into her apartment.  Yes, I drive a horse trailer, but not on insanely-vertical urban hills!  Where you have to parallel park!  I was afraid to drive a car in San Francisco, never mind a U-haul!  But I pulled it off.  She asked, and it was the best answer I could give.  “Yes.”  That was what I had to offer.  That’s what needed to get done.  My daughter:  the organizing and packing.  My son:  his strong back and football-honed muscles, the heavy lifting.  And in a few weeks, my daughter and I will do it all for him when he moves into his dorm room in college, thankfully midwestern-flat.  As for my mother’s move, thank God for my other family members and the professional movers.  I’ll come later to help settle them in to their new apartment.  I’ll do my best to manage their expectations then.

So far, I’ve been met with grace.  But I still feel awful about it.  Just awful.  Even my mother’s “Don’t worry.  I have help now.  You have enough on your plate with the kids and work.  You can come later,” doesn’t feel all that great.  I should be there.  I should.  Period.  But I do feel a little less guilty.  Thanks, Mom.

Here’s the lesson in it:  when I say, lovingly, responsibly, that I just can’t…people figure it out.

Or someone else steps in.

The world doesn’t rely on your shoulders’ ability to hold it up.  And it doesn’t end if you give it a much-needed shrug.  And…so far, no one dies.  And I’m not the bad guy.

I have to choose the expectation that I can actually manage, have to manage.  And let the others go.

Maybe the world works that way when we claim our truth and let go of our guilt.

So today, thank you, Culligan Man, for managing mine.  You do it so well.  I don’t even know when you leave, I trust you that much.  I just hear that moan and sputter down the driveway, and know that I have good water to drink.  May we all have at least a few expectations that manage themselves as easily as that.

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Haven 4:00 a.m.– Dealing with Meanies

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There’s a big difference between taking a stand for yourself, and playing hard ball.  I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I can’t stop thinking about it.  One is a fight.  One isn’t.  They both originate from someone wanting something of you that crosses a line.  And it’s usually something hard to face.  For me, it all arrives in my email inbox.

I try hard not to look at my email inbox first thing in the morning.  Or Facebook.  I try to wake slowly, to let the morning give itself to me.  Then tea, back in bed.  Some reading.  Usually poetry.  Nothing too close to the way life behaves in a typical day, unless its Sunday.  I want my early mornings to feel like all of Sunday feels.  Reflective. Paused.  Soft.  And then…the assault.

I go down to my office for it.  I sit at my mothership computer.  I often feel the urge to fasten a seatbelt across my lap.  A few times, I’ve reached for one.  I wiggle the mouse.  The screen light glares at me.  I try not to prepare for battle.  Maybe there’ll be something nice in there.  Someone will want to come on my writing retreat.  Someone else might have read something I’ve written and taken the time to thank me.  Those are always nice.  I answer every single one of them, just to honor gratitude.  Or maybe there’s a note from an editor who wants to publish something I’ve written.  Those are the best ones.  Well, except for the ones from my kids when they just want to say that they love me and there’s no mention of money.

But every day…there’s always something in there that scares me.  At the very least, triggers cause for concern.  A late bill, a compromised account, a wasband ordeal, a rejection from an editor, another octogenarian from my hometown passed, funding for the arts denied—that stuff.  And let’s not even bring up the news.  I’ve stopped watching.  But I don’t have to solve those problems.  The ones in my email inbox:  yes.

I feel myself bracing.  Conjuring steely reserve.  I think of what I’ve learned from therapists along the way:  Use “I” statements.  Write the angry note first.  Then delete it.  I take my own advice:  No need to fight.  Simply say what you need to say—the rest is not your problem.  Or consider the source.  Take responsibility where necessary.  Don’t over-apologize.  Be clear, succinct, to the point.  Tangents or too much explaining are not your friends right now.  You’re not writing a novel.  And please, calm your inner persuader.  She’s so exhausting for everyone, yourself included.

And there it all is, the good, the bad, and the ugly, along with Flash Sales for things I’d never buy and eblasts from people I’ve never heard of, and reminders to attend cultural events in cities hundreds of miles away.  Delete delete delete…answer all the goodies…until what’s left is a honed stack of bad bones. Second cup of tea.  Maybe a smoothie, though heat feels more helpful.  I get the basic bad done first.  And then it’s time for the mean ones.  For those, I think of Gandalf raising his sword.  Don’t you have at least one or two meanies in your life?  I try not to, but some of them are unavoidable.  Sometimes I’m there for hours, composing those short little to-the-point emails just so.  Stakes are high.  Pushing Send too soon could cost me in more ways than one.

My goal:  to take a stand.  I tried playing hard ball a few times.  It was the most inauthentic thing I’ve ever done.  And I suck at it.  Truth is, hard ball isn’t necessary.  Hard ball hurts the pitcher and the batter.  I’ve watched a lot of baseball games.  But here’s the thing:  in most of those mean emails…the author wants me to take a good swing.  And miss.  I’ve learned not to swing.  Yet in most cases, some sort of answer is required.  You owe them none of your emotional supply…and still, the emotions are high and sometimes as unruly as they are untethered.

So here’s my new way, and it works:

I write it like it could be published in the local newspaper.  Facts only.  Journalistic, not Op-Ed.  I take a stand for what needs to be supported.  And then I leave the game.  I know I did it right if I don’t hear back.  I know I did it right if it doesn’t wake me up at 4:00 a.m. feeling like I have to save a burning orphanage full of children—a reoccurring dream of mine.  No thanks.  Taking a stand is holding up a hand and saying, “Enough.  Solution: ______.  Here’s what I know to be the bottom line.”  And yes, sometimes, you have to ramp that stand up.  Stand really tall and draw that line in concrete.  You have to dust off that sword and say, “You shall not pass!”  But it doesn’t have to take you down with it.  Thanks, Gandalf for being willing to fall into the fiery pit.  We don’t have to follow you.  I’d rather have another cup of tea.  And go for a walk in the snow.Forward

 

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