I had an interesting conversation with my business partner this afternoon. We were discussing how to handle a somewhat delicate situation with a person we both love and respect. This person unknowingly violated business protocol, in a way that left us very concerned. We needed to do two things: clean up the mess, and establish professional boundaries with this colleague. And we want to do it without losing the relationship.
At one point in our talk I mentioned “hard lines.” After we ended the call I got to thinking, how does a person learn to develop “hard lines?” You know, life’s guard rails — what we use to keep our principles, values, and relationships on track.
I’m an adult child of alcoholics. Growing up I just knew they drank a lot, and did it every day. I didn’t say ‘alcoholic’ until I was grown and in therapy. I didn’t call them that because I hadn’t really thought about it. Every family has their own brand of “normal,” and drinking parents was part of our family brand.
But what happens when the parents drink, and drink a lot, is that boundaries don’t exist. As a kid, I didn’t know. Anything. My goal was survival. Because at any given moment, what once was the “rule” suddenly became the “violation.” So — other than what I learned through the nuns at school, or through the Church, there were no guard rails, no consistent “hard lines.”
In my early adult life, I had no clue what pieces of me were missing. As a result I did what most of us do: I partnered with a lovable boy whose missing pieces matched my own. Our dysfunctions fit together perfectly. We became enmeshed, our lines blurred, but it all felt normal to both of us; neither one of us had a clue what lay ahead.
As the years passed, we each continued to grow and change; our sharp edges began to cut deep into each other, and started to sever who we were as a couple. Eventually we divorced. By that time I had been in therapy and was learning about developing healthy boundaries. Week after week I sat there in my therapist’s office, holding my broken heart, and seeing clearly, for the first time, what we had been; I shed tears over what we could never be.
Establishing boundaries is not always easy. But it’s always healthy. Boundaries keep relationships clean, and honest. With everything on the table, with no truths left twisted or untold, there is nothing to fear. The coast is clear for real connection.
The best thing a parent can do for their kiddos is model healthy boundaries early on. It has to be a consistent lesson of “Choice, meet consequence.” But parents who have no established boundaries, or “hard lines,” in their own lives, don’t even know it’s a thing to nurture in their children. Consequently, when the children become adults, they’re out in the world, operating without their own fully established guard rails.
This is a recipe for messy relationships. It can leave young adults floundering, trying to figure out how they keep getting it wrong. But often it’s as simple — and as complicated — as knowing they need to find their own boundaries; that it’s important to stick to them, even when it’s tough to do so.
So here’s to the freedom to say “No,” or “Stop,” or “Here’s the whole, ugly truth,” without having to fear that we’re getting it wrong. If we’re staying true to our own principles, and respecting our own “hard lines,” no matter how tough things get, we’ll always come out whole. And we’ll end up in relationships with people whose boundaries we respect, and who respect what drives us.
So I trust my business partner and I will not only keep the relationship with our colleague. I’m thinking the bond will grow even stronger through our being honest, kind, and maintaining our ‘hard lines.’
Life doesn’t get much better than that.
It’s January 12, 2019. My last post was on returning home after my mother’s funeral. She died on Halloween Day. My Daddy died three years ago. So I am now, in my dotage, an orphan. An old woman orphan.
These days, life stretches out behind me, like it stretched out before me when I was young. I’ve been here awhile, and sometimes I wish I’d handled things differently, made different choices, seen different outcomes. But that’s a tight, smoking circle that always leads me back to this truth: the lessons learned were worth the price of the trip. I am who I am thanks to every little thing. And yet …
Days come and go, the sun rises and sets. I make choices every morning, change my mind mid-coffee, reevaluate over lunch, set out to accomplish “at least one material thing” mid afternoon, resign myself to the day I’ve spent over dinner, and start looking at the clock around six thirty, wondering if it’s too soon for pajamas. Do you do that? I don’t know, maybe I’m an island of internal conflict, arm wrestling with procrastination … winner gets ice cream.
But in the grand scheme of life, there are some things that I can feel good about checking off.
- I’ve come through decades of counseling, most of it good, in my quest to unpack all the baggage, and to unearth who I was put here to be.
- I’ve painted houses, and portraits, written articles, and songs, designed homes, developed media projects … each activity a response to the creative pool that undulates inside me. I never reached for fame. I was and am always on a mission to follow that creative urge, whatever it was or is, to its completion.
- Loving, more than being loved, has been my modus. “Spill love everywhere” is a motto I embrace. Even if it seems invisible; even if it appears, in the immediate instant, to make no difference at all. Keep it up. Keep going. And when I spill love on others, I can’t help but get some on myself. Love is messy. It gets all over everything.
A favorite quote:
“Her finely touched spirit still had its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” – George Eliot, “Middlemarch”
In this huge world, with all these people, it’s easy to want to be relevant. Publicly relevant. To make a difference, and be recognized for it. But I’m consciously choosing, in this little life, to focus on the doing rather than on the being. It matters not who knows it, other than I. I know. I know the truth; the beautiful, ugly, magnificent, broken truth about who I am, what I’ve done/not done, for better or worse, throughout these years.
When I lay my head down on the pillow at night, in the sober darkness, I am fully present for that truth. I beg God’s forgiveness, His mercy, and His grace. Broken people do broken things, every single day. We’re all broken. But we can — in our brokenness — aspire. Aspire to wholeness. And it’s love — of self, of others, of this life we live — that will get us there.
I didn’t know about her for years. Never heard of her. Then, one day, in the period I would soon dub ‘the dark night of my ex-husband’s soul’ she came. A light dawned.
I’d always been a creative girl, a passionate teen, then while wedded I morphed into an unsure and eagerly accommodating woman. When I finally acknowledged the “past due notice” and filed for “the divorce,” I realized I couldn’t speak. No, listen, I could string words together, I could even sound coherent on occasion, but the kernel of “me” at the heart of it all was missing. When did I grow so soft?
There I was, plowing through the molasses searching for my focus when, at a Screen Actors Guild Directors’ meeting, I met Nat Benchley. ‘Benchley, Benchley, let me think,’ I thought as I smiled that smile and shook his hand.
Nat immediately had me smitten, as most brilliantly eloquent men do … I do love a great mind. And his was incredible, I thought, until … well, his nickname for me was a little off putting. “Reverend Gorgeous.” I can barely type it even now. It makes me blush, and warms my heart. But that’s not the point here. The point is, Nat was sharing with me stories about his grandfather Robert, and how this woman, Dorothy Parker, was his sidekick and best friend.
Well, I’d never heard of the woman, and you already know exactly what I did. I looked Dorothy up, bought her books, checked her out … and thought, ‘HEY! I recognize that voice … that irreverent, brilliant, hysterically ironic voice. It . Sounds . Like . Me .’
So that was the first step, learning about Dot. The next meeting Nat and I attended was in New York, and he decided we should go some place called the Algonquin Hotel. Over martinis with three fat olives he educated me on the infamous “Vicious Circle” and — as we sat at that very same round table, regaled me with tales of how his Grandfather and Dot would hold court there everyday at lunch. And so, we and our colleagues sat. We laughed. We drank. Because, you know. Dot and Robert.
Hirschfeld drawings of Benchley, Parker, and company lined the walls. The more I learned, the more I was convinced: Nat and I should do a two-person show, Robert and Dot. I mentioned it to him. He loved it. But life got in the way, as it tends to do, and we never happened.
That was years ago, and I only remembered these things when reading a piece this morning by Dorothy Parker. I’m much older now, and am not sure I still have the swagger necessary to deliver a good “Dot” onstage. But I love my warm memories of Nat Benchley. I continue to relish Parker’s writing, her voice, and the very clear knowledge that it was she who, thanks to Nat, helped me find my own.
In high school I was told to choose. And each of the tellers told me to chose the thing that was theirs:
Sister Mary Judith said to choose writing
Sister Mary Thomas said to choose music
Sister Mary Dominica said to choose fine art
Sister Josephine said to choose fashion design
You MUST choose this one, each said. This is your gift, each said.
I said no. Was it the best answer? I guess I’ll never know, but I knew in my gut it’s the only answer I could give.
I saw each as one of my children. How do I choose one, and leave the others, orphaned?
How do I nurture one, and leave the others fallow? It was the craziest idea I’d ever heard. But I was just a kid, what did I know? These were brides of Christ telling me to do this. But I couldn’t.
First of all, as I now know, what the creative well is filled with is beyond my control. It is a central space whose energy flows through me. I cannot dictate to the well how it is to express itself. I can only say “yes” to whatever shows up.
I am not the boss of it. I am the steward; the guardian. It is up to me to facilitate, not to dictate.
In my adult life, there are creative threads that have expanded; writing grew to — not only prose or poetry, but a career in songwriting. Design grew to — not just fashion design — but a career in interior design. Music grew to a career as a vocalist. I guess you could say my ‘children’ had ‘children’ of their own.
I sometimes wonder if this is just me, not wanting to “settle down” with something that could organize my life in a way that some would call “adult.” But when that thought comes to mind, the counter argument is always there to ask me, which of your creative ‘children’ would you have abandoned in favor of others?
The answer is, I cannot choose. I have not chosen. They choose me. Even now, in my dotage, I do not regret saying “YES” to all of them.
Things in my life are the way they are, based on every choice I’ve made. They laid a road, end to end, that brought be here to this table today. Good or bad, for better or worse, here I sit; my greasy hair under a ball cap, my thoughts scattered and the censor in my brain telling me that what I’m writing now is not worth a damn.
I get sick of hearing my own voice tell my own stories. Are other people as sick of it as I am? I don’t want to write cute, or clever. As Hemingway says, write real, about what hurts. I’ve kerfed around the edges of the pain for years, never hitting it dead center. I guess that’s real if you’re digging a trench, but I’m sort of stuck down here, looking for truth. And trying to dig my way out.
I could write about birds. But then my brain goes to the parakeet we had at 1135 South Quaker. My mother named it Perry Como. He was blue, with black wing tips, and a spot of lime green between his eyes. Thinking of him now I can smell his birdseed and that cage with the newspapers in the bottom.
When they let Perry out of that cage, he flew up and sat on the curtain rods. Every time he flew his wings made a loud flapping sound that scared my little brother.
Sometimes my mother would open Perry’s cage door, and wait. When my brother came walking through the livingroom, suddenly Perry would swoop down. My brother would scream and dive under the table, clutching the legs and sobbing. My mother raised her eyebrows, took a drag off her cigarette, and laughed. That taught me some pretty twisted things about how people treat those they claim to love. So yeah … count that little nugget as a lob to the center of the pain from the trenches.
Or maybe I could write about being a teenager. And dating.
Maybe I could write about the night a boy came to pick me up, and he had a long fringe of bangs. My little sisters peaked around the door giggling, “It’s a Beatle!” My Dad growled, “Is that your hair, boy, or is that a wig?”
Or I could write about another time my date arrived to take me to the school dance. He drove his car, parked, and my Dad drove us to school in our ’51 two door Pontiac. The two door thing is relevant because my date and my Dad sat in the front, I climbed into the back. In my formal. The thing I’ll never forget is the hood ornament. It was a glowing orange Indian Chief. I locked my eyes on that thing all the way to school, trying to ignore the awkward silence.
Maybe I could write about the faith, and the sense of humor, that have carried me on angel wings through the darkest of days, the brokenest of hearts. How, even in those moments … my date with the Beatles hair, me sitting in the back seat of that car … even then, in the recesses of my mind, I knew: “this is the rich stuff of which stories are made. I will write about this one day.”
Maybe today, sitting here at this table, wearing my ballcap, is that time.
A recent checklist:
Have you locked in on who you were put here to be?
Are you accomplishing all that you were put here to accomplish?
How much longer is your life’s to-do list?
How’s that memoir coming?
Will your work projects pay off?
What will be written on your grave marker?
Will you have a grave marker?
Will your grands know how much you loved them?
Will you have made a difference in any positive way?
What is the one thing, if you had to choose, that you’d want to be remembered for?
How will your children carry on once you’re gone?
What will happen to your writing?
What will happen to your artwork?
What will happen to your design work?
Once you’re gone, will you even care about any of this?
Questions that, once posed, tend to send me into one of two places: a deep and thoughtful period, or a moment of ironic flippancy where I say, “Who cares about that? I can only handle ‘now’.”
And really, those questions generally pop up only when I’m down. And I’m down so seldom that I had to conjure to bring them up at all.
I keep my eyes on the horizon, and my heart in Gilead. My path is my testimony, marked by my feet, which I put one in front of the other each day.
It is a varied, and a beautiful life. Trouble? Yes, we see trouble all around us. But we are not the trouble itself. No one is. We are the very love we seek; we are the center and the stillpoint of this amazing planet. And what we focus on increases. Think about that.
So, as I look back on this list of questions I raise, I can quietly and with blessed assurance say,
“It is too soon to tell. But I’ve read the Book. I know how this ends.
“And it is beautiful.”