Good morning, good morning.
Outside, it’s traffic and crickets. I’m waiting to hear whether the owl will be back this morning – she was here on Friday, and instead of writing a post I got distracted by her.
Well, by her and some old morning writes. I went looking for what I was saying here–to myself, to you–five years ago, or seven. That’s one thing about regular journaling–getting to look back, see what you were saying before, what you felt like before, what you’re struggling with that’s the same and what is new — you get to see how far you’ve come.
In my case, I got to look back on a relationship that felt unfixable at the time I was writing, that felt like kudzu or like I was in the ocean at a rising tide stuck in seaweed. I spent so many years trying to communicate with someone who literally could not understand the things I was saying — and, let’s be honest, in the converse, I also couldn’t, it seems, understand the things he was saying. I could never quite understand what he wanted. And I kept trying, kept getting smaller, tightening myself up until I was knotted into a ball at the bottom of a bookbag, just a sticky thing with dust and hair and old gum wrappers stuck all over me.
And then I got the idea that maybe , that maybe, I didn’t have to stay there. Maybe my job wasn’t to stay in this relationship until the end of my (or his) life. Maybe I didn’t have to walk a hundred miles on my knees, repenting. I only had to let the soft animal of my body love what it loved. And then poetry started to sneak in to the sides and corners and crevices of my skin, my psyche, touched the parched places inside me, the places that told me I had to stay, I had to keep working, I had to keep trying to be the right thing for this person.
(The chimes sing a little in the early breeze.)
Slowly, so so slowly, it came to me that I didn’t have to keep beating my head against a brick wall. Neither one of us deserved to be this unhappy all the time. He deserved someone who didn’t have to turn herself inside out in order to be right, feel right, be what he said he wanted. He deserved to be with someone who didn’t need to deny fundamental parts of herself in order to stay with him. He deserved to be with someone who didn’t need to swallow her tongue most days, or risk getting into yet another fight.
There were poems that opened my eyes , the eyes inside my heart, or that turned my eyes back away from looking into a future that felt bleak. There was a Rilke poem that shifted things in me. John O’Donohue. And Mary Oliver, of course, Poems can do things that regular prose can’t. Poems sing in through the side door. They tell all the truth but tell it slant. They don’t hit us straight on, but blossom truth inside our hearts, our bellies, anyway.
What I’m trying to get to is the fact that something that feels so entrenched, unchangeable, a situation you feel so utterly stuck in — that situation can change. And what’s true, at least for me, is that the first part of changing the situation was changing my mindset, my lenses. I had to allow myself to shift how I was seeing myself, and that relationship. Just very gently, I began to ask myself, What if I’m not wrong or bad or crazy or broken here? And what if he isn’t either? What if we’re just two very different people with very different needs and it’s ok to stop trying — after 8 years, to stop trying — to force ourselves to be something that didn’t fit?
(and then I feel myself wanting to say, hey, out here, if you’re having to tuck important and tender parts of yourself away in order to fit into a relationship, maybe that relationship isn’t the right one for you.)
I look back in those old journals, those old writes in the mornings from San Rafael or Tiburon, and I want to tell that woman, You’re ok. He’s ok. You’re just not ok together. Don’t worry about waking up tomorrow and picking up the threads of the same old fight you’ve been having since you first got together. Just set down those threads, pack your bag, and leave. I urge my hands in her direction, gesturing. Just go. But she won’t go. She’ll stay for another three years, another two. She’ll take small steps as she builds the muscles she needs to be able to leave. She — I — had to build the muscles I needed to be able to trust myself, to trust my own perceptions, my own vision, my own view of the world.
So much old stuff got triggered in that relationship. Old stuff about trusting myself, really — isn’t that at the core of it. Letting my needs be even a fraction as important as the other person’s? At some point you have to set down the old ghosts, step out of the maelstrom of voices yelling selfish, mean, thoughtless — bend your head down, duck underneath, and step out to the other side. It’s like taking off a pair of sunglasses and noticing that the world looks really different than you’d come to be used to. It’s allowing yourself to step outside of somebody else’s narrative and notice, sometimes for the first time, that you don’t fit anymore, that the story they’re telling you about you doesn’t match who you know you are. And that small voice inside you, your instinct, your intuition — becomes something you can hear again, you can attend to, you give some weight to.
The shift for me was allowing myself to imagine a reality outside of my ex’s worldview, he worldview he wanted me to live within. There were poems that helped me look at the world, and myself, anew. And writing practice helped me imagine new ways of being.
(Some animal is rushing around in the woods. At first I thought it was the wind, but the chimes are silent.)
You should never have to make yourself small in order to keep your partner happy (or your boss, or your parents, or…) And though I went into the relationship knowing that was true, intellectually, I still had to learn it in my body.
I still had to learn to trust it, trust myself.
I still had to learn to face a very old fear, one I got from my home as a young person — that If I stand up for myself, I’m going to get in trouble, and then I’m going to get hurt. And I did get in trouble in that relationship, let’s be honest. But I wasn’t a teenager anymore. I could walk away. I could say no to his demand that I see the world in such a way that minimized me, or that left me feeling crazy and literally unable to communicate effectively much of the time. I could step out, take a deep breath, and take off the glasses he said I looked so good in, in order to see the world in a different way.
We get indoctrinated, as children in abusive homes — we get trained into particular ways of seeing and understanding ourselves. So it takes a lot of work, in our adult relationships, to not listen to the old voices, especially when/if our partners say things that echo what our abusers used to say, in some form or another. They may not be intending to do so, they may not be abusive at all, but still those old messages, and those old survival strategies, are triggered within us. and so we just continue the long work of trying to dislodge that old learning, that old way of thinking that said I have to let you define reality for me because if I don’t I’ll get hurt.
It took the time it took for me to move through that learning in my second marriage. I’m working to be easier with that woman I was then. The other thing that happens, over time, is that I can read these old notebook entries and not beat myself up, I can feel more compassion for the self I was then, the things I was struggling with, the complaints I kept echoing.
(And I believe, too, there are some relationships we can’t settle into until we have done deep work to heal some of these old wounds. These are mature adult relationships, people we wouldn’t be able to stand up next to until we have done the work to know and trust and like who we are–otherwise how can we love someone else who knows and trusts and likes us? They’re not going to stick around if we just spend all the time telling them how stupid they are for loving us, for liking us, for finding us smart or funny or clever or creative or kind … )
So today I’m grateful — for time, for poems, for writing, for that small quiet voice within that never stops whispering You deserve joy in this lifetime, that small voice that keeps whispering, even through days, months, years, when I can’t hear it singing inside me.
And I am grateful for you, today, too, for all the ways you make room for those around you to grow and change, and the ways you are easy with yourself in your own growing, too. And for your words, of course — I’m always grateful for your words.