Monday, 17 July 2017

On the Fleeing of Loneliness

I was a lonely child, a lonely adolescent, and a lonely twenty something.  I was lonely in relationships and out of them.  The loneliness was overwhelming and was sometimes a physical ache.  I wanted connection, companionship, and most of all mutual understanding but did not know how to find it.  I wrote about my loneliness over and over in my journals and after years of feeling its presence, I felt that to be lonely was probably my fate. It was a part of my identity.  It defined several decades of my life.

A couple of years ago it occurred to me that I don't feel lonely anymore.  I cannot remember having lain in the dark feeling the ache of loneliness in my chest at any time in the last several years.  For all that may still be difficult or disappointing about how my life has shaken out, I am profoundly glad for the fierce, strong, wise women with whom I've grown close; for my parents with whom I now have more of a friendship than a ever; for a spouse from whom I receive affection every single day without exception.

Goodbye loneliness, my old friend.  I know that we might meet again one day, but you have not been my fate.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

The Subtle Ways We Separate

I worked next to a guy who was new to the soup kitchen on Tuesday.  He was serving dessert.  As the patrons came through for awhile I noticed how easily and adeptly he put them at ease when talking to them.  I tried to figure out in my head what exactly he was doing differently that seemed so appropriate, and different from the still very nice and friendly way in which the rest of us interacted with the patrons.

It was partly the words he used.  "Hey dude," he'd say, instead of, "Good morning sir!" as the rest of us might say.  He joked with them.  Asked every single one of them how their day was going.  Appreciated their choice of dessert ("Keeping it simple with a cookie.  Solid, man."  Or, "Cherry pie, nice.  Lemme find you a fat piece.").  He was casual with them but still, wasn't that just another way of being nice?

In any case, "You're so good at putting people at ease," I told him during a lull in the line.  "I really admire that."

"Oh, well, I've been on the other side of the line at times in my life so I know it could just as easily be me where they are."

I realized then that what was different was that he wasn't just treating the patrons with friendliness - and every single other volunteer there was being very friendly - he was treating them as a peer.  

I felt a little ashamed as I suddenly felt aware of the subtle way in which most of us subconsciously indicated a barrier between us and them (one that, perhaps, feels protective).  I wondered, should I try to mirror what he did?  But he treated them as a peer because he felt like he was one.  Most of the volunteers have not been as impoverished as our patrons have.  So what is the most dignified and compassionate role to take when interacting together?  If we don't intuitively feel like peers, should we "fake it til we make it"?  Or is it a matter of a shift in perspective that we need?  One of humility?  Or maybe just one of remembering that we are peers through the shared humanity, mortality and capacity for suffering of all of us?

I suspect it's a bit of all of the above.  I know I will struggle for a few weeks to implement what I feel I learned from the guy I worked with yesterday.  But it's important to me to do so, in a way that feels authentic to who I am. I'm grateful for lessons in compassion.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Death The Equalizer

I went through additional hospice training to become a vigil volunteer.  Vigil volunteers sit with actively dying patients to assure that no one ends their life alone.  I accepted my first patient last week and prepared for my 4am-7am shift at his bedside.  The patient died before we could hold vigil.  He was 36.

During vigil training one of the instructors told us what actively dying looks like.  "They may start to withdraw from those around them.  Their extremities may begin to mottle or turn blue," they said. In my head I thought, "We.  We may start to withdraw.  We may begin to turn blue."

Monday, 5 December 2016

I don't see many bullets coming through

In "Ride," twenty one pilots sing:

"I'd die for you," that's easy to say
We have a list of people that we would take
A bullet for them, a bullet for you
A bullet for everybody in this room
But I don't seem to see many bullets coming through
See many bullets coming through
Metaphorically, I'm the man
But literally, I don't know what I'd do
"I'd live for you," and that's hard to do
Even harder to say when you know it's not true

I used to say of my ex husband, "he would literally step in front of a train for me, but he won't clean the counters for me".  Like him, every man I have had a serious relationship with has said, "I would die for you," or even, "I wish I could die for you," I guess because it seems the ultimate way to prove the deepness of one's love.

But the fact is that in none of my relationships have I wished that my partner, whom I loved, would encounter the chance to die for me. What I have wished for is that they would contribute to relieving the tasks of life.  That they would help maintain a household, clean counters, consider my opinion about how our lives should be structured, how chores should be divided.  I have never wished for my partners' chivalrous death but I have wished for help with laundry, making vet appointments and paying bills; to be actively listened to, soothed, treated with compassion.  I have wished for a sharing of the burden of living.

A relationship isn't made good by a willingness to take bullets for each other - an opportunity that, as Tyler Joseph sings, comes rarely anyway, and as I say, would be only a single act anyway - but by a daily and persistent dedication to making small gestures of kindness or sacrifice for another person.  My ex husband's willingness to die for me made little difference in my daily existence. It is living for others that is a gift. Displaying over and over again that one is invested in a mutual meeting of needs not only eases suffering, but also fosters an enduring sense of being loved.

This article discusses kindness as the vital factor in happy marriages.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Vineyard

A couple of weeks ago after leaving a rural airport we saw a "U Pick Grapes" sign in the grass at an intersection.  On a whim we followed the signs for about 20 minutes until we came upon a small family vineyard.  An antique British car club meeting was being hosted and the little parking lot was lined with old cars.  The owner was welcoming and friendly fellow who had retired to the farm 15 years ago to board his horses; the mature vineyard was a happy perk.  He led us with buckets into the sun drenched rows of vines, which were absolutely tumbling over with grapes, and then left us to pick our fill.

We pulled handfuls of them into our buckets.  I felt giddy with the beauty of the place, the new experience, the pleasure of picking our own food.  Little spiders wove together bunches of grapes and hid within them. A bird's nest was sheltered in the vines, only the eggs were long gone, neatly replaced by fallen grapes.

The fruit was so abundant that they showered down when we brushed them.  They burst their syrupy juice and tough, tart skins into our mouths, so much more intensely and complexly flavored than the grapes I've always eaten from grocery stores.  We ate them addictively for days.  I learned to make grape jam for the first time.

While I once found joy so easily and now rarely do, this simple, unexpected afternoon among the overflowing bounty of grapes in the North Carolina autumn sun absolutely was joyful.






Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Being Woman

Last week was my second shift at a soup kitchen here.  It's held daily in an Episcopal church, which made me feel a little like I was finding home again since leaving Pennsylvania and Community Cafe.  Still, of course the experience is different here and the population very different too.  While many of the patrons at CC were poor or food insecure, the patrons here are generally homeless or destitute, and overwhelmingly male.

I was assigned to hand out trays at the beginning of the line which means I greeted every one of the 250-300 patrons who came through.  About 50% were polite and quiet, while 25% were explicitly thankful and appreciative (an attitude I neither require nor desire, since food is a human right and providing it is fulfilling a moral duty).  The remaining 25% or so made what could be called openly harassing comments that another male wouldn't be subjected to ("How you doin baby?" "Damn, girl looking good this morning." "Hey sweetie, are you married?" "What're you doing after you get out of here?" and even the pathetic, "Did it hurt... when you fell out of heaven?").

I stood there wondering whether it would be safe for me to leave the church by myself.  It's a nervousness I have felt hundreds of times. I also felt the equally familiar sense of shame and absolute diminishment.  I don't think that most men could ever possibly understand that feeling of being utterly objectified for someone else's amusement or pleasure and totally dismissed as a complete human being.

It could be easy to swat away what I experienced as a result of interacting with an impoverished or uneducated population, but that would completely miss the fundamental issue.  Our nation has recently been confronted by a billionaire who takes pleasure in sexually objectifying young women, and that puts into glaring relief the fact that this isn't a class problem, but a male culture problem.

I don't think I will ever get over my rage and disappointment at having had to live my entire life, as most women do, feeling that to a greater or lesser degree I will never be listened to or taken as seriously as a man would.

I spoke with the supervisor who was entirely sympathetic.  And tomorrow I will go back for my third shift, because even people who aren't well behaved deserve to eat.  I continue to believe in the rights of all human beings.  But I won't be handing out trays again, because I believe in my own rights too.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Kindness

The answer is not now, never has been, and never will be cruelty.  It is kindness.