The Cage

Freedom can feel an awful lot like not being wanted. It’s no wonder then that so many of us rush back into that cage again. And again. I’m reaching the point in being single that I wonder now why anyone would want to give that up just to be captive again. It is as if we find value in ourselves only if someone else wants to possess us.

Our value is our desirability to others.

So, self-worth is tied to being controlled by someone else. Whether it is a partner, God, family, our government, or our jobs. Co-dependence is a royal bitch, people. And there will come a time in your recovery when you realize that you don’t have to buy into this. Your value doesn’t depend on someone else wanting you Your value is whatever you want it to be.

I thought about this for a number of reasons. One of which was thinking about the time I was dating a woman who had a very good professional life, she didn’t really want for anything. Emotionally, maybe things were different, but she was so surface that I doubt I ever really knew her all that well. After a twenty year marriage, she waited only a few months before she started seeing me. We had an on-again off-again kind of romance that really wreaked havoc on my life for a time.

I was no different, though my marriage had dissintegrated years before I finally got out. I was probably more emotionally open to connection with someone, since my life had been devoid of it for so long. My value was tied to the money I brought home from work. The chores I did around the house. Enforcing draconian laws over the kids. It was never enough, but my value was tied to Family. Until it wasn’t anymore. Until I decided it was time to find what I valued about myself.

Hell, I’ve been single for years in the interim since my divorce. Sometimes it is lonely. Sometimes I am content. Free. I’ve done therapy. Traveled. Had experiences. Hardships I had to overcome alone. Defeats and victories with no one else to bear witness to them. I feel no less valued for it.

That woman I dated got remarried not long after we broke up. In total, after a twenty year marriage, she was right back in another one. She might have spent about three or four months on her own. Figuring her shit out. None of them were consecutive. She needed marriage for intimacy and emotional connection, just as some people think they need religion to be spiritual. For her, marriage came with the emotional factor as well as the more practical aspect of finances and image. Like we are living back in Edwardian times again.

I see this happening a lot. Especially to those who have dated or been romantically involved with me. The foster boyfriend, finding forever homes for wayward women. But that’s a whole other post. You see, I can be good to someone. So good to them. But I’m not wealthy and I’ve been told I don’t look very attractive on paper.

Like I said, a whole other post.

I used to crave that connection. That moment when you meet your forever person. The optimist and the cynic in me are at odds over that debate. The optimist says that these women just found Their Person after dragging me along for so long. Sometimes things just click, so they say. The cynical side of me says they just went back to old patterns. They didn’t really learn anything and just clung on to what was familiar. For whatever reason, they need that cage to feel valued. The world is terrifying outside of those bars.

A little bird could get lost out there in the world without a cage to keep them safe.

At the end of the day, unless you have actually done the work to figure your shit out, it will always come bubbling back up to the surface. No matter how you change your persona, no matter how far you distance yourself from those who got to know you, no matter how many times you start over. Wherever you go, there you are. And if you don’t figure out what is rotten in you, you won’t ever get out of that cage. You’ll just trade it for another one.

But, like I said, some people are more familiar with that cage. It’s comfortable in there. If the world you create continues to let you down, there is comfort in knowing you controlled your own self-destruction. I’m still learning how to deal with that about myself. If you don’t expect too much out of yourself or a situation, you won’t be nearly as devastated when things go to shit. The truth is it will hurt just as much. Trust me.

With love, the love you have for others will always fade or temper into something else. Sometimes it becomes a patina with character and other times, that tarnish just crumbles and decays. The love you have for yourself isn’t a cage. It’s a chilly wind on a summer day.

Or, you can get out of that cage and fly far from it. You might surprise yourself just how far and high you can fly. The worst thing we can ever tell ourselves is “We’ve always done it this way.” It’s the death knell of the spirit, of a workplace, and a relationship. Of the self.

Time to do something different. Something better. Something scary.

Here’s a song that partially inspired my post. The rest was inspired by the shudder I got when I realized just what everyone is running back into. Companionship is wonderful, but if you are the same broken person, and they are the same broken person, and nobody has done the Work…you’re just going to cut each other on your sharp edges and pull at each other’s loose threads. The same fights. The same tears, screaming silently in a different cage.

Anniversary of Giving Up

Today marks seven years since I decided to give up on a marriage that was killing me. It was not an easy decision, though honestly, the marriage was not healthy from the beginning. But quickly into it, we had kids and there was always the threat that it would be difficult, if not impossible for me to spend time with them if I left. So I stayed. Like the old cliche says, I stayed for the kids. I tried to make things work as best as I could. There was a lot of fighting. But I held on as long as I could. Until I couldn’t.

Today would have been my 22nd wedding anniversary too. If you do the math, I filed for divorce on our 15th anniversary. Today is always a day to reflect that moment and look at how far I have come. I am not the same person. I’m getting closer to becoming the person I was before I was married. Though at 46, I’m not as spry as I once was. I’m working through decades worth of damage as well as arrested development. Starting over again is not easy, but it is worth it.

One of the things I am realizing now is that I am tenacious. Which is strange, because in my adolescence I was accused of being a quitter. I quit track and field (though the shin splints didn’t quit me). Come to think of it, it was just that one coach who accused me of being a quitter, and boy did those words stick with me. It just shows he didn’t know me. Like my marriage, I quit track because it was a farce. I stayed with other things. I was in several plays and musicals in high school. I was a State Champion in Knowledge Bowl (we went to state all three years I was in it–we one my senior year). I was in band from fourth grade until 12th, and went on to play in bands for years after. That coach was an idiot, because not quitting things is probably one of the core pieces of my character.

I’ve been accused of quitting on my older kids. I haven’t seen them in years. Which is hard. I still haven’t quit on them. I just know that right now they think they are doing the right thing, and one day that will change. It did for me. I’ll always be their dad. I’ll always love them. Once I love someone I don’t quit that either.

There are times in my life I have really struggled with the idea of giving up. It’s hard to give up, especially if I believe in something. Especially if I see value in it that others might not see. I’ve been told by friends and family on these occasions that nobody would blame me if I gave up some of the things that have been so hard. My tenacity sometimes makes me annoying. I’ve had friends give me the advice to just give up. I’ve done all I can. I’ve put in all the effort. What I’m doing–and I know this–is treating others how I would love to be treated. If someone is worth fighting for, then I keep fighting. To hell with that emotional bank account where people keep tabs of the things they’ve done for others. You just do it. Sometimes they can’t give back. I know there have been times when I couldn’t.

But wouldn’t it just be great to have that load off my shoulders? A friend of mine used to say that she hated people telling her how strong she was. When you are strong, they just keep giving you more weight to carry. It crushes your spirit, it takes its toll on your body. The weight is nearly impossible to carry. Which is why I tried to not add to her burdens with my own. I sorta missed the point though. Our friends, family, loved ones, pets, sometimes random strangers we chat with in line help us carry our burdens when we are doing it right.

I suck at asking for help. I’ve shouldered my burdens on my own for a long time. I have let in maybe half a dozen people at a time, and I don’t even share much with them. I talk mostly. I vent. And then I pick up my bag of shit and I keep walking. Uphill. Against the wind. And then I try to pick up the bundles of other people along the way. I walk (metaphorically) until I collapse. In a most spectacular way. I push people away. I tell them everything is fine. I shut down. But I get back up again. I always do, because I suck at quitting more than I suck at asking for help.

I don’t know if I am a good man or not. I hope to be one someday, but I try to be better than I was yesterday. I have flaws. Many. Anyone who has gotten to know me over the years has seen my good side and bad, and I’m grateful for the ones who put up with my shit and haven’t given up on me either.

Lately, it has been rough. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Custody battles probably beat out death, loss of a limb, and any number of things for most stressful situations. I’m up to my neck in one right now. I’m managing. I’m really in the greatest fight of my life right now. I suck at letting people see that.

If you know me, or if you don’t, let me say this to you. Don’t quit. Please don’t. Keep fighting. Keep going. It is going to suck, but when it’s over–and you can rest–you’ll see it was worth it. I didn’t quit my marriage, I just started fighting for myself. Fighting for my kids. It was worth it. I’ll help you along the way. Even if I am just a voice in the dark or some words on paper. You aren’t alone. I believe in you and I always will.

It’s how the light gets in

Sometimes it’s hard to write in this blog, considering how personal it can be. Really hard to write. I agonize over what I should share and what I shouldn’t. When you write, there is a fine line as to what is self-exploitation and what is getting the story told. The story really doesn’t care much about the writer. It just uses us, day and night, until it is told, or it kills us. So, there is some debate. Sometimes I overshare.

The other day I watched a Brenee Brown YouTube where she says, “Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability.” That’s just a smack in the face with a cold fish to hear someone put it that way. I think of some of my favorite pieces of literature. The books Unbroken, or Wild, or the poetry of Leonard Cohen, Pablo Neruda, Silvia Plath, or countless melancholy bands that I love to listen to on a dark night when the rain is tapping on the windows. TV shows like Fleabag, movies like Good Will Hunting, the Razor’s Edge, or so many others.

I have to gauge what my boundaries are. I’ve read several Townsend and Cloud books. There’s nothing in there about how to set boundaries for a writer. I don’t share everything on the page, and often the words I put down are done to serve the story. Though at times, the details and the emotions may seem exploitative. It’s a form of expression. A very deep and intimate one you share with your readers–whether or not you know them. Someone close to me once told me that I needed to write unafraid. To keep telling the story.

So I’m going to share a story. It’s a love story.

It was probably one of the last beautiful nights of the summer. Nobody uses the phrase Indian Summer anymore, not only because of how sensitive everyone has become about being culturally sensitive, but also because the last two years has made the change in seasons pretty much meaningless. It was a cool night, but not cold. I pulled a kitchen chair onto the sidewalk in front of my apartment. I put on my fedora and my recent playlist and lit up a cigar which I smoked until long past sunset.

A couple summers ago, this was a ritual for a Friday night with someone I was dating. She introduced me to cigars and it is one of the bad habits I don’t regret. What other vice forces you to sit down for 45 minutes to an hour and just do nothing else. It is meditative. Which is often what I do as I draw the fragrant smoke into my mouth and exhale it as phantasmagoric tendrils of white smoke into the night air. It is therapeudic.

She and I used to sit in front of the firepit, sipping whiskey or wine, eating cheese, smoking cigars, and just chatting about life. Our relationship lasted only about nine months. It took me a long time to get over her. I had friends who sat with me in that grief and made me feel safe. They reminded me that I was worthy of being loved, even if she was gone. Someone who loved me so hard, but still left.

That night, I thought of her clearly for the first time in almost a year. Gone was the grief. It was laid bare and I missed only the company we shared. I have had no desire to seek her out for over a year. I held up my drink and toasted her. I felt gratitude for those moments and was happy to remember them. I wished her happiness and hoped she too was enjoying a night like this, maybe with a man she was in love with, or her big family, or maybe just by herself. I still carry a love for her inside my heart, without feeling that pull of regret for things having ended.

The next day was rough.

I need to finish work on the house and I have been procrastinating. It’s almost like a feeling that if I finish it, I won’t have anything left to distract me from my problems. Upcoming court hearings, work, relationships, family, etc. The house has been good for distraction, but I’m at a point where I have only a few things left. Right now I see only the flaws of a DIYer. I still see a lot of work ahead of me. Which eventually needs to be done.

I drove to get supplies. It beat sitting in the house with my thoughts and worries and pieces of my life which I feel like I have been holding onto like sand. The tighter you squeeze, the more slips through your fingers. Not even the three hour round trip could ease my racing mind. Nothing seems to help. Not alcohol or binge watching TV shows or playing hours of fetch with the dog.

I haven’t been sleeping lately. Last night I got two hours of sleep. I’ve been shaky and not wanting to be social at all. (Posting this will be the end of a two day self-imposed communications blackout.) My cough is back again. So I took a nap, or tried to.

It was in the liminal space between sleep and being awake that I realized a lesson I was on the verge of learning on that last night of summer. Nobody asks us to love them or stop loving them. Love doesn’t mean getting your way. It offers no guarantees. It is not something that allows you to control someone or make them feel shame that they don’t love you enough or in the way you might expect.

That isn’t how it works.

It wakes you up in the morning. It sings and rocks you to sleep. It keeps you close when everything feels like it has cracked and broken. It sends pens to scratching on the surface of notebook pages, bleeding out ink like blood onto the page. It calms you down and helps you breathe. It can also kill you if you hold it in, just as sure as an anuerism.

In its truest form, love lasts long after we are gone. When everything else has broken down and been washed away, it stands on its own. It doesn’t demand anything. It doesn’t incite jealousy. It allows you to recapture joy from a single moment sometimes that meant something. It’s enough to push back the night that feels so cold and endless. Whether it is hearing the laughter of a baby who is grown up and gone away, or a first kiss and long embrace of a lover, or a grandmother fussing at you as she cooked you bacon, or a pet who never left your side when you were sick, it is always going to be with you.

It is stronger than we give it any credit for being. It is like gravity. It never goes away when it is real, no matter how much we might wish we could forsake it. Like a story, it is independent of ourselves, though we can draw upon it. It outlives us because we pass on the love we have to others and they get to carry it with them.

I’ve heard the phrase “It takes a while to unlove somebody.” I don’t think this is possible. We just let the grief teach us something, but we can never unlove someone once we have loved them.

Ring the bells that still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack
a crack in everything
It’s how the light gets in
It’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen, Anthem

That crack is what happens when we grow. It hurts. It sucks. And it feels like it’s going to kill us. But the love we receive is the light that gets in. We get to keep it, even if the ones who brought it are gone. Until we are ready to give it to someone else.

So, when I think of what Brenee Brown said about boundaries and vulnerability, I probably should have just kept this revelation to myself. But if it sets just one person’s mind at ease and gets them through a rough patch like the ones I’ve had lately, I’m prepared to argue that with Ms. Brown. And with me will stand every poet, artist, writer, musician, and anyone else who has ever expressed the abundance of feeling from that cracked vessel they call their hearts.

I guess the right you have to sharing this story with me is that you are here and you are reading. Even if some might consider it oversharing.

The moment you let love in is a moment when you feel at peace. I hope this helps.

Thank you.