I’m at the beach with my family this week, so no time for writing… and yet I didn’t want to leave my blog empty all week. So… I’ll “cheat” a bit by linking to things you might want to read.
Beginning with this article from Psychology Today which has been all over Facebook recently, even though it’s over a year old:
I think a lot of good points are made. But even within one country (America, in our case) methods of child-rearing vary considerably from family to family, and from generation to generation. We’re watching our grown kids raising their kids, and not only doing things differently than we did with them but even differently from each other. There’s so much at play–not only philosophical concerns about discipline, sleep habits, feeding habits, and all that… but even the personal and professional circumstances of the parents. In many young families today both parents work, and sometimes different shifts, leaving one parent alone with the kids while the other parent works. They are virtually single parents on most days. Exhausting. Or just with burgeoning careers and sharing the duties of driving kids to and from daycare, shopping, cooking and cleaning.
When I first saw this article, I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s any relation between French parenting and French eating habits… because of the popular book from 2004, French Women Don’t Get Fat. (The author has an interesting and informative web site here.)
Is there a connection between these two books and concepts? I think so. But I’m too tired tonight to pontificate on that connection. The sunshine, the ocean breeze, walking, swimming, shopping, cooking…. I’m ready for bed.
But I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Earnest Hemingway was ill and unable to attend the banquet where he would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He penned a few words which were read at the banquet in his absence. Today I am struck by these:
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
A dear friend and mentor, Jere Hoar, has been after me for several years to embrace the loneliness that good writing requires and quit spending so much time on social media and writing events. He continues to fail in his efforts, as I run with abandon to these escapes from the despair that the lonely work of writing can bring down on my soul. Having just finished helping direct a writing conference, I’ve already organized a Memphis writers gathering (to be hosted by Memphis artist and writer, Suzanne Henley) this Wednesday night. I only hope that while such events surely “palliate the writer’s loneliness” they don’t also cause his work to deteriorate, as Hemingway suggests.
But recently—really just over the past few days—I’ve been reconsidering Jere’s words, especially in light of Hemingway’s. Because I find that when I immerse myself in my work and shun the pain of loneliness, sometimes I can make art. And when I do, the satisfaction is immense. And just a small taste of that satisfaction can strengthen my resolve to keep moving towards the art at whatever personal cost. As Rumi says:
I’m still processing the four days I just spent helping direct the 2013 Oxford (Mississippi) Creative Nonfiction Conference, with Neil White and Kathy Rhodes. I’m not going to do a recap here. The sessions and workshops were full to overflowing with wisdom on the craft of writing as well as the business side of publishing and marketing your work. And the evenings were just as full with social events and after parties that went late into the night as about a hundred writers and publishing professionals gathered in the town where William Faulkner lived.
But I want to share a few reflections and nuggets from the final morning of the conference. The panel included Virginia Morrell, Dinty Moore, River Jordan, Lee Martin, Jessica Handler, and Lee Gutkind. The topic was “The Writer’s Life: Balancing Work, Life and Writing.”
The topic was especially interesting to me because of my lifelong struggle to balance anything. And my recent leaning into the dark thinking that writers (and other artists) just might not get to live balanced lives. That maybe it’s more important to live colorful lives.
Anyway, we asked our panel of busy, successful authors—several of whom also teach writing fulltime, host radio shows, edit and publish journals—to share a bit of their personal stories as writers trying to balance their work with the rest of their lives. I could have listened to them all day.
Lee Gutkind’s remarks were sobering. He talked about sacrifices—WHAT YOU MISS if you live your life in your head—as many writers do—and spend all your time writing or traveling and not paying attention to your family. Lee confessed that his obsession cost him one of his marriages. He was telling it true, and we were listening.
Dinty Moore is another author with a full time day job, so he was actually glad when his wife was working weekends, so he could write on weekends without ignoring her. Dinty also said you have to STAY IN THE ROOM—if you set aside two hours at a time to write, sit there whether or not anything happens. By the third day of staying in the room, the words might finally come.
Virginia Morrell added to Dinty’s comment by saying you need a really big tube of BUTT GLUE, which called forth much laughter and a thread of related comments throughout the auditorium that I won’t share here.
Jessica Handler said that most of her friends are artists or writers, and she has a bit of a remove from people who don’t get what she’s doing. I think I’ve been experiencing this in the past few years—bonding more with other writers and having some disconnect with people who don’t understand the space that’s needed to produce this art.
Lee Martin says he carves out protected times during the day to write, “giving myself the gift of solitude and spending time with the page.” He said he is “most whole when I am with the page.” See? That’s not going to win him any friends in the “real world,” but his writing is kick-ass wonderful. (P.S. I’ll be your friend, Lee.)
River Jordan says you have to be so determined if you’re going to write that you might have to leave home to do it. Take your laptop somewhere else. She told us that when Andre Dubus III was writing House of Sand and Fog, he took his laptop to a graveyard and sat and wrote there. Guess no one bothered him.
A few more tips:
Jessica told us about “Freedom,” a program that locks you out of the internet while you are writing. You can set it up for as little as 45 minutes, or for several hours at a time.
Dinty suggested that those folks who don’t have deadlines (who don’t have a book deal and are not working with an editor, for example) create your own deadlines. You might get a serious writing buddy and hold each other’s feet to the fire by deciding to send a certain number of pages or chapters by a certain date.
River motivated us with her story of planning her death during the weeks between her annual mammogram and the day she receives the results in the mail each year. “You are all going to die, so write.” (Or as Annie Dillard said, “Write As If You Were Dying.”)
There’s so much MORE I could share, but another lesson I learned about writing this weekend is to always leave the reader wanting more. Stay thirsty, my friends.
I’m posting this from the Apple Store in Ridgeland, Mississippi. My computer locked up when I was sitting on the patio at Broadstreet Bakery (in Jackson) this morning, enjoying a cappuccino and the sunshine. So I headed out to the Apple Store for help before returning to Memphis this afternoon. The Apple guy showed me something so simple I’m amazed I’ve been using my MacBookPro for so many years without knowing. *sigh*
Anyway, I had a lovely time last night, speaking at the annual Women’s Spring Dinner at St. James Episcopal Church here in Jackson. (And a few of the women invited their husbands.) The food was Mediterranean, the wine was excellent, and the fellowship was divine. My topic was, “The Mandorla: Healing the Split in Our Broken Lives.” I enjoyed sharing a bit about the mandorla—the almond-shaped image often seen in icons where transformation is taking place, like in the icons of Christ and the Transfiguration, or the Resurrection. I used a mandorla on my icon studio sign when I was painting icons and teaching iconography, because my studio represented one place of transformation for me, and hopefully for those who studied with me there.
I talked about how we can deal with our “shadow sides”—those unowned parts of ourselves that sometimes sneak up on us, resulting in dysfunctional behavior and other trials in our lives. Instead of (1) running away from our shadows, or (2) obsessing over “fixing” ourselves, we can sometimes find peace and a measure of healing by staying in the mandorla—the middle place, between heaven and earth—and accepting all sides of ourselves. As psychologist Robert Johnson says:
It is the prime task of a truly modern mind to endure both the spiritual and the practical as the framework for her life…. When one has grown strong and wise enough, the warring elements which cause so much suffering and anxiety will become complementary elements and produce the great work of art which is your own life.
This mandorla—this ancient symbol of wholeness—is the intersection of opposites. It’s the place where we will be transformed if we bear the tension of remaining there.
After my talk, Tippy Garner, president of the women’s group at St. James, presented me with a wonderful gift. A beautiful prayer shawl, handmade by Peggy Bowles, who participates in St. James’ Prayer Shawl Ministry. The shawl was presented to me in a beautiful ritual of healing.
When I wrap the shawl around my shoulders, I feel the love and comfort of these dear women at St. James. What a gift. Maybe I will wear it when I say my morning or evening prayers. Or maybe I’ll wear it when I’m struggling with my shadow, to remind me that I am loved. Maybe it will help me find peace as I continue to seek healing for the split. As therapist Brian Jensen says:
The mandorla offers a means of reconciliation with our human struggle between the light and shadow sides of our being. When the most Herculean efforts and the finest disciplines can no longer keep the painful contradiction of life at bay, one can find relief in the Mandorla. It binds together that which was torn apart.
I think I will call it my Mandorla Shawl.
P.S. I want to thank NancyKay Wessman for hosting me (again) in her home last night. I’m so proud of NancyKay, who is at the Supertalk Mississippi Health & Fitness Expo at the Trade Mart: 11 to 4 today and 9 to 2 Saturday in Jackson, Mississippi. She will be signing from the book she co-authored with Dr. Gerald Berenson, You Can Fix the Fat From Childhood. So far NancyKay has lost 70 pounds as she continues to adopt a more healthy lifestyle. If you can’t make it down to the Trade Mart today or tomorrow, you can BUY THE BOOK HERE!
Last September I did a post called, “Permission to NOT be Happy?”
And the previous September, a (shorter) post called, “Kelly Corrigan on Happiness.”
Not sure what it is about September that puts me in a mind to consider happiness… maybe it’s that ever-looming anniversary of the attacks on New York City. And now we have April as the month of the bombings in Boston, so I imagine there will be expressions of grief, sorrow, and remembrance that will haunt many people every April.
Lesser struggles are haunting me. I didn’t experience the terror of the attacks in Boston. I don’t even know any of the victims personally. I can only add my small sadness to the pool of universal grief, say prayers for everyone involved, and continue to move through my own life. And for me, that means dealing with everything life throws at me with the tools at hand. As a Christian, perhaps the most important tool is prayer. But as a writer, I experience as much or more clarity through my work. This week, that work involves both realms—the artistic and the spiritual.
In addition to continuing to work through difficult revisions (with my editors) on an essay I’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology, I’m also preparing to give a talk at the annual meeting of the women of Saint James Episcopal Church in Jackson, Mississippi, on Thursday evening. While these activities might seem incongruous, they ‘re very much related. They are both about dealing with difficulties. They both contain elements of darkness and struggle. And they both aim at leaving my readers and my listeners with something inspirational. But not necessarily “happiness.”
This morning I revisited some beautiful words of wisdom from the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). Why Rilke? In addition to his poetry, he wrote letters to his wife, letters to a young poet, letters about the artist Cezanne, and more. He raises the bar for all of us who aspire to embrace life fully, not only its joys, but also its sorrows. A few gems:
What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us. Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.
Surely all art is the result of one’s having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, where no one can go any further. The further one goes, the more private, the more personal, the more singular an experience becomes, and the thing one is making is, finally, the necessary, irrepressible, and, as nearly as possible, definitive utterance of this singularity…. Therein lies the enormous aid the work of art brings to the life of the one who must make it, that it is his epitome, the knot in the rosary at which his life says a prayer, the ever-returning proof to himself of his unity and genuineness, which presents itself only to him while appearing anonymous to the outside….
But here’s the rub. As I continue my own dangerous journey, and it becomes more private, personal, and singular, it also becomes more urgent that I write about it. Or, on occasion, that I speak about it. And maybe in making art, I will, as Rilke says, have some joy, some happiness, some dreams.
If you’re looking for something a bit lighter, check out Chris Braden’s weekly posts on his blog, “Happy Happy Monday.” I love his post today, “The Golden Ticket.” Maybe it’s just about opening the right candy bar….
My plan for today’s post has changed. If you read Friday’s post, you know that’s I’ve recently re-discovered Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul. I was preparing to blog about his “fundamentally different way of regarding daily life and the quest for happiness” today. And I will probably write about that another day. But today I’m going to share a link to a video that moved me to tears yesterday. Whether or not you have a loved one with Alzheimer’s, if you take a few minutes to watch this video, I think it may change the way you see and communicate with people who are in any kind of diminished state.
Meet Gladys Wilson and Naomi Feil. Naomi grew up in a nursing home (yes!) where her father was the administrator and her mother was director of social services. It’s been her life’s work to communicate with people in various stages of Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases.
And the way she uses music to find a bridge to Gladys’ past.
Instead of being put off by Gladys’ repetitive movements, Naomi matches the intensity of her voice with Gladys’ movements, connecting with her in a kind of soul dance. It’s beautiful.
Although my mother’s Alzheimer’s isn’t as advanced as Gladys’, I hope that I can build a bridge to her as she slips farther away, using some of Naomi’s beautiful wisdom. Just open your heart and click on the following link to watch the video.
I woke up this morning—slowly, not wanting to leave that mystical world between sleeping and waking, wanting to hold onto the dream I was having—with family on my mind. Maybe because of the plethora of Mother’s Day cards I saw at the drug store the other day. I can spend hours looking for a card with the right sentiment, and never find it. (I wonder if my children feel that way?)
Our 35-year-old son, Jonathan, retired from the Army in January and moved back to Memphis from Savannah. He’s been staying with us until he gets a job and/or rents out his house in Savannah. Jon hasn’t lived at home since he was 18—almost half of his life ago. (He will be 36 in August.) It’s been challenging for he and I to share this space (not so much for his dad who isn’t easily ruffled) but I treasure this time we have together. And I hope that Jon does.
I couldn’t remember the dream, but something was stirring beneath the surface as I came downstairs into my office, coffee in hand, looking at the stacks of books by my reading chair. On Fridays I try to blog about “faith” and/or “family.” A few months ago I did a(nother) post about my mother, “Love in the Intergenerational Ruins.” But it wasn’t just about her. It was also about families. The book that seemed to be calling out to me this morning was Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul. I found hand-written notes in the margins of the first chapter—“Honoring Symptoms as a Voice of the Soul.” And lots of yummy stuff in the Introduction about the difference in “care” and “cure” of the soul. I’ll save that part for another time.
Chapter 2 in Moore’s book is the inspiration for my post today—“The Myth of Family and Childhood.” I’ll share a few excerpts and comments.
Today professionals are preoccupied with the “dysfunctional family.” But to some extent all families are dysfunctional. No family is perfect, and most have serious problems. A family is a microcosm, reflecting the nature of the world, which runs on both virtue and evil…. The sentimental image of family that we present publicly is a defense against the pain of proclaiming the family for what it is—a sometimes comforting, sometimes devastating house of life and memory.
This brings to mind Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song, “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” especially the line that says, “every Christmas card showed a perfect family.”
Have you ever been jealous of the families portrayed on the Christmas cards you receive every year? What is it that makes us think no other families have problems? But more importantly—and I think this is part of Moore’s point—what makes us think that we need to “fix” our families? And, in turn, to fix ourselves? What is family? Moore says it is
the nest in which soul is born, nurtured, and released into life…. It is remarkable how often the family is experienced on two levels: the façade of happiness and normality, and the behind-the-scenes reality of craziness and abuse.
Maybe this is why so many of us are enthralled with television shows that center on the craziness and abuse. My favorites? “Saving Grace,” which was a bit too gritty, evidently, and didn’t last. “Law & Order SVU.” “Nashville.” “The Good Wife.” But I also like “Parenthood,” which does an excellent job of portraying the wonderful tragicomedy of family life. Moore says that care of the soul of the family begins with “allowing stories to be told without slipping into interpretations, analysis and conclusions.” He wants us to embrace those stories—with all their shadows—as an integral part of understanding who we are as persons.
I was an overly controlling parent for most of our children’s lives. But as they’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve noticed that whenever we’re all together, they often fall into telling stories from their childhood and adolescence with a type of freedom they weren’t allowed to express growing up. They love to tell us the things they did that we didn’t know about, and their spirits seem light as they exchange knowing looks with each other during the telling. My husband and I join them in their laughter—withholding judgment—and it’s very healing, I think, for all of us.
For the remainder of the chapter Moore uses mythology to discuss the importance of the place of father, mother, and child in the life of the family, and symbolically in each individual’s life. Lots of archetypical images and other good stuff that I won’t go into here. (Read the book if you want to go deeper with this.) But the take home for me from his words today is that we are not prisoners of our family history. And neither are our children, which is a liberating thought for those of us who are acutely aware of how badly we screwed up as parents. And so, where can we go from here?
Recovery of soul begins when we can take to heart our own family fate and find in it the raw material, the alchemical prima material, for our own soul work…. To appreciate its shadow as well as its virtue…. If we were to observe the soul in the family by honoring its stories and by not running away from its shadow, then we might not feel so inescapably determined by family influences…. We assume we are ineluctably who we are because of the family in which we grew up. What if we thought of the family less as the determining influence by which we are formed and more the raw material from which we can make a life.
And what if we begin to think this way, even when we’re 62 years old? *smiles and leans back in chair*
“People who leave a space for God… can be helped, and can change. They can learn to live with the most extreme damage and suffering and yet still find joy in life…. People who leave a space for God are able to make that change of heart, not for any sentimental reason or out of any moral superiority, and certainly not because of what is conventionally called piety, but because and only because, despite their selfishness, they truly acknowledge and have faith in a force that is greater than themselves. They are willing to open their selfishness up to that greater force, and in opening its closed system, to begin to let life teach it its mistakes and heal its wound, and comfort its genuine suffering.”—Dr. Jamie Moran, “Orthodoxy and Modern Depth Psychology,” in Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World
*Almost three years ago, I did a post here called, “Can People Change?” I didn’t have categories at the time, but if I was writing that post today, it could fit either in “Mental Health Monday” or “Faith on Friday.” I believe that much healing happens at the intersection of psychology and faith, which is where I find myself more and more often. Like today.
I’ve been processing something a friend said to me about a week ago. The process has been difficult, but good. It was something I needed to hear, and it resonated so strongly I haven’t been able to quit thinking about it. I’m trying to let it become part of my psyche. It had to do with a personality trait. When I listen to others, I circle the conversation back to me, relating whatever they’re sharing to something about my own life. It’s really a preoccupation with self. A selfishness (like Dr. Moran addressed in the above quote.) I already knew this about myself, but when my friend mentioned it, I saw it in a different light. In the light of God’s love and grace—which offers hope for change.
Yesterday at St. John Orthodox Church in midtown Memphis, Fr. John Troy Mashburn preached a homily about the cross. About taking up our cross to follow Christ. It was the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross in the Orthodox Church calendar. One thing he said was that part of taking up our cross is breaking bad habits—whether those habits involve unhealthy eating or other patterns we would like to change in ourselves. He said it’s part of our ascetic struggle to work against those habits.
I’ve had discussions with several people over the years about the difference in a bad habit and an addiction. Because of my lifelong struggle with eating disorders, I tend to put food in the “addiction” category. And during times when I drink too much, alcohol gets thrown in there with food. Someone I love is trying to quit a pack-a-day smoking habit right now, and he and I have discussed the possibility that he may always want a cigarette when he drinks, even years after he quits. So for him, surely smoking is more than a “habit.” But I think we sell ourselves short when we call habits addictions for the purpose of excusing ourselves from fighting against them.
As I continued to process my friend’s words (which were spoken with much love and no judgment) about my habit of not listening unselfishly, I wondered if this is something I can change. I began to worry that I have strong narcissistic tendencies. This is a scary thought. My life—and the lives of countless others—has been greatly damaged by narcissistic people. Have I damaged others with my selfishness? I read this article, “The Legacy of Distorted Love,” by Karyl McBride, Ph. D., to learn more about narcissistic traits and examine myself more closely.
And from there, I found Diane England’s web site called, “About Narcissism, Addictions and Abuse.” In one of her posts, “The Authentic vs. the False Self of the Narcissist,” she talks about how people with narcissistic personality disorder (to a greater or lesser degree on the spectrum) create false selves or masks:
Those living as false selves are driven by ghosts from the past. They are often striving to live up to the expectations of others, or else they do things and live in a way that will make them feel better about themselves.
I’ve struggled with masks all my life. But I’ve never understood, until now, that I probably use those masks to cover the insecurity I feel as a person because of the sexual abuse I suffered. My friend who lovingly held up a mirror to me was helping me to begin to remove one of my masks.
I had the opportunity to have coffee with one friend since that conversation, and lunch with another. During both of these visits, I was consciously aware of my tendency (bad habit? narcissistic trait?) and so I made an effort to listen more carefully, without thinking about how what the person was saying related to me, and my own issues. Of course there were times when our conversations blended smoothly because of our shared interests (like writing) or common personal struggles. But at other times, I found myself holding back something I wanted to say about myself, and spending more time listening. And guess what? I found myself feeling more empathy for the person who was speaking, and less concern for myself. Wow. (As Anne Lamott would say.)
I know this is going to be a long struggle to continue to learn to break old habits, but today I am thankful for having some light shining in on a dark area in my life that needs work. I’m thankful for a friend who loves me enough to help me. I believe that working on that darkness is my Lenten struggle this year. Maybe for the rest of my life. But I’m not alone. Jesus wasn’t alone, either, although Simon of Cyrene was forced to help Jesus carry His cross. Sometimes we are forced to deal with our stuff—backed into a corner by our addictions or bad habits and the effect they have on others. But somehow I’m not feeling forced. I’ve been carrying this cross for a long time, but now I feel like someone else is helping me. A friend. (The painting is by a Tuscan artist. I discovered it—and several others by the same artist—on this web site.)
I’m sure I’ll have more dark nights of the soul ahead of me, but for today, I will take encouragement from this final paragraph in Dr. McBride’s article:
One interesting factor is this: If you are taking this test… and asking accountability questions…you are not likely a narcissist! Breathe deeply again! Go to Yoga, pass Go, Collect a bunch of hugs!
“Moderation adorns all things. For without moderation, even things deemed good become harmful.”—Saint Isaac the Syrian
Eight years ago, I was invited to speak to a women’s group in Austin, Texas. It was a weekend-long retreat, and I was to give several talks over three days. I chose as my topic, “The Middle Way: Finding Balance in Our Lives.” The choice came out of my own spiritual journey—from my Protestant upbringing in Mississippi, through years in a religious cult which led to conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy, more years of “new convert radicalism,” and finally, as my heart began to moderate, leaning into balance. I say “leaning in” because I am not there yet. Maybe I never will be. Artists (which includes writers) often live erratic lives, and this may be part of my cross.
With the publication of Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality, last year, it was such a joy to get to know some of my fellow contributors to the anthology. The ones I met in person—sharing our stories with others at book readings—were Marshall Chapman, Barbara Brown Taylor and Marilou Awiakta. (I already knew Beth Ann Fennelly, and I had met Mary Karr and Connie May Fowler. And I had a growing friendship with our wonderful editors, Wendy Reed and Jennifer Horne.) But one of the contributors I haven’t met in person is Debra Moffit.
Debra’s book, Awake in the World, explores spiritual practices from wisdom traditions around the world. Her second book, Garden of Bliss, is coming out in May. Read her recent blog post, syndicated by Beliefnet, “Striking a Spiritual Balance: Equal-Mindedness For All Seasons,” for a taste of Debra’s wisdom.
And here’s the closing paragraph from her essay in Circling Faith, which is called, “Pilgrimage.”
I’ve searched all over for something that is right here at home, but realizing it requires practice. It seemed easier to flee to India or sit alone in the serene Alps and fast. These were small tests. But in contact with people every day, my anger flares, my heart opens and closes. I am challenged to see God in my new husband, in his children, in the cashier at Borders, in the nurse who takes my blood and in myself.
I’ve been asked to speak at the annual women’s E.C.W. Spring Dinner at St. James Episcopal Church in Jackson, Mississippi, on April 25. Some of the women from St. James came to my reading from Circling Faith at Lemuria Books in Jackson last summer, and they want to hear more about my spiritual journey. Unlike Debra Moffit, I’m not a seasoned speaker, so I’m a bit nervous about this event. I’m considering revisiting “The Middle Way” for a progress report on my journey to find balance. But I find my spiritual equilibrium off kilter quite a bit lately, so we’ll see how that works out. In one of his books on understanding human psychology, Robert Johnson describes my experience, and my longing:
To be caught in an exuberant mood is to be wafted off to dizzy heights of inflation and given a wonderful facsimile of the happiness [we] legitimately want. Such a seduction exacts a high price later in the form of a depression that brings [us] down to earth again. Fate spends much time bringing [us] up from [our] depression or down from [our] inflation. It is this ground level which the ancient Chinese called the tao, the middle way. It is here that happiness can be found. This is not a kind of gray, average place or a place of compromise but is the place of true color, meaning, and happiness. It is nothing less than reality, our true home.
I know people who choose to go off their bipolar meds because they hate the gray. They miss the highs and lows of their disorder. I get that. But don’t we all want to live in a place of “true color, meaning and happiness”? Maybe that place isn’t in the highs and lows. Maybe it really exists in the (sometimes boring) daily routines of our lives. Whether we are sitting down to draft another thousand words, working on a painting, struggling to find just the right lilt for a new song, or shopping for groceries. So maybe it’s not about finding balance. Maybe it’s about finding your true colors.
Today I’m continuing to read and share nuggets from Brené Brown’s book, Daring Greatly. You can read my first four posts about her book at these links, if you haven’t been following my blog and want to catch up on her particular brand of mental health wisdom:
Daring Greatly (February 4)
Surviving the Arena (February 11)
Shame On You (March 4)
Picture Memories and Foreboding Joy (March 11)
The title of today’s post comes from Brown’s continuing discussion about what she calls our worthiness:
Our worthiness, that core belief that we are enough, comes only when we live inside our story. We either own our stories (even the messy ones) or we stand outside of them—denying our vulnerabilities and imperfections, orphaning the parts of us that don’t fit in with who/what we think we’re supposed to be, and hustling for other people’s approval of our worthiness. Perfectionism is exhausting because hustling is exhausting. It’s a never-ending performance.
When I was in school—especially high school—I could never find a “clique” to fit into. I was friends with girls from various groups, primarily because I was an over-achiever, involving myself in the school newspaper (feature writer, advertising manager, business manager), theater guild (acting), advanced art classes (we did the scenery for the school drama and musical productions) and student council (secretary). But all those activities and achievements were, as Brown says, hollow substitutes for what I really longed for—belonging.
Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
Lacking that self-acceptance as a child—possibly due to the sexual abuse I experienced from my grandfather and the ongoing verbal abuse from my mother—I carried the wound into high school and on to college and adulthood. At Ole Miss, I pledged what I considered to be the top sorority (Delta Delta Delta) and was elected president of the pledge class. But I still felt like an outsider when I watched the friendships others in the sorority had with each other—a level of intimacy I didn’t seem to be able to find. I got engaged in the fall of that freshman year and married the following June, which took me out of one arena and dropped me into another.
Many years later, I found myself still hustling for approval—from my husband, my church, maybe even from God. I continued to busy myself with activities—church secretary, newsletter editor, Sunday School teacher, Christmas play writer and director, Coffee Hour chairman and joiner of endless committees. I learned to write (paint) icons and led workshops and gave lectures on iconography. Interactions with my students was satisfying, but those relationships never seemed to gain intimacy outside the classroom. I eventually retired from iconography and from all the activities I had been involved in at church. A dark cloud of loneliness enveloped me as I realized that I was once again, on the outside looking in.
Where do I go from here? Brown addresses my question:
Living a connected life ultimately is about setting boundaries, spending less time and energy hustling and winning over people who don’t matter, and seeing the value of working on cultivating connection with family and close friends.
I’ve already done the boundary-setting part, although I’m sure I’ve got more to learn about that. And I’m working on the connection with family and close friends. I only have two friends who call me. Well, maybe three. Over the years I’ve gotten weary from always being the one who initiates—coffee, lunch, dinner, going to an art show or shopping. So I’ve gradually slowed down the invitations, hoping my phone would ring. It rarely does, and I can’t help but see that as a reflection of my un-worthiness. When I feel that pain, it’s tempting to turn to what Jennifer Louden calls “shadow comforts” (Brown quotes Loudon in her book.) Brown says this about those shadow comforts:
When we’re anxious, disconnected, vulnerable, alone, and feeling helpless, the booze and food and work and endless hours online feel like comfort, but in reality they’re only casting their long shadows over our lives.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on rejecting those shadow comforts and focusing on relationships in my family. Our 35-year-old son, Jonathan, has been living with us since January, for the first time in seventeen years. A retired Army helicopter pilot, Jon is job-hunting, trying to rent out his historic, Victorian home in Savannah, and wants to relocate to Memphis. I know it’s hard for him to accept our hospitality at this stage in his life, and it’s sometimes hard for us to share our empty-nester space, but there are continuing blessings from this arrangement.
Our other two grown children and three grandchildren all live in Denver. I’ve made three trips to Denver in the past six months, and my daughter and her family have been here once and will return again in April. All ten of us will spend a week together in a house on the beach at Seagrove in May. As I’m sure is true in most families, our relationships haven’t been without struggles. But today I am so thankful for the love and connections that are growing stronger.
I struggle every day against regrets, often wanting a “do-over” in many areas of my life. But I’m working on self-acceptance and trying to live in the present moment.
Whether or not you like country music, listen to Zach Brown’s song, “Make This Day,” and you’ll feel better about yourself. I don’t think Zach and Brené are related, but I do think Zach gets what she’s saying here about living inside our stories. Listen to the chorus:
Find a way to wash away
(Way to wash away)
Any regrets you have
Don’t let this moment pass but live inside this day.
Happy Monday, everyone. Let’s make this day a little better than the last!