Sometimes I have to let a blog post topic brew awhile before I can actually write it. This is one of those posts. I’ve actually had this one in draft with a few notes for quite awhile, waiting until I had let my thoughts percolate and drip through the filter of my mind. Okay, so I’m drinking iced coffee right now…can you tell?
*(In the interest of accuracy, I was drinking iced coffee when I wrote that several days ago. I’m drinking a glass of Pinot Noir right now. Honest to the point of lunacy, that’s me.)
This past Sunday (*Sunday before last now – again with the accuracy thing) at church, the sermon title was “Breaking Loose”. Our minister spoke about how we so often box ourselves in and fail to live full and open lives. We get so used to living a small and narrow existence, usually out of habit or fear. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of “this is how we have always done it”. I found it interesting that the air conditioning went out in the sanctuary that particular Sunday which meant we held our worship service in the fellowship center. If you attend a casual church you might miss the significance of that but we Presbyterians are pretty big on the whole “decently and in order” thing. We have a lovely sanctuary with traditional pews, lecterns, communion table, candles and fresh flowers. Our services follow a liturgical pattern which, while not as formal as the usual Catholic Mass or Eastern Orthodox service, is pretty consistent and we generally know what to expect. And I like that. I’m actually a fan of ritual, whether it be in church or something like my evening porch time. However, there’s a difference between thoughtful ritual and living a small and fearful life.
I’ve shared here before that I’m a first-born, people-pleaser. Not only was I the oldest child in my immediate family, but I was the oldest of the nine cousins who grew up within a block of one another. I was the responsible one. The quiet one. The good student. The good girl. I hated to ever be in trouble for anything and tried really hard to do what was expected of me. And there’s nothing wrong with that…up to a point. But it can also be confining, and defining. For too many years I allowed other people’s expectations dictate my actions and to a certain extent, even my beliefs. But not anymore.
I will be 50 years old this month and I think that’s old enough to know who I am and who I am not. I’ve spent the past few years reassessing, well, everything. Who am I? What do I believe? Who do I want in my life? What do I want to do with my life? What’s important? What is simply an excuse or a smokescreen or not relevant to the life I want to live? It’s been a painful process. It’s never easy to admit that you were wrong about some pretty important shit. It’s also not easy for me to use that word but I’ve also come to realize that there are times when being utterly succinct might require vocabulary I’m not in the habit of using.
My youngest brother once made the observation that we grew up in a bubble and to a certain extent, I think he’s right. In many ways, at least on the surface, we had a “Leave it to Beaver” upbringing and I’m truly grateful for that. When I hear friends’ stories of difficult childhoods I almost feel guilty about mine. Not perfect, but pretty darn good. It gave me a secure and solid grounding but perhaps also a falsely rosy picture of life. Or maybe that’s just what I’ve chosen to remember.
Even as a young adult my life experiences were fairly narrow. As part of a close-knit family we didn’t much feel the need for a lot of outside relationships. And certainly not with people very much different than ourselves. We live in a small town with a church on every corner. It’s a pretty homogenous group.
There were a couple of experiences which challenged my perceptions, though. One was my time as a hospice nurse. When you spend hours in someone’s home helping them and their family through the end stages of life, you form deep bonds and see a side of people you don’t often encounter. I had the privilege of being with people at their most vulnerable. When all the trappings of societal expectations are stripped away by pain and grief, you experience that core…that kernel of humanity which we all share. And you realize that in so many ways we are alike. We all experience joy and sorrow, fear and courage, pride and shame, confidence and uncertainty.
“…we began going to New Orleans twice a year, stretching out each visit as long we could. We talked to people, asked them to tell us their stories, listened to them with open hearts and minds, and learned. Oh, did we learn. And I don’t mean just in a political sense, although that certainly was part of it. No, more than that, the people of New Orleans began to teach us some very important lessons about life. In the midst of all the suffering and loss, these people retained that je ne sais quois which distinguishes them from the average American. Within a few short months, even while still grieving, plans were underway to hold Mardi Gras. People in other parts of the country said they were crazy but the typical New Orleans resident wears crazy as a badge of pride so that was certainly no deterrent.”
Getting out of the box we were living in here in rural Oklahoma and experiencing such a unique city and people so very different has had a huge impact on how David and I look at the world. For one thing, we are so much more open to new and unfamiliar experiences. We take more risks, try new things, talk to strangers (and listen!). Fear, judgment and preconceptions tend to vanish when you open yourself up to a larger existence. When you break free of the bonds of convention and expectations the world begins to unfold like a flower. And it is truly beautiful. Not perfect but beautiful.
I find myself at this stage of life feeling happier and more free than ever before. I’ve let go of the need to know everything, to understand everything, to control the world around me or the people I love. Well, for the most part. It’s still hard for me not to try to “fix” things for people I care about. More than that, I internalize the pain of others. I’m trying to learn how to be helpful and sympathetic yet separate myself from experiencing other people’s emotions. Part of the reason I only lasted two years as a hospice nurse was that I was emotionally drained by my naturally empathetic nature. I’ve got a long way to go in this area but I *am* doing better. It’s interesting that I’m currently facing a challenge of that nature which life tossed into my lap a few days after I started writing this post.
I can’t say that everyone in my life has embraced these changes in me. I’ve received my share of disapproval and judgment from people who can’t wrap their heads around all this. Maybe they feel threatened because our beliefs and lifestyles are no longer in lock-step. Or perhaps there’s a twinge of jealousy because I’ve broken free and they haven’t:
“In a nutshell, people whose lives are hard, boring, painful, meaningless – people who suffer – tend to resent those who seem to suffer less than they do, and will make them suffer if they can. People who feel themselves in chains, with no hope of ever getting them off, want to put chains on everyone else.” ~John Holt
I won’t deny that it’s been painful to be on the receiving end of people’s condemnation. But as Anaïs Nin so eloquently put it:
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
That’s the point I reached. I simply could no longer deny my true self and even if I could, I don’t want to. Life is too short to live it by other people’s expectations. I want to embrace the truth of who I am with confidence and joy. I am convinced that to live anything other than an authentic life would be a waste.
So I’m breaking free. (I’d like to say “I’ve broken free” but it’s an ongoing process.) I’m letting go of the image others have of me and embracing the person I know myself to be. I’ve loosened up. I’m less judgmental. I’m braver and more adventurous. I’m no longer afraid to live by my convictions and express passionate beliefs which may not be the norm here in the buckle of the Bible Belt, let alone amongst my extended family. It’s cost me a lot but I’ve gained so much in return. Opening myself up has drawn so many new people into my life. People who have enriched my life in a way I could never have anticipated. My relationship with David has blossomed and we are having so much fun these days. We are as passionate as teenagers but with the depth of love that 30+ years of marriage brings. That’s a rare and beautiful thing and I treasure it. Life is grand and I’m truly blessed to be living this one.
“Your problem is how you are going to spend this one and precious life you have been issued. Whether you’re going to spend it trying to look good and creating the illusion that you have power over circumstances, or whether you are going to taste it, enjoy it and find out the truth about who you are.” ~Anne Lamott