New Journey: The Ninth Step

Class is over, and now the real learning begins.

I really need to start renaming how I number the posts in this series, or someday I’ll be up to “The Hundred-and-Fifteenth Step”….

Yesterday was my last hospice volunteer training class. I’ve been gently, quietly freaking out. The time for talking the talk is over. Now it’s time to walk the walk. And I’m not sure I can.

I thought I was the only one that felt this way. But of course, a little talking among my classmates quickly overturned that little paranoid delusion. We all felt anxious about actually doing what we’d signed on to do.

This week, we had current volunteers as guest speakers. They were relatively new, having completed their training only a year or two ago. And they had this to say:

The first time is scary. You want to do a good job, and it feels like there is so much to remember! But it changes into what it needs to be….

You’ll get your cues about what is needed. The patient will let you know if they need interaction, or quiet, to be touched or left alone.

The things you thought would be easy, might be hard. What you thought might be hard, will be easy.

Try not to anticipate what will be needed. Don’t be a “fixer”. Let go of that need to jump in and take over. Hold that part of yourself down.

And open yourself up.

Center yourself. Get quiet. Be peaceful. Observe. And be present.

We also had a hospice nurse talk with us. His final words of advice: You are all ready for something different in your life, or you wouldn’t be here. Don’t consider yourself a gift to others. Don’t worry about that part. Just consider the gift you are being given…. (to be with someone at the end of life.)

And now I can I see where my anxiety is coming from.

I’ve been working too hard on giving.

That sounds silly, I know. Here me out.

Lately, it feels like my gifts aren’t needed or wanted. Neither my art, nor my self, nor my intentions feel honored lately. My artwork sales are falling, the galleries say no, the memorial service I felt I was not welcome at, my artist friend who did not enjoy the article I wrote about him–one of my best, btw!–my son who does not want my mothering right now. All feel like failures, failures in what I do, what I don’t do, who I am.

And when I ask for help, I worry I’m asking for too much. It feels like I’m constantly asking for too much.

Now I see that in my search for the perfect exchange, that perfect moment when what is given is exactly what is needed, when what is needed is exactly what I have to offer, I have actually been selfish.

I’ve been trying to control the outcome. I have been driven by the need for gratitude.

And I cannot control the other side of that transaction. I have to let go of that. I can only control my actions, my intentions, my offering.

If my presence is not wanted, then at least I showed up. If my article caused anger, then at least I wrote out of love and respect. Doug may not accept it right now in this angry teenage phase, but my unwavering love for him is the greatest gift of all. I choose to give it freely, and he is free to not want it right now. Or rather, he is free to choose not to show he wants it right now.

And so here is where my real journey will begin. Next week, I go back to interview for my first volunteer assignment. It may be days, or weeks, or months before I am placed. I’m scared. But I’m going to do it.

I will show up, and see what’s there.

And I will be grateful.

SELFISH BITCH

Why being selfish can not only good for YOU, but ultimately good for EVERYBODY.

I was nursing my first cup of coffee and poking around my blog stats this morning. (I know we’re not supposed to care, but come on–we all do it!) I found a link to a blog by Twisted Thicket, a gourd and rock artist.

I saw the title of the artist’s current post, “Being Selfish”; it stopped me dead in my tracks.

The artist wrote, “Do you ever feel the need to just pick up your paints and brushes and paint something, anything, just for you? I do. I need to let myself go and paint without boundaries and time constraints. It may seem selfish….”

It hit me hard because it cut so deep.

That word.

Selfish.

Twisted Thicket went on to talk about her latest work (yay!), but the train of thought she started carried me here.

‘Selfish’ is probably the worst thing you can call a woman. Especially a mother. Well….that, and the other word I used in the title.

Aren’t we supposed to be compassionate? Aren’t we supposed to be supportive? And giving? Giving, to the point of self-sacrifice? Don’t mother animals actually pull fur and feathers from their breast to make their nests for their young? Aren’t we supposed to be….

Nice?

I have no idea when or where, in what context or how often that word ‘selfish’ was applied to me as a young person. My parents are pretty nice people. As I go now through the difficult stage of parenting teens, I’m guessing I heard it most often when I was a teen.

Because that’s what teens are. That’s where their brains are at, developmentally. They are ‘selfish’, ‘self-centered’ and ‘self-absorbed’ at that age. I’m sure I heard those words pretty regularly during my young adulthood. I know I have to bite my tongue now to keep them from popping out when I’m dealing with my son.

I bite my tongue because I know those words have staying power. How do I know?

Because at some point in my teens (and I’m sure I deserved it) my mother, berating me for some stupid, selfish thing I said or did, said I had “a vile personality”.

And in my deepest, darkest moments of depression, I can still hear her saying that.

This is not to blame my mom, who is kind and generous person. I know she loves me and wants only good things for me. I’m sure I stretched her patience to the breaking point that day.

It’s about the fact that sometimes, the words we hear go far beyond that moment, and burn themselves into our hearts.

And never go away.

When I talk to other creative people–singers, writers, painters, designers, musicians–when I ask if they’ve set aside a separate space for their craft, or a time to practice it, I’m dismayed by how many do not.

They carefully explain how they can’t do that, because that would be selfish.

Whether they are just starting out or beginning to hit their stride as artists, I’m amazed how many have to carve tiny bits of time around their kids’ naps. Or work on a kitchen table, setting up and clearing away their projects every single day.

I remember a woman whose husband had an entire room for his cigar collection, but she painted on an easel in their bedroom.

I myself often chose the role of ‘rescuer’ to such women. I would give hours, entire days, to help someone deal with their latest crisis. And when I wasn’t needed any longer, I drifted on to some other drama I could play a part in, some other person who “needed” me.

It feels good to be needed, doesn’t it?

We give up our time, our space, our attention–willingly, unasked–because we think others deserve it, and we do not.

Here I am, after ten years of making good work, enjoying some success with my art, making good money (or was), finding it difficult to figure out what I want from all this.

Or rather, not what want–but what I want.

Because making time for ourselves, making space for ourselves, making art that pleases ourselves, seems….selfish.

What I’ve learned is, you can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself first.

That old flight attendant metaphor of putting your own oxygen mask on before you help kids on with theirs is a good one. Because it’s true.

The best way I can help my kids in their young adult years is to model the kind of person I hope they’ll be. Self-reliant. Confident. Open to change. Focused on what matters to them. Er…me. Creating good energy in the world by being….

Myself.

Caring for others, yes, but not at our own expense. Being there for our friends, but not losing ourselves in their issues. Encouraging our spouse, but not sitting in the back seat because we’re too afraid to drive the car ourselves.

Self-sacrifice should only involve a life-or-death situation–not your daily practice. (You have to ask, who would even want, or expect that from you on a daily basis??)

I’m told there comes a time where we will not care (so much?) what other people think of us.

I’m told that when a woman reaches menopause, her priorities shift. The years spent nurturing and supporting others ease off.

This will be the time when we step forward to claim what we want. A time to speak up with our voice.

We will not be judged any longer. We will only….be.

We will be the artist, the writer, the activist, the community organizer person, whatever we dream we were meant to be.

It can’t come soon enough.

I can’t wait to be a selfish bitch.

HAT DISASTER UPDATE

Robin has insisted I change that word to “underwear” and I have.

And she made me put in that we did that when she was a baby, which is true.

And she says she loves the H.D. and wants to try it on when it’s dry (presumably to see how far down her nose it comes.

And the second hat (periwinkle!) is looking good, though far too warm (wool) for Seattle.

And today I’m going yarn-shopping with another friend at Webs, an incredible yarn store/warehouse in Northampton, MA.

So yarn will be found. Purple yarn. Not wool.

BIG HELP

I subscribe to a really cool artist e-newsletter put out twice weekly by painter Robert Genn. Although it’s geared toward painting, I find good insight that transfers well to any artistic endeavor.

You can view the newsletter and see the article I’m writing about today here:
Artist for Life

If you scroll about halfway down the page, you’ll see my response, called “Motivation must be internally driven”.

We had dinner with friends last night. We got to talking about our almost-adult children and the choices they were making–some good, some questionable. “Why don’t they listen to us? We have such great advice!”

I finally pointed out that they probably shouldn’t take our advice and do what we say. What we see as “stupid choices” or “lack of insight” is simply a young person starting to make their own way through the world.

Sometimes what looks like stubbornness or lack of motivation is their good decision about something, something we don’t have the full story on yet. For example, a friend kept bugging her child about not hanging out with an old friend anymore. She was mortified when she finally learned the reason. The old friend had started drinking heavily. And her child didn’t want to be around that. What looked like ornery teen behavior was actually a very young person struggling to make a good decision on their own.

I’m actually better at keeping this balance with my kids than my friends, sometimes. I talked about my own tendency to jump in and help other people, especially younger folks the past few years who were in a jam. I was really supportive and encouraging. But eventually things ended badly and we went our separate ways.

“Why did you get involved?” my friend asked.

I thought hard about this one.

Maybe it was because I felt there was something special about each of them. They all had energy and talent and inner beauty. They had all hit a major obstacle in their path. And I thought I could help them through it.

“I guess they reminded me of ME at that age,” I explained. “And I kept thinking, ‘If only I’d had someone older and wiser to tell me what was going on, to encourage me to believe in myself, to tell me what’s what, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get to where I am now.”

But it doesn’t work that way, does it?

Just like Robert Genn’s gallery-owner friend, and just like us, when we recognize our true role of parents (or mentor, or gallery owner), it’s not our role to smooth the way or eliminate obstacles. We can’t save them time, or effort, or angst, or sorrow.

I said, “I’ve learned you can’t help someone take shortcuts on their journey through life.”

“Write that down!!” my friend said.

“They either have a fire in their belly to get somewhere–to be a real artist, to travel, to achieve their goals, to get what they want in life–or they don’t.”

“Write that down, too!” my friend said.

So I did.   And I am.

You can’t feed another person’s fire, not for very long anyway. They have to learn to feed it themselves.  Eventually, they may even realize it’s the wrong fire to feed.  Maybe they’re supposed to be doing something else entirely.

Because no one really knows what’s in the heart and soul of another person. Because it’s their life, their journey, their process.

So how can you help someone who “needs” help, without mucking it up for them and you?

You can listen.

You can put things into prospective occasionally. Ask a probing question once in awhile. Let them know you care. And that you believe they will figure it out. Or not. And that that’s okay, too.

And you can listen. (Yes, I know I said that twice. I meant to!)

In hindsight, the minute I stopped listening and started advising, everything in those relationships went south. The minute I started telling my young friends, and my daughter what I thought they should do, I was actually telling them I didn’t believe they could figure it out for themselves.

Okay, reality check. Does this insight really mean I’m going to stop advising people? Nah. I really like telling people what I think they should do.
I’ve learned you can only help people so far, and then they must help themselves.

But I truly believe that my odd, convoluted, meandering path through life is truly what brought me to this place in my art and my life.

And that means I really have to leave others to their own journey to do the same.

P.S. I think that’s why this blog has become so important to me. It’s a way of sharing what I’ve learned, or what I hope to learn, in a way that is not obtrusive or hectoring to other people. You can read it, enjoy it and take away what you will from it.

Or not. It’s your journey. It’s all okay.