Gossips

“If I thought she’d get the story right, I would have told her everything.”

I found that line on a piece of paper in a random box I was cleaning out, and I’m not sure if I wrote it or someone else did. It resonates for me now, alongside the phrase “if they’ll talk with you about someone else’s business, they’ll talk about your business with someone else.”

These words are surfacing for me now, coincidentally, burbling to a central thought. My joy at finding women who show me the way forward is tempered by the realization that I’ve also found people showing me the way not to go. And I’m grateful for them too. As my sister says, everybody has a purpose, even if only to serve as a horrible example.

The lesson about gossips, about taking care with your choices, is easy to forget when you’ve spent years as an outsider, when you’re finally included in the circle, when you find yourself on the grown-up version of the prom committee. It’s easy to get caught up in the giggles and snark in the back of the room, laughter at the expense of another person.

But it won’t be long before that laughter is at your expense. It won’t be long before the prom committee aims its cruelty missile your direction, because it must always have a target or it won’t exist.

The realization that you’re the subject of insider discussion is unsettling. I spent years fighting the culture of gossip, which was easier to spot in cliquish suburban Chicago, where clique members wore the uniform of acceptable suburban hair color (honey blonde) and drove acceptable suburban vehicles (Lexus) and had acceptable family units (blond husband, two kids). It’s harder to spot in Portland, where people revel in their differences and celebrate being weird.

But it exists here too. No matter where it’s found, gossips show themselves. They’re easier to spot, if you remind yourself what to look for.

I needed a refresher on this lesson before it kicked my ass. I’m glad I found that piece of paper, and this poem, to remind me to take care in my associations.

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Emily Dickinson provided similar observations;

The Soul selects her own Society
Then–shuts the Door

 

I’m glad to remember these lessons before I need them, even in this place of wonder and acceptance. I’ve gotten better at seeing the signs now, avoiding entanglements with people who demonstrate with their actions that they should not be trusted. And that’s the hardest part, really; choosing not to trust someone, keeping them at bay, staying untangled.

The lure of acceptance is enticing to an introvert. But it is possible to consider carefully who to choose, which people to select for your own society without losing the joy of creating community. And in this, I’ve gained trustworthy friends too, people who have gently reminded me to look at the signals, who have shared their difficult paths and pointed out pitfalls before I went so far down a road that I couldn’t find my way back.

I have been lucky at last in learning this lesson the easy way. I’ll fly headlong into adventure on my own, take professional risks that lead me into unfamiliar territory, but I take longer now to gauge the depth and breadth of a person’s character, and trust my instincts when the warning lights flash.

This is another facet of the aging process for which I am so grateful; the wisdom of discernment.

 

 

Bud Vase

Packing is interrupted by the discovery — once again — of things from my life, or my kids’ lives. We’ve only lived in this location five years, and our belongings are dotted with pieces of history.

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This vase was given to me when one of my children was born. The doctor who delivered my babies always had a single rose delivered to his new moms, so I had two of these vases. One broke over the years. It was a sweet gesture by that doctor, simple and elegant, a nod of welcome to a new phase in the mother’s life. I wonder if he gave two roses to mothers of twins.

This bud vase has stayed intact in my life for 27 years, assuming it came with the delivery of my oldest child. It’s a piece of delicate glass that’s traveled through several moves, too many to count, and has been used every summer for lily-of-the-valley bouquets and single daisies on shortened stems. It’s useful, yes, but it also serves as a meditation object for me on my life as a mother. This slender vase reminds me of the tentative beginning of my motherhood, fragile and vulnerable and scared. That moment of my own birth into my new self, the glass occluded then but clear now.

Were I to design a vase now to represent my life as a mother from this vantage point, it would look different. There would be room for more than one bloom, its base would be rounder and more stable, and the glass might well be rose-colored. Perhaps the side would be stamped with an emblem reflecting our family, a five-headed bouquet of vastly different flowers, a tiger lily for Matt and sweetheart roses for Sophia and a sunflower for Thomas, some yucca for Tim and my own peony, surrounded by a thick circle. It would be a wild, ill-matched bouquet, like us. Perhaps there would be a band running along the bottom with the names of my children, and must include the child to whom I didn’t give birth and so I did not receive a flower. But being a mother to Thomas — that motherhood came hard-fought and joyfully won.

And at the bottom of the vase, in the sturdiest, most stable part would be my Tim, whose unflagging dependability and support made that motherhood flourish. We have a good family, the five of us, and I’d want everyone together if only in spirit, in symbol.

There will be more added to the family, I’m sure. Spouses and partners, children and grandchildren. Friends and in-laws. And we’ll make room. These lives will expand and embrace more love. And should that love lead to new babies, maybe I’ll offer each new parent their own bud vase, a way to remember their brief moment of perfect joy.

 

Feelings Machines

I grew up in a family dominated by boys, a group as macho and male-centric as you can get. As the youngest of five, I held a particularly dismissed position, made worse by my gravitation toward music and literature. All my life, I’ve been told that having feelings is bad. Showing emotion is a sign of weakness. Vulnerability. Even outside my family, this is the prevailing message: a premium is placed on “stiff upper lip” and stoicism, something I’ve learned to feign effectively.

My mother was an artist and a musician, my father an avid reader and self-taught musicologist, my sister a fine artist. Art and music and literature were everywhere in our house, and yet the prevailing attitude was that feelings were meant to be feared or avoided, and certainly not discussed.

But I’ve learned in therapy that our bodies — all of our bodies, not just women, not just writers and musicians — are feelings machines. Our five senses provide input to our brains about the world. The senses provide data that we then have to interpret. Feelings are what happen when our brains interpret that data. It’s how we deal with that interpretation that defines who we are.FeelingsMachine

Some of us are “sensitive” people, and some have learned to lock away the process of interpreting this data so it doesn’t show. But all of us do it. Sensitive people may have a more finely honed lens through which we see; things are brighter or sharper, and the input is intense. When we express those impressions to other people, we’re told we are strange or weird. That the world couldn’t possibly look that way. I’ve heard that message my whole life.

Well, until I moved to Portland. Here, I’m rather tame.

Some of us learn to hide away those feelings, bury them until they become caustic and threaten an internal — and ultimately external — explosion. Some learn to control the feelings, only letting them out in the safety of relationships with healthy, loving others. Some wallow in feelings, overwhelmed and confused by the power of these feelings.

But feelings don’t just go away when we don’t want to deal with them, or because we think they’re bad. They get bigger and more chaotic when we ignore them, like Gremlins in water.

Some of us are compelled to put those feelings into music, art, words, photographs, dance, sculpture — where other, less-feeling-aware people can see them and marvel at our talent. Art teaches us to see the human spirit and art lovers bask in its beauty and ability to make us feel.

To make us feel.

Tell me again feelings are bad?

Shouldn’t we be celebrating our body’s ability to reveal the world to us? Shouldn’t we be teaching our children, instead of hiding feelings in shame, to understand what the feelings are telling us? Joy, wonder, frustration,– anger! Anger tells us something is wrong, yet we are told to quell that anger and be calm.

And certainly not to talk about it. Oh heavens no.

In denying the feeling, we’re denying the right to explore life on our own terms and in our own observation of the world. Feelings are clues to help us understand the experience of being alive. We ignore and squash and deny them to our peril.

When we recognize the feelings, when we take the time to know ourselves and listen to what our feelings are telling us, we have the opportunity to be really alive, to live honestly. This isn’t to say we must revel impulsively in every feeling that crops up, but to become aware, to take time to analyze what’s going on so we understand and can make informed decisions.

This process has, for me, improved my relationships. When I understand the feelings that occur when I interact with the world, I am more considerate of other people, more aware of how my behavior changes, and how I affect other people. I’m more aware, too, of the variability of the feelings of people around me, and want to ensure that people I work and live with feel comfortable and safe with me. Increasing my awareness of myself has sent ripples out into my little world, and I am happier because of it.

Our systems are designed to take in this input, process it, and use it to guide our path. When we refuse to process it, it piles up and gets unmanageable. But we have tools: meditation or prayer, exercise, yoga, playing or listening to music, producing art, writing, sitting quietly and watching the sun rise or set.

My tools, the activities I use for what we call “self-care”, are gardening, being in nature, singing, and writing. I spend some time every week doing all of these. Tim has other tools, including playing the guitar. Each of us has different tools to help us quiet the mind, to get us into a place of understanding feelings.

We celebrate artists for what they remind us about ourselves, but we can also investigate our own impulses and instincts, dig down to find out how *we* see the world, and share our own unique perspective on this experience.

We are feelings machines, built to take in and process all that life has to offer. It’s a beautiful kaleidoscope.