Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.
~ Anaïs Nin
Photography is the story I fail to put into words.
~ Destin Sparks
The rule of thirds is notably one of the first rules a photographer puts to active use in their craft to establish well-balanced and appealing images. Aligning a subject at the guidelines and intersecting points, a horizon on a top or bottom line, or allow linear features to free flow from section to section make the photograph artistically captivating. The same can be said about life.
Embarking on my artistic photographic endeavors, I apply the rule in daily practice and experimentation. It has been especially useful in weaving together my affair with the hibiscus flower, photography and the healing process of love and loss. Hubbard has become my muse. Settling in to his new role in his new home, our new home. I step outside, camera in hand and photograph him. We play and practice together. I shoot various stages of his flowering lifecyle — growth through death. I’ve captured his blooms mildly wilted from a drenching rain, eavesdropped on a pair of ants rendezvousing on a firm, unopened bud, and attempted a film noir style visual in black and white incorporating a single color element. Hubbard is the perfect model: stoic, obedient, and never needs a smoking break.
Reviewing images I’d collected with these new skills and new camera a fresh idea was sparked for that trio frame of the Kona, Hawaii hibiscuses now hanging in a guest bathroom. Update the photos. The idea was as clear as Hubbard’s uproot was. The plan: Hubbard will provide all the content; I will provide visual perspective and creative story. Together we will apply the rule of thirds: One plant, three flowers, three varying stages, three different exposures. We’ll create a new story together. A story of rejuvenation in the aftermath of loss and heartbreak. A legacy story, how the gift of love keeps on giving and living happily after. Together, we’ll illustrate how to revitalize the memory of your loved one, their influence on you and how to artistically integrate that memory into the life you now have without them. A reality story, now matter how hard you may try to prevent it, doing your absolute best, life is impermanent and you are simply powerless over that fact.
Shortly after the framing revamp was finished, the rainy season that is Florida summer began earlier than usual. Afternoon showers were long and the downpours intense. Hubbard struggled to keep up with draining the water out of his pot. He couldn’t, and went into saturation shock. I was finding standing water in his pot after every rain. More and more of his bright green leaves were turning yellow, some trimmed in brown. I was doing everything I knew how to do to help him. The leaves kept turning yellow and falling from his branches. It was out of control. Hubbard was drowning, in severe shock and at high risk of dying. Each day, I was taking another preemptive step to nurse him through the trauma. On July 23rd, the 20th anniversary of my first date with Boomer, I was with Hubbard. I got him out of the pot, dumped the remaining sulfur-stenched soil and gave him a deep root cut, losing a branch in the process. My heart raced in urgency to do the next right thing for him. While he basked in the sun, I dug a hole in the ground the very spot where his pot had rested and set him directly into the earth where he began. I blended the natural soil with fresh potting mix, rubbed his now naked branches and asked to him to hang on.
The next day, struck by the number 17 sweeping across my mind, I emotionally fell apart. Boomer died 17 months after we moved. Hubbard had been living in the clay pot for 17 months and was now close to dying too. Without knowing it, a p.t.s.d. fashback had symbolically tripped and was I reliving the end of Boomer’s life. Drowning. Boomer drowned; drowned in his disease, metastasized by his internal bleeding that couldn’t be stopped. For a time, I too was drowning — in love and in helplessness — for Boomer and now Hubbard. Terrified I can’t do anything else to save either one of them. I spent the day working my healing practices to move through these emotions as smoothly, swiftly and lovingly as possible. I was feeling better within a half a day.
Hubbard is holding steady. I am hopeful while still afraid he may die. Hibiscus shrubs thrive best in the ground. He’d been out of the ground too long. I understand and accept the truth that one day Hubbard will go. This is the circle of life. I’m just not ready yet; we’re still enjoying new memories together. It was the same way with Boomer — I wasn’t ready for him to die either. I don’t get a say. I just have to accept it and be, as a friend recently wrote in an email, “…just grateful for another day on the planet.” That I am.
Boomer, Hubbard, and Me: The hibiscus affair. The circle of life, through the rule of thirds.
All truth passes through three stages.
First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed.
Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. ~ Arthur Schopenhauer
I walk, I look, I see, I stop, I photograph.
You hold on and I don’t know how. And I wish I did.
Maybe you were born committed…
I can’t get negative enough.
I can’t get angry enough.
And I can’t get positive enough.
~ Hubbell Gardiner, The Way We Were
Hubbard entered my life that summer of 2011 a few months after our arrival in Florida. Boomer brought him home. An optimistic, loving gesture in an attempt to shift our collective moods. Life in Florida wasn’t going well; Boomer’s drinking was getting worse along with the emotional and physical distance between us. He use to make frequent gestures of thoughtfulness, tenderness, and surprise — his way of trying to suture our shared despair and disappointment at the sliding decline of our lives and our relationship. “Hey SMO, come outside, I brought you a present,” he said. Stepping outside the backdoor, there on the driveway next to the house in a ten-inch black plastic garden center bucket stood Hubbard, a three-foot tall hybrid hibiscus shrub. He had no flowers, but he did have his tag describing the two color blossoms, solid white and solid red, he would grow for us if we cared for him.
Hubbard got his name from Boomer. Boomer intended to name the shrub after Robert Redford’s character in the movie The Way We Were — Hubbell. He got close, Hubbard stuck. Boomer spoke in symbolic reference how the movie and its emotionally distraught main characters in familiar ways reminded him of us and the way we were — then and now and our shared enjoyment of the hibiscus.
We planted Hubbard in the ground the same day and watched him quickly acclimate to his new environment, displaying those dynamic white and red flowers his tag promised. In the years following Boomer’s passing, Hubbard continued to be a source of joy, inspiration, comfort, and hope to me. In the winters he went dormant, got a good pruning and I eagerly awaited his spring resurgence. This reliability for me acted as a surrogate of Boomer’s spirit-centered loving devotion.
I’m the first to admit the strong emotional attachment I have to this hibiscus shrub. I concede Hubbard is my pet; my pet shrub. I love this plant more than is probably reasonable to. One morning, while sitting on the front veranda I heard a whisper…dig him up, get him in a pot so he can adjust was the specific instruction. You’re taking him with you and he needs time in the pot in order to survive the move, the directive finished with, do it now, do it today. So I did. Hubbard was one of two plants I uprooted from the yard of Sunset Place. I asked a friend to foster-parent Hubbard and his companion plant through the move. They camped out on Lisa’s front porch for two weeks during the transition from old house to new house at the other end of town. When we reunited, Hubbard got a new home along the pavers of the front walk. It suits him. He gets bright sun all day, which is his favorite and his pot sits next to a sprinkler head so he’s never thirsty.
Some memories last forever was a tagline for the motion picture The Way We Were. Moving to a new home in the wake of losing a spouse aroused confusion for me. I didn’t know how Boomer, my memory of him, and our time together integrates in this space and the new emerging chapter of life. It’s more uncharted terrain. I think that’s why Hubbard is still with me, to keep drawing in Boomer’s sunshine through his beautiful blossoms.
One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do Two can be as bad as one It’s the loneliest number since the number one
~ Three Dog Night, One (written by Harry Nillson)
One thing I can tell you, if you’re in a relationship with an active alcoholic, you are living a lonely life. Your significant-someone is fixated on the bottle first. You and your relationship, if you’re lucky, are number two. I was lucky number two, in my relationship with Boomer; the drink was always first. I didn’t realize just how lonely a relationship I was in until we spent a week in Kona, Hawaii, for our honeymoon, when we traveled — on day two — to the Kohala Forest Reserve in Waimea where I embarked on a Pololu Valley hike toward the breathtaking black sand beaches by myself. Boomer opted instead to sit in the rental car at the lookout point, he was passed-out in the front seat when I returned.
Later, as we looked through photographs taken during the trip, the evidence was undeniable that he hadn’t been a part of most of the sightseeing. He spent the majority of the time hunkered down in the condo, drinking, watching football and making calls to his cronies on the mainland. The irony is from that time forward, until he died, he revered our Hawaiian honeymoon as one of his most positively memorable trips. This baffled me because it was a sad contrasting memory for me –my honeymoon, alone, without my husband.
Still, one distinct pleasure we mutually shared from that trip was the splendor of the hibiscus flower, you don’t see a lot of them in the Midwest. The vibrant array of blossom colors from shrubs and trees were everywhere greeting you with a giant fragrantless smile amid the lush tropical landscaping of the condo complex where we stayed. Since the yellow hibiscus is Hawaii’s state flower, naturally the big bloom with its darting appendage of pollen is everywhere at every turn on everything from being tucked behind a woman’s ear to printed t-shirts and body tattoos. A visual feast.
The evening before we left Kona to return home, Boomer asked me to go around the development and take some pictures. He specifically mentioned the hibiscuses, a tiki statue that caught his eye, as well as the sunset over the Pacific Ocean at the edge of the community. I obliged. Alone. He stayed inside and drank. I amassed over 60 images that evening with an Olympus 8.0 megapixel digital pocket camera Boomer gave me for my birthday earlier that year. Most of photos were total crap. That camera and I never played very well together, yet I salvaged about a dozen images of what he expressed keepsake interest in. What I’ve learned since that time, through my own recovery process, his request as an active alcoholic was a manipulative tactic to create a diversion to satisfy the ulterior motive to continue drinking uninterruptedly. He cleverly leveraged what he knew would be a guaranteed positive reaction from me without question, hassle, or forethought. He manipulated me into going out alone to take the pictures because he knew he’d get my agreement. I like taking pictures…check. We both like hibiscus flowers…check. It’s our last night…check. How could I say no?
A year later, our lives were on rapid decline, and in an effort to lift his spirits I assembled a ‘floating’ trio collage frame as a Christmas gift of three hibiscus flower photos I had taken (‘floating’ means a photograph is pressed between two pieces of glass with no other support to hold it in place). Memory of a time and place he held fondness for even if I didn’t. From me, to him, for us. He loved it.
When we moved to southwest Florida in 2011 the hibiscus collage made its home hanging on a narrow kitchen wall adjacent to the bedroom and dining area, a primary pass through of the little 1920s Spanish-style bungalow then our home. Before long, the orange-colored hibiscus went rogue, slipped out of place igniting my affair with the flower.
Boomer was the first to spot the slip and the week before our third wedding anniversary began having extra fun at my fastidious tendencies toward home decor perfection. It started with him simply saying he noticed something. Every day he mentioned it with accompanied laughter as I scampered around trying to figure out what the something was. He offered no clues for a week, finally surrendering to the old ‘hot and cold’ clue game leading me to the discovery I’d walked by hundreds of times without noticing. The hibiscus gave us moments of levity during the increasingly dark time when our life together was running short of joy, laughter, and time. While an orange hibiscus in particular, collaborated with Boomer to teach me to embrace the gift of imperfection. I’ve kept its displacement in tact.
All discarded lovers should be given a second chance, but with somebody else.
~ Mae West
If you’re over the age of 18, you likely have a former love-flame or two, or three in your personal history book: a boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, lover, you name it. So do I. These are the relationships that ended. The relationships that taught you something about love — good or bad. They’re the ones that hurt when they ended. They’re the ones that dragged on a day, a week, or 10 years too long. The relationships that left baggage behind. The relationships that drove you to say or do things that made sense to you at the time, but to any other ‘normal’ well-adjusted human appeared insane, irrational and down right crazy. They’re the relationships that lead you to go against your better judgement, challenge your morals and ethics. The relationships that yielded heartbreak and heartache. The ones that turned you into a cyber-stalker or a regular run-of-the-mill psycho-stalker. They’re the ones where you sometimes say, “he/she was the one that got away,” though you don’t really want them back. The relationships that directly made a permanent embossed imprint on your history book, uniquely and directly contributing to your formation as a person and a few specific outcomes in your life.
I ask you this: What do you think about when you think of that person today? Do you think of them? When? How? How has your continued life changed how you see that individual or the relationship you had with them? Is it different than it was when you broke-up? If you sat down with that person today, what would say? Have you ever thought about it? I have.
I recently answered a writers call for personal essays about an ‘Ex’. Personally, I hate the term ‘ex’ in its association with a former significant-other whomever it may be. ‘Ex’ to me elicits venom, malice, hatred, resentment, disrespect, and all the other anti-lovey-dovey feelings of a jolted sour-apple. I prefer ‘old’ or ‘former’ over ‘ex’. It models maturity, healing, dignity, and an adjusted reflective perspective. I immediately knew who I wanted to write about. I sat at the keyboard an cranked out 1,750 words like a jack rabbit chased by a cat. It was sitting inside me waiting. Waiting to be poured out and shared. Waiting to be told. Not because it is so extraordinary or unusual, but because it is ordinary, more ordinary than we prefer to admit and an equally translatable work of fiction as much as it is a true story. Its relevancy has yet to be permanently extinguished from the fabric of society. It’s a telling of second chances, of Spirit-driven do-overs, the kind I once secretly prayed for and previously wrote about, and the kind of do-over that may surprise and inspire you to think and act — differently…
Hello Jack (not his real name)
She turned 35 this year. I wonder if she ever crosses your mind? I know at least one time she did; more than 20 years ago, soon after your biological father appeared on your doorstep, when you made that call to a mutual old friend. “Does she know about me?” you asked. “Yes, she does, but your picture certainly isn’t on the piano,” our friend bluntly told you. That’s as far as it went. Back into the shadows and behind the bushes you returned.
Yes, she knows about you. She knows you opted out. She knows we passed loved notes to one another between classes our junior year, during the height of our first-love relationship. She knows the notes included intimate conversations about taking our relationship to the next level – you know, the sex pitch. She knows I was apprehensive, saying ‘no’ more than once. She knows I still have those notes. I kept them in preparation — just in case — in the event she (as any naturally curious youngster would) might start asking the ‘big’ questions. It is her history after all; it is how she got here, how we got here.
She knows she was conceived the night I returned home from Sarasota, Florida, at the end of Spring Break in 1981. She knows we didn’t use protection. She knows it was the first time for both of us. She knows it happened at my house, on that 1970’s gold sculpted carpeting of the living room floor, less than 20 feet from the front door. She’s also once driven by the house with me. She knows no one else was home at the time. She knows it lasted about five minutes. She knows I still do not know how I went from saying ‘no’ to saying ‘yes’. She knows I was 16 when she was conceived, 17 when she was born, and 18 when we graduated high school, six months later. She knows you ended our relationship within the week of me telling you I was pregnant. She knows I kept it a secret for four months. She knows you ran track and were prom king. She knows at our Senior Superlatives ceremony, our class voted us “best matched couple,” yet, we approached the stage to receive our award from opposite sides of the auditorium because we weren’t speaking to one another — again — and you were dating someone else. She knows it was a tumultuous time for both of us, we were a couple of 17-year-old immature idiots after all.
She knows for you there was pressure from your mom and step-dad to ‘make it work’. You were forced to put up phony facades of love, let alone like or subtle interest, when you didn’t want to be involved or be responsible and had an eye for a new girl. She knows we attempted multiple false-starts to reunite, none lasting more than a week or two.
She knows for me, it was daily self-defense combat: navigating gossip, rumors, accusations, and innuendo on all fronts from family, staff, friends, acquaintances, and enemies alike. Having been dumped by my boyfriend of a year-and-a-half and feeling abandoned, unloved, unworthy, and alone as I went from wearing a pom-pon uniform on a Friday to wearing maternity clothes the following Monday.
Most of all, she knows it was fear, at its virgin purest; yes, the pun is intentional. Fear, at its all-consuming, all-absorbing, all-controlling best. Fear mashed with shame and guilt. A trifecta of emotion that perpetuated force-feeding my own denial while keeping the secret from everyone those early months. Fear you may leave me, just as you did. Shame and guilt that I was, by all accounts, a ‘good girl’ who knew better and still let this happen.
For this naïve, young teenager, every morning as I brushed my teeth, I’d stand there looking in the mirror scared, forced to confront fear head-on and put on a suit of armor. Every day self-terrorizing with wonder, no, worry about what possible traumatic interaction I’d be forced to defend myself against – alone – amid the hostile environment known as the school halls of hormonally-charged teenagers. Who will it be today? You? Again. She knows it was that same fear simultaneously bully-whispering in my ear, non-stop, 24-7, with barreling thoughts of desperation of what the future will hold: what will I do? where will I go? how will I do it? My life is over. Who will love me, now? The thoughts forcing my hand to hold-on, not to hope but tightening the grip of the growing anger and resentment that brewed inside like a slow-cook chili, over how you seemingly rejected me. Rejected me, rejected responsibility, and were killing my fantasies of ‘happily of ever after’. It was all evaporating fast, faster than I could handle or willingly admit. Fear was winning, or was it, and we were all losing, or were we?
There’s an Eleanor Roosevelt quote that sums it up well, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence, by every great experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Underneath all the presiding fear, shame and guilt, a fierce determination was quietly weight training with resilience in preparation for a demonstration of confident courage and confrontational showdowns that were Olympic gold caliber. A mother lion, not yet a mother, beginning to find the internal roar to protect herself and her cub against all sabotaging predators, including you. You didn’t want to be responsible, you didn’t want to be in a relationship with me, yet you deemed it appropriate to choke-hold me in displeasure of my choices. Oh, hell no!
She has your hands, your feet, your tall stature, and before braces a space between her front teeth. She refers to you as, sperm donor. It’s how she sees your contribution to her life. She’s not wrong. Yet, part of me also believes, as I know and love her, it’s a blend of protective coping humor with a sarcastic jab of honesty. She’s fascinating to me that way. She has modeled a level of acceptance that has taught me so much about my own life and brought clarity to the reasons why I made the choices I made when it came to dealing with you, and raising her… solo.
I know you made choices, too. Choices that both directly and indirectly contributed to mine, beginning with the earliest one – dumping me. I lashed out at you, and about you to others. I set demands, higher than you could or ever wanted to meet. Every time my resentments grew, I made it easier for you to bow out. Ironically, that also began to pave the way for it to be easier for me.
Growing up with parents who divorced when I six-years-old, who, throughout my life harbored little more than contempt for one another, prevailing bitterness inhibited their ability to communicate respectfully or co-parent lovingly. I knew, first-hand, what it was like to be used as a pawn, as a piece of bargaining collateral in a hostile relationship. It was familiar to me. I watched it, lived it, learned from it, and began behaving the same way when my relationship with you ended, while also on my way to becoming the mother of your biological daughter. I recalled the countless actions I had seen, heard from my parents and grandparents; berating one another behind their backs, blaming each other for their unhappiness or failures; sometimes turning all that angst and cruelty onto me or my brother, verbally and physically. I hated it, and in my fear of being 17, pregnant, alone, over-wrought with fear, I equally hated that I was uncontrollably doing the same thing – to you, to her, to myself.
Forcing you to do and be more than you were capable of or interested in was the repeating recipe for the disaster that had been my own childhood. Still, the fear of going it alone lingered. One thing I always knew with absolute certainty, I didn’t want any of that for my own child. A deep personal conviction that eventually tipped the scale to cease trying to force you into our lives. The risk of letting you off-the-hook, free to walk away, with no future association or recourse from me was the high price I was willing to pay for the reward of changing a family pattern of dysfunction, irresponsibility, hostility, cruelty, and abandonment. By the time she turned 1-year-old, it was done. I didn’t pursue you, I didn’t sue you in court, I didn’t make you do anything. You were free. It was the best decision I made, second behind choosing to keep her. I have no regrets. You know how people talk about second chances and do-overs? They usually refer to such do-overs as it correlates with themselves. Renowned author and poet, Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” Because of our teenage pregnancy and the choices, we each made, several members of my family were given special do-overs I never could have imagined at the time. As a great-grandparent, my paternal grandmother got a do-over to be the kind of grandmother she always wanted to be for my brother and I but couldn’t because of bitter divorce. As a grandfather, my dad got a do-over to be a present, nurturing, influential surrogate-parent as the primary male role-model in his only granddaughter’s life. As a mother, I was given a do-over to be the kind of parent I’d often wished I had, and cultivate the kind of mother-daughter relationship I’d always hoped for. Some call these blessings in disguise. I say, ok, and thank you.
She knows I do not speak ill-will of you. She knows this was written. I hope you have known do-overs and second chances yourself out of the knowings which our shared experience together created. You know, there’s a silence inside me that is relieved all this occurred during the 1980’s when social media wasn’t even a blip yet. I can’t imagine, nor do I want to, how that would go. I’m not sure I’d have survived, certainly not in the ways I have.
Oh, and by the way, we never had a piano. She played clarinet — through college.
Be well, Jack.
Though disappointingly, the story was declined for the specific publication it was first created for, it is now on its way to another for consideration and in the meantime it gets to live here. Because everyone deserves the very best kind of indirect second chance and do-over possible, we simply have to try again, look a little harder to recognize the subtle knowings, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, keep going, and share our hope-filled lessons with others. Peace.
Some people think that to be strong is to never feel pain. In reality, the strongest people are the ones who feel it, understand it, and accept it.
~ an Instagram meme
What the hell am I still doing here? A question I posed closing out the blog essay it’s linked to (I encourage you to read it, even reread it). It was written four years ago. Tomorrow, June 10th, Florida will be my state of residence for the past six years.
Two days ago, an old friend tagged me on one of those ‘this day in history’ reminiscent Facebook posts. It was lighthearted, witty and fun as I did my proverbial social media duty to give it the ‘ole thumbs up ‘Like’ click. I didn’t think anything more of it — or what else was happening back then — on that day, four years ago as I went on with my scroll-troll activity. Yet, in the last 36 hours, the Rolodex that is the memory bank of my brain has been firing off nuggets covering a 5-day period, June 5 – June 10, during these last 6 years. Here’s a reflecting retrospective stroll down memory lane capturing how and where renewed peace, patience, progress and hope evolved between then and now:
2011: Selling a house, offloading furnishings, leaving Illinois — my lifelong home — with my then-husband, Boomer. Saying goodbye to family, friends, a profession, a town I loved, winters I hated and venturing south, well beyond the Mason-Dixon line near the gulf shores of southwest Florida without a plan, nor a clue tragedy awaited our arrival forcing me to confront harsh realities.
2014 – 2016: Surving. Healing. Figuring it out (what’s next, including what the hell am I still doing here?). Weeping. Cursing. Cutting ties and process closures. Learning. Finding and losing a few nonsensical, misguided part-time jobs. Growing spiritually. Turning 50. Cutting off my hair. Taking a few steps backward, a few more forward, several stalled stand-stills. Beginning a new relationship. Losing a grandparent. Selling another house. On a few occasions, I’d even considered throwing in the towel and running away.
2017: I’m still here physically — geographically placed in SW Florida. Emotionally and mentally I am not where I was. Whew! What’s weird is how the details are fading. The raw specificity I’d written about back then, has dramatically faded. I catch that exasperated breath as I witness how much has evaporated all together. June 8th this year came and went without even a fleeting thought of 2013. I’m astonished rereading it — this was my all consumed life the last 6 years. As significant as those drive-by visits were in 2013, as June 10, 2017 arrives tomorrow, I have neither inkling nor appetite to drive-by the old house 7 miles away. I can’t go back. I won’t go back. The scale tipped to an absolute, no way, no how looking back closed door. A good sign its all about looking ahead.
Where I’m focused now is moving from surviving to thriving. In order to do that I have to define what it is I want. Where do I want to go? Where do I want to be? What do I want to do? When? Literally answer the questions; get specific about my life today, right now, and where I want it to go, as I had about each of those agonizing memories of the last six years. That is taking all of my time. To be honest, I have never sat down to lay it out: condition, plan, prepare, short-term, long-term, pairing the strategic view with the tactical actions. I just bopped along, getting through one day, one week, another month, another year, shooting from the hip. It wasn’t awful, but it was directionless which yields a low satisfaction-ceiling. I’ve always been career dissatisfied , bored as hell personally, confused and lost. In order to change that, it requires serious focus, concentrated focus, the unwavering conviction kind of focus. The kind of focus that wakes you up in the morning, I must do this, my life depends on it. No matter what; I must do this.
To this point, life has done me; I haven’t done life, intentionally, with a purpose. I reacted to life, I wasn’t proactive pursuing a vision, a dream, like photography which I’ve fantasized about and am now, finally undertaking, along with all the other juicy delicious stuff that makes for an interesting, well-lived life, to me. I’ve always looked out and wanted that ‘other’ life, but never applied myself to actually attain it. I wrapped myself tightly in the weeds of present situations and circumstances; playing both martyr and victim of the status quo, while pretending I was doing what I wanted to do. It was safe, familiar and I knew when the weeds were cut, they’d grow again, giving me an immediate excuse to remain where I was, perpetually unfulfilled.
During a press conference golfer John Daly did in the 1990’s, following his meteoric rise and plummeting series of career stumbles and fumbles, he acknowledged, I was never taught how to be successful. I said to myself, hey, me too. That doesn’t mean I’m a lost cause. It just means there’s work to do — NOW. So I’m doing the work, maybe a little later than some.
I agree, the strongest people are the ones who feel it, understand it, and accept it. It doesn’t just stop there. Acceptance is the launching pad to what’s next. You need to invest the time to map it out, try it out, stumble, fumble and make adjustments. No looking back. Eye on the prize to what’s ahead. For now, Florida provides a satisfactory base-camp space to do the work I need to do. The full picture is still unfolding which excites the hell right out of me.
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.”
~ Brene Brown, PhD LMSW
“Honesty and transparency make you vulnerable. Be honest and transparent anyway.”
~ Mother Teresa
I’ve been around Camp Shame most of my life – as visitor, vacationer, permanent resident. I know the camp’s location, sensation, and mission statement well: You are bad. Bad in every way, any way, at every thing or any thing. While the faces and names of the camp counselors might have changed season-to-season, the variety of episodes and incidents played out similarly, lending harmony to those reinforcing camp songs, full of lethal strokes of verbal punishment that I am a bad person; unworthy of love or belonging, while fully worthy of rejection through the frequent refrain of shame on you fervently fired toward me. It carried on year after year.
I absorbed every morsel of those hurtful, venomous words like a damp sponge. Soon, I believed it, I’d ring myself out, then absorb more by singing along as I memorized the refrain and drank the camp kool aid. Later I adopted the practice, became a counselor myself following through in adapting the shame on you mantra as part of my personal arsenal of outward punishment toward the next generation of campers in the psychological game of self-centered insensitivity and indignation so as to keep you small – smaller than me – and prove beyond question that I am right (always) and you are wrong. Sound familiar? Ah, those were the days – the god-awful sanctimonious days.
Whenever I was on the receiving end of belittling shame words it was my emotional undoing. I’d spiral into a cavern of self-doubt, self-loathing, isolation, and frozen fear disguised as procrastination. My life was small; I felt small, played small, acted small. I believed I didn’t count, didn’t matter. I believed whatever it was I shamed for. Unbeknownst to me the shaming worked. As a result, I wouldn’t rock boats, stir waters, challenge perceived authority, or have any individualistic idea or opinion of my own. I didn’t speak up or speak out. The hopes and dreams for my life were stunted and stalled as a result. This cavern was my Camp Shame and I was terrified of it.
There is an inherent risk when you put yourself, your voice, vulnerably out in the stratosphere of public access for anyone and everyone to see and hear you. The risk is it may not be received well; you may be judged, chastised, verbally bashed. You hope not, but that is how it goes. The hard sting is when you receive it directly. For me, this risk is a perpetual invitation to return to Camp Shame to stunt and stall me once again, maybe a little longer this time or altogether permanent. Yet in the risky business of honesty and speaking your truth, you have a responsibility to yourself, your objectives, and your fragile psyche to mentally condition for the shaming backlash. You must work to build your inner immunity, resilience – shame resilience – as Brene Brown refers to it. That’s another kind of undoing, one where Camp Shame can be both training ground, healing house and test site. I recently drove by the old Camp Shame neighborhood – unintentionally – when I vulnerably shared another personal story to the masses.
Shortly after my last essay, I received an email alert that a submitted comment required my pre-screen managing attention. The comment read in-part, You forget that… you also forget…YOU… lies… Oh, and… Shame on you. Between the ellipsises were cruel, hurtful words, and unrelated to the essay topic. One more thing, that comment came from a relative – a relative of mine. It was a drive-by hit and run at the gates of Camp Shame. Three words that can open the gate, if I allow it to: Shame on you. Words can hurt. Words do hurt. When delivered by a relative, well, let’s just say it down right sucks. I get lost for words to describe how much it hurts. There was nothing kind, loving, sensitive, thoughtful, compassionate or constructive in the remarks that were submitted. The purpose was to maim. I love what author Stephen R. Covey writes in his notable book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “And unless we value the differences in our perceptions, unless we value each other and give credence to the possibility that we’re both right, that life is not always a dichotomous either/or, that there are almost always third alternatives, we will never be able to transcend the limits of that conditioning.”
The important lesson I share with you is not what someone else said or did, but how I responded to it, transcending the limits someone else was compelled to restrict upon me, dismissing my view and experience, quash my feelings in a hostile attempt to diminish me as an autonomous human being. I share what happened inside me and what external actions I took as an example of how I have overcome those heavily conditioned reactions that were regularly my emotional and physical undoing. In his book, The Power of NOW, Ekhart Tolle explains, “The script in your head that you learned a long time ago, the conditioning of your mind, will dictate your thinking and your behavior. You may be free of it for brief intervals, but rarely for long. This is especially true when something ‘goes wrong’ or there is some loss or upset. Your conditioned reaction will then be involuntary, automatic, and predictable, fueled by the one basic emotion that underlies the mind-identified state of consciousness: fear.”
Upon reading the remarks I felt the familiar ping of ‘fear’ in my gut as I muttered in shock to myself, “Wow.” Calmly I paused, took a deep breath and reviewed it again. I had to sit with the reality of seeing these words in front of me, addressed to me, while comprehending who sent them, and nuture my spirit knowing this individual found me, has followed me, and has not changed and is still not a safe person for me to engage with. Before me was a litmus test…confronting my fear head on while undoing my conditioned reaction. Can I do it? Will I do it?
During the last six years, I’ve done the most serious, concentrated-focus work of healing, growth, and reconciling. I’m learning to love myself, and undo of a lifetime association with, reaction to and response of that dreaded shame and the subconscious buy-in agreement I had with it. This same effort has also gone into eradicating my own shaming behavior, cleansing my vocabulary thus dissolving my counter-weaponry fortress. I need not tear you down any more, the way I was torn down.
I’m still getting comfortable detaching from the theoretical philosophy that claims if I share a bloodline with someone I’m required to be and stay in a relationship – of any kind- with that person, let alone take their shaming. False. I do not subscribe to this thinking, yet it has not been an easy premise for me to stay behind and practice, especially when this philosophy has been preached by the same shaming participants. Here I am, in a catch-22, being challenged to practice letting go and staying away – for my own well-being, because some relatives are too sick, dangerous, unsafe, or unhealthy to be around. It is quite easy to do when there’s no contact. I’ve been there too. When there is no contact the problem miraculously solves itself; when there’s no contact, there’s nothing to do. Easy-peasy. Now there was contact, I was looking at it, an email, being confronted by Higher Sources to walk my talk and do something about the shaming game before me. Make another bold transformative move to undo the shame I’d absorbed in the past from similar occurrences. It is a empowering act of self love at a new level, and a healing, strengthening gift to myself.
First, I hit the delete button of the email. Next, I went to the administrative action page of the blog and rejected the pending comment. Third, I blocked the email address for any future submission attempts. Last, I called a trusted friend to talk through what happened and celebrate that for the first time in a long time, that individual didn’t wound me with their shaming words. I didn’t absorb it. I repelled it. It bounced off me. No response is a response. My deleting action silently stated that shame-baiting or any other malicious attitudes are not welcome. I declared that my love for my emotional well-being was more important than someone else’s snark nasty comment.
What happened for me with this experience was assurance that if a relative, a blood relative didn’t undo me, a stranger most definitely wouldn’t. Shamers are out there, eager to pounce. It’s their defense weapon of superiority, ignorance, and indifference. I’ve undone my subscription.
It takes strength, courage, time, and love for ourselves to undo the emotional undoing we’ve experienced through shame in our lives. Please know, you are worth every effort. Keep at it.
“I am not a product of my circumstances.
I am a product of my decisions.” ~ Stephen R. Covey