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Posts from the ‘Relationships’ Category

Wallowing in the messiness of life

Betsy Refrigerator

One of my children returned to the nest to live with me for two months.

He came back angry. Angry about his past and how the adults in his life had failed him. Angry about his father and my divorce and the years following it, where we could not always be counted on to coexist and put him before our issues with each other.

He speaks the truth. We did a poor job at times.

Now he blames us.

I know how he feels. I felt the same way about my parents. I lost sight of their unwavering love, heaped all my anguish and fear upon them . . .  and blamed. It has taken decades for me to forgive them and the other adult betrayers in my life — years to take responsibility for my own life and not let the sins of my fathers drag me down, excuse my behavior or hold me back.

I came across this quote by G.K. Chesterton, “For children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.”

Ah, the lure of sweet ripe justice! It is forthright – swift and easy to pluck. Mercy not so much. Mercy is elusive — hard to get a grip on. It lives in the gray area where things are complex and murky. I can see that my child wants the easy justice and does not yet have the capacity for true mercy. All I can tell him is, “Learn from our example. Don’t make the mistakes we did.”

He also does not yet know that there is no end to the mistakes you can make in life and that he will make his share too. I do not ask him for mercy because true mercy takes time — sometimes a lifetime – of missteps, misadventures and often years of unproductive wallowing in the messiness of life.

I have no need to rush him – even if I could. He must take his own journey.

So, I witness. I commiserate. Inwardly l say, “Let it rip. Say it out loud at last!” I recognize that this is progress. The first step toward healing for a child who suffered for years, self-combusted internally and did not give a voice to his pain.

That said, the moral of this story has less to do with this child and more to do with my own growing up – my own long journey toward a preference of blessed wicked mercy over justice.

Now I give myself and others credit for managing to stay in the game, in what is a decidedly unjust and crazy-making world. I can take the slings and arrows of justice this child throws at me, gather them in my hands, and hold them with gratitude and compassionate mercy for the both of us. I have regrets, but am no longer haunted by oppressive parental guilt. Hard, intractable guilt goes hand and hand with justice and can only exist in a rigid universe with an immutable standard of perfection – a mythological standard I no longer struggle to meet.

In my world now, nearer to the end than to the beginning of my long adventure with life — “doing the best you can” has become an act of true heroism.

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Slowly pulling the tree out by its roots

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The rain and gloom have returned to Portland–which fits my mood.

I have been feeling low the last two days. This usually means I’ve come upon an unhappy “anniversary date” of my life. This time I attribute my mood to a loss — some 10 springs ago — when my long marriage came to an abrupt end. It was a shock at the time, and for a good portion of the ten years following, it was an arduous journey for me and my children.

I like to think I am at peace with it now. I can see the gifts and am happily carrying on with the rest of my life. But it is days like today–when the anniversary sneaks up – that I am reminded of how terribly profound this loss still is for me.

Letting go has been an effort of slowly pulling a tree out by its roots — a tree with roots that are firmly anchored in the soil of every corner of my body.

In the past, I would have brushed it off.  Not taken myself seriously. Told myself I had a problem. I might have tried to yank the roots out by force, or been ashamed of my sentimentality. Now it is different. I take time. I move slowly. I light a candle to honor my loss. I let my tears flow. It is only me and my loss. I have nothing to prove to anyone.

I am not sure how many more times I will need to do this – how many more times I will need to loosen the soil and gently tug at those roots, until they suddenly and finally release their hold.

Maybe forever. Maybe never. Maybe it is enough to just keep trying.

As my friend says, and I believe it is true for me now, “I am not wise enough to know.”

Folding my mother back into my body

Walkabout Mother

Walkabout Mother

My mother told me that a mean old rooster used to chase her around the yard, so her father chopped off its head — but it still ran around headless.  I was but a girl myself when she told me this story and I didn’t like thinking about a bloody headless rooster. But, what terrified me the most, was the idea that my mother could be afraid. I counted on her for bravery.

Occasionally, I was allowed to go through an old trunk of her things from childhood. I found a dream book she had made in high school. Into it she had cut and pasted magazine pictures of  the rooms of her dream house. When I compared the pictures in this scrapbook to our house, I knew she had not achieved her dreams. I also found a picture of her sitting bareback on a horse when she was just about my age. She was barefoot and dirty. She had grown up in Kansas during the dust bowl. Her father was a bootlegger and the story is he was murdered by his gang.

My mother was quiet. I had to watch her face for signs of how she felt about things.  I knew when her eyes flashed and she pressed her lips together tight, she disapproved — but wasn’t saying the words. I was vigilant. Those eyes and lips were my barometer for good and evil.

When I was 12, my mother had a cerebral hemorrhage. She just barely survived brain surgery. (This was before the days of laser surgery.) When she finally came home, she was not the mother I had known. Eventually, I realized that she was gone. This was a problem because there was a body walking around that looked like her. People congratulated me on having my mother back alive.  No one was saying, “I’m sorry your mother came back a zombie.”

As a teen, I had no compassion for the mother zombie walking around. The person I had counted on for bravery was as clueless as I.  Abandoned, I had to go it alone. Hatred and anger girded me for meeting the daily shock of loss and confusion. I had trouble reconciling my experience with what people were (or weren’t) telling me. In time it became easier to just assume I was crazy.

The last time I had seen my mother, before she became the zombie, was the day before her surgery.  My father brought us – her four little kids – to the hospital. Since kids weren’t allowed in the patients’ rooms, we met in the lobby. I remember she looked especially beautiful that day – a new hairdo, make-up, red lips, and pink cheeks that matched her paisley pink robe.

It was like any other day for us, however. We were fighting and running around like the wild Indians we were. I was the oldest and had some inkling of the gravity of the situation, but no one told us that this could possibly be the last time we would see our mother. We probably wouldn’t have been able to comprehend this if they had.

My mother knew, of course. She knew she was coming to say goodbye to us. She came looking her best, so we would have that one last memory of her. She never cracked, even though she must have been stunned, and racked with fear and grief. She was good. We never suspected.

This is why I chose her as the subject of  my second walkabout woman portrait.

Not because she was a good actress and didn’t let on about her feelings, but because she carried the great burden of a mother’s love for us and met this, her most dire challenge, in her own way, and with grace and bravery.

I’ve lived with this mother portrait for awhile now, so I know that it comes from the child who found out her mother could be afraid and wants to make it all better, and from the teenager who wants to atone for her behavior.

I’ve swooped down like a little Joan of Arc and given her the things from her dream book. I’ve broken the neck of the villainous old rooster and triumphantly hung its head around her neck. I’ve adorned her with hearts and rhinestones as proof of my love. I’ve  released the words from her lips that she never spoke and, since I can’t know what they would be — they have manifested as alphabet blocks.

The child who did this portrait doesn’t know yet, that even if you are good and love baby Jesus, bad things can happen, that things aren’t always fair and that there are some things you can’t fix even with a superhuman effort.

This Mother’s Day I feel the tragedy of her life cut short and have only compassion for the motherless daughter I was. I can see now that those years of cutting off my mother — cut off parts of me from myself.

And as these things go, my mother’s walkabout is also my own. Am I doing it for me or her? The line is blurred. I do know that fear is being vanquished, love has triumphed and the rooster is beginning to crow in my own voice — and with words I do recognize.

Beginning here, I am  slowly folding my mother back into my body.

Skating on thin ice

skating on thin ice tree

Drawing by Betsy Lewis

The Walkabout Woman blog has been languishing. The truth is . . . I have been busy making a living.

The loss of my pension in February sent me off in a new direction, one with less time for writing or art. I am actually enjoying my foray back into the working world.  I find meaning and value in the work I am doing.

I am also grateful for the previous months of solitude I spent in deep communion with myself.

Everything seems to come in its right time and place, but I am aware that I am living more on the surface of life now.

It is as though I am skating on a frozen pond, with just a thin sheet of ice between my busy everyday life above and the shadowy depths of my inner life below.  I am relishing the frosty air on my cheeks and my strong graceful competent movements.  I feel joy and exhilaration with this new slippery speed that sends me careening into contact with other people.

My months of solitude taught me a lot about the magic of being present — and I have not lost the habit.

As they say, “It’s all good.”

I joined a writing group made up of  nine women – The Portland Nine.  I am # nine, the new one. Each Thursday night, from 6:00 pm to  8:30 pm, we gather, respond to 10 minute writing prompts and share what we have written.

There is a lot of freedom in this and I feel myself loosening up as the evening goes on. It is only with these women now that the sheet of ice cracks and I fall through to the depths below.

Sometimes when I am reading aloud, it touches a nerve and I cry.

And try as I might, I am unable to write a scrap of fiction or come up with the colorful adjectives or metaphors that the others do. I can only write plainly and starkly about myself or myself thinly veiled. In this group, however, I feel accepted and appreciated for my voice. I am only slightly embarrassed by my tears. The other women seem unperturbed, and the  hostess just brings out the Kleenex.

What is profound for me is this — day by day, art or not, work or not (or maybe because of it), I am witnessing the unraveling of the tangled threads of my life. Sometimes my tears are  from the relief of finally setting the burden down.

I bought a scroll for my wall which says:

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection” Buddha

As I welcome in my own humanity and claim the wisdom of the crone that I am, the love I have received and given so far wells up inside me. I see that, in big and small ways, I am beginning to be able to love myself.

Reinventing the holidays (or confessions of a Christmas overachiever)

My Christmas Tree

My Christmas Tree

Early in this walkabout I said goodbye to relationships and ways of life that no longer served me.

Now I’m ready to tackle a holiday.

You know. The one coming up . . . Christmas!

I am having to be a little bit brave because this is hard. Changing how one celebrates the most beloved holiday of all is akin to stepping into a minefield. Terrible and wonderful memories begin exploding left and right.

Christmas with my family of origin was a mixed bag, but mostly nice.  My mother pulled out all the stops and my father disapproved, so joy in our bounty was mixed with guilt. My favorite memory is of my family gathering in the dark of a Sunday evening and lighting the candles of the advent wreath. In that golden glow we sang, laughed, took turns reading aloud and told stories.  This was love, pure and magical.

It was only when I became a parent myself, that I turned into a Christmas overachiever. Months before Christmas I started creating handmade personalized ornaments for everyone I knew. I drove kids to and fro, baked countless batches of cookies, decorated lavishly and stung yards of popcorn and cranberries. I crafted Christmas cards, wreaths and my own wrapping paper. I attended and gave parties. I shopped like a fiend, making sure everybody got what they wanted. And then after Christmas, I took it all down and packed it up again for the next year’s marathon.

I was the ring master for it all. But truthfully I found Christmas stressful. I gave myself too many things to do in my mission to make everything perfect. I was my own worst enemy.

So in my year of reinvention, I asked myself the following questions:

  1. What do I love about Christmas to incorporate into a new tradition?
  2. What has become meaningless for me?
  3. How can I take better care of myself during the holiday season?

Here is the first incarnation of the new Christmas for me:

My sister, the food blogger

My sister, the food blogger

Family and friends: In smaller doses. This year I spent several wonderful days before Christmas tooling around Portland with  my sister Robin. We tried out new and old ways to celebrate.

Décor: A few minimal but beautiful (to me) decorations. For more about this, read my note on Facebook about  mindful ownership.  No  tree for me. I can visit 20 beautifully decorated trees at the Pittock Mansion in Portland or take in the city lights twinkling below  my apartment window.

Sacred: I am lighting lots of candles this time of  year, just as I did when I was a child. They make sacred the dark days of winter. I listen to the Christmas music of my past. I plan  a day of mindfulness and Tonglen on Christmas Day.

Events: One or two small — or none at all. This year I went to Portland’s Crafty Wonderland Show.

The Hubbub factor: I like all the excitement of Christmas and being anonymous in crowds, so I went Christmas shopping without buying anything. I visually soaked in the beautiful things for sale and enjoyed being part of the crowd.

Eating and Drinking: In moderation. I don’t need to make or taste every possible Christmas cookie or dish. My sister  and I celebrated simply, slowly savoring a glass of port and one huckleberry chocolate truffle each (from Portland’s Moonstruck Chocolate Co.) No more turkey, ham or huge dinners for me. I am trying a spaghetti squash meal on Christmas Day from my sister’s blog.

Port and Huckleberry Truffles

Port and Huckleberry Truffles

Smells: Fresh greenery is at a premium in an urban setting. I bought two small sprays of red berries and a  friend brought me some clippings from her tree. When I walk by, I inhale deeply!

Children: I can’t be with my kids or grandson this year.  While in the children’s section of Powell’s Bookstore, I watched with delight the little ones about my grandson’s age. They fill me with joy.

Giving: In honor of a family member who chooses to be homeless, I  buy a sandwich or two when I grocery shop and hand them off to the many homeless folks I see in Portland. I hope someone does something kind for my relative too.

Christmas Day: I discovered on Thanksgiving Day that the city of Portland goes quiet and still on holidays. With only a few cars and dog walkers about, it feels rarefied and magical. I will be walking there again come Christmas Day.

Crafty Wonderland-Mt Hood Morning 027

My way is not the way for everybody.

And — as with everything — it’s a work in progress.

What do you love about Christmas? What family traditions to you cherish? What traditions would you like to change? I’d love to hear from you!

Happy Holidays!

Betsy Lewis

The Walkabout Woman

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor’s warning”

Daybreak, Thanksgiving morning 2012 . . .

I stand for a moment at my window taking in dawn’s red sky, the streetlamp still glowing below. I can’t remember if this is a delight or a warning?

And then it comes to me . . . ah oh . . . it’s a warning.

I refused to accept it. I had planned a nice meaningful Thanksgiving of solitude – candles, mindfulness and gratitude. If ever I was to take a spiritual by-pass from the real world – this was it!

The night before, however, I had been haunted by dreams of Thanksgivings past. As I took in the sunrise warning, I knew that my internal alarm clock — now chiming Thanksgiving o’clock — wasn’t going to let me sleep through family drama quite so easily.

My dreams weren’t even about my close family. I dreamed of my former in-law family – a group of people I was well and truly done with – or so I thought.

It still bothered me that I was never accepted or valued by my ex-husband’s family.

My ex and I were a case of “opposites attract”.  He was an outgoing extrovert from a large, Midwestern, Irish-Catholic family — and a frat boy to boot. I was a quiet introvert from the West-coast and my family had mostly disintegrated. I was bookish, intellectual, and had a small circle of close friends– and to boot also, I worked for Planned Parenthood. Partying, beer and football figured large in my ex’s life. For me it was social causes, soulful conversation and reading.

My ex was drawn to my intelligence and depth.  I was impressed with his confidence and ease with people.

You can see where this is going.

Holiday visits with his family were rough. I worked hard to ingratiate myself, but I just couldn’t gain a foothold. His family wasn’t unkind, but they kept their distance. Gatherings took place in the small familial home, which would become crammed with the six grown children, their spouses and kids, cigarette smoke, alcohol, and noise. I would escape to bed early. They didn’t understand. I began to suspect that something was wrong with me, and my ex was more than happy to believe that also.

Now 10 years post divorce these people, who had been in my life for over 20 years, no longer talk to me.

So they come to me in my dreams.

A friend suggested I imagine the difficult people in my life surrounded by angels and held safely and lovingly high up in the sky — well away from me.

So this Thanksgiving, instead of putting my in-law family in an imaginary hand-basket to hell — I gave the angel version a shot.

This healing must have been ripe for the picking, because I started to feel myself emerge a bit from the foggy, pain filled maze I had wandered for so long. My perception moved from dream state to 3D. Both my internal and external vision became sharper and clearer. My surroundings and and body sense solidified. Even colors were brighter and more saturated.

Everything seemed simpler and made sense.

No one was to blame, including myself, and I felt compassion for the orphan I was — for my hopeless quest to complete myself with an extrovert and a family who could not live up to my idealized wishes.

That day I began to separate myself out from an enmeshment with these people who I saw now as  ordinary people — maybe not “my people” — but people who I had made placeholders for my pain.

Damning them would damn me.

Putting the demonized version of them in the care of angels also held my demonized parts safe, and I was better able to find may way out of the fog and confusion.

I saw also that  this was self-compassion.

About this time a quote showed up on my Facebook wall:

“If we don’t embrace our confusion, we remain trapped between worlds—on the one hand, old ways of being ready to die; on the other, new ways of being eager to be born. By holding the space for all the possibilities at once, clarity emerges on its own terms. The bridge from one side to the other is confusion. We must learn how to cross it on the way home.” Jeff Brown

So this holiday season I give thanks for red skies, for parts ready to die and be reborn, and for that blessed confusing bridge and its crossing. I also celebrate my increasing ability to live  in my own skin, angels holding the space for my pain, the fog’s lifting, and my own two feet — now planted firmly on the planet earth.

Catching my breath after my first 57 years of life

A Hair Raising Walkabout

What a wild ride it’s been so far!

I love this saying below, by Brian Andreas, which he pairs with a painting of one of his colorful StoryPeople:

“Is willing to accept that she creates her own reality except for some of the parts where she can’t help but wonder what the hell she was thinking.”

When I look back on certain parts of my first 57 years of life, I really do wonder what the hell I was thinking.

And for some parts I wonder how I came out alive.

Which makes me wonder further. . .

In the future, will I look back at this walkabout and ask myself, “What the hell?”

Or will I say, “Good going!” with no regrets.

Only time will tell, but I am guessing it will be a little bit of both.

My collage above, “A Hair Raising Walkabout,” pretty accurately depicts the first two months of my walkabout. My itinerary was tight as I busily traveled up, down and across California and Oregon by car, (all the while defying PTSD.) There were heat waves at the start of the trip and early snow storms in the last days. I drove on crazy multiple lane highways and through shockingly beautiful deserted country.

I lived as an anthropologist in other people’s houses, studying and  accommodating to the ways of each household. There were family and friend reunions, and I met many new people. I did bits of art and writing along the way, but there was not much true rest or time for reflection.

I had burst out of the walkabout gate with a high energy explosive catharsis. And as right and wonderful as it was . . . it was time for it to end.

Now, I am quietly stashed away, all by myself, in a cozy cubbyhole of an apartment in a historic high-rise in the city of Portland, Oregon — until next summer.

I only know a few people here, and even those, not very well. I talk a lot on the phone with clients, friends and family, but my only in-person communication has been with shopkeepers, clerks or people in elevators. My apartment is 475 sq. ft., and it took me just a day or two to set up because I brought only the things that would fit into my car. If I need something I generally find it at Goodwill down the street — knowing I can return these things there when I leave.

My apartment is high on a hill on the fifth floor of the building – well above and looking down on the twinkling lights of Portland. This, and the close gray winter days, contributes to my sense of being set apart from humanity and cocooned. I like being anonymous and, so far, I haven’t been lonely. The stimulation of a long walk through the city makes a nice counter-balance to my isolation.

I question my contentedness and begin to suspect I am an introvert . . . or is this just a phrase?

I take the Myers Briggs Personality Test online and find I have “a moderate preference of introversion over extroversion.” So maybe it is true, but it doesn’t really matter. I am doing what feels good now.

I also conclude that  I am catching my breath after the first 57 years of my life. I am in repair, taking stock, and gathering supplies for the future. This time here in Portland is a punctuation mark to my life, a slow putting on of the brakes toward an ending which will inevitably lead to a new beginning.

It’s doubtful I will live a second 57 years. I could be gone in 30 years or 10 or tomorrow. I am glad I have made it this far at least – to have the chance to live the life I have – messy as it’s been.

And with the holidays coming – this time here in Portland is icing on the cake – the gift solitude I give to myself.

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