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Day 221 “The Soft Overcomes the Hard”

I learned about love from movies, and novels, and my parents’ marriage.

Love Story etched in my heart the message that true love endures hardship, and illness, and even death.

Wuthering Heights taught me that love can be dark and punishing, but it is inevitable: not to be ignored.

These were stories of passion and romance, and I yearned for that feeling from the age of eleven.

My parents taught me about the kind of love I wanted to avoid: love born of convenience, fraught with oppression, fear, and denial. “He loves me in his own way,” my mother would say, and I despised her for being weak.

“You are waiting for your white knight to come and rescue you,” one of my high school friends told me. “It’s never going to happen.” Her words stung. I was too young to see the faults in my own brand of idealism.

I married the first chance I got. He was classically handsome, loved to dance, and girls flocked to be around him. I couldn’t believe he was mine. We were nineteen. When the pale pinks and blues of our wedding day faded, reality set in. Unable to hold down a job, my charmer slept till two o’clock each afternoon, then moved from bed to couch, where he consumed packs of cigarettes and watched television. He seldom came to the marital bed, but when he did, he made it clear that it was my fault he stayed away – he despised me. “Life is so easy for you,” he would lament. Working two jobs and running our household did not feel easy to me, and I told him so. The marriage was over before our second wedding anniversary.

“You couldn’t keep it up,” my friend told me. “You were burning out.”

My second husband swept me off my feet with sweet talk and limousine rides. “I don’t want to just live with somebody,” he told me. I interpreted that as a proposal, although he never actually said the words: Marry Me. We’d stay awake for hours and talk about our dreams, and before I could blink we were living together, then married, and having children. He was in a hurry, you see, to ‘have it all’ before he turned thirty. I didn’t see just how convenient I was.

The courtship ended once we were married, and I soon felt very alone, tending house and children. “At least he’s not abusive,” I’d tell myself. “Could be worse.” Even though I couldn’t see it, I was doing the dance my mother taught me, denying that something was missing. I wanted so much for love to work, to be a real thing, that I was a part of, and he played on that, telling me how “if I’d been more loving”, I would be something that I was not. In the end, when he left me, I was convinced that I was not good enough for love.

“You were dying inside,” my friend kindly told me. “I watched your spirit dwindle away.”

I grieved, then raged, but eventually found level ground, where, for the first time in my life I considered loving myself. It was a broken relationship, for sure, and I had to start with simple things, such as: What did I like to eat?

Through therapy, I realized that in trying to avoid my parents relationship, I had actually just recreated a different version. If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck!

Loving myself, I decided would be the opening for true love to enter my life. So I played a game with myself, a game I called: What would it feel like?
I bought myself flowers, and allowed myself to feel the simple pleasure that such a gesture offered. When responsibility and obligation started to wear me down, I’d draw a bubble bath and pour myself a glass of wine, imagining that this is what love would do: offer solace rather than complaints. I even went as far as to visualize what it would feel like to be truly loved, not for what I could do for another, but because I am.

Accepting myself, just the way I am, and my life along with it, brought a sense of inner peace and I stopped longing for more. Maybe, I thought, this was the love I was looking for all along.

When Thor showed up in my life, it was already full, and his presence threw me off balance. I allowed the excitement for a couple of weeks, and then, to quote him, ” I kicked him to the curb.” I didn’t need this.

And yet I did.

Curiousity got the better of me, and so I invited him back in.

“These are the ground rules,” I told him at the beginning. “We will hang out for a year and see how it goes. There will be no talk of ‘us’, and no plans for the future. After a year, we’ll see how it goes.”

“What you see, is what you get.” Thor shrugged. “I am afraid I’m pretty vanilla.”

With Thor’s compliance, a friendship began to take shape, as well as a genuine, mutual, fondness. Most importantly, with Thor, I felt appreciated and acknowledged.

We married in a small, personal ceremony, exchanging our own, heartfelt vows. And on our honeymoon night, as I crawled into his open arms, he uttered the words that summed up all my years of searching:

“Let me be your soft place to land. No matter what life throws at you, or how harsh life can be, know that coming home will always be safe.”

disability · health · Humour · poetry

Harmonics

6:30 a.m. alarm sounds.
“Time to wake up!” conditioned Compliance commands.
“Just a little longer,” Sensibility suggests.
Guilt, like an incessantly annoying child
tugs on Conscience:
“Come on, there’s lots to do!”
Body does not respond.

Sleep wins
and dreams come:
homeless,
relying on friends,
no food,
backed up toilet,
children’s wide eyes fearfully imploring
When is this all going to end?

Guilt propels a return to consciousness.

8:25 a.m.
“Up and at ’em! There’s a good soldier!” Compliance attempts to be chipper.
“There’s really nothing more important than rest,” Sensibility suggests.
“Can’t lie in bed all day!” Guilt counters.
But body is MIA.

Dreams surface again:
Setting up house in a thoroughfare,
people coming and going, oblivious to intrusion,
co-workers indifferent,
eyes scolding; convicting.

Guilt mutates to rage,
Body wakes up with a choking cough, and gasping,
reaches for the rescue inhaler
and sucks in, desperate for air.

11:11 am.
“That’s it! Up you get!”
“No! No! Rest is needed!”
“The day is wasted! There’s no getting it back!’

“SILENCE!” A new voice emerges.

A collective intake of breath.

“Breathe,” comes the message. “Just breathe.”

A unified sigh.

“And breathe again.”

Tempers cool, and emotions begin to settle.

“What’s going on?” Guilt wonders.
“Just trying to stick to routine,” Compliance explains.
“It’s always been this way.”
“But she’s ill now,” Sensibility adds, “and there needs to be concessions.”

“Breathe,” the voice reasserts, and all sigh again.
“Just be in the stillness of the moment.”

Stillness has no voice.
Its language is compassion and infinite,
infinite wisdom.

“And surrender.”

Compliance sobs with the release of such enormous obligation.
Sensibility gratefully gives over the burden of responsibility,
and Guilt…..well Guilt is little,
and happily snuggles up to Unconditional Love.

“There, there,” Voice soothes, “isn’t harmony so much better?”

Body concurs and rises out of bed.

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Day 219 “Return to Emptiness”

“We’ll give him a few more minutes, shall we?” The kindly old man seated across from me, crossed one leg over the other and sat back as if he had all the time in the world to wait.

“The thing is…I mean…,” I hung my head in shame. “I don’t think he’s coming.”

“Ah, yes.” He picked up his note pad, uncrossed and leaned forward. “I suspected as much.”

“He went away for the weekend, you see, and he hasn’t returned yet.” How could I tell him that my husband left on Friday, and this was Monday, and I hadn’t heard a word from him? “He knew about the appointment,” I scrambled to make an excuse, “he just wasn’t sure if he’d make it back on time.”

“Do you think he wanted to be here?”

The question hit me hard. Tears caught in my throat and the best I could muster was a silent shake of the head.

“I’ve been doing this job for a long time, and I really don’t see any point of beating about the bush,” the psychiatrist said reaching for a tissue. “The fact is you and I both know he never had any intention of coming here today. He’s left it in my lap to tell you the marriage is over.”

It was the first of December, and when my partner of seventeen years did return home, he confirmed the doctor’s conclusion.

“We’ll wait till after Christmas,” he declared matter-of-factly. “That way we won’t ruin the children’s holiday.”

I hadn’t seen it coming. The shock was replaced with a overwhelming numbness that spurred me into robotic overdrive. Maintain a semblance of normalcy, I kept telling myself. No one must know! Secretly, I think I was hoping that if I acted like nothing was happening, then nothing would happen.

Inside, I was a mess. I had built all my hopes and dreams around this man. Seventeen years is a long time to commit your life to another, and frankly, I didn’t know what else to do.

The days passed, and in a fog, I trudged through, looking for meaning to the madness that surrounded me.

I just want some joy in my life, I prayed. How do I feel alive again?

The answer came during an ordinary outing with my children to the local library. I loved the library, because after I’d settled the kids in with some books of their own, I could search for myself. “Read; it will help keep you distracted,” my psychiatrist had advised. No arguments there.

Abandoned on a partially empty shelf, a little book caught my eye. “Everyday Sacred” was the title and the picture was of a large, red, earthenware bowl. I picked it up and flipped to the preface. It read:

bowl

I scooped the book up, then my children, and waited anxiously for the moment to explore Sue Bender’s words.

My soul resonated with the analogy of the bowl. My bowl had suddenly been emptied, and I would have to create a whole new beginning. Bender described the spiritual act associated with a begging bowl, in which the bearers would have to go into the streets and beg for their daily meals. The lesson: to learn to accept what we are given, each day, and to cherish all offerings. (My simplified version.)

Something inside me sang. I wanted to learn to live with gratitude and the joy of beholding the sacred in everyday.

Plans for the move started to take shape. As my husband worked from home, the children and I would move out. We found a townhouse not far from their school, and I ran into an old friend who was in the process of downsizing – she furnished the house for us. It was almost as if the Universe was stepping forward to buffer the blow. While my heart still ached, and I could barely manage to eat for the stress of it all, I also felt strangely comforted. My proverbial bowl continued to flow with abundance, and I just kept giving thanks.

Moving day was drawing near and the last thing I had to do was to arrange for a new home phone. Something in that act felt final, and as I hung up from the customer service rep, I put my head down on the table before me and felt the full weight of grief. There would be no going back. My life as I’d known it was over.

Look at what it spells. I swear a little voice whispered in my ear. “What what spells?” I spoke aloud, looking around for the source, but no answer came. Convinced I had really lost it, I turned my attention back to my new phone number. I would have to memorize it.

2 – 6 – 9 – 5 were the last four digits. 2, 6, 9, 5, I repeated in my head. 2695. Could this spell something?
I checked my keypad. And there it was:

b – o- w- l.

With no steady income and three mouths to feed, I had live with what each day brought, sometimes hardship, and sometimes blessings. It was a humbling, yet soul inspiring time of my life.

* * *

It’s been seventeen years since Susan Bender’s writings came into my life, but the concept still resides with me, bringing me comfort.

Now learning to live with chronic illness, my life has been once again emptied of the sense of purpose and routine that I had become so attached to.

I have returned to emptiness, and because of it, I now have a whole vessel waiting to be filled, and each day, I take what I’ve been given, and give thanks – for once again the simplest of things have become – every day –  sacred.

(Sue Bender’s book is available on Amazon. Click here for a copy.)

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Day 218 “Rule Your Life”

My five-year-old feet twisted and slipped in the dusty soil of the farmer’s plowed field, making my journey a challenge. Normally, I would take the long way, through the neighbourhood backyards, but today the hazy humidity was too thick for even the slightest breeze, and the sun beat down relentlessly, a I just wanted to get home. Inside it would be cool, and I could play with my toys. My hair clung to my head, a tangle of sweat and dirt from the morning’s adventure. Reaching the back gate, I jiggled the catch impatiently, my tummy grumbling with hunger and an urgent need to relieve myself. With one last burst of energy, I sprinted across the silent yard and stumbled into the back door.

Our back door was actually two doors: the first a screen door with a stubborn latch that you had to hit to open. For me, this meant balancing precariously on the top step while reaching up and slamming my palm against it, all the while hoping I wouldn’t lose my balance and fall off. This feat accomplished, I reached for the knob of the inner wooden door. It was locked. Again.

I pounded my little fist against the door, yelling for someone to come quickly. It was my sister Lorraine who answered the door.

“Shush!” she said, blocking my way.

“Move out of the way! I have to go pee!”

“She can’t come in here!” I caught sight of my oldest sister, Lily, in the kitchen feeding the baby. “Keep her out.”

“She has to use the toilet.” Lorraine was soft-hearted. I was sure she would give in.

“Alright. But make it quick! And not a sound, you mind!”

Lorraine held the door for me and ushered me into the small two piece bathroom just inside.

“I’m hungry too!” I told her. “I want to come inside.”

“Take these and get out!” Lily shoved a sleeve of crackers at me.

“But it’s hot outside, I need to cool off!”

“Look,” she said, leaning over so her face was right in mine. “Mom is suicidal, and the last thing she needs is you around!”

“What? Then I should go to her.” I tried to push past, but Lily was too strong.

“You want her to kill herself? Then you better get out now!”

Lily pushed me out the door and I heard the lock slide into place. Slumping onto the back step, I stuffed two crackers in my mouth and gobbled them hungrily, not worrying about the crumbs; then realizing that this was all I had to eat, I started to nibble them slowly, sucking each morsel until it slowly turned to mush in my mouth.

I thought about what my sisters had said. Would my Mom really kill herself? And would I be to blame? It must be true, I thought, because I was the only locked out of the house.

I didn’t want my Mommy to die, and I didn’t know what to do about it. Tears and snot mingled with my soda crackers, but I didn’t brush them away. A new understanding was dawning and it made me feel deeply saddened, afraid, and alone. I had the power to make my mother take her own life.

My mother didn’t take her life that day, but as I grew older, the lesson I’d learned was reiterated and reiterated.

“Don’t make your father mad!”

“We must be nice to your sister, or her heart will get worse.”

“Don’t upset the baby!”

“Don’t tell your mother, it will only disappoint her.”

And on and on.

The burden of keeping my family happy became an impossible task that I somehow took on as my own. Of course, I was a failure.
But I kept trying.

I didn’t question the fallacy of this belief until I became a mother myself. As a parent, always trying to please children is a no-win situation. My role, I knew, was to make the tough calls, and say no even when my child would rage or cry. It hurt me to have always be the “bad” guy.

But it wasn’t until my fourtieth birthday that I really understood how wrong I had been all those years. As she had every year, my mother tried to downplay the importance of celebrating my day of birth.

“I don’t imagine you need anything,” she told me days before. “You’ve got more than you want, but I suppose you’ll be expecting something from me.” It was the same thing I heard every year. Weeks before each of my siblings birthdays she would begin planning, calling me up to make sure I didn’t forget. But she’d forgotten mine on more than one occasion, always excusing it by saying my needs weren’t as great as my siblings.

Something in me snapped that day. Something in me decided that I had feelings too, and I was going to express them.

“Mom,” I said. “If you don’t want to celebrate my birthday, then don’t, but don’t taunt me about it. I have feelings too, you know.”

“I’m just saying, you live a very good life, Beth. What could I possibly give you that you don’t already have.”

“A card, Mom. A token of acknowledgement. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.”

“You don’t have get like that about it.” My mother didn’t speak to me for a week.

I told my therapist that I was a bad daughter; that I had hurt my mother.

“Aren’t you all powerful!” he declared.

I was taken aback. “What do you mean?”

“Try as I might, I’ve never been able to make anyone feel anything. How someone feels is a personal, emotional response. Pretty sure you can’t choose that response for them.”

The truth of what he said hit me like an arrow shattering all those years of defeatist delusion. “Of course, I can’t. You mean my mother feeling hurt is her own choice.”

“She can choose to be hurt, angry, self-righteous, belligerent, whatever. You can do nothing about that. You don’t have that kind of power.” He let that sink in. “The only power you have is choosing your own response in any situation. What is important here is that you validated yourself by expressing something important to you. How she received it is out of your control.”

And all these years I thought that it was me keeping her alive.

“Rule your own life,” he added. “It’s so much easier than trying to rule everyone else’s.”

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Day 217 “Leadership”

My father died on December 23rd and. because of the holiday, we were only able to post an obituary for one day before the funeral proceedings. It was a blustery Christmas that year, with the weather fluctuating between freezing rain and snow squalls, making driving a hazard. We had little expectation that anyone would come out for the service.

Surprisingly, many came, and we stood in line for hours greeting people, and listening to tales of our father. Friends I remembered from my childhood days appeared and fussed over how grown we all are, but many of the faces were unfamiliar. Regardless of the connection, the stories all expressed a common thread.

“If it wasn’t for your father,” one man told me, “I don’t know where I’d be today. Your father took me in at time when even I didn’t believe in myself. Hired me when he could have had a hundred other, younger, more experienced men.” I listened politely, as the man still clung to my hand. “I even asked him why me? You know what he said?” No, I shook my head, trying to picture my father even having this conversation. “He said I was a regular guy, down-to-earth; that people would relate to me. He said he couldn’t train the young whipper-snappers (definitely my dad’s words) to have what I had. I’ve been quite successful too, thanks to your dad.”

“Your father found me sleeping on a bench in the train station.” Another man told me. “I had hit rock bottom, didn’t know where to go next or how to carry on. I had one suit draped over the bench behind me. In your father came, grabbed up the suit in one hand, and literally pulled me off the bench. ‘Come on, Man!’ he said. ‘You’re too good for this. I’m getting you a job.’ He was my angel.” I knew this man. He’d been far more successful than my father in his life. I never knew about the role my father played.

“Your father always had a way of motivating us,” one man told me. “We were his team, but we were more than that. He made us feel important, like family. And he never asked us to do anything that he wouldn’t do himself. We felt respected.”

“He fired me once,” another man chuckled. “But you know, I deserved it. Told me to come back when I grew up and got my priorities right. I did, and we worked together again. I credit him with giving me the kick I needed. He never held a grudge, and neither did I.”

It was difficult through it all not to picture the tyrant that had ruled our household with terror for so many years, and yet, somewhere in the back of my mind, I had always seen this potential in my father.

He had been a great leader in his field, as witnessed on this stormy December day. The many who dared to come despite the weather gave us a wonderful gift that day – a new understanding of the man we called ‘father’, and a new purpose to our grieving.

I, personally, grieve that the type of leadership my father practiced in his working life seldom made it home where it was sorely needed.

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Day 216 “Living with the Unknown”

“We don’t know what causes this illness, and there is no cure or course of treatment other than management, and that is mostly trial and error.” It is the standard answer from all healthcare providers when it comes to ME/CFS.

“I am flat out frustrated,” I tell my therapist. “I can’t seem to find a regime that works. I can have one or two good days and then, wham, I am knocked down for no apparent reason.”

“That seems to be the way with this disease. How are you managing emotionally?”

“Okay, mostly, but on the worst days I find myself always on the edge of tears.”

“There is a grieving process that accompanies a diagnosis of chronic illness, you know. It has to do with the loss of your normal life, and all the things that go with being healthy.”

“This feels more like fear. I know it’s irrational, but this feels very much like fear.”

“Are you afraid you’ll never get well again.”

“Nnnoo…….I know I can do that – I’ve gotten through worse before. It’s just….it feels almost as if it’s coming from an old place – a younger me, if that makes sense.”

“It does actually. Whenever we are hurt or vulnerable, we often respond from a wounded part of ourselves, and that usually relates back to childhood. How old does this make you feel?”

“Nine!” I respond immediately. “I can see me, sitting in the corner of my childhood bedroom. It was my favourite hiding place. I spent hours and hours there as a kid.” Wishing someone would come find, but they never did, I remember to myself.

“Can you talk to her?”

Little Me sits with her knees drawn up tight, arms hugging them to her, eyes wide open and hyper-alert.

“What is it?” I ask.

No one will want us, her fear says.

The emotion hits me violently. She was told over and over again that she was an unwanted burden. “Unwanted” is the key word. We can handle any other pain than that.

“We have a burden complex,” I tell both her and my therapist.

Both nod, but Little Me’s terror and tension doesn’t ease.

“Go on,” urges my therapist.

“A burden is something, not someone,” I explain. “You are not a burden. You are a child, and by that fact alone, you have certain rights – birthrights – among them the right to have your needs met, the right to be looked after and cared for, and the right to be loved. NOT: You have to earn these rights! NOT: You are unworthy and therefore undeserving! You exist, you are born, those are your rights!”

My therapist nods throughout, and more importantly, I see Little Me is listening, and her shoulders have dropped a bit.

But Mom says…., she begins.

“I know what your Mother tells you: Don’t wear out your welcome. All she means is be polite and stay a reasonable amount of time when visiting your friends. She is not commenting on your likeability.”

Really? What is a reasonable amount of time?

“Discreetly leave before supper is ready unless you are invited.”

“Yes, yes,” the therapist nods.

Little Me considers this. Then why does she rush us off to bed at night as soon as Dad gets home? Isn’t it because we’re a burden and she doesn’t want to remind him?

“NO! It has nothing to do with that! I cannot emphasize this enough! It is something you will understand as an adult, but for now, know that you being sent to bed is your parents’ issue, not yours!”

What about Thor? Won’t he find us a burden and leave us?

“Ahh!” says my therapist warmly.

I feel my throat catch and sigh. “Some things in life are uncertain.” It’s not like I haven’t thought about it. How do I begin to address this? “We have many things that Thor is looking for,” I offer. “Last year, we looked after him. We are patient, loving, and good listeners. These are important to him. He is wounded too, you know. He needs reassurances. Our insecurities will push him away more than anything, especially if we pretend not to have any.”

The truth of this last statement hits me. Little Me loosens her posture and now looks at me quizzically. Confession time.

“One of the things I have done in my life – right or wrong- is to develop a tough exterior. It hasn’t always served us well. Much like our Mother sending us off to bed early, I did it as a form of protection.” I pause to feel the weight of the revelation. “It doesn’t work anymore.”

The silence from within and without encourages me to go on. “Part of my healing process – our healing process (I add for Little’s sake)- is to replace that characteristic with a healthier one.”

What will that look like? Little Me echoes my therapists thoughts.

“Not entirely sure, but I know how it will feel: safe enough for you to come out of the corner and engage with life. You, we, have a lot to share, and we can’t do it when we hide ourselves away.”

I am strangely comforted by this conversation: lighter. “I have my homework cut out for me,” I tell my therapist.

“You do! But this is a good start.”

“Life is full of uncertainties,” I tell Little Me, on our way home. “Some good, some bad; it’s just the way it is.”

Kinda like an adventure?

“Yeah, it kinda is!”

life · nonfiction · spirituality

Nature’s Divinity

Well before I was of an age to articulate it, I understood that there was something sacred about nature. An indescribable presence spoke to me and I, unscathed by the creeds of modern religion, learned to listen with reverence.

My appreciation for a Higher Being was stirred in the gardens of my birthplace. The vibrant colours of the many species of flowers and the busy, other world, of the insects that inhabited these gardens spoke to me of a whole world that was invisible to the ordinary eye. Life within life. I was captivated.

By the age of five, I began to wander beyond the garden gate, across the tilled fields of the farm that our home bordered, and into the woods beyond. There my true schooling began.

The woods were untamed – a tangle of old and new growth, thickly blocking any paths – and if I was careful enough to pick my way through, I came to a natural opening where a creek ran through. The water, like my soul, was clear and revealed every little secret.

For hours, I would squat and behold its wonders: tadpoles in the springtime, crayfish burrowing in the sand, and even the twigs that would be carried by the current, get stuck in the rocks and resist the flow of water until they were released again.

I discerned a certain pattern to the life I was witnessing: a sense of harmony and purpose.

Lucky enough to live in a country with four seasons, I absorbed the lessons of change, and learned to read the signs. The shifting wind, for instance, spoke of brooding weather, or the coming of spring after the winter’s slumber. I learned that life has cycles, and that after every winter comes the rains and new hope of brighter days.

Another of my favourite spots was deep within the woods, where the light beams trickled through the leaves like a cascade of fairy sparkles. Burrowing into the soft soil of the earth, I would sit quietly, patiently, until nature revealed herself to me. The woods, I discovered, much like the garden of my own backyard, housed a thriving population: insects, birds, animals, and reptiles – all whose existence seemed to rely on one another.

I wanted more than to be a part of it all – accepted, belonging: a child of Nature.

And then I lost my innocence.

I attended church, and learned that God lived in a church, and that I was not worthy of His love, and therefore; I needed to repent. I needed to repent because I was blemished by sin, and that felt dirty, and the earth that I so loved became undesirable, and bugs were icky, and nature was something wild to be feared.

I began to doubt my own understandings.

I learned to doubt me.

I lost confidence.

I no longer listened to the signs.

I learned to want for things, material things, anything, that would fill the void. Disconnected from the reverent, life felt out of control, something to be feared, not revered.

But nature has a way of reminding, even the most diehard non-believers, that there is more to life than we can see, and that a force, inexplicable, and sacred exists, and it came knocking on my windowpane tonight, with a message in the form of unseasonal gale winds and hail, and woke me from slumber.

And my soul answered, like the child I had once been, with a joyous recognition that despite all our theories, and doctrines, and delusions of educated knowledge, there still exists a life within a life: the Great Mystery that defies us and keeps us ever humble.

 

T