Sunday, November 11, 2012

There and Home Again

November 11, 2012

Dear Friends,

Somewhere in my hoarded collection of significant objects is a set of “worry beads” that a colleague brought me when he returned from a sabbatical in Greece. At first glance, the object looks somewhat like a secular rosary. Polished amber beads separated by tiny gold beads are strung on a fine gold chain that ends with an intricate final knot of chain and small chunks of raw amber. But "worry beads" are not a religious object. As my friend understood it, "worry beads" were designed as an aid and discipline to “telling your worries one at a time.”

I have kept the worry beads because they are beautiful both to see and to touch. But I have never used them to “tell my worries” for several reasons. While the beads are a useful reminder that dealing with one thing at a time is often a wise procedure, I do not think it is helpful to “tell” troubles by counting separately every single piece in every specific pile of difficulty with which we may be confronted. Counting in this fashion can easily contribute to a sense of being overwhelmed. It can lead to the kind of thinking that Albert North Whitehead warned against when he said, “Beware of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Counting every single place where the roof is leaking does not necessarily produce the energy or ingenuity required to initiate roof repair.

But beyond the emotional risk entailed in “telling” over a litany of trouble, this process distorts what may be the most difficult dimension of managing the difficulties we face in life and in relationships. While we may choose to deal with one issue at a time, we rarely, if ever, have the luxury of dealing with an issue that is unconnected to other aspects of life. Life indeed does happen while we are busy doing (and thinking) about something else, as the old adage says, but to complicate matters further, life happens in plural, not singular, so to speak. The storm that damages the roof often happens the same week that the hot water heater fails and the car insurance comes due. Counting the specific leaks in the roof does not necessarily produce a practical sense of the broader context in which the roof problem must be considered. While it is certainly ridiculous to attempt simultaneously to mend the roof, write a check for insurance, and replace the hot water heater, it is the difficulty of managing a life space in which all three tasks must be dealt with that provides the challenge.

This example pivots around an imagined householder’s list of challenges that are commonplace, ordinary and concrete. In contrast, the things with which we must deal simultaneously in relationships are not so easily seen nor understood, and are infinitely more complex. Further, we must deal with them not as single beads on the string of living, but as the sum of life experiences by which we are shaped.

As I wrote earlier, I carry into relationships the memory of that terrible April dust storm, the eerie light, my frightened parents, and memory meaning that I made: the world is unreliable: it can be dark in the afternoon, and dirt, not rain, can fall from the skies. I knew too, somehow, that the dirt covered some of the cattle and they died although my parents did the best that they could to keep this fact from me.

Then three years later my beautiful mother, who sang wonderful songs and filled the kitchen with the smell of baking bread, died. One stormy April night, I went to bed frightened because my mother was sick and I was not permitted to sleep in my bed in my parents's room. I woke up to a world in which I would never hear her voice again, never feel her tuck me in to sleep. My world had turned upside down, and I was now alone to make my way in a world in which there was no mother to comfort when there were bad dreams in the dark, and no one to teach hope by stories in which things did turn out happily in the end.

The ways in which the long shadow of these events—together, not just one at a time—cast a long shadow into my adult life and relationships are oblique and often appear disassociated to others. I choose to have three cans of coffee in the pantry, and I seek both to be gentle with myself and self-controlled in living out my understanding of this. Nevertheless, it can prove difficult at times to respond graciously when others tease about my tendency “to hoard.” While my curiosity leads me at times into adventures that reflect the “Tookish” part of me, my personal traveling songs, like those of Bilbo the Hobbit, end with the adventurer’s arrival home, “There and Back Again.”

“I have never know anyone who loves coming home to her own bed like you do,” a friend recently remarked as we arrived back from an out-of state trip to a conference.  “H-m-m,” I answered. It was one of those insightful observations that require either a very long explanation or no comment at all.

Would you expect a relationship that required me to “live out of a suitcase” for long, indefinite periods of time to be an easy one for me? What are the combinations of experience that most powerfully shape your choices? Can you describe to yourself the way this shows in your relationships?

Thinking with you that those things that we seek in present relationships can sometimes carry a dangerous unacknowledged debt to the past.

See you next week.


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