Day 232 “Levels of Virtue”

“Good, better, best.  Never let them rest.  Until your good is better and your better best,” my father would make me recite often; a constant reminder that I was never good enough.

“Patience is a virtue…, ” my mother would wag her finger at me implying that I was somehow sinful.

I gave up being virtuous long ago.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been leery of “good” people.

I knew a woman once who was touted by others as a guru – saintly sweet, full of love and light – you know the kind.  She often rented space in the same office building where I was working at the time, and for some reason, I kept my distance.

Call it instinct.

Or maybe, it was because I didn’t want her judging my lack of virtue.

One day, as I approached the building, I heard a distinctly female voice raised in anger, coming from inside the lobby.  I hesitated, not wanting to walk into the middle of a fracas, and listened for distinguishable voices.  I caught the low, gruff tone of one of the landlords, and the higher, more nasal,  and still calm voice of his partner.  Whoever they were trying to discuss matters with was having none of it – her voice like piercing shards of glass was bouncing off the walls, and as it did not seem like it was going to subside, I had no choice but to push open the door and disturb the scene.

Red in the face, foaming from the mouth, was the “guru”.  Unforgiving of my untimely entrance, she turned her wrath on me:  “Could you not have waited?!  Does no one have any sense of boundaries around here?”  Then she stormed out the door, leaving three brow-beaten people in her wake.

“What was that?”  I asked looking at my befuddled landlords.

“Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, I think.”  chuckled one.

“Apparently we did something to disturb her,” stated the other.   “Nothing that would provoke that amount of anger, I should think, but there was no talking about it with her.”

I had no reasoned response.  After all, she was the purported paragon of virtue, certainly not me.

 

 

Day 177 “Trimming Excess”

Want to meet for a drink after work on Friday?  The text was the third invitation I had received this week.

Sorry, was my response, too swamped with work.

Like my dismissal of the other two invites, I didn’t give it another thought.

That is until I read today’s reflection.  “The principle of simplicity,” Derek Lin writes, “…can be extended to cover excess in general.”  Apart from my weight issue, I thought, where might I trim excess?

It hit me like a bolt of lightning – How about the excess that stands between me and my values?

I profess to value relationship, and long for deeper friendships, yet I find saying no so easy.  Work above all else is my creed.  I learned it from my father, who learned it from his father, and have even passed it down to my children.  Everyone understands the importance of work, so it is a forgivable excuse – but is it an honest one?

If I put the amount of effort into my relationships as I do my career, I would surely have the bonds I long for.  Is work an excuse?  Could it be that I really am just afraid of intimacy? I certainly have experienced more than my share of rejection and abandonment, so maybe this is something I need to consider.

Teaching, with all the prep work involved, is time consuming.  Coaching, while expected, just adds more hours onto the day, yet, I wonder if there isn’t another approach to the way I deal with the pressure?  Is there any excess to be trimmed to make room for other aspects of my life?

I worry about something as soon as it is assigned.  Once I know my classroom assignments, for example, I immediately go into overdrive trying to plot out the semester and thinking of ideas to engage my students.  I push myself to be organized weeks in advance, and fret about the weeks beyond.  The resulting emotion is one of being always behind, frantic.

What if I could change my approach –  break tasks down into more manageable chunks – and leave myself time each day for something other than work?  Is it possible to create balance, and with it calm?

“Trimming Excess”, with its simplicity of message, has caused me to reflect on the way I complicate things.

 

 

Day 168 “Hidden Messages”

“I’m not as smart as you.  I’d probably be okay if I was smarter.”

“That’s not true, Mai!  You are very smart.”

“Do you really think so?”

My sister and I were doing dishes after supper.  I had come to visit parents and Mai, who lived just upstairs from my parents’ apartment, joined us.  Mai is paranoid schizophrenic.

“You got 96% in your nursing program.  Intelligence is not your problem.  You have a mental illness.  That is different.”

“I did, didn’t I?  I used to be a good nurse.”

“I’m sure you were.”

Mai would attempt to take her life at least once a year, resulting in the eventual loss of her job, and much of her independence.

“Do you want me to do the washing?  You must be tired.”  Mai set down her dishtowel and backed away from the sink.

“I am just fine.  We are almost done.”
“You’re probably just tired.”  Mai removed herself from the kitchen area of the apartment and sat down.

I realized in the that moment that it was actually Mai who was tired, but somehow, she was unable to articulate that, so she projected her feelings onto me.  It was an aha moment for me, and explained much of Mai’s behaviour.  I would notice it when we went out together.  If she would suggest that I was hungry, cold, or whatever, it really meant that she was.

“Mai is unable to speak directly to whatever is bothering her,”  I explained to my Mother later on.  “So we can’t take what she says at face value.”

“It must be part of her illness,”  my Mother deduced.

I agreed at the time, but then it became apparent to me that my Mother did the same thing.  Her hidden messages were not as easy to detect.

“How can you keep a husband and work full-time?”  she might ask me, which I would take as criticism.  Or, she would say:  “You were out having lunch with a friend, what about your husband and children?  What did they do for lunch?”  Such statements would grate on my nerves, until I decided not to take them personally and investigate what she was really saying.

“Did you ever want to work outside the home, Mom?”

“Oh, I would have loved to, but your father wouldn’t let me.  A woman’s place is in the home.  When I did go to work, it was only after I threatened to leave, but he never liked it.”

My Mother’s seemingly judgmental comments were actually expressions of regret for the limitations she felt in her own life.  Apart from not being allowed to work outside the home, my Mother also didn’t cultivate any personal friendships.  “My children are all I need,”  she would say.

My family, I came to understand, are masters at hiding the truth.  It warranted a look at my own behaviours and communications.

I am highly skilled in convincing myself that immediate gratification far outweighs longterm gain, thus my ongoing issues with weight (or should I spell that wait?).  Put a high calorie, non-nutritious snack in front of me, and I will go for it everytime – hungry or not.  I convince myself that I deserve this, or I’ll be good tomorrow, or that it’s just this one time, all of which are lies.  Thor is my co-consipirator in this process.  We support each other’s need to overindulge.

So what, I have ask myself, is the hidden message behind this behaviour?  And if I am to get honest with myself, what will that look like?

Clearly, I have work to do.

 

Choosing Self Love

The day was sickly hot, and my allergies were bugging me.  I just wanted to hunker down in the corner of my room and lose myself in a good book, but when I tried the back door, it was locked.  I knocked.  No response.  I knocked harder and longer.

The door swung open angrily, and my oldest sister yelled for me to get lost, slamming it in my face.

I knocked again, more persistently.

She opened again hissing at me:  “Seriously, V.J.!  You need to stay away, or Mom will kill herself.”

“But it’s hot and I don’t feel well.  Please let me come in.”

“No way!  Mom can’t handle anything else.”  She slammed the door again.  I heard the lock slide into place.  I slumped down on the step, thinking over what she had said.  Was it really possible for me to be the cause of my mother’s suicide?  The rest of the family, save for my Dad, were inside.  I was the only one locked out.  Was I really that bad of a kid?

That was the day I learned that I could be responsible for another person’s well-being.  I wasn’t yet eight years of age.

* * *

“I am not a very good daughter,”  I explained to the therapist I had been seeing.  I was thirty-seven and having difficulty with my own daughter, so I sought help.

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, I upset my mother and she hasn’t spoken to me for a week.”

“You think you are that powerful?”

“Pardon me?”

“You actually believe that you can influence how someone feels?”

I hadn’t thought of it that way.  “You mean, my mother’s reaction is out of my control?”

“Exactly.”

* * *

“My husband tends not to look after himself when I am away.”

“And how does that make you feel?”

Eighteen years later and I am back in therapy again.  Situational anxiety and depression is the diagnosis.  I feel like I have regressed.

“Guilty.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, if I was home I know he would be cared for.”

“So you are responsible for his choices?”

“No….well…..I guess that is what I am saying.  Shit!  How do I let this go?!”

“You will not always agree with the choices that your husband makes, but you can at least let him have responsibility for them.”

“That makes sense, so why is it so difficult for me?”

“It’s really about control.  Somehow you believe that if you can control the other person’s behaviour, then everything will be all right.  It never works, of course, but it’s a product of growing up in an out-of-control family environment.  It’s part of being a people pleaser.”

I thought I had dealt with all this years ago, and said so.

“The subconscious tries to heal those parts of self that are still wounded, so it repeats patterns.  The secret is in re-parenting yourself.  This need for control is a reflection of a childhood need that wasn’t met.”

“Like the part of me that thought she was responsible for my mother’s suffering?”

“Yes.  As an adult now, you need to offer that little person a different perspective.  What would you tell that little girl now?”

“Well, I would sit down on that porch step with her and explain that whatever her mother was going through was not her fault.  I would tell her that her sister was coping with a bad situation, and that it was not related to her behaviour.  None of it was her fault.”

“That is a good start.  Can you see anything else that the child might be missing in this scenario?”

“Caring for.  I was hot and tired and needed shelter.  I probably needed some comfort too.”

“So how will you give that to her?”

I think this over.  Am I good at looking after myself?  Occasionally, but not always.  “Why is looking after myself so difficult?”

“You tell me.”

I look back at the little girl locked out of her house, and I suddenly know.

“She doesn’t think she deserves to have her needs met,”  I realize.  “I still don’t think my needs matter.  Others are always more important.”

“So who should you be responsible for?” the therapist asks gently.

“Me.  And her.  She needs me to take care of us.”

“Can you do that?”

“It’s the only choice that makes sense.”

(Image: hdimagelib.com)

Day 164 “Standing on Tiptoes”

Julie Ann was born with one notable gift and one equally notable (to her, at least) flaw:  she could sing like an angel and she had a wandering eye.  Unable to care for her too numerous children, Julie Ann’s mother sent her to live with her parents.  Other siblings were farmed out to other relatives, until Julie Ann’s mother could get her life back on track.  Singing was the one thing that brought Julie Ann, and those around her, joy.  She joined the church choir, and the school choir, and entered little talent contests here and there, and everyone said the same thing:  “This girl is destined for fame.”

But Julie Ann didn’t think so.  Every time she looked in the mirror, all she could see was her hideous lazy eye.  Her grandparents had taken her to the doctor and they did give her corrective glasses, which she wore for awhile, but threw away when the children at school teased her so much, she couldn’t stand it anymore.  Instead, she decided to grow her hair long and wear it draped over that eye, so no one could see it.

Julie Ann grew tall, and despite her odd eye, stunningly beautiful.  Her long black hair fell in natural waves over her slender body, and she soon discovered that men found her quite attractive.  A pair of high-heeled stilettos worn with a short, tight skirt, made her legs appear to go on forever and effectively detracted from what was hidden behind the curtain of hair across her face.  At sixteen, men were falling over themselves to buy her drinks at the bars she attended, underage.

Julie Ann couldn’t get enough of the attention she was receiving.  She didn’t care how many women glared at her, or confronted her about luring their men, she felt powerful and no one was going to stop her.  Soon, she started flirting her way onto the stage, and here she really began to shine.  When Julie Ann opened her mouth to sing, rooms went quiet.  There was magic in her voice and an undeniable talent that would propel her upward.  At seventeen, she was the headliner performing in night clubs, and a couple of years later she was offered a recording contract.

She was on her way to stardom.

The little girl, whose mama had cast aside, was becoming a sensation.

Along the way, she had surgery to repair her eye.  Then she noticed that her breasts were a little small, and she had surgery to increase those.  Money was never an issue, because there was always some man eager to take up her cause.  A little enhancement to her buttocks increased her shapeliness, and then she discovered botox.  It seemed the ways in which she could improve her image were endless.

And all the while, she wore her trademark stilettos:  to the grocery store, the night clubs, even the gym.  No one would see her without them.  She traveled through life on tiptoes.  She aspired to be a super model.

Julie Ann’s obsession with her looks and sexual prowess soon overpowered her ability to sing.  In her own mind, it was her physical appearance, and not her singing ability that helped her gain fame.  She grew impatient when people asked her to sing.  She disregarded her agent’s advice that  she needed to focus on her singing more, and refused to do benefit concerts or charity events.  She lost her footing on the hit parade.  Other, younger, stars were willing to work hard to keep climbing.  They soon surpassed her.

Julie Ann didn’t seem to notice.

It wasn’t long before she was only singing for family again, and even then, she had to be goaded over and over before she would relent.  The pleasure was gone, and those who knew her well were saddened by what she had become.

Julie Ann showed up at my door one night, in the middle of a storm.  I didn’t recognize her at first.  The woman who stood outside, in the darkness, was shorter than me, with straight black hair that hung down to her waist.  She was wearing a simple housecoat and flats.  Her face was not made up and quite frankly, she looked like a lost little child.

“I’m sorry,”  I stumbled to recuperate.  “I didn’t recognize you.”

“I know,”  she said flatly.  “This is the real me.  Pathetic, isn’t it?”

“Not at all,”  I reassured her.  Not at all.

“How do you do it?”  she asked, getting right down to business.  “You don’t wear a lot of makeup, you could care less about your hair, and you never wear heels, but people still look up to you.”

I had to stifle a laugh.

“I guess that’s what makes us different,”  I offered.

“I want to be more like you.”

“Julie Ann, you are a very beautiful and talented woman.  I will never be either of those things.  I poured my energy into education, reading, and helping others.  Stardom was never in my cards.”

She plopped down on the bed and started to cry.

“People admire you.  People are jealous of me, or hate me for being better than them, but no one admires me.  No one wants to be like me.”

“I’m sure that’s not true”  Actually, secretly, I suspected she was right.  There is nothing warm and appealing about a self-centered woman.

“How much money do you spend a month on makeup and clothes?” she asked scanning my hotel room for answers.

“I don’t know.  How much do you spend?”

“I spend four hundred on makeup alone.”

“Holy Cow, Julie Ann.  I wouldn’t spend that in a year!”

“Don’t you care?”

“It’s just not my priority.”

“No one sees me like this, you know.”

“Why is that, Julie Ann?  What are you afraid of?”

“Everyone expects me to be glamourous.  They only know me this way.”

“How much time do you spend each day getting ready?”

“Three hours.  It takes three hours to do my hair and makeup.  Sometimes, I do it twice a day.”

“What would you do with your time, if you didn’t have that routine?  Three hours is a lot.”  I rattled off all the things I did with three hours being a mother of three.  Julie Ann had a young son; I couldn’t help but wonder what he did during her coiffing.

“Easy for you to say,” she stormed.  “Your career doesn’t depend on it.”

I don’t know what Julie Ann expected to gain from me that evening, but it seemed to me that we got nowhere.  I gleaned an insight into her bizarre daily rituals, and she seemed to convince herself that she was more important than me, and therefore, justified in her life choices.

When she left, she swore me to secrecy about what she really looked like.  “I don’t want anyone to know I’m this short.”

Julie Ann is an enigma to me.  She is gifted with the most incredible voice, and the physical beauty to match it.  As an outsider, I would say she had it all.  Until that night that she graced my doorstep, I would have thought that Julie Ann was above me; superior in so many ways.  Our moment of intimacy shattered that illusion.  Maybe Julie Ann just needed the opportunity to rediscover herself.   Maybe she saw in me the inspiration to be different.  Maybe she was considering what life would be like if she wasn’t always standing on tiptoes.

Whatever her reasoning, Julie Ann did not leave empty handed that night.  At some point during our brief exchange, she had managed to “pocket” something of mine.  I wouldn’t discover the loss until later that next morning, as I went to leave.

Julie Ann had taken my shoes.  My practical, sensible, comfortable flat-soled, shoes.

 

Day 147 “Existence”

We are not islands:  isolated, insulated, to be ignored.

We are humans dancing through relationships,

weaving our tales,

intertwining stories,

with lovers, friends, families, enemies,

and our selves.

Yearning for love’s repricocity

Delighting in wonder of discovery

slugging through painful demise

striving to be better.

 

I dream of walls, and towers

and paths that lead nowhere

and these are the nature of my relationships –

artificial barriers,

lofty ideals,

dead ends.

Then I dream of hands that hold me

and gentle waters, soothing

and warm, passionate kisses

and I remember love’s rewards.

 

I exist.

Not for the possessions that I accumulate

but for the gifts I receive

when my heart opens and

my mind expands

in relationship with others.

 

One Way Conversation with Dad

Happy Birthday, Dad.  You would have been 88 today.

I miss you today, Dad.  I miss your wisdom; I could use some right now.

I don’t know if you can read this, Dad, or hear me, but I’d like to pull up a chair anyway, so we can talk.  You see, I’m just not feeling that confident today, Dad.

I know, I know.  You’d say “Why not Squeegie?  Life’s what you make of it, and you’re doing a pretty darn good job, from what I can see.”  And I would smile, despite myself, and thank you for the vote of confidence.

Truth is, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life, Dad, either from stubbornness, or just plain stupidity, and I’m beginning to think that that old saying is about me – you know, the one you used to say all the time:  Failure to plan is planning to fail.  Well, I failed to plan, Dad.

Before you say anything, I’m not bemoaning my life – it has been good.  I’m just recognizing, at my age, that if I had planned, life would be a lot different right now.  I’d be retiring with my friends, and looking forward to spending many days with my grandchildren.  Instead, I don’t even have a full-time job, so retirement is definitely not in the cards.

I know what you’re thinking: you weren’t a very good role model, because you failed to plan also. ( Oh, by the way, I was mad at you for that – for leaving Mom with so little, despite all the money that you made.)  Seems I’m doing the same to myself.

But it’s more than that, Dad.  I just don’t feel like I can trust myself, enough to make right choices, career-wise.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I have a hard time telling if I’m doing a good job, or am appreciated.  I always feel apologetic or inadequate.  Why is that?

No, don’t start, it’s not all your fault.  Okay, you didn’t help, but I’m an adult now, you’d think I’d be over that.  I’m just tired of doubting myself.

Remember when my marriage fell apart, and how the day I realized it, I drove directly to you?  You sat in your chair and listened, while I crumpled on the couch, spewing anger, and disappointment, and heartbreak.  I felt so defeated, and you cried with me, and shook your head, and raged on my behalf.  I don’t remember exactly what you said, but this is what I heard:

“Squeege (your pet name for me), I don’t know why this has happened to you, but I do know this:  you are a bright, loving woman, and you give your heart and soul to everything you do, and everyone you love, and you deserve better than this.  Goddamn it, you deserve better than this!”

You could be a bastard, a lot of the time, Dad, but you were also my rock.

I’m just sorry that today, you weren’t here for me to tell you so. As for my problems, guess I’ll have to figure this one out on my own.

I was too proud to tell you when you were alive, Dad (and too stubborn), but truth is, I needed you.  Still do.

Thanks for listening, and by the way, Happy Father’s Day.

Love you,

Squeege

Soul’s Guardian

“Mom, I don’t know how to say this, but…”  I was tucking my ten-year-old son into bed.

“Go ahead.”

“Well, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you know how if there is a sale on at Eaton’s, you want to get there early.”

“Yes?”  I wasn’t sure where this conversation was going.

“You want to get there early because the best stuff gets picked over first, right?”

“I suppose so.”

“Well, no offense, but you’re not getting any younger.”

“What are you on about?”

“Maybe you need to get out there before all the good ones are picked over.”

“Are you saying I should start dating?”

He nodded solemnly.

“Well, I’ll give it some thought.”  It had been over six months since his father and I had separated, and dating was the furthest thing from my mind, but there was wisdom in those words.  Still shattered from the unexpected end of a seventeen year relationship, I coped by going to bed early every night, and staying away from people.  My son was probably right – avoiding life was not the answer – life was passing me by.

‘Obi-Wan Kenobe’, one of my friends called my son.  From an early age, he has had an uncanny wisdom, well beyond his years.  He’s my soul’s guardian.

(Image from: www.kidscreativechaos.com)