Bruiser or Bleeder?

Early in our relationship, my husband and I had a big fight.

During the resolution period he told me, “Don’t worry too much. I bleed a lot at first, but I heal quick.”

That got me thinking about the metaphor of emotional conflict as receiving physical wounds. I realized that I am not a bleeder, I’m a bruiser.

I can take a lot, but you might not see the swelling purple and yellowish green under the skin that takes a very, very long time to go away. Add this to a conversation I had with my cousin last night where we were joking about middle age and he said very matter of factly, “I notice I just don’t heal anymore.” He meant his twisted ankle, but it pinged in me a deeper concern.

Physically of course the young heal quickly and well because of their biology. But they also often heal quickly and well because they haven’t learned the hard way that some things never change and may not be worth healing for. As cynical as this sounds, I simply am considering this as an unfortunate but apparently very real course of events across the lifespan. At some point, we look at the increasing effort it takes to recover from conflict, and have to decide if we will willingly go back in the ring.

It is romantic and popular to propose that love means going back in the ring no matter what. I don’t know that this concept is in anyone’s best interest. I think each relationship and each situation has to be evaluated for what it is, and each person has to consider the personal cost for continuing to engage people who cause them suffering. I know my limitations, and I am usually a very good judge of character. I can see that someone I love is fundamentally good, but also incapable of change. Juxtapose that with friends who, though I may have struggles with them, I know in my gut that they are walking the same path I am and we will converge at some point. The love (agape love) is there and I can count on them not to bruise me in their own best interest.

Then there are those I love who I can’t really count on.

This is tough stuff, and I know it is hardly unique to me. For anyone out there seeking resolution, I am sending you my very deepest prayer for peace.

Thoughts on Editing, and That Pesky Axe

I’ve always been an editor.  I’m probably a better editor than I am a writer.  Only recently have I become quite serious about advancing my talent in this area into a full-time professional job, and consequently only recently have I discovered an ugly truth:

Writers hate editors.

Since I am both a writer and an editor, it is often difficult for me to see what someone who just wants to write sees about the editorial process.  If you aren’t careful, you can isolate yourself from a writer so completely and so permanently that you never work together again.

Therein may lie the key word, together.

The writer works alone to produce his or her work.  Then the editor works alone to review the work for issues that stand in the way of the most complete, effective product possible.  When you return an edited piece to a writer, you must hand it gently, and kindly, and with a clear understanding that the outright corrections and strong suggestions are not a commentary on the person who penned the original words.  This is very difficult to do, and requires a two-way relationship.  I can do everything I know how to do to deliver constructive criticism well, but if the writer is defensive or completely unable to view his or her work objectively, things are not going to work.

Jim Kelley has a good article on some of this difficulty.

Unfortunately, the craft of cutting is undervalued in a world where writers are paid by the word. And it shows; you don’t have to look very hard to find padded work in print. Yet clearly it is precision which separates the journeyman from the master. Perhaps the way to grow as a writer is to shrink your manuscripts. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch so memorably put it, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it whole-heartedly and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”

The concept of “kill your darlings” (as an agent paraphrased at the James River Writers conference this month) is a spot-on metaphor for how writers feel.  I know the feeling.  I’ve written pages that I love, and yet they do not support the story well.  Sometimes it’s not even a series of pages, it’s a beautiful paragraph to which you are very attached, that you believe expresses something important and reflective of your identity.  The hard truth is, if it doesn’t belong there, someone has to ax it.  It’s not usually the writer, it’s the editor who gets blood on her hands.

I take seriously the joy of writing.  I would never deliberately squash the happiness of someone who is discovering the satisfaction and self-awareness that writing can bring to life.  This is a two-way relationship though — I have a role, and the writer has a role.

Old Yeller would not be the same story if the boy who loved the dog most hadn’t been the one to pull the trigger.

Love your writing enough to know when something has to change.

(What are the qualities of the best editors you’ve had?  The best writers?  What do you think contributes to a writer’s ability to hear an editor’s advice, and what helps an editor be effective with writers?  Are there just some things that won’t ever evolve past a certain point?)

Get Engaged. Stay Engaged.

As I re-read yesterday’s post about marriage, divorce, and “peeling the onion,” I noticed that the three coping mechanisms I listed of wine, napping, and long walks all had a strong shared theme.

They each represent a method of disengagement.

They represent other things too, such as time for reflection and in the heat of argument they can be effective tools for putting some cooling off space between two people who are not communicating well.  But despite their constructive values, they do each represent a certain degree of withdrawal versus engagement.

When I saw that pattern, it got my attention.

It made me think about what we do at a purely animal-level and what we are capable of doing when we try harder.  My friend Rick Wilson has a spectacular blog focused on social justice.  A recent post (click here) featured a quote on this issue of the human higher calling  from one of my favorite writers, Wendell Berry:

Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.

How often in our relationships do we react like rats and roaches?  In other words, do we blindly accept the biology of fight or flight, and do we use it to rationalize why we aren’t rising to a higher calling with those we love?  I know I have.  Not in a particularly articulate manner, mind you, but upon review I would say I’ve had more than my fair share of moments where I reacted more like a rat than like the best reflection of God that I could be.

I will still take a walk around the block, breathing deeply and sometimes muttering in frustration.  And I will still have a glass or two of wine and stare into the fireplace and imagine I’m actually at the Algonquin Roundtable instead of in an unresolved conflict at home.  I will still take a nap.  Why?  Well, sometimes just because I am really weary.  (Kevin Costner to Tim Robbins in Bull Durham:  “Women don’t get woolly, Meat.  They get weary.  Women get WEARY!”)

Which by the way is some of the best napping ever since Superman Husband installed a surprise replacement ceiling fan for Mothers’ Day that makes the sweetest white noise……….

But I try now to see these activities for what they are.  They are a break in the journey, a rest break if you will.  They are not places of eternal refuge.  They are places for very short time-outs to reconnect with the woman I want to be for myself and my family.

Whir whir whir whir…soft air.  Steady breathing.  Whir whir whir whir… is not a gathering storm.  It is not even the fan.  

It is the breath of God.

Image credit:  G2Art

Fear of Losing Connection

Several years ago, a friend shared the experience of attending a one-woman show in which the performer created various expressions of her “self.”  The performer was known for her comedic edge, and the show did not disappoint when it came to laughs.

The performer appeared as a housewife, a burlesque dancer, a mother, a mother-in-law, a professional executive type, a teacher, a child, and on and on.  While there were serious elements to each self, each one also generated many laughs; those laughs seemed to come from each member of the audience having some moment of recognition of the character on stage.  It was fun to understand — via art — that we all have diverse elements of our “selves” and yet we are each a whole person because of those elements.

It was fun until the last incarnation appeared.

The last version of the “self” the woman portrayed was homeless.  She was what we called growing up (shamefully, I now realize) a “bag lady.”  She sat on stage in dirty and ragged clothing, surrounded essentially by bags of garbage, muttering to herself and occasionally trying to catch the eye of the imaginary people on stage with her.

The other selves had been alone on stage as well, but there was always a sense with those that the character existed to others.  This character, though also alone, presented the powerful experience of living in an existential vortex into which no one else could — or more accurately wanted to — reach.

It was as if no one in the theater could even breathe.  The show closed in silence.

I remember this story, because it demonstrates a common and rarely spoken or even internally acknowledged fear.  I wrote about it at the end of last year when a homeless man died in my community and his body was not discovered for days (click here for that post).  I think this fear goes beyond being hungry, or homeless, or struggling to find clean clothes or employment.

This fear is about losing something many of us take for granted: A connection to other people that serves as a safety net upon which we all rely.

Some people can articulate that they don’t like “being alone” and that it is even a fear-inducing state for them.  Me?  I love being alone.  Being alone is really the only time I feel inner peace.  My world is quiet and calm.  My energy is high.  Life is free of conflict and it’s easier to hear the voice of God as I understand it.

But being alone is not the same thing as being disconnected.  Disconnection is one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had, and I think I may have to mark it as a major fear in my heart.  I have never been fully disconnected from society or everyone I know, but I’ve had my toe in the water of what it’s like to start to disappear, and it’s terror-inducing.

The experience I’ll share was in a medical environment.  I’ve had others, but this is a good example.  It was also the first.

During a miscarriage many years ago, I was convinced my pregnancy could be saved with proper medical intervention.  It became clear to me very quickly that I was not a unique individual, nor was my fetus, in the OB-GYN practice where I was seen.  I was young enough that the docs weren’t worried that I could get pregnant again and have a successful outcome.  They had seen pregnancies like mine collapse before, and had a protocol for letting them go.  I felt like a Who from Horton Hears a Who……….. “We are here!  We are here!  We are here!”  But the faces around me said we don’t really care that you think you’re here; we don’t think you are.

Call us in a few weeks.  Here’s your paper work.  Next…..

With time I accepted what happened and why, but I will never forget that feeling.  It was the first time in my life that I remember not being able to convince someone I was special, that they should listen to me, that if we just worked together we could figure this thing out. It was an important lesson, humbling, and also a glimpse into something we all have to learn how to manage eventually.

It leads me back to the concept that a spiritual life and a relationship with God as we understand him/her to be is so important.  Sooner or later we look around and other people are not there for us as we’ve always thought they would be.  Doctors are not interested in pursuing treatment.  Spouses are not interested in continuing marriages.  Children grow up and move away.  The banker won’t give us a loan, the teacher won’t let us retake the test, there’s no room at the inn.

One of my biggest genuine fears is becoming someone no one is interested in being involved with or helping in any way.  It’ll just be me and God.

I have to run.  I’ve got some relationship building to do.

Images credits: Letting Go – Recovery in the Sunlight, Teik It Easy

Good Relationships: Show Us What They Look Like

This week I’ll be writing a few posts about adolescents and adolescent health.  Yesterday’s post got me thinking about this group of people again in ways I haven’t for some time, and I miss working on behalf of those crazy kids.

Some people think teenagers are hard to love.  In spite of myself, I think they are wonderful.  Sure, they can be hard to communicate with at times.  They don’t like us grown ups much.  They live to test boundaries in ways both exhausting and aggravating.  And sometimes they endanger others and themselves.  Yet there is just something so charming about their delicate posture on the teeter-totter between childhood and adulthood that melts my heart.  Growing up is gut-wrenchingly difficult work, and at no time is that more obvious than the teen years.

It’s too easy to ask questions about why kids are they way they are, as if we adults have nothing to do with it.  We have almost everything to do with it.  In its publication “Talking Back: What Teens Want Adults to Know About Teen Pregnancy” the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy highlights 10 concerns young people have.  One of the most powerful is this:

Show us what good, responsible relationships look like.  We’re as influenced by what you do as by what you say.  Demonstrating a respectful relationship—one that is characterized by trust, love, communication, and responsibility—can go a long way in helping us understand why healthy relationships are so important and worthwhile.

No one can start an argument by saying relationships are difficult.  They are very difficult, and the added layer of being role models for the young in our relationships might be considered another layer of challenge.  It might, however, be considered an opportunity to break out of patterns of struggle for purposes above and beyond ourselves.

When I take the time to think about it, I feel empowered to be a better partner, daughter, sister, and friend when I think about what my life looks like to my child.  Most importantly in this context are the partner and friend relationships, because those relationships are voluntary.  All are important, but these relationships are choices young people I care about must make and carry out for themselves.  What do I show them every day?

Conflict resolution.  Communication.  Self-respect and respect for others.  Caring for the body.  Caring for the mind.  Caring for the spirit.  Knowing one’s own values and priorities and carrying them forward at home and at work.  Having the courtesy to honor the values and priorities of others when they differ from one’s own.  Young people look to us every day for answers to questions about these issues, even when they don’t explicitly ask or tell us they are curious and watching.

Let’s recommit to showing them what it these things look like.  Teens may make us crazy, but they deserve our best.

Image credit: Free Extras

The BEST Places, please!

So in my post-election weariness (please….please…no more………), I decided to look for something else on CNN.  Imagine my joy at finding mass graves, child abduction, and aircraft disasters.  It almost makes one long for politics.

But yet!  Here was something decent, The 10 Worst Places to Flirt.  Not bad, not bad.  But too easy I think.  What about the BEST places?   I think those of us married types with young children need to focus on the best places, as the world of “keepin’ it fresh for ya” as my husband says can try to close in on us like shrink-wrap daily.  For example, on my list right now one of the worst places would be in the bathroom with the Elmo potty seat.  I’m just sayin’.

Here’s what I have — and the floor is open, do tell, the people are starving for some good news!

  1. While cooking – sauces are a nice touch.
  2. While doing yard work — I have heretofore mentioned my admiration for his carrying of heavy equipment.
  3. While passing in a tight hallway.
  4. When calling to check on what anyone needs….from the store or otherwise.
  5. When walking in the snow.
  6. When running in the rain.
  7. In front of your kid (literally and figuratively over his or her head).
  8. During a nearly unbearable social event when you need to remember you’re going home together.
  9. In church.
  10. Right after you pull up the covers.

I have a friend who talks about the idea of  “catch a buzz and connect” when she needs time with her husband.  You can catch that buzz with a bottle of wine, or you can just catch it by shutting out the rest of the world and being together.  Sometimes we just burn old cardboard boxes in a homemade fire pit and listen to the crickets in the vast forest behind our house.

However you get it done, enjoy.  Love is good and life is short.

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 3, High School)

This is part 3 of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To go to the beginning of the essay and start with part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 3, High School)

In the fall of 1983, I became a sophomore in high school, and from my journal it is clear that I was obsessed with interpersonal relationships.  I made endless lists of people who I considered friends.  I made a list of all my classes and the people I liked in them.  I wrote short profiles of classmates.  After any kind of social event I made a list of the people I saw there and noted which relationships were improving.

Junior year I increasingly pursued friendships with guys that I found physically attractive, all the while meticulously charting the progress of my personal relationships.  My primary sources of social interaction were school and the church youth group.  I also did a brief stint in 4-H and had a couple of neighborhood friends I with whom I played Dungeons and Dragons.  It was a good year.  My brother was off at West Virginia Wesleyan College and my sister was still at John Adams Junior High.  I had the whole high school to myself; I was free to be the person I wanted to be without worrying about doing something that would embarrass or annoy my siblings.  I was never popular, but I felt like I got along well with most people (which was a big thrill for an introvert) and I had a couple of good friends.

In my junior year, I continued to use codes to record things that I was afraid to state explicitly.  After taking a Psychology class I decided to keep a Dream Log and to analyze my dreams.  One of the things we learned in the class was that some dreams are “compensative”–they allow you to experience something missing from your waking life. Some of my dreams were just nonsense, but some were more revealing, as this log entry shows:

“I remember something confusing going on that centered around Kroger’s….  Then the scene switched and I was in room 213 with Stan(*).  I don’t know if we were the only ones there or not.  It didn’t seem to matter.  There was a strange closeness between us… (SC).”  [*Name has been changed.]  

Nowhere in the Log did I provide a key to explain to the reader that “SC” meant the dream included sexual content.  In the analysis of this dream I wrote, “Second part seemed to be compensative (enjoyed [it]).”

At the same time I was having sexual dreams about guys, I was extolling the virtues of my friend Sheri.  Sheri was the coolest person I knew–she was brilliant.  She played the piano, she liked to read, she introduced me to the music of Laurie Anderson and the writing of Ursula Le Guin and Isaac Asimov.  Most significantly, she was an encouraging friend.  For Christmas of 1984, she gave me Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and wrote kind notes inside the books encouraging me to continue writing my own stories.  She had a profound effect on me, and in January of 1985, I wrote, “I never get tired of being with her….  She’s the only person I would even consider marrying….”

Tomorrow, part 4 of Growing Up Blind – Born Again.

Image credits: John Warren; Fantastic Fiction