How to Soften Without Weakening

 

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CJ always walked fast in her brown Frye boots that had a hard inch high heel, the better to strike the hard byways and roads, floors of public places, rooms of homes. They announced that she was strong of mind and body, she was not wasting time, and don’t even think of accosting her. People would turn their heads, face in a frown, so loudly did her heels hit a surface.

Those boots travelled with CJ for years, carried her into woods and mountains, cities and villages, from one side of the country to the other. They covered her snug, faded jeans to the knee. She wore sporty tops, a wornout jean jacket. Her hair morphed from year to year, blond for a bit, years of cropped burnished red, then reverted to the real auburn, then finally interspersed with strands of white. Large blue, dark-rimmed eyes bore right into you when they looked into yours at all; mostly they scanned the environment, took in the milieu. Located a spot within a group that she would claim. Not reticent, CJ spoke right up, interested, attentive but she kept a psychic distance, engaging in talk smartly but without full personal committment. She had strong opinions; everyone knew them soon.

Never would she be tricked by people again, nor by life or love. But, of course, she was, often. And at the end of each day she went home, pulled off the boots that had become scuffed and pliable with wear. Washed her face, settled down with journal or books, paper and typewriter or sought guitar or piano. And then tender, responsive, yielding feelings and thoughts flowed like water from an opened spring. A little softness breathed and expanded. What moved her came to the fore, and what hurt bled so that she was both sorry and relieved to still feel it all.

This went on for a couple of decades–variations of attire, sometimes fancier footwear–until someone asked her why she acted so hard. The question was like a slap in the face but she said, “I’m not hard. I’m kind of tough, I guess, but I’m strong and that matters to me. The world is harsh, don’t you think? I guess my way works for me because I’m still going onward and upward.”

“Does it?” came the response. “Because people are afraid of you at worst, intimidated at times by your energy and bearing, and even those of us drawn to you don’t know if we’ll be welcomed or challenged…”

CJ laughed. “Well, I guess the braver ones will come forward and we’ll work it out. Or not. I can’t be responsible for what others think, only for what I choose to do. And I’m okay with things.”

“You know what? You seem…arrogant. That’s part of the problem. But maybe you’re just afraid. ”

CJ turned away and stalked off. No one understood. Interacting freely and openly was so often an exercise in futility. She was better off alone except for a very few and even then…

It took awhile to find her way back to the gentle side of genuine strength. Being soft resulted in being vulnerable from what she could tell. She was in her early forties before she redesigned her behavior substantially enough to present herself more fully and honestly to others. Because there was some truth in the observer’s comment: she was pretty tough and perhaps a little arrogant, but she was also scared of various things, good-hearted and full of passion for life. Committing to absolute sobriety made an immense impact but that was only the beginning of a journey to wholeness. Well being would require more than awareness or a good plan; it required a willingness to change and redoubled efforts. Peace was the goal. The one experience she had failed to encounter since childhood.

How does someone radically change? Would that it was a natural metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, a transition that felt so reassuring, with a punch at the end: the beautiful pay-off. But adding wings to those who treat life as though it has to be wrestled, tamed and codified is an arduous task.

When people are tossed about by the vagaries of living, experience multiple losses, become used to fighting hard to stay alive, they learns that being readied for the worst can be useful. It’s like arming the alarm and sitting in wait for trouble. It creates a cynicism of the worst sort, as even vivid blue sky moments can be missed due to tracking skittish or heavy clouds. There can be so much put into survival emotionally or physically that exhaustion renders the person worn-out. Ragged. A hard shell can be the only remaining defense. This view lends itself to expectations of losing out–why go all in and embrace possibilities and happy times when you believe they will soon dissolve? Life is fickle, prone to sudden shifts. Some are convinced being stoic and putting shoulder to the wind is better than being swayed this way and that and then perhaps toppled. People who push hard through life have had enough of being down. They need to stand tall; beware anyone who takes them to their knees.

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The problem with such stolid refusal to bend or back down is what the old adage states: without flexibility, a person can break. Or just become so obdurate, so unwilling to relinquish control and to take a chance on vulnerability that there is a loss like none other: the inability to feel richness of emotion. Love and fulfillment. Deep intimacy, tranquility. Hope. That hallelujah that comes from joy.

Everyone needs to toughen up a bit. That begins as toddlers, then ever after when we fall. The kindest parent will let the child get right back up with encouragement and a gentle touch, bear the howling and sniffling then wipe tears away. If not, each fall and failure would be one too many, hard to accept as part of the process of gaining more skills. Resilience is instilled this way. Directed toward the next choices or steps, there is the belief that the coming experience will be worthy of effort, with the possibility of a better outcome.

But there are those who tumble without a kind word to shore them up. There are those, too, who have so much breakage during many kinds of falls that something inside gets crippled, stunted in the process of healing. What helps overcome pain is becoming inured to it, ignoring it, bearing it in private with no witness to offer a supportive hand. And when people who are born very tender-hearted come face to face with the frailties, ugliness or woundedness of living, it can scour their minds and souls, tear away critically protective insulation. The alternative for too many is to become harder or perish.

How can healthy living be restored? A search for balance needs to be initiated, so that endurance and stamina, courage and strength can become more potent with no loss of heart. Instead, the heart will open and become wiser as we navigate dangerous shoals effectively. It requires risk and surrender: letting feelings come and go as though through a sieve, feeling and acknowledging but not overdosing on them, not being overcome. It requires thinking imaginatively when all seems pointless or burdensome, dsicerning thenext right steps. And considering the promises and pleasure of what lies around the next corner. Not least is practicing to be a person of enduring substance, who has dignity but not arrogance. A core of strength devoid of unforgiving hardness.

A seemingly superfical alteration is trying a different costume and demeanor. When I was still counseling addicted and emotionally challenged persons full-time and saw people enter my office with shoulders rigid, lips taut, their public masks bold but full of warning, I suggested trying on a new one. Loosen the stride, smile at others first, open up personal space a little, walk with confidence, not as angry self-defense. Speak more quietly; others listen more to someone who doesn’t demand being heard. Buy new clothes or rearrange an outfit so it’s no longer armor, but only an accoutrement. An addendum to the real person who can better shine through. It’s powerful how even small adjustments can affect those who meet you. Then, forget yourself altogether. There’s a whole world out there that could use your attention. The truth is, every person needs to be seen so go ahead, look them in the eye if they don’t shy away.

Whatever lies ahead is generally as good as you make it. No one else can do it. Use your strength like a gift, not a weapon.

The last time I saw CJ was today. I looked in the mirror. I simply stopped walking as though I was on a terrible mission decades ago and discovered how it feels to not win or lose, but be at home in my own skin.  To be better powered by faith in God and acceptance of life’s whims and trials. To know that love for others never has an end; what is given away is replenished. Being fully and deeply human ended up becoming an even more extraodinary experience than expected. I feel strength of heart, of soul increasing each year.

Of course I still have boots. My favorites are soft black leather, tall and lower heeled. But barefoot or shoed, I am walking with ease, moving in peace.

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The Waiting Room

Photo by Lee Friedlander
Photo by Lee Friedlander

We had decided to go to a marriage counselor before we got married. Before we even got engaged. It was Lynn’s idea after I brought up legalizing things. It made sense after two years sharing my apartment. I was not someone who had to think about things three times over and then dissect them with someone else at considerable expense. I generally knew what was good for me. Or what was not, like drinking, which I had given up right before I met Lynn. Lynn didn’t seem so certain about personal issues, had expressed concern about what we’d require if we became a couple on record.

“K. stands for Katarina–it said on Yelp–but I guess that sounds more professional. Or unique. Classier. Or she wants it to look like a man’s name; maybe no gender. Or no one can pronounce her name right–she might be German?”

That’s Lynn. She is compelled to figure all things out in detail, maybe will even ask the therapist at some point even though it isn’t our business. Whereas I think the “K.” is irrelevant. I don’t have any opinion about small things that don’t impact well-being, mine or others’. The office was close and in a turn of the century building, a house, really. The reviews were fine and here we were despite my dragging my feet initially. Lynn picked me up after work. I had been studying for a final in “Ecologically Sound Housing Trends”. I had just read about the concept of “tiny houses”, single habitats as small as three hundred square feet but attractive and livable. I tried to engage her in discussion about it–I thought it was excellent–but she waved it away.

“Weird. Don’t even think about it for us!”

When we arrived, we found a good-looking cat on the burgundy sofa. It stretched front paws to back, then in reverse, then hopped off. It suggested that K. wanted the place to seem more homey, which was fine by me. The therapy session already felt less arduous. I never liked places with glass tables and reflective metal tree planters, fake palm leaves defined by dust, magazines from last year fanned out like a cheap decorative touch. The old cherry wood table was adorned with daisies. No clock, likely on purpose.

“Why would she have a cat?” Lynn’s brow furrowed above her deep-set hazel eyes. “People could be allergic. Or have had bad experiences with them. I hate cat hair on my clothes.” She got up, brushed off her short knit skirt, and sat in a chair adjacent to the sofa. “I hope she doesn’t let it in. I don’t want to be distracted.”

“Well, abandoned already,” I commented. “But I have the cat.”

It–he–had jumped back up but sat calmly on the other side of the sofa, following an invisible speck above his head. I checked his tag.

“Berlin? Huh. Do you think that refers to the city or Irving Berlin? My vote is for the composer. ”

Lynn shrugged and smiled, touched my leg with the toe of her shoe (“mule” she informed me once). She checked her watch, pulled a paperback from her cavernous yellow purse–it’s a big lemony boat with brassy hardware. She began to read, then took a sucker out and stuck it in the side of her mouth and commenced to chew. It made me wince. All that sugar invading well-maintained and polished enamel.

She has purses like you wouldn’t believe. I asked her to count them last fall and she came up with fifteen but said she wanted a new one come spring. Hence, big yellow, which cost way too much. I can’t imagine what she needs to carry in there, a box of tissues for her snuffly nose? She complains about my beat up canvas backpack, ripped by a clasp, permanently dingy after years of carrying books, thermos and lunch, serving at times as a pillow between architecture classes. It has been durable; it blends in with my khaki jacket.

Things don’t matter so much to me. Lynn says I have a lack of respect for them but that’s not true. I just covet different stuff than she does. Lynn grew up with more than most people can imagine. I grew up with enough and some extra. But it’s ideas I hunger for. Ideas that form designs, transforming them into something that can change a landscape, people’s lives, the way in which a city or piece of country can better embrace commerce and community. I’ve wanted to be an architect ever since I was a kid and my father took me downtown Detroit to see where he worked. There were buildings being torn down, blocks of sad, neglected houses, junk piling up in empty lots. But there were also impressive skyscrapers and heavy, ornate buildings made of stone and brick. I’d never seen so many kinds of places; I lived in a suburb. I looked up at my father’s building until I reached the top, sunlight glinting off a thousand windows, blue sky pierced by metal and concrete. I wanted to know how that was made, if people really could do that with their bare hands. The possibilities thrilled me.

Berlin jumped onto Lynn’s lap and she erupted, pushed the cat off. “Bad cat! You need better manners!”

I laughed. She was alarmed by so little.

“Not funny, he pulled a thread in my skirt. Really, Justin, you can be insensitive. Get him away from me, please, put him out.”

I almost explained to her that Berlin pulled a thread because he grabbed the fabric out of panic when she jumped; it was fight or flight but both happened at once. But that was obvious.

“Justin!”

Berlin was batting her swinging foot. I looked at her, the face I had come to love, her lips puckering when she was not amused, her eyes gaining a mysterious depth when she was unhappy or passionate. Her look told me this was serious and I ought to understand. I grabbed Berlin then sent him down a hallway, where he meandered until he rounded a corner and disappeared.

“Thank goodness.” She checked her watch. “Aren’t we waiting a long time?”

“Not too bad,” I reassured her. “No rush, right?”

I didn’t know she disliked cats so much. We had talked about dogs only because the neighbor across our street had a sign out advertising two beagle puppies. I imagined beagles were smart, friendly dogs. Lynn adored dachshunds and terriers. I agreed a beagle wouldn’t do well in our city place. But neither did I want a dachshund or terrier. So the topic was dropped.

The carpet at our feet intrigued my eyes, reds and blues and gold in big interlocking patterns, sort of Persian.It looked familiar and after staring a bit longer I realized it reminded me of my father’s study carpet. His rug was much bigger, covering most of the room so that when you walked in, despite the space being filled with dark woods, books and his desk, it offered a bold cheeriness as light splashed across it. I used to bring in my own books to read while he attended to briefs or tallied numbers.

Once my mother came in with a tray holding a teapot and two cups. I had crept into a corner with my sketch pad and pencil. I must have been nine, the year before they divorced. I heard her habitual sharp words and my father’s replies in a French-accented cadence. He had lived in the U.S. since age twenty-five but the sentences rolled out like silk. He said one thing often: “I can only be who I am.” It was the one thing he advised me years later: “You can only be who you are. Don’t let anyone try to make you into someone else.” I knew he was referring to my mother, or maybe, too, happenings from his youth that formed such a view. Even after she left us he held fast to that credo. I held fast with him.

I felt my throat close up a bit, my eyes prickle. My father hadn’t met Lynn. I had put it off, had told him we might fly to Michigan in the summer. The first year passed, then we moved into the second. I visited him alone because Lynn was too busy at the non-profit organization she ran. All he said was I should think about marriage a long time before I committed. I wanted to keep building a happy, fascinating life. Something sturdy with Lynn.

Berlin walked back in. He looked around as though surprised we were still there, then rubbed against my leg and purred loudly enough to bring Lynn’s head up from the book.

“Again?” she asked.

I picked up Berlin and scrubbed his ears; he butted my hand.

The office door opened. K. Garrett was tall and lean and had an open, friendly face but her eyes were intense, cast their powers over the room and us. Stopped on me a second.

“Lynn? And Justin?”

I stood up. Berlin lept to the floor. Lynn put her book away and smiled, holding out her hand for a vigorous handshake.

I turned to Lynn and then K. Garrett. “You know, I think I’m going home. Sorry, Lynn, but this isn’t for me. I have my answers already. See you at the apartment.”

“Justin?”

I walked away, Berlin trotting after me until I got safely beyond the door.

Signifying: Strokes Across a Page

DSCN0821I came across a plastic bag full of handwritten notes from my middle teen years recently. They had been stored at my childhood home but when my mother sold the house following my father’s death, she gave them to me along with other mementos. I was surprised to see them but took them to my home where I squashed them deep into a desk drawer. When I found them last week I read each one, wondering over the scribbled thoughts, desires and dreams that had lasted decades in an attic. Not that they revealed mind boggling information. We were kids trying to grow up and each note displayed the awkward but maturing mind and heart of the writer. Our favorite topics? Love or lack thereof, and friendship or loss of. Same thing, I guess.

I have thought about handwritten communications more the last few months. I’ve recently written about letters in short story posts. But it arose spectacularly when I was very ill with severe muscle toxicity after taking a statin for many years. I shared some of that here. I had increasing trouble with many common muscle actions and reactions but one of the hardest to deal with was the way it impacted my hands. My grip became so weakened that even signing my name became a challenge. Far from being automatic, certainly not elegant, the letters formed clumsily and erroneously. It was tiring to command and make strokes as I meant. It was frightening. I stopped the statin, got progressively better and five months later I finally write more like myself.

I have enjoyed writing longhand. I found practicing penmanship as a child pleasant; it’s a bit alarming that schools don’t stress cursive writing, anymore, as if it is archaic. By my teens I became fascinated by how individual cursive writing was. During note-swapping years I saw that each person’s writing could dramatically change along with emotions. A few years later our writing matured with our characters. Furthermore, it seemed altered by health issues. I decided to study graphology, commonly known as handwriting analysis. The mind, after all, originates a thought; the brain initiates a cascading string of connections and reactions. The neurological interplay between nerve and muscle and intent intrigued me. It became a lifelong interest and I developed some skill. It has aided insight into myself and others. Physicality and attendant health, personality, even subtle psychological strength and weakness are rendered apparent in the study of peoples’ writing. When I was just beginning my hobby, graphology was still considered “occult” or a pseudo-science if worth consideration at all. Today, employers, psychologists and police departments utilize professional graphologists to supplement their understanding of human nature. I would like that work.

But I have other ruminations today. What is the importance of writing things down? What do we share with language set upon paper besides words? And what may be lost with less use of pencil and pen? How many times a day do I write things down?

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It begins at nighttime before going to bed: the list. I use a mechanical pencil–it writes easily, is erasable–upon the smooth paper in a black-bound Moleskine journal created for people like me. Each page is undated. I prepare myself, define what I want to accomplish. There, in a book at my place on the dining room table, is where I clarify goals and projects, set deadlines and remind myself of appointments. It reinforces motivation but I doodle a little, play with my printing and writing. I’m relieved to be able to write again. I anticipate the coming days. And then let go of tomorrow until it arrives.

I write on my PC every day but I record odds and ends of what I think about: unusual words, characters’ names for stories, lines of poems or stories. Observations that range widely. I jot down names of songs I hear and composers, books I want, a photography idea. For all this there are very small notebooks to tuck into pockets, purses and cars. The bigger ones are stashed all over the house.

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There are paper cards of myriad designs and I buy them for no special reason other than they please my eye. Stir me. And then they are sent after I put words inside. A right card for an occasion is lovely but when one randomly snags my attention it is better. I feel happy when I think how a surprised family member or friend will discover it in the mail. Study the front, then open it. I prefer them blank so I can write something good for the person, tell them I care. I take my time.

Paper does that: helps you get inside time, then put time aside, and work or play more slowly.

I wrote daily in diaries as a child. Then for decades I scribbled about my feelings and events in three-ring notebooks. At times I used a formal, bound journal. I haven’t kept one for years; I am busy writing other things. But they served their purpose in every way. Today diaries seem to remain popular despite our vast electronica. When working as a counselor, journaling was a profoundly useful tool for my clients. It was a time and place just for themselves, a luxury for many. Time is allotted in a private spot at home or elsewhere and you have at it, setting free your most curious thoughts, and verbalizing crises, goals, prayers, rants, longings, hurts. And usually, one feels relief afterwards. The mind was engaged then emptied; the heart unburdened, clarified. The soul became calmer, softer. Opened. We can give ourselves to the paper with thoughtfulness. We can trust it, let the pen make visible grave fears and truest needs. No one gets to edit or critique; no one gets to read without permission. It is a depository for treasures and a dumping ground for junk. Some people don’t even know they have such a powerful voice until committing themselves to paper, hand moving at the necessary speed, paper invitingly empty until transformed with all that matters that moment. And it spells freedom.

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The brain works with us even when we don’t know it, transferring data to memory. Sorting, organizing, circulating as we create and own our peculiarly unique thoughts. We can either let them lodge in the caverns of mind or dissipate into celestial ethers. Or put them into the world. And writing things down helps nail a thought in place so we can retrieve it later to appreciate or use again. If I forget something I will recall the writing of it; the words or numbers flash across my mental screen just as they were written.

So, what shall we tell one another on paper that we cannot or will not speak aloud? What meaning can we impart by offering our written thoughts, one human hand to another? Once the pen speaks, the words have a life. They stay put. They may do good and also harm. But they help define the creatures we are. They allow us the exquisite opportunity to tell our side, ask our questions, impart our understanding. Do I think words are everything? No. But when I have them to give, I want them to travel well across that page to a receiver on the other end. Even if God, alone.

I kept my mother’s witty and perceptive travelogues. And many letters and cards. She is gone but I have something of her because she wrote about things. To me. Her hand pressed against cool sheets of stationary, her pen flowed across emptiness until it came alive with tales and advice. And at the end, her own handwriting gave me this: “Your loving Mother.”

My name signed on the bottom of a document, a tiny scrap or a missive means something, as does yours. It is staking our particularity in the vastness of humanity. My hand and your hand make it so. Signify yourself; leave your lively mark upon the paper. Reveal yourself, then try not to delete.

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