A Life Without Want

Final Fortnight, Day 5; interior

Every morning I wake up and I’m able to breathe, I say a word of thanks. That’s new this year, in this time of deadly respiratory viruses and wildfires. That I get a chance to fuck up another day is, I recognize, a gift.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of want and gratitude and boundaries. This year has stripped away the artifice from my daily existence, the social pleasantries and petty grievances on whose energy I mindlessly drifted day after day. We’re closer to our essential being right now than we have ever been, and while I’ve spent a lot of time fearing for our future, sunk in depression that the world — my world — is headed off a steep cliff, it’s also forced me to identify what is important to me and what is fluff.

I imagine anyone who’s living with other people has discovered boundaries during the time of Covid. In our small apartment, we’ve been bumping up against each others’ boundaries for months.

I am considering the way gratitude changes the way I *want.* When I’m contemplating those things that I’m glad for – – my ability to wake up early, have a bowl of cereal, and go straight back to sleep for another four hours of the best sleep I have ever had (which I only have the time to do because I’m unemployed); the shimmering Norway Spruce outside my window that greets me with a gentle wave every morning (near which I live because my husband’s job allows us to afford this apartment); my daughter’s dogged determination to blaze — and I do mean WITH FIRE – – her own path (which I get to witness because the pandemic has paused her pursuit of independent housing); my husband’s relentless pursuit of the order and routine that keeps him functional; plentiful forests with hiking trails where I can romp with my dog; – – when I identify these facts of my life, I take a deep breath and fill up with contentment.

And in this way, gratitude has helped me avoid the yawning chasm of want that beckons with sorrowful fingers crooked in misdirection. There’s a quote or a prayer that I can only vaguely remember that’s been wandering through my thoughts; “May you live a life without want.” I used to think that meant having everything you could possibly want, but now I think it means recognizing what you *have* and no longer aching for what you don’t.

Which brings me to boundaries.

Navigating Tim’s new-ish diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), we are pursuing advice to establish new, much clearer boundaries. Decide what you want, they say, and then clearly articulate the request. And then defend it consistently.

“I want two uninterrupted hours a day for writing at these times.” Okay, that one makes sense. I can articulate that.

“I want to have you contribute to the maintenance of the home in these ways ______ _________ ___________.” Okay, got it.

“When I am in a video lesson, please do not do ________________.”

“When we are in an argument, do not mention ________________.” Clear.

But there are more malleable boundaries, harder to defend, whose breach leads to that cavernous wanting. When the boundaries are crossed, a drain is unplugged, and the want empties the space of all contentment.

It seems that want is the space beyond boundary; the empty, lonely place past your guarded border, in which you are alone. There’s this equation in my head that shows gratitude and want cancelling each other out; all I have to do to live a life without want is to be grateful for what I have.

But how do I ask for what I need? Not just “don’t step here, it hurts,” but “this interpersonal connection behavior is necessary for me to grow”? I know my Catholic upbringing factors into this stultifying bewilderment as well. I was taught to “offer it up” when I was unhappy, to send my trivial suffering skyward to demonstrate to God that I recognized how insignificant I was compared to HIS suffering. My parents’ Catholicism was all about shame and suffering and penance. Offer it up.

Even worse for me is figuring out what I need. An entire lifetime in service of others has wiped clean my vocabulary for self-determination. Figuring out how to create my own self-care was a herculean task; I couldn’t even figure out what felt good to *me*. I did it, finally, and can self-soothe like a champ. Hot baths, sunlight, quiet time in the woods, meditation, music and writing.

But wanting from other people jumbles in my brain with gratitude and boundaries. I am grateful for what I have, so I shouldn’t want, and boundaries keep people out, so I can’t ask them to cross that line, to enter my space of solitude and provide something I need.

Interpersonal connection is not something I can provide myself, and getting it is not as easy as making a clear, well-expressed request. So I retreat from the edge of the cliff where I shout my needs into the abyss, knowing there will never be a responding echo.

And I take a deep breath, watch the brush of the spruce branches, and remember what I have.

Time in the forest

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