Born free

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I have regrets. There are things that haunt me now and again – things I should (or shouldn’t) have said or done, people I’ve hurt, opportunities I’ve missed. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. I don’t think you can experience human life past age 5 without racking up a couple of really juicy regrets.

What I think is most interesting, though, is that I don’t regret the things I’m supposed to. Our culture tells me in a lot of subtle (and not so subtle) ways that I’m not living my life correctly. If you watch TV or movies, or read books, single people are usually the subject of pity. The message everywhere in our culture is that it’s not okay to be alone and be happy about it. Love is the answer and the question. We don’t care what your family looks like much anymore – 2 dads, single mom, grandparents raising grandkids – whatever. Anything goes – that is – any kind of family, as long as you have a family, or you at least feel bad if you don’t.

I don’t.

I never wanted to be a wife, and I never wanted to be someone’s mother. I knew from a very young age that I wouldn’t be good at either. What I understood about marriage and family growing up with my mother and father was that you couldn’t be free – to be yourself, to do what you want to do, or go where you want to go. In a family, if one person has trouble, it becomes the whole family’s trouble. (The same is true of joy, presumably, but I didn’t experience as much of that.)

When I was young I thought I would probably have to get married and have children cuz I grew up in the 60s and I only knew one person over the age of 25 who wasn’t married and/or a mommy or a daddy. She was a spinster, “whose fiance had been tragically killed in the war and because her heart was broken she never married, and she lived a sad a lonely life.”

I didn’t want to live a sad and lonely life, but I knew family life wasn’t what I wanted either. Imagine my joy when I got old enough to realize that not only wasn’t it mandatory, it wasn’t a trajedy if it didn’t happen. By the time I got to college, attitudes had changed pretty dramatically about women and family and while some folks are still taken aback now to find out that at my advanced age I have never married or had children, I don’t think most people give it a second thought.

The truth is, I don’t care what they think, because my life is right for me and not marrying and not having children are two things I do not have a single regret about. There have always been spinsters and bachelors, and I’m happy I’ve been spared the kind of assumptions that have been made about single people throughout history – that there is something odd and sad about them or that there was *ahem* something wrong with them.

Certainly, in the past, some men and women remained single because they were gay and unable to marry. That’s changing and that is as it should be. No question that if you wish to be in a relationship and to make that relationship public and/or binding, you should be free to do so, no matter what. Ditto raising a family.

Conversely there are people, like me, who wish to be free of relationship – gay, straight, or otherwise – and that should be okay, too. I think for the most part it is. I live in a small town, and even here, most people just accept me as is. I’m sure there are some folks who think I’m gay, and that’s okay. I’m not, but the reality is that it’s none of their business what I am, so they can just wonder. I’m good with that.

For me, though, the biggest non-regret has been my decision not to reproduce. I probably would have been willing to marry if any of the men I was involved with over the years could have allowed me the degree of freedom I require to be happy. Having kids, though, is – as they say – a whole ‘nother sack of cats. Pregnancy never scared me – the deal breaker was being responsible for and raising a good human being. Yikes!

I had enough trouble handling my own life and my own faulty brain chemistry and general craziness. How on earth would I have managed to guide a child through the minefield of life when I couldn’t see the way through myself? No, I always knew I was not cut out for motherhood. I didn’t want to be responsible for unleashing another damaged human being on society, and I didn’t want to watch someone I had brought into this world and loved struggle in the ways I had growing up.

So no regrets. My way through this life is not right for everyone, but it has been the right way for me. Ultimately, that’s all we can ask, isn’t it? As human beings, each of us should have the opportunity to live on our own terms, whatever they may be. For better or for worse, I am free.

Of feathers and flocks…

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My best friend has chickens. Last week, the whole flock ganged up on the smallest hen, and beat her up pretty badly. They pulled out all her tail feathers with such force that chunks of flesh were gone, too. My friend took her to the vet and she’s going to be okay, but she won’t be able to be returned to the flock.

About the same time another friend told me that she had had to send her 14-year old daughter to a different school, because she was being bullied so badly by “the meanest group of 8th grade girls” this woman had ever encountered.

Even my two little cats – my sweet babies – are not immune. They’re only about a month apart in age, and I got them both as kittens, within a couple of months 6 years ago. The first kitten was an “only” for about a month before the second kitten came in to our lives, but that was long enough to feel threatened, I guess. She was merciless in her treatment of her new furry roommate. Now, 6 years later, the bullied kitten has become the bully. Payback? I have no idea. They’re both infinitely gentle with me, but they try to kill each other at least once a day.

Clearly this is a thing in all of our brains – not just human brains. We want to believe that babies (and kids and kittens and all creatures) are gentle by nature. Perhaps they are, but that’s not all there is to any of us, apparently. There is something so integral to creature brain structure that it spans all species and manifests in similar ways.

Perhaps it was a survival tactic that no longer serves us as humans living privileged lives, or chickens or cats, for that matter. Maybe it was beneficial to try to make the weakest member of the flock stronger by threatening it, or encouraging it to leave the group so it’s not longer a drain on resources, or even killing it to get rid of it and its genes so that only the fittest continue on.

It must have served some purpose, but like many residual brain things no longer necessary for modern life and survival, it doesn’t serve us. I don’t know, but I know I have a mean streak, and that at times in my life, I have treated weaker people badly. At the time I didn’t realize I was doing it, especially when I was a kid. I look back now, though, and I can see it pretty clearly. I wish I could say that I grew up and became an enlightened person who always reacts correctly to everything with kindness and wisdom.

Far from it, and still not true, even though that is exactly what I aspire to. Why not? Why can’t we all just get along and be nice and do the right thing all the time? All the religions tell us that’s what we should aspire to. All the self-help books, TV talk shows.

I used to have a poster that a friend gave me that said “If it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t, don’t.” I think in the 70s this is what passed for wisdom. 🙂 I think that poster pretty accurately sums up the way most humans live, including me. Maybe not the Dalai Lama, but the rest of us regular folks, just trying to get through the days.

What happens when you feel superior to someone, especially if you’re being cheered on in your thinking or your actions by other people? You feel better about yourself. You feel great! You feel special. All your doubts and fears about how horrible you are disappear in an instant. Who can resist that? It’s heady stuff, especially in a world where what we see on TV and in movies every minute of every day tells us – especially as women – that we are NOT okay as we are.

There is great comfort in thinking that you’re doing it right and others are wrong, and for some reason, it’s not enough to just think that, it’s necessary to prove it to other people – or chickens or cats – as well. And really, that’s the problem; making other people wrong in trying to make yourself right.

I think bullying in schools is one of the biggest problems we, as a society, face. It’s getting worse all the time, and real damage is being done to young creative minds. I think it’s all mixed up in the constantly rising level of addiction and mental illness in this country, cuz people feel so bad about themselves all the time – the bullies and the bulliedthat they have to find a way to escape the overwhelming anxiety.

But if it’s integral to our brains – a fundamental part of all life on this planet – what can we do? I don’t know. I don’t have answers. I wish I did. I’m part of the question, like most everyone else. I can’t fix myself, let alone all the problems in the world. I’m trying though.

Let it begin with me.

Legacy

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A friend died recently. He wasn’t a close friend, just someone I had known since we were in school together starting at age 6. Later on in our lives, we worked at the same company for a while, and even later, we were neighbors in a duplex quite by chance. He wasn’t a great neighbor (he was loud and always had people over at all hours), but he was a good guy and I enjoyed his company. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. Always friendly, and oh, so funny!

So he’s gone now, and I find that I feel disproportionately bad about that. I have no idea how he died – he was only 55, and as far as I know he hadn’t been ill; I find myself just hoping it wasn’t suicide. I would hate to think of him so unhappy. I suppose I feel bad partly because he was my age and I hate to think of my own mortality this soon, but that’s not all of it. I feel sort of bad that we lost touch, but we were never that close, so it’s not that surprising. I’ve lost touch with people I was much closer to – that’s just the way it seems to go as people get older and lives and personalities age/change.

I think mostly I feel bad cuz he was one of the good ones, and now he’s gone. It doesn’t seem there are so many left that we can afford to lose any. He was a gentle and kind soul, with a little bit of a drinking problem and a great sense of humor. He was probably never going to make a mark on the world at large, but he made an impression on everyone he met, and the world is a little emptier without him. He had close friends and family, and he was here in a big way to those who knew him, and now he’s not here. Just that fast.

I suppose it will be that way for all of us, and it makes you think about what it’s all about and what you’re all about. Will I leave a mark? Will people not in my daily life mourn my passing? What kind of an impression will most people I’ve known be left with? I have a feeling it won’t be as good as the feeling Mike always left people with, and that makes me sad. I haven’t always been a particularly nice or friendly person, nor am I always now. Depression was responsible for some of that, but still, I probably could have been better.

I don’t want to live my life for other people, and mostly I don’t care what they think of me, except that I think I would like them to feel that I was at least kind. I would like them to be left with that memory. They can think whatever they want about the way I live my life, or the way I look, or anything about me, except that. If I drop dead tomorrow, I want someone to say about me the kinds of things I’ve been reading on Facebook about Mike.

So I realize I’ve just set myself a pretty good goal: Be Kind. Just that. I don’t know if I can achieve it, but now that I’ve identified its importance, I will try to be more mindful of it.

RIP Michael. Thanks for the memories, and thanks for the nudge.

Looking into the future

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I just met with our company’s retirement advisor. That’s not something I’ve ever done before because 1) for much of my life I didn’t think I’d survive to retirement age; and 2) even in the last few years it seemed so far away. I just had my 56th birthday, though, and I plan to retire at 62, so it’s coming up fast now and I need to start planning.

I’ve worked at this company for almost 18 years, and when I retire I will have racked up almost 24 years here. I know from co-workers who have retired that the company has a good pension plan, so I haven’t worried about specifics. When the opportunity to meet with this (very young, very smart) woman this morning came up, however, I found I was anxious to find out what I could.

I really try not to live in the past or the future. It’s been hard the past few years because the present has seemed so difficult most of the time, but still I’ve tried. I don’t want to wish my life away, nor do I want to hang on to the past. I try to stay in the moment – the only thing that’s real. Right now.

Having said that, I think you have to plan for the future as best you can, while understanding that your plans might not work out. I can’t honestly say I saw any of my life turning out the way it has 6 years in advance. Like most young people, I assumed I was in control of my path and I had everything all mapped out: college, career, husband, 2.5 children, nice house in a warm climate = happy life.

With the exception of college, none of that happened. My career has had nothing to do with my college degree, and really can’t be called a “career” so much as a series of jobs in different fields, most of which I’ve enjoyed and have been lucky to have, but not a “career” in the way I thought it would be (award-winning journalist and wealthy famous novelist).

No husband. No children. Both turned out to be a good thing – a choice – but not what I thought would happen.

Depression happened. Nearly 30 years unmedicated high-functioning for the most part, 10 years medicated and much better, and now roughly 7 years post-medication and therapy, doing my best. I try not to think about who I might have been without depression, or how my life might have been different. It’s just what happened, and I’ve survived and that’s all any of us can hope for.

Family happened. My mother and father both were ill for most of my life. I was the only child, so I stuck around to be available to them. So no house in a warm climate. I did buy a house, but it’s in the same small town I grew up in, near my parents, in a place where it snows 8 months of the year.

So it’s been a good life so far, but in some ways, difficult. Same is true for everyone, I’m sure. That’s the human condition. Life can be so good, and so harsh – sometimes even at the same time. One thing’s for sure – you can’t see it coming most of the time. All we can do is try to set up conditions for the best future we can imagine. So I’m trying to figure out whether I can stop working in 6 years.

6 years! I’ve worked – sometimes 2 or 3 jobs at a time – since I was 14. I owned a business for 5 years. I’ve worked in my present job for 18 years, and in the job before that, 10 years. I’m old! I’m tired! I look at retirement as the Promiseland – all I have to do is live that long and all will be well. According the the smart young lady I spoke to this morning, financially all should be well, assuming the stock market doesn’t tank. So that’s something. I don’t have any control over the stock market, or my health, or anything that’s going to happen in the next 6 years, for that matter. I have a plan, though, and hope, and armed with those two things, I march happily ahead.

The falling leaves…

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You know how I know it’s fall? Yes, the weather’s gotten colder, the days are shorter, and the leaves are turning; not that hard to figure out. However, even if I were trapped in a room with no windows, I would probably know just from the changes in body and mind.

1. I feel like listening to classical music, with opera being my first choice.

2. Hot green tea sounds better than a cold beer.

3. I want to eat soup.

4. I have the urge to buy fuzzy slippers.

5. I want fire. Put the incense away and light the candles. Lots of candles. MUST. HAVE. LIGHT.

Even though I hate fall – I mourn the loss of summer the whole of the year until it’s return in June – my body and mind are responding to it on their own. I live above the 45th parallel, so fall is usually early compared to the lower 90% of the US – this year it swooped in on September 3 – and decisive. On September 2 it was 90 ° and sunny. On September 3 it was 60 ° and raining. Just like that, the switch is flipped and the long descent into winter has begun. This time of year I want to pack up and head to Australia. It’s Spring there, you know. Lucky dogs.

I try to be a good sport about it. I avoid complaining every minute of the day, not only because it doesn’t help and makes me feel worse, but also because my friends and co-workers are aware of my hatred, and don’t really want to hear about it anymore. I come home and don my fuzzy slippers, make some tea and sit in my living room suffering in silence. The cat doesn’t like it any better than I do, though, so I can complain to him once in a while and know that he is totally sympathetic. He has taken up his winter position on top of the sofa, so I know he and I are on the same page. We’d both rather be outside in the sunshine and warmth, frolicking in those wonderful balmy SW breezes.

Oh well, it’s not to be. This is Michigan and this is September. Two seasons here as far as I’m concerned: Summer and Waiting for Summer. We have begun the 9 month period that is not summer. Pack up the shorts and the sunscreen, break out the wool and boots.

It’s just not fair. Neither, though, is the devastation in the south from Hurricanes Gustav, Hannah, and Ike this year. So today while I’m sitting here drinking my tea watching the soft rain fall outside and listening to the cat snore behind me on the couch, my thoughts are with those who are suffering the loss of their comfort, too, in a much more profound way than I am. Cold temperatures, falling leaves, and snow are small burdens to bear compared to what much of the world endures from Mother Nature.

It could be so much worse, and is for so many. Bless you all.