It began with a Buster Brown Sock Box

Friends 2015There was a box that reappeared under the Christmas tree every year at the house where I grew up, and it happened for as long as I lived there. It took two or three years when I was a tot to notice the annual reappearance of The Buster Brown Sock Box, but eventually it became obvious that Santa Claus was decades ahead of the recycling movement.
It was a yearly curiosity, the question of who’d have a gift in that long-lived box. Because of its size and its original use, it usually held practical items, like the predictable socks for my brother or me, or new gloves to wear to church. The worn ones that were getting a bit snug in the fingers could now be relegated to school wear. New hunting socks for my dad fit the box perfectly, the gray woolen kind with red toes and a wide band of red around the top of the cuff. A book, stuffed in tight with tissue paper, was my preferred present, if the gift tag had my name on it.
Whatever was in the box brought a smile to someone in the family. As long as it wasn’t the dreaded underwear!
Santa shopped locally, like my mother, because I often recognized familiar labels on our gifts. That was one little detail I tried not to think about; it didn’t quite fit the North Pole scenario, but Christmas didn’t seem like a good time for me to get caught up in pesky details.
Santa reused more than The Buster Brown Sock Box; he recycled bows and wrapping paper and he’d probably have reused tape if he’d been able to make it stick. It wouldn’t be unusual for him to deliver gifts wrapped in paper creased with memories from years past and bedecked with ribbons that looked vaguely familiar, as if I’d met them—oh, say—about a year before.
Yes, indeed, feel free to insert a winking emoticon here.
The annual appearance of The Buster Brown Sock Box became an element of my story, a single memory that brushes aside the cobwebs of the past and teases vague recollections into the light. Dusting off my memories of Christmas in Corinth in the late ‘50s through the ‘60s and early ‘70s, I find that my musings are as sturdy as that sock box. Simple and tenacious.
Our annual visit to Toyland, upstairs over the old Mitchell’s department store at the corner of Fillmore and Wick, was the official beginning of the Santa season for me. It always began on a crisp Saturday morning, soon after Thanksgiving, when Daddy would nonchalantly saunter through the house, accompanied by the slight sizzle of the gas heaters. Almost to himself, he’d say, “I was thinking I might go to Toyland. Anybody want to go with me?”
Want to go? Out of my way. I was already pulling on my coat. Younger brother was on his own.
Around the perimeter of the second story wonderland were magical painted images of fairy tale characters. Ole King Cole was of particular fascination to me because I’d seen Nat “King” Cole singing on TV and this robe-and-crown-wearing cartoon character bore no resemblance to the crooner. Still, the similarity of names baffled me and I concluded that they must be relatives.
And there was Humpty Dumpty, in all his ovate glory, depicted teetering on a brick wall. He remained teetering, year after year, observed by walls full of his fairy tale friends. Below the painted characters, cellophane-wrapped dolls lined up on shelves, in bridal dresses and fancy outfits, while beneath them were displays of Tonka trucks, games, baby doll buggies, toy dishes, pedal cars, doll houses, and more— enough delight to leave me speechless at the abundance.
When I peer into that memory, it sparkles with such intensity that the details blur like the reflection of big colored Christmas bulbs dancing on silvery tinsel.
If I’m not mistaken, it was also in the vicinity of the old Mitchell’s store that my dad and I went to the Christmas parade, just the two of us. I can be forgiven if I mistake the exact location, because I was little, really little. Probably three years old, bundled up in my red wool coat, I clearly remember Daddy hoisting me onto his shoulders so I could see the splendor of the majorettes, tassels swinging on their white boots. The band stopped in front of us, as if on request, and I could feel the music vibrate inside my ribcage, the brass instruments gleaming below the street lights and the bass drum throbbing. The breath of the majorettes was suspended in the night air, like the memory now suspended in my mind, and I worried that their legs were cold under their short skirts.
Fast forward to school impressions. A couple of weeks ago, as I drove west on Linden Street, I turned onto Wenasoga Road and stopped to pay my respects to what remains of the auditorium of West Corinth Elementary School, the façade now crumbling as deconstruction continues on what is, to me, hallowed ground. As I write this, enough of the auditorium still stands for me to see the stage where yearly Christmas programs played out. Today the roof sags open. Overcast shadows spill across the space but it isn’t today that I see. I see the space circa 1960-66.
The stage once jutted out to either side, creating a narrow ledge in front of the flanking brick walls, where I stood and recited my memorized paragraph about Christmas in England in the sixth grade program. I wore a long dress my mother made, red with a lacy stand-up Elizabethan collar that she based on illustrations in our treasured World Book Encyclopedia. From a neighbor, she borrowed a couple of skirt hoops and situated one high and one low in a petticoat, so the silhouette of my costume was true to the era. That skirt took up the entire depth of the ledge. Yikes! I clearly recall holding my breath as I navigated my way back onto more spacious footing.
Through the gaping front wall, the crumbling hallway gives way to a tangible picture in my mind. One more time, I feel the excitement of party day and early dismissal, a child finally set free for Christmas vacation. My first grade classroom is now rubble, but I still have the dainty china boot that Mrs. Jewel Goforth, principal and teacher, gave each of her girl students for Christmas. For six years, Christmas parties played out for me down that hallway, with the anxiety about whether my teacher would like her gift, or— in the case of sixth grade— whether Mr. Victor Miller would like his handkerchiefs, because I noticed that, like my daddy, he always had one in his back pocket.
My mother was a full-time homemaker so she was usually one of the moms who brought treats for the parties and stayed to tidy up stray wrapping paper and crumbs, while the teacher helped students clear out for the holidays. I liked how it felt to help with the tasks and the slightly surreal experience of being in a school building as it emptied itself of the bustle of children and settled into the quiet of its own Christmas vacation.
The thing about growing up and growing older in the same town is that the past and present overlap at every street corner and along every sidewalk. At the corner of Wick and Fillmore, at Linden Street and Wenasoga Road. Along Waldron, Cruise, Taylor, Foote.
The store fronts in this familiar downtown, changed from my youth and continuing to change, have the stories of my distant and recent memories etched into them. The streets that I’ve driven for decades take me past images that I still see clearly, though many are only in my mind’s eye now.
Consistently, the traditions of stepping into the magical lure of Toyland, of childhood Christmas programs and parties and parades, of The Buster Brown Sock Box, anchored my Christmas experience. And, of course, there are more stories for another day, recollections that resurfaced simply because I unwrapped these few.
We all have them. Personal, potent, poignant.
One reminiscence leads to another. We can’t help it; that’s how we are wired. Stories long to be given voice and they long to be given ear. They make us human.
Somewhere a little girl would like to ask about what it was like back “in the olden days” and she very much wants us to stop what we’re doing and listen to her telling her story, too. A little boy wants the company of an adult who will slow down and hear him share his Christmas wishes, an adult who will admit that he, too, still has dreams.
Whether we are four years old or ninety-four, our narratives are the most substantial gifts we give each other. Once given, they can’t be lost, stolen, or misplaced.
They become not “my” story but “our” stories.
May we value our collective stories as the precious gifts they are, sharing thoughtfully and receiving gracefully.

Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor in Alcorn County. She contributes to the Daily Corinthian and Crossroads Magazine. She may be reached at jaylene@heartworkccl.com or (662)286-5433.

This post appeared as a column in the Daily Corinthian newspaper, December 15, 2015.

What not to post…

The following is a column, slightly revised, that appeared recently in the Daily Corinthian newspaper.


I don’t know which disturbs me more, that some Facebook users make posts without realizing what they are revealing or that they are aware of what they are revealing and simply don’t care. Either way, it’s often embarrassing and occasionally alarming to be a witness to the drama that results when we fail to manage our social media presence.
At first glance, Facebook looks like a place to connect with others, but, time after time, it’s revealed as one more place where we find out what kind of boundaries the people who call themselves friends actually have. Too often, it’s evident that everyone who wears the label “friend” isn’t one.
Join me for a foray into the juggernaut of chatter that calls itself Facebook. Let’s take a quick look at possible consequences of online comments.
Most of us are nice folks and don’t automatically think that our friends or our “friends of friends” aren’t as nice as we are. The reality, however, is that nefarious types search Facebook for information about vacation schedules. Oh, yes, all those lovely vacation photos are a giveaway for times when a house is unattended. Even if there is a house sitter, the idea that no one’s home can make the house and the sitter vulnerable to a break in. It’s not as much fun, but it’s safer to show restraint and post those pictures upon returning home. Ask close friends privately not to refer to your absence online and refrain from it yourself.
Employers (current and potential) will check your online presence. This is reality, so assume it will happen. It may seem harmless to post a picture of yourself out with friends, but remember that photos don’t go away. Any image that you post, or are tagged in, which gives the slightest suggestion of inebriation or lack of judgment can be more potent than any resume’. Does that scare you? It should. One photo can follow you and be the persistent visual reference that you never wanted.
A cursory scan of social media reveals that many folks are shockingly careless about work related posts. Never post complaints about a boss or that you’re not satisfied with a job, or you may find yourself leaving that job sooner than you planned. Take for granted that your comments will be seen by your boss and co-workers, because they probably will.
Also work-related is the habit of some Facebook users to post about what they are doing on the job, during work hours, that isn’t work-related. If you’re reading a novel or writing your term paper or planning the week’s menu, keep it to yourself. You might slide by for a while, but a pattern of posts about doing not working at work will eventually get you noticed by your employer and it won’t be for that A you got on the paper.
Be mindful of name-calling or using derogatory epithets, whether serious or joking. Comments made in jest don’t always come across as humorous in print and what’s said can’t be unsaid. Using insulting labels for others can make you look immature and inarticulate. Users are particularly vulnerable when they post comments that are dependent on tone of voice or expression to be understood. Emoticons are not always effective for conveying context. If you aren’t okay with your comment being taken literally, whether you mean it that way or not, rethink it.
One boundary that is crossed continually on Facebook is posting sensitive details about the private lives of friends and family.
Don’t. Just don’t. It’s not worth the drama.
Many users would never intentionally over-share and have no desire to cause hurt. Indeed, most of the over-sharing I see comes from a genuine desire to help, but wanting to help doesn’t necessarily mean we are helping.
Consider the young woman who is diagnosed with a critical illness and is struggling to come to terms with the news. She’s not ready to talk about it and has only shared the diagnosis with a couple of family members. One of those family members tells a cousin, who immediately goes online, posting the devastating news where it is seen by hundreds—no, thousands—of people.
The cousin means well, but because she didn’t clear it with the young woman first, she took the young woman’s power away from her. The distribution of her deeply personal information is her business.
In fact, if she never wants it made public, that is the young woman’s business. Not everything is up for public grabs but a lot of users have lost sight of that.
There’s the young man who, in a fit of desperation, posts details about his breakup with the woman he thought he’d marry. There’s the mother who posts about her child’s horrible divorce and how badly his boss treats him and his financial problems. There’s the father of the soccer player who posts a tirade about his child’s coach. Can you see where these examples are going? They are true examples, by the way. It doesn’t take any imagination to know that more drama ensued, and not only for the ones who made the original post.
The ripple effect of a single post is unstoppable.
Requests for prayers abound on Facebook. Because of its reach, many users are drawn to it as fast way to ask for support in trying times. If you post your own request about your personal situation, that’s your prerogative, but remember, if you are posting about another person’s situation, to clear it with them first, and to share no more than you are given the okay to share.
Thinking it’s okay doesn’t give any of us the right to share another person’s story without their permission.
Social media offers us wonderful ways to stay in touch with those we care about and to connect with groups that share common interests. There are art, counseling, and other inspiring pages that I have no intention of giving up, along with the on-going connections I have with former classmates and people in the community. The benefits are rich and real, and so is the potential harm.
Perhaps these summary guidelines can help us monitor our communication styles and minimize our vulnerability :
• For me, this first item is the Granddaddy of All Guidelines. Remember that, while you can delete a post or picture on your own page, what you delete may have already been caught on a screen capture, where it will live longer than a cat with nine lives. When that happens, you have lost any control of the image and it can go viral. That picture can be shared and re-posted and take on a life of its own. You may regret what you posted, you may apologize, you may post retractions, but that image is out of control and can go to an audience that won’t see your mea culpa. Scary? You bet. If you wouldn’t want what you’re about to post to be on CNN tonight, don’t hit that enter key.
• Be sure that what you post doesn’t compromise your safety or the safety of anyone else. No sharing of schedules or daily routines, no revealing vacation times, no letting others know your children’s schedules.
• Speaking of the children, consider all the possibilities before sharing names, birthdates, pictures, and activities. I know, I know, it’s hard because we love to share about these precious young’uns. It’s natural to want to share what we delight in, but there are unsavory folks who troll, looking for identifying information about children. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a predator could easily assemble the entire makeup of a family, right down to the family pet and home address and family schedules, simply from online sharing.
• Be cautious sharing work-related information. If you do, keep it light and general. No complaining, no revealing sensitive or confidential information, no criticizing boss or co-workers.
• If you’re not okay with you post being taken literally, don’t post it. Someone will take it literally. Count on it.
• If there’s anyone in the whole world that you wouldn’t want to see your post, don’t post it. Your mom, your preacher, your boss, the head of the company, your ex-boyfriend, your worst enemy, your best friend?
• If it involves another person’s personal information, get their clearly stated permission before sharing, even if it’s the well-meaning request for prayers or support.
If we stay alert and monitor how we share our stories on social media, we can enjoy connecting with others. We might even save heartache and certainly save face.


Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.

More on NO

That's a sentence.

That’s a sentence.

I post on this topic often and there’s a reason for that. It’s because the problem is persistent and pervasive. Consider with me, one more time, the NO struggle:

It is NOT rude to say no when asked or expected to do something. Not rude to say it to the kids, the grand kids, friends, family, or any of your social and familial connections.

If your “no” is ignored, it is not rude if you keep right on your merry way and let the people who wouldn’t hear your “no” live with THEIR consequences of ignoring your word. They are the rude ones. The consequences are theirs.

If you give in to their pressure, accept that they will never hear you or take you seriously. It’ll never happen. Trust me on this. (That pressure is subtle bullying, by the way. Really, it is.)

If you are too often doing things you didn’t plan to do, things you don’t even want to do, because someone taught you that you had to please everybody or you might hurt somebody’s feelings if you told them “no” then YOU, my friend, are the one who’s ignoring your “no.”

You are ignoring you.

Your Life, this one precious Life you get, is being lived by others.

Not by you.

And it’s happening with your permission.

Are you okay with that?

“I’m here. I’m listening.” That’s enough.

Dear Hearts,

If you reply with “Yes, but…” or “But, at least…” when a friend brings a slice of her precious Life to you, you’re not listening.

No. No, you’re not.

You may be trying to help, which you’re also not, by the way. You may be uncomfortable with where your friend is and so you offer distraction. You may have been taught (directly or indirectly) that it’s your job to remind others of what YOU see as their reality or to encourage them or to relieve their roiling emotions—as if you could even be that powerful. As if there’s something wrong with their feelings. As if there is something wrong with them.

Notice. All of that is about YOU. Good ole well-meaning YOU, with the desire to help so hard-wired into your system that you spring into action like a rescue dog after a drowning soul, before you even realize what you’re doing. Good ole well-meaning YOU, who wonders why the eyes of your friends glaze over when what you’ve said was meant to be nothing but helpful. Good ole well-meaning YOU, who wonders why people sometimes pull back from you when they’re hurting.

It might not be their hurt that’s distancing them. It just might be YOUR inability to let them hurt and simply be present as a witness to their wounds.

What looks like a breaking down to you may well be your friend breaking open.

I can get away with all this finger-pointing “YOU” language because I am YOU, too. Thanks to the hard work I have done over the long haul in psychotherapy and study and making of art, my role of being too helpful is manageable, compared to what it was decades ago, and still the doggone thing pops up. And Dear Hearts, I’ve been at this for decades.

It’s a stubborn role and it doesn’t go down easily.

I know that role of trying so hard to help, pointing out what seemed obvious to me, that I cut people off.

I couldn’t hear the groaning of the hearts of others, so deeply uncomfortable was I with the groaning of my own heart.

If I take the risk and allow myself to shut up and lean into the pain of another person and listen, heart to heart, I am going to hear my own honest emotions, along with those of the other, and I won’t be able to deny any of it.

It’ll be out in the open and I’ll have to decide what to do with it. Oh, mercy. I’ll have to take responsibility for managing those emotions and some of them will feel like a tsunami headed straight for me!

I can’t tell you how to do that responsibility thing with your emotions. Your path is yours and it won’t look like mine, nor should it.

The one thing that’s worth passing along is that it took actively wanting to respond differently to others, and I very much did want that. I longed for relationships that were at least lake-deep, instead of the puddle-deep things I’d had.

As I set my heart on having relationships of depth, the healing path with kindred hearts and opportunities opened before me. No farther than I could see in the moment, but it was there and it was enough.

It has led me to ocean-deep relationships, where saying, “I’m here. I’m listening,” is more than enough and it all started with actively wanting more and recognizing that “Yes, but…” was a cut-off to honest connection with others.

Broken Open

 

~~~jaylenewhitehurst

The Ragged Phoenix

They watched her

we knowThey watched her
Once again abandon her Life
The one she’d patiently cobbled together

Using the best parts of her fragmented dreams—
The mosaic that sparkled with a vitality that a straight road and a smooth pavement
Could never have mapped for her.

She abandoned the Life she’d consecrated to making beauty from shards
One more time

Desperate

Hoping for the consideration of a family
Who could not value her
Who would not grieve her
Even if she died.

They watched her relentless silent plea to be known by those who didn’t know themselves

Shrivel her into the unrecognizable
A dry shell of the woman she’d once allowed herself to be a
nd they grieved her

While she screamed inside herself
Not aware that she was dying.

~~~Jaylene Whitehurst

My heart is broken open with a recent intense awareness (more intense than usual) of how many of us dear human beings are giving up our own precious lives, because we’ve been taught that we must have the approval or attention or understanding of our families in order to fully live.
I will not tell you that this is easy, this creating a life that those around us likely never will understand.
I also will not tell you that it’s impossible. We do it when we make connection with those who can connect to our longings and when we release the grasping for those who can’t.

And I’ll never tell you that it’s not worth it.

~~~jmw

 

 

 

A very few words on staying in trouble…

 

Misery is trying to please everybody.

Misery is trying to please everybody.

This is my shortest blog ever, but there’s nothing else to say:

Trying to please everybody will endear you to nobody and keep you in trouble with somebody all the time.

Either you’ll be miserable most of the time or you’ll create misery in the lives of those you love, or —more likely—both.

Misery all around. Is that really what you wanted?

~~~jaylene

“You don’t waste good.” ~~~ Leroy Jethro Gibbs

A spark of connection!A few weeks ago I was enjoying a break from incessant rain and blustery winds with my favorite Sonic Happy Hour treat. The half price drinks from two until four were apparently irresistible to a lot of people because the place was hopping when I pulled in and ordered my green tea with raspberry. When a slice of sun appeared, I let the windows down on my truck and dug out my phone, settling back to enjoy a chat with a friend, along with my tea.
For thirty minutes or so, the mild sun and the conversation warmed me up, body and soul. Life was good.
Then I tried to crank the truck.
Rrrrr…rrrrr…rrrr. Nothing to be heard but the pitiful groan of a drained battery.
I’d just done one of those exasperating things that I do when I’m distracted: it’s an old truck and, without realizing it, I’d turned the key too far and left it on.
There I sat.
I eased the driver’s door open and edged out because it seemed like the thing to do. Standing in front of the truck cab, I was about to tell an approaching server about my predicament, but, before I had a chance to speak, the young woman parked next to me on the driver’s side leaned her head out the window and asked if I needed help. I’d hardly started to tell her what I’d done, when two young men parked on my passenger side emerged from their car tugging a set of jumper cables from the back floorboard.
Three kind souls, who might or might not have still been in their teens, quickly decided that the cables would reach the battery in the girl’s car with ease. Before I could say that I had my own jumper cables, her hood was popped, the cables were connected, and I was behind the wheel, cranking the truck. It jumped right off and I was good to go.
Three young people, who’d never seen me before, stepped up with no prompting and offered me help when I was obviously frazzled. They brushed my thanks aside and, if they thought I needed supervision to drive, they were too considerate to let me see them roll their eyes. All three were polite and smiling and I was grateful for it.
They did good.
On the popular CBS program NCIS, the character Leroy Jethro Gibbs has a set of guidelines to which viewers have gradually been introduced over the course of twelve seasons. His team knows what he expects of himself, and of them, by the list referred to simply as Gibbs’s Rules.
It took eight seasons before there was a reference to Gibbs’s Rule #5: You don’t waste good.
There is a lot of good in this town and county, though we are affected by the problems that are plaguing many communities. Violence is startling and we’ve had recent violence that has jolted many of us into facing a reality that we’d been hoping wasn’t real.
As we face unwelcome truth, we who love this community are called upon to not waste good. Wherever we find good, whatever it looks like, we fritter it away it if we fail to nurture it. “Good” that isn’t recognized is an opportunity vanished, treasure squandered.
Rule#5, as practiced by Leroy Jethro Gibbs, applies to relationships. You don’t waste good when you see potential in another human being; you come up with ways to support it. Gibbs knows the power of paying attention to a deeper story that’s often unspoken.
The good in Alcorn County is created, at heart, by individuals connecting with each other. Whatever good we have, it starts with those core relationships, beginning with one person being touched by the life of another person, and it builds from there. These ever-changing relational pairs create the foundation for community. One on one.
I have no brilliant original ideas for how we go about not wasting the good that lives in Alcorn County. What I offer is a simple reminder that counseling clients find helpful: whatever is working, do more of that.
Whatever is good, do more of that.
We cannot drag others, kicking and screaming, out of the darkness of addiction, violence, and abuse. Neither should we be in denial about the impact of that darkness.
What we can do is fully live our own lives, with a passionate determination to actively seek out good and nurture it wherever we find it. We can make eye contact with the young man working the drive thru window and wish him a good day. We can sympathize with the young mom wrestling two little ones through the checkout line instead of sighing with aggravation behind her. We can go sit beside the person no one’s noticing. We can seek out the child that no one is hearing or the elder whose stories are falling on deaf ears.
Perhaps most importantly, we can keep our mouths shut and our ears open and hear with the heart the experiences of those with whom we’d like to think we have little in common.
One on one, or three on one— if they’re kind strangers with jumper cables— we can value our connections with others, and build on them, even the fleeting ones.
You don’t waste good.

Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.

Consider yourselves hugged.

hugbirdsA hug.
We usually combine those two words with the concept of giving. “Give me a hug.” “Let me give you a hug.” “Need a hug?” Hugs are valued as a way in which we connect with other creatures to such a degree that we’ve had to invent the emoticon version of hugging: ((( ))). We do it in cyberspace and we do it face to face. Even over the phone, we try to hug. As a friend of mine says as we sign off from a phone call, “Consider yourself hugged.”
Traditions about hugging vary from person to person, family to family, culture to culture, but (in my life, anyway) hugging as greeting or farewell, or when deeply touched by the lives of others, is the usual. Hugs happen when we feel connected emotionally to another being and we are moved to act out the connection physically. Side by side hugs, full frontal hugs, neck hugs—we have a style for any occasion.
There are times when a hug is a perfect fit for me. The arms of another person, another shoulder to lean into, is like a womb where I can drop my shoulders, set my deep sigh free, and emerge refreshed. It may be a smidgen of me, but there is an ineffable energy within me that is reborn when I am given a hug.
But, there is a reluctant truth I grew into about this hugging business.
There are times when hugs aren’t given to us, but taken from us.
Nope, I’m not talking about an unwelcome grope, though that’s inappropriate, for sure. Ick. It’s clear with that slimy hug that a boundary has been crossed. The reluctant truth of the taken hugs to which I’m referring is more subtle. It’s emotionally slimy, though the person who’s purportedly giving the hug is probably unaware of it.
When hugs are taken, the action is more about the needs of the hugger than the huggee.
To know the difference, we have to tune in to our own emotional states and operate from a place of curiosity and openness. Otherwise, we’re liable to keep operating on automatic, doing what good little girls and boys do, too often at our own expense. Because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the other person, out of habit, we let others into our close space and possibly tap into our energy. Our emotional boundaries, as well as our physical ones, are crossed before we realize what is happening.
I know, I know, this is indefinable stuff I’m talking about. We learn the difference only by experience.
My personal bullet points about boundaries and hugging:
• If the idea of wanting a hug from the other person hasn’t even crossed my mind, and I feel that person warming up to hug me, I can be pretty sure the need for touch isn’t mine.
• Hugs that feel nurturing and energizing are hugs of the giving sort; hugs that leave me feeling like I lost energy are about the other person. Without my permission, energy was leeched out of me.
• Others may want to hug me when they want tacit reassurance that things are okay between us, instead of bringing concerns into the open and talking about them. I am not The Queen of Tacit Reassurance.
• Some try to relieve their own anxiety by “giving” a hug. They need to do something, anything, to alleviate intense feelings that have come up inside them, so they reach for another human being, in the unconscious guise of giving a hug. When this happens to me, I feel as if the hugger tried to give me her feelings, instead of dealing with them herself. I cannot do her job for her.
• I don’t have to hug anybody or everybody. Neither do you. It is not an obligation. Only I know how much emotional energy I have and where I want to use it. I don’t have to allow myself to be touched so that another person can temporarily feel better.
• Physical and emotional boundaries are fluid and overlap. A hug that was welcome last week might feel invasive this week.
• I work to read the other person’s body language when I consider hugging another. Usually I go ahead and ask, even if I know the person extremely well. “Would a hug help?”
• I do not know the other person’s experience with touch, so I don’t touch from behind or unexpectedly. Has she been abused? Does he have PTSD? Is touch threatening, for any reason?
• There is nothing inappropriate about not accepting a hug from another person. It may feel awkward to sidestep a hug, but it may feel even yuckier to step into a hug that I don’t want. My body, my energy, my responsibility to manage it.
• BIG BULLET POINT: I ask a child before I hug him/her and I accept their yes or no, without question or judgment. I may be the only one in my grandchild’s life who asks, but I want her and every child to have the opportunity to safely say NO to an adult when it comes to boundaries about the body. Children cannot develop the role of saying NO to possible abusers if we’ve shamed them when they didn’t want to hug (and even kiss) others. They cannot grow into human beings who can say NO if we’ve pushed them into saying YES.
During this season of rebirth and nurturing, I’m especially thankful for those who can truly GIVE hugs, who provide nurture and emotional safe havens during times of transition. They are the Lights in dark times that bring me home.
Consider yourselves hugged. Every single one of you.
~~~Jaylene Whitehurst, the Ragged Phoenix

Family Beyond Family

Bad lighting and all, a text to a friend: family beyond family

Bad lighting and all, a text image to a friend: family beyond family

On my desk, in the “good stuff” stack, is a torn-out magazine page about how having diverse friendships enriches our lives. It’s got quirky illustrations and lays out the author’s ideas about connections that we each need. This article was, appropriately and unsurprisingly, tucked into a stash of items given to me a couple of years ago by my friend Margaret, who is exactly the kind of friend who keeps a “Jaylene” box in her closet. A couple of times a year, usually around my birthday and Christmas, I’m the recipient of a box of goodies that she knows I’ll enjoy.
This past Christmas it contained a charming framed card, jewelry making items, fabric with a fanciful bird print, markers and brushes, plus a separate box holding a story she’d written for my grandchild (a treasure, for sure) along with a throw pillow that looked as if it had been designed especially to illustrate the tale.
Margaret pays attention.
As do others.
Lois, who knows my love of making new baubles from broken odds and ends, thrills me occasionally with a jar of buttons and beads. Possibility in a jar! She’s also the friend who, twenty years ago, compiled poems I’d written into a book she decorated for me in the emerald green that I love. It’s a treasure still.
Glenda and I share a love of all things “housey.” I walk from room to room with the striking ceramic bowl she sent me for Christmas, looking for an ideal spot where I’ll enjoy it and be reminded of my friend. Last summer, when I was particularly pleased with my arrangement of colored glassware in the kitchen cabinets, Glenda was the person to whom I texted a photo. Yes, I did. A picture of nothing but glasses in a cabinet. She’s the one who won’t shake her head and make the cuckoo sign that this image tickles me silly, while I don’t even want to think about whether I might be a little over-the-top about goblets and tumblers.
Donna, the high school friend with whom I reconnected a decade ago, surprised me last fall with a package of iris rhizomes, sent from a plant nursery in Texas, after my comments about the brilliant golden and orangey irises she’d posted on Facebook. We hold between us the lightness of a picture of flowers, but we also hold the other’s story from our teen years in ways that can’t be explained: the holding is a precious and inexplicable fact.
On a shelf in my studio are several hefty candle jars, each one empty of everything except a spent wick in a quarter inch of wax and a lingering aroma, given to me at one time and then another by Brenda, the friend who, more than once, has prayed for me all day long. These candles are what remain of times when we couldn’t manage a visit with each other, but when Brenda would sit beside the light of our friendship, and lift me up in peace. When we were finally face to face, she’d put the used up candle in my hands to remind me that I am loved.
Without the thoughtful conversations about music, art, poetry, and relationships that occur with Jim, Tim, Susan, Derrick, Phillip, Lee Ann, and Charlotte, my life would be less full. The generosity with which they each share their knowledge and interests creates a constantly changing texture that I can’t construct on my own.
Only a couple of my hodgepodge of friends are related to me by blood. Mostly these are the broader family I have, the family I choose and who choose me.
The family beyond family.
These are the people who, in ones or twos or half a dozen, simply show up and prop me up.
That’s the difference an adequate social system makes in our well-being; it is the framework that, in a real way, supports us and shapes who we are. We are healthier emotionally and physically when we have those in our lives who know us and who allow us to know them, who show up in the doldrums of life, as well as in our tragedies and comedies.
We need companions who can meet us where we are, even when we’re not exactly sure ourselves where that is.
At one time or another, we’re each going to need a safe place to bring sorrows and disappointments. When I’m on rock bottom, I don’t need someone who’s going to shame me or give me unsolicited advice about how to get up. No, what I need first is someone who can simply meet me where I am and sit beside me, someone who won’t try to distract me from my reality.
Friends who have the ability to sit beside us when we hurt, friends who don’t try to fix the irreparable, are priceless. Simply by their presence, they keep us from pain-driven isolation, which exacerbates depression, anxiety, addiction, and weakened immune systems, among other conditions. These people are, literally, lifelines.
As much as I need friends who can hang with me during tough times, I also need friends who will rejoice with me. These are kind souls who are neither threatened by what others achieve nor envious of what others have. Friends who are genuinely happy and celebrate with me, who have my best interests at heart and show it, are keepers. Without friends, celebration is like a party with leaky balloons.
I need friends who are similar to me in age and interests and friends who aren’t.
Friends who are older than I am are informal mentors. They may not be doing it with intent, but they are modeling for me how to grow into the next stages of my own life, by their regrets as well as by their successes. Older friends are gifts of experience we offer ourselves without having to live through it firsthand.
Younger friends nudge me along. Being connected to younger people engages me. I learn as much from them as they do from me. But it’s a two way relationship, as all of these are. Having younger friends can keep us on our toes: we are modeling for them and our behavior is a pattern we are likely to see them repeat. Tread gently.
If my friends were clones of me, I’d never grow. I’d never have to be uncomfortable in the face of disagreements or have my ways of viewing the world tested. I’d also be bored to tears. We need friends who are different enough from us to make us question our assumptions: people who come from dissimilar backgrounds, cultures, or belief systems. Their presence is an opportunity to engage our critical thinking skills and expand the ways in which we connect as human beings.
We need friends who have the wisdom to step in and stand between us and the world—and the timing to know when to act.
The messages have been powerful for many of us that we should be able to arise above every circumstance. Well, I’m not always that person. Few of us are. There have been times when I needed friends to circle the wagons around me as a buffer until I could get back up.
And, on rare occasions, we may need the courageous friend who will step in and hope to save us from ourselves.
This just might be the most judicious friend any of us can have; this is the one who will risk losing a friendship rather than do nothing and watch us lose ourselves. Yes, this friend will take me by the shoulders, look me straight in the eye, and shake me to good sense with “What in the world are you thinking, woman?”
Finally, as I’ve been reminded by Barb (one of my farther-along-the-road-friends), we need folks in our lives who are simply fun. I have a disparate crew who protect me, inform me, challenge me, and are happy and sad with me, but that crew wouldn’t be complete without those engaging folks who enliven my world by their very presence. Light-hearted friends balance the intensity of life with humor and good grace. Yes, ma’am, Barb. I was listening.
The gifts that surround me, buttons and beads, books and bowls, are tender reminders of these relationships that prop me up: my stability in a crazy world.
My family beyond family.
Bless ‘em everyone.

Alcorn County resident Jaylene Whitehurst is an artist and professional counselor. She may be reached at 662-286-5433 or jaylene@heartworkccl.com. She contributes to Crossroads Magazine and the Daily Corinthian.