The Wind

She felt the January wind slink into her apartment, curling in like a cat, all sly and sophisticated. It thought it could slide in, lurk in the corners long enough that she’d get used to it, let it stay, like an afterthought. This interloper wind, this vagabond gust thought to hide in the corner, unnoticed but still unwelcome, a silent squatter.

But she was through with hangers on, of all sorts. She’d lived alone these last 20 years, ever since her husband moved away to find work in another state. Or had he simply moved without her, a divorce in all but name? They’d grown apart ever since she became sober. Only when she wasn’t seeing life through the fog did she realize she‘d not married well. But, a vow was a vow, so they muddled on, more roommates than spouses.

It had worked, for a while, but then it all became clear, slowly, like a Polaroid photograph developing. Only then could she see who she’d married – or perhaps worse, the person she’d become since that day.

How had she forgotten who she was? And why had it taken so long to remember?

She had her back injury to thank for this, she mused. Nothing makes you reevaluate your life like pain. She’d had to stop everything and re-learn who she was, learn how to put down all the heavy things she was carrying. It didn’t take her long to realize that meant more than just physical.

So she made less time for him. She started spending time with friends. She started spending time on herself. She started learning what it was like to not spend so much time around someone who was addicted to being broken, to being a victim. It was liberating.

It was sad,in a way, to realize how much he had leaned on her, how much he had expected of her. But she was through listening to his litany of complaints, his lists of people who had done him wrong. It was sad, too, to see how special he thought he was – and not in a good way. He thought he was unique in his pain, that the world paid special attention to him, singled him out for abuse, when in reality the world was as indifferent and impersonal to everyone.

This need to play the victim, to play the indirect object, the one who was acted upon rather than the active agent, was what had put him in his funk. She could see this plain as day, this self fulfilling prophecy of disappointment and delusion. He had not gotten better in the decade they’d been together. Perhaps he had gotten worse. And so she agreed to the separation, to see if perhaps he would learn on his own. It was how she’d learned, after all.

It wasn’t intentional, this separation. She hadn’t asked for it, but welcomed it all the same as the gift she’d never thought to ask for.

He had fallen on hard times since the layoff. A cozy job with the government, safe and secure, was his ace in the pocket for years. He could coast along, unmotivated, lackadaisical, feckless. Perhaps that had been his undoing, that job where mediocrity was the name of the game. Perhaps he’d learned too well that it didn’t pay to try harder. There were no promotions for those who tried to improve upon the time-tested procedures. In fact, mostly there was censure from the fellow dozens of that lackluster lair. They invariably pulled down anyone who dared to make their own mediocre workload look as lackluster as it really was. Only if they all conspired to put forth the least amount of effort could they continue in their façade. 

But then there was the layoff. Or was it a forced retirement? Being civil service, they couldn’t be fired, but they could be subtly forced to leave. Privileges could be revoked. Expectations could be raised. Work could be documented, quantified, tracked. This weeded out some of the lazy ones, but not all. Some clung on harder, determined to outlast the push to eliminate them. Some were determined to stay until the end, until they retired or things got bad enough that going through the ordeal of finding another job seemed better in comparison.

Somehow he lasted through the waves of attrition, kept his head down in that strange game of musical chairs where people weren’t fired but still found they didn’t have a job. Every week certain jobs were deemed unnecessary or redundant. It was clever, if not exactly honest. The people weren’t eliminated. The jobs were . It was a simple as that.

And that is why he left, before the ax came down on him. But that too is how he was patterned – to think that he deserved better but didn’t have to work for it – in fact, shouldn’t work for it.

It was nearly a year before he worked up the momentum to get another job, in the meantime relying on the kindness of his wife to keep him in the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. And then she’d had it. It was only her anxiety attack that put her in the hospital that motivated him to start looking in earnest. Even then what he found was just part time, with no health insurance.

She’d promised, she said her vows, but she hadn’t counted on it being worse more often than better. She thought it would swing both ways, where they’d take turns relying upon each other. She’d not expected this protracted siege upon her compassionate nature.

And so finally he moved out, but not before she pushed him out of the bedroom, pushed his clutter out of the kitchen. She told him years ago it was her or the hoarding, and he’d not chosen her. So she got to do the choosing, slowly but surely maneuvering the situation to pushing him out without overtly doing so.

He was used to being a bit player in his own life anyway, so it was easy enough once she set her mind to it. No more would she be his emotional garbage dump. No longer would she pick up after him when he “forgot” to clean up his own messes – physical, financial, spiritual. She’d never agreed to having a child and certainly didn’t want one who was nearly 50.

So they lived apart, and it worked in a fashion. It wasn’t a normal marriage as far as they knew, but maybe it was. Maybe most people lived like this but never talked about it. Maybe behind closed doors all marriages were all the same. Meanwhile, it was time to do something about that draft. It wouldn’t do to let the wind get the better of her. She was done with being taken advantage of.

(written 1-3-19)

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Free pass

Many years ago I was in a group of friends who lived in Atlanta. One girl kept making snarky comments to me one day. She would say something rude or condescending about everything I said or did. Either she didn’t usually speak to me or I didn’t notice her comments, but that day I did.

I finally worked up the courage to speak up. I said this to her with our friends present. Bullies have a hard time when there are witnesses. “Are you a bitch all the time, or is today just a special day?” She was silent. I continued. “Because all you have done all day is cut me down and I can’t think of any reason for it. If I’ve done something wrong, let me know.” She never answered, and she has never spoken to me again.

It was very hard for me to do this, but I had to. I was shaking inside, but I knew I had to say something. Verbal abuse is exactly the same as physical abuse, and must be stopped as soon as it is noticed or it will get worse. If you ignore it, you are allowing it to happen.

I once had a coworker who thought it was acceptable to walk up behind me and hit the back of my head several times a day.

I have relatives – blood and in-laws – who think it is acceptable to slander me, steal from me, and lie to me.

I am here to tell you that nobody is ever allowed a free pass to abuse you. Nobody. This includes but is not limited to managers, bosses, spouses, parents, siblings, friends, ministers, and strangers on the street.

Nobody has permission to harm you in any way.

First, let them know how their actions make you feel. They may not realize that they are being a bully. If they sincerely apologize and never do it again, then let it go. If they do it one more time, walk away. You do not need people like this in your life. It does not matter who they are. Nobody gets a free pass at harming you.

You are valuable. You are a child of God. You are unique and precious. If they cannot recognize that, then that is their loss. You cannot make blind people see.

Rumi says in “The Way That Moves as You Move” (rendered by Coleman Barks)
“You have read about the inspired spring. Drink from there. Be companions with those whose lips are wet without water. Others, even though they may be your father or your mother, they are your enemies. Leave, before they kill you.”

Jesus says:
“You assume that I have come to bring peace on earth, and you are mistaken. I have come to set fire to the world, and how I wish it was already burning! I have a mission that I am called to, and it will overwhelm me until I have completed it. I’m not here to join people together but to divide them. Families will turn against each other in their households. I’ve come to bring a sword, cutting old family ties. I’ve come to turn sons against fathers, daughters against mothers, daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. Your worst enemies will be members of your household. Anyone who loves their family more than me cannot be my disciple.” (MT 10:34-37, LK 14:25-26, LK 12:49-53 – Condensed Gospel version)

We must follow the Truth,
regardless of others around us,
regardless of their authority
or connection to us.
If they are harmful to us,
we must walk away and cut all ties.

Only God is above us, not them.

It is better to be lonely than with someone who abuses you.

Stuck

I had a boyfriend who was 20 when was 17. His birthday was coming up and he wanted to celebrate it with his parents at his house and he wanted me to come. However, this involved a trip across the country in a plane. We flew from Chattanooga to Seattle, and then drove to some little town about two hours away. I was stuck at his house, in his town, with his parents. I had no way out. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it became really obvious very soon that I was in trouble.

Having never made any moves on me before then, he attempted to have sex with me that very first night. I resisted and eventually managed to survive the week still a virgin. I broke up with him immediately upon returning home and didn’t speak with him for many years afterwards. He was deeply confused as to what had gone wrong. Even after I explained it to him he didn’t really understand.

I suspected something was wrong from the very beginning of the stay with his parents, when I was greeted by his parents at their house and his father was wearing only an undershirt and tight shorts. I was clued in to more when I learned that my boyfriend’s “rebel” earring wasn’t rebellious at all – his dad had one, and his brother had one. I also figured out that something was wrong when his parents matter-of-factly put my luggage and his luggage in the same room.

The alarm bells kept going off – there was a lot of smoke, but I didn’t have an escape plan. Worse, I’d been taught to ignore these alarm bells by the very people who should have taught me better.

What were the alarm bells? My parents would have never greeted a guest wearing their underwear. They would never even be seen in front of anyone, even family, like that unless they were sick. They certainly wouldn’t have put a non-married couple in the same room together, and much less if one person was a teenager.

For his parents to treat me like that was a warning that I was not in a “normal” house – and I certainly wasn’t safe. He proceeded to try to “pick my locks” as the Pink Floyd song goes every night that week, and I was terrified.

How could I leave? I had no car. I had no spare money. He had the tickets – he’d bought them.

Perhaps I could have called home and gotten my parents to wire me money for a new plane ticket – to leave right away. Perhaps I could have gotten a taxi and just left.

I didn’t. I felt trapped, and I had no frame of reference for this kind of behavior. I had no way of knowing how to act.

But in a way I did. My brother abused me in many ways throughout my childhood, and my parents did nothing. He beat me and stole from me and when I told them they didn’t make it better. They didn’t punish him at all. He eventually became a full-blown narcissistic psychopath, and they didn’t nip this in the bud. He learned early on that he could get away with manipulating people any way he wanted. He learned early on that he could treat people like things and get away with it. Since my parents didn’t defend me, I learned to be passive. This was how I was supposed to be treated, apparently.

My trips to the dentist as a child also taught me passivity. He didn’t use anesthesia because he thought the needle would scare me. I learned that pain was to be endured, especially pain at the hands of an authority figure. My parents were paying for it, so this must be normal. Suck it up.

While I’m angry at myself for not standing up and defending myself, I also have to forgive myself. I didn’t know better. I wasn’t taught well. I learned to accept bad behavior quietly until I could find a way to remove myself safely. I’m angry at them for not teaching me how to take care of myself at all. I’m angry at them for their ineptness. But I also need to remember that they, like all parents, are amateurs.

I went to a therapist once who thought I should just hang out in the “angry” place and not forgive or excuse bad behavior, but it isn’t that simple. Emotions aren’t just one or another, but a range of them. I can be angry and forgive at the same time. I can understand and empathize, but also be sad at people’s bad choices.

While I think that boyfriend and my family “should” have known better, I’m putting my value system on them. I’m forgetting that they don’t have to do things my way. I’m forgetting that they have their own ways of doing things, and if I feel that they are wrong – for me – then I must get away from them. They don’t have to stop doing what they are doing – they just have to stop doing them to me. Their actions are their own, and the consequences of their actions are their own.

This all reminds me of how nobody told me how to use the brakes on a bike when they taught me to ride. I got very badly hurt, and it was totally avoidable.

Inept, or genius?

I’m having a hard time figuring out if people I know are playing stupid, or if it isn’t an act. My Dad did this. I have two coworkers who do this. Are they really inept, or just acting like it to get out of doing work?

How much of this is learned helplessness? If you act helpless, people won’t ask you to do anything. My Dad used it all the time, and my Mom fell for it. Well, until she had to be the breadwinner because he was unemployed. Then he had to learn how to wash the dishes and the laundry. Then he was miserable. He complained. He whined. He even sang spirituals about “Washing off his chains”. She ignored him, because she couldn’t do it all and he was at home doing nothing productive.

Laying around on your recliner listening to Beethoven doesn’t count. If only she’d ignored him for years earlier. Maybe he would have grown up.

So I’m trying to tell my coworkers to not let these other coworkers get away with being “inept”. Maybe they really are inept. Maybe they really are stupid. But then, how did they get Master’s degree in library science? How do they run a household? They aren’t in an institution, and that degree has their name on it. Time for them to live up to it. If everybody else does their job for them, then really, they are genius.

They have figured out how to get paid to do nothing. And how to get someone else who gets paid less to do twice as much.

Start where you are.

Start where you are. It is uniquely yours.

Describe what you see if you are a writer. Take pictures if you are a photographer. Paint it, draw it, make a song of it.

This isn’t just physically. This isn’t just a place. Not only where, but how, you live. This includes who you know, what you do, how you play, all of it. Describe your environment inside and out. Show it off, and turn it around. Explain it, excuse it, defend it.

What was life like growing up in your house? What was your family like? What do these things look like now?

Tell what is and what was. Tell the actual, the way you remember it.

You may think that nobody cares about what you have to say, but strangely they do. Your perspective isn’t their perspective, so no matter how boring it may seem to you, it is entirely foreign to someone else. This is true even if they are from the same country, or same state, or same town. This is true even if they live right next door to you. This is true even if they are a sibling and grew up in the same house as you.

Your story is uniquely yours, and is for you to tell. Or paint. Or photograph. Or dance. Or sing. Or bead.

There are as many ways to tell your story as there are faces, as there are flowers. Try one or three. What can be expressed in one format can’t in another. What makes sense in one is senseless in another. Some are better at expressing different feelings. Try them all. Make up a new one.

But start where you are, because that is where you are. Start where you are and tell what you see. Start where you are and share it with the world. Because we are waiting to hear it.

How do you know when you are an adult?

How do you know when you are an adult?

Sometimes there are rituals and ceremonies. You’ve graduated college. You’ve gotten married. You get to see a change has happened. It is celebrated.

Or there are other milestones. You’ve gotten your first “real” job. You’ve moved out on your own. You no longer need a cosigner for credit applications.

In some African cultures, women are marked when they reach certain points in their lives. You can tell who is married and who has had a child for instance by looking at the scars on their bodies.

We don’t have such visible markings here. Our changes are internal. You have to let people know you aren’t a child anymore. The only external mark is a wedding ring, and not even that guarantees that you are an adult.

It is good to be childlike, but not childish. You want to be able to be independent. That is a sign of a mature person.

I knew I was an adult when my parents died. We had a next door neighbor who was at least 70 years old. I was instructed to call her Mrs. Miles when I was growing up. When my parents died, I started calling her by her first name, Margaret. I didn’t even think twice about it. She didn’t correct me either. To call someone by their first name is to say you are equals. Previous to my parent’s death, we weren’t equals. But now we were. I’d gone through a trial by fire and come through (mostly) intact.

The sad thing is that my brother never got the message that I was an adult. He kept treating me as lesser. I was his little sister and he was determined to “keep me in my place.” It didn’t matter to him that I was 25, and had taken care of our Mom the whole time she was sick, and had handled the entire estate on my own.

To him, I was lesser and would always be. In reality, he was treating me as lesser to make himself feel better. He was pushing me down to raise himself up. He couldn’t accept the reality that his “kid” sister had done all the hard work and he’d run away from any responsibility. I’d proven I was an adult, and he’d proven he was a coward.

I refused to let him treat me as a child, and I still refuse it. I refuse to allow him or anyone to treat me in a disrespectful manner. If it means that the relationship has to be severed because of that, so be it. Life is too short to spend with people who are not kind. Life is too short to let people treat you like dirt.

Part of being an adult is putting a value on yourself and not letting anyone bid any lower than what you are worth. To let someone treat you badly is to tell them that is OK.

Now, to treat anyone as lesser is also a sign of immaturity. Part of being an adult is to know your own worth and to establish it. But it also doesn’t mean that you get to treat anybody else as beneath you.

My brother, the alligator.

My brother sent me a second letter recently. I’d not written him back after the first one, in part because I didn’t want to ruin his Christmas. I didn’t write back immediately because I wanted to make sure I said things correctly. It is best not to respond to someone when you are angry.

I’d composed a letter, but I’d not sent it. I had put in reminders of all the things he’s accused me of, insane accusations. I’d put in reminders about all the ways he has hurt me over the years, that he has not acknowledged or apologized for. I’d pointed out that there is no relationship of any account.

We aren’t friends. I don’t like him as a human being. I don’t trust him. I certainly don’t want anything to do with him. If he was anybody other than my brother I would have stopped talking to him decades ago. Come to think of it, I probably wouldn’t have talked to him at all. He is very selfish.

He has harmed me in many ways, and has never shown any sign of awareness of the damage he has done to me. It isn’t just me he abuses. This is just who he is. Then he blames the other person for his own problems. He even said that the reason he was a quarter of a million dollars in debt is because I’d “prayed for his downfall.” That is just crazy. He needs professional help. This is part of the reason he’s been divorced four times. I really wonder if his fifth wife knows his backstory. My suggestion that he get therapy and they both get counseling before they got married is what precipitated the last time we quit talking with each other.

So I thought that to be kind, I’d wait until after Christmas to reply. Getting a letter from your sister saying that she’s not your sister in any real way isn’t that great right then. Christmas is hard enough without something like that. I thought I’d be kind by waiting. At least one of us should be, right?

So then there was another letter before I could send it. He didn’t wait for my reply. I’m learning that I shouldn’t open these letters. I gave it to my husband to read it first. It was kind of like giving a bomb to a professional. He read it and it was innocent enough, but clueless, and still unrepentant. There was something about some writer his pastor had mentioned and here’s a blog address for me to read. My guard went up – once again he’s telling me what to do, rather than acknowledging his role or admitting his errors. The last thing he’d said to me before I stopped talking to him a couple of years ago was to tell me to read “How to Make Friends and Influence People”. He said that I should read that and then talk to him again. It was an ultimatum.

I decided that was the last time he was going to tell me what to do. I decided that was the last time I was going to be bossed around by him, or anybody. I decided that he’d made my task easier. If I don’t read that book then I don’t have to talk to him again.

Scott went on with the letter and came across something that sent up a flag. He started reading out loud these words – “The next time you decide to cut someone out of your life…” and I put up my hand and said “Stop!” Done. Right there.

I’m glad that I didn’t fall into that trap. In years past I would have heard those words and gotten stuck there, like a deer in the headlights, waiting to be run over. It is why the phrase “trigger warning” is so useful. It lets you know that something that might trigger a bad response is coming. This is helpful if you’ve been abused in the past. But life doesn’t have any trigger warnings. Sometimes you just have to toughen yourself up to be able to handle them from wherever they come. Sometimes it is like martial arts, but with words. When a person swings a fist at you, you know to duck or to divert their energy by grabbing their wrist. When a person swings a verbal attack at you, it is sometimes harder to see it, and you get flattened.

I’ve met people who are walking trigger warnings. They are so broken that all they can talk about is their brokenness. Being around them is like getting punched in the stomach repeatedly, and with no warning.

This time I stopped it. I didn’t “decide to cut someone out of my life,” I decided to get away from being his punching bag. I decided to stop being abused. I decided to take my life back.

He chose to harm me, again and again. When I told him how I felt from how he treated me he continued acting the same way. It was his choice to act in that manner, both before and after I told him he was harming me. Then, to stay would have been my choice. It would have been me saying that being abused by him was OK.

He chose to abuse me. He chose to not get therapy. He chose to not acknowledge the damage he has done. He has never apologized. He has never made restitution.

I didn’t make an arbitrary decision. I chose to live in a sane way, in a healthy way, by establishing boundaries. He chose to ignore them.

So now I’m really glad I didn’t reply to the first letter. To reply, even in the negative, is still to reply. It is still to further a relationship. Even if it is a bad relationship, it is still a relationship if two people are communicating. It gives it energy.

It is just like a child who constantly misbehaves. If they act in a good way, they get ignored. Their parents take them for granted. But if they misbehave, they get attention – even though it is negative. Negative attention is better than no attention.

A negative relationship is better than no relationship, if you are an unhealthy person.

I choose to only give energy to the good.

Sure, I’m giving energy to it right now. I’m doing this in part to exorcise him out of my psyche. I’m doing it in part to let others know they aren’t alone. I’m doing it in part to show that if someone is harming you, no matter who they are or whatever social obligations are put on that relationship, that it is healthy to walk away to save yourself.

I’m also doing for total disclosure. I’m no saint. I’m not a guru or a counselor. My advice on how to live life is hard-earned. I’d love to foster peace in this world, but I can’t even get along with my brother.

But I’d rather have no relationship than one where I’m being harmed.

After I wrote another piece about my brother recently – after the first letter he recently wrote, members of my family got involved. A cousin wrote another cousin and there was something of a request for me to make peace.

I’m not the one who is to blame. I’m the victim. To insist that I make peace with him is insane, and revictimises me. It says that the fault for the broken relationship lies with me.

A minister told a story once that I identify with. He grew up in Louisiana. When he was a child many years ago, it was common to keep alligators as pets. He had a small one, and he gave it shade and nice food and a place to play. He took good care of it. Then one day, it bit him.

It bit him, not because of how well he’d treated it, but because it is an alligator. That is its nature.

My brother is an alligator. This is just how he is. I’ve done nothing to provoke him. I’ve done nothing to deserve his abuse. I’ve done nothing to deserve him stealing from me, lying to me, harassing me, and falsely accusing me.

I accept that this is the way he is. I wish it wasn’t so, but wishing won’t change things. He has to want to change. He has to understand that he can’t treat people the way he has all of his life. The longer people keep letting him steamroll over them, the longer he’s going to keep doing it.

I, for one, am done. Perhaps this will help him. Perhaps this will be something that makes him see that he cannot abuse people and expect them to take it. I want him to be well, but I can’t do that. All I can do is stop allowing him to harm me. All I can do is stop putting my hand near him enough for him to bite it off.

Even if he changes, even if he turns around and gets it, I cannot trust him. He’s harmed me often enough and deeply enough that I cannot ever allow him into my life again.

I’d rather write only about positive things. The more energy I give to negative things, the more I give them strength. Sometimes I may need to write about Ian, because he has provided such an amazing example of what NOT to do, and how NOT to be a good human being. I really wrestle with this. I don’t want to dwell in the past. But I also sometimes may need to refer to it to illustrate a point.

The answer, to everything? Pray. Give thanks in all situations, and in all times. Balance. Acceptance. And trust that God is working through all of this.