A Heart Full of February

jw2Fellow Travelers,

My personal February project is wearing hearts every day. Yesterday I decided that’d be fun.
It’s already becoming more than fun. The jewelry I wear acts as a talisman for what’s meaningful to me and being constantly reminded of my heart, your heart, the heart of the matter, the heart of the world, is connecting me with more.

I need reminders that LIFE is ever so much more than I have the power to understand or see and that, if I am to live at peace and, one day, leave my body at peace, I must remember that:

I might be wrong.
I don’t know much. Much of what I thought I knew has turned out to be tunnel vision.
I can’t change anyone else. It’s not my job to do that.
Shaming others destroys their spirit — and mine.
Listening, being a witness to another, changes the speaker and the listener.
And
A heart-broken open won’t kill me.
A hardened heart will.

Let’s all go in love, just today.

“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

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

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.

Gifts from a House Fallen Silent

Mom mag 1There were no clattering skeletons hanging in the back of my parents’ closet. Nary a rattling bone fell out of the drawers to turn my unsuspecting world upside down.
No, the sounds were softer than that, more of a rustling between my fingers, as I moved through the work that was in front of me. This house was crammed full with sixty-three years of marriage and two years of widowhood. A younger generation had an expiring lease looming and needed to call it home. Time to get busy!
Many of us have been in a similar position. It’s not unusual to the human experience to find ourselves parentless, and, at the same time, facing the adult task of sorting through a house fallen silent, inhabited only by the lingering energy of memories. It’s an age old situation, but it was my new reality.
When my grandparents died, I’d helped my parents clean out their houses in a superficial way. I’d pop in and clean out a drawer or two after I got off work, but the hardest jobs were mostly theirs. When my mother-in-law died, my husband and his brother had their own system for working through the household. Once again, I played a supporting role.
Suddenly, here I was, one of the leads. My brother came from Huntsville to help, leaving with a few Saturdays’ worth of furniture and family items, but hardly a dent was made in the marathon of sorting and evaluating what to keep and what to dispose of. There I sat in the midst of it, grieving, tired, and out of sorts. Grumbling is what I do best when I’m overwhelmed and you had better believe it: I was doing some first class grumbling. I’m great at being peevish when I can’t get my bearings.
Friends, who knew I was under a time crunch and who were probably sick of listening to me moan, practically begged to help me go through the house. Without fully understanding why, I said “No.” It was, surprisingly, in not accepting their generous offers, but in finally accepting that this was a sacred task, and mine to do, that I found my way.
I am intensely grateful that I did.
The house in which I grew up was modest, with no sprawling attic of trunks and armoires. Beyond the trappings of daily living, were simply drawers and drawers and drawers of cards, clippings, receipts, photos, notebooks, church bulletins. The tidiness that we’d managed to keep up throughout Mother’s Alzheimer’s-driven ramblings belied the sheer accumulation of what had been left behind. To a stranger’s eye, a good deal of this documention would have looked ephemeral, papery and fleeting.
For me, it was priceless, an unbound journal of the marriage of two children of the Depression and their relationships with family and community. Every scrap of paper was a fragment of the past, significant to them in ways I can only guess, touching in its simplicity and poignant in its complexity, the threads of their stories weaving through generations before them and after them.
It takes so long to know a parent, to know THE PERSON that existed before we were born and after we left home. Perhaps we can never truly know those closest to us, least of all while they are alive and able to guard their hearts. We accumulate experiences, stored in the closets of memory, and unless it’s jogged loose with a question or reminder, the past lies hidden, a silent mystery.

We hold back parts of ourselves from those closest to us, maybe to protect ourselves from our frailties and disappointments, maybe to protect those we love from family truths that would set them free, if only we could find a way to bring them to light.
Hard edges develop in relationships when we constantly protect ourselves or others from our stories. We call them “rough patches” in my family, and if your family is anything like mine, you know exactly what I mean. The edges may need only a quick sanding or they may be absolutely jagged, but we’ve all had some degree of bumpiness.
In what my parents left behind, I found unexpected tenderness for the rough patches.
Beneath neatly stacked newspaper clippings, in a flat paper bag that I’m sure came from Sterling’s dime store, my mother left four magazines, undoubtedly tucked away for me. The woman with whom I’d had an uneasy relationship, who was intensely private and spoke of her own rough patches with difficulty, had saved for me an issue of Good Housekeeping from May, 1954, the month of my birth, along with copies of Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, and Reader’s Digest from the month of my marriage.
Those magazines touched me in a way that nothing else did. She’d kept every card I’d ever sent, every report card, even notes of phone calls from me, but those magazines weren’t about keeping anything of mine. They were about leaving a marker of the times for me, for the woman I would become. And they were about leaving a part of herself with me, a mother who could express herself more easily in unspoken actions than in words.
There were receipts that brought tears to my eyes. My heart broke for the bereft couple that my parents had once been, arranging the funeral of their first child at McPeters Funeral Home, his having been born too early to survive; ordering his simple headstone; paying his hospital bill. I don’t remember a time of not knowing about their baby, Stephen Jay, but seeing the steady signature of our grieving father on a receipt from W.E. Boatman Monument Works took my breath away.
There were others, finds that blended the daily activities of house holding with the sad times and the celebrations of life. Photos and receipts, obituaries and awards, birthday cards and letters, all these formed a collage illustrating the intricacy and resilience of their modest lives. But if I’d found only the magazines and the funeral receipts it would have been enough to make real to me that there is only so much we can know about those closest to us.
If we’re fortunate to find clues and if we pay attention, we may someday pencil in the unknown aspects of those who’ve gone before us. When we face our own hidden stories and frailties, we have a chance to touch those parts of previous generations who left legacies in ways they couldn’t foresee.
Whether we leave skeletons in our wake or a string of receipts, our stories keep unfolding for those who care to follow our trails.

THE Dollhouse

dollhouse

Atop the bookcase in my blue room sit two metal dollhouses, circa 1950s. They are sentinels over the gathering space of my studio/office, high enough above the mix of chairs and throw pillows that they call no attention to themselves. I suspect some visitors hardly notice them.

The one on the left is the dollhouse I thought I found; the one on the right is the one I did.

When I was young, older than a toddler but not yet school-aged, our next door neighbors were Gladys and Elbert Jobe and their two daughters, girls edging into their teen years. The family doted on me. Martha, Alice, and their parents were a constant presence, keeping an eye on the tot I was, especially when my mother was ordered to strict bed rest while she was pregnant with my younger brother. The almost adolescent Martha was my playmate. I adored her.

My best guess is that I was about two and a half the Christmas that they gave it to me: THE dollhouse.

All I have to do for the memories of my dollhouse to surface is close my eyes and be still. In the quiet, I am there, back in our old living room. The chill of the uninsulated linoleum floor rolls under me, stretched out, stomach down before the open backside of the dollhouse. The chill penetrates my cotton camisole and red corduroy shirt with a shiver, while an insistent hiss from the gas heater is background noise. Warmth and chill coexist as I arrange and rearrange the tiny furnishings and determine the movements of a plastic family that I can control.

Bright lithograph colors on thin sheets of metal, all right angles and structured together with deftly folded tabs, it was sturdy. And that’s a good thing, because it was magic; and a sturdy kind of magic was needed by the child that I was, playing my way through the changes my family was experiencing.

Between the years when I was three and five, my mother buried a brother and her grandmother, both deaths shocking, with the abrupt cruelty of accidents. There was loss on my father’s side of the family too, not so cruel, but change producing, nonetheless.
The adults around me were juggling, emotionally and physically. This wasn’t an era when the impact of death on children was supper table conversation. We were fed, clothed, kept warm, and taken to church.

And we played. My imaginary friend, Mattie, and I held power in the magic realm of the dollhouse.

Somewhere along the years, I suppose my mother gave my dollhouse to another little girl, though I can’t say when that happened. Thinking I’d outgrown it, probably by second or third grade, I imagine her passing it along to a friend’s daughter, maybe a three year old who fit perfectly in front of its tiny rooms.

I hardly let myself miss it.

Until I started tapping this keyboard, pecking around for words that have taken me down a forgotten path, I wasn’t aware that my dollhouse mattered so greatly to me. Nevertheless, I’ve grown curious, fifty-five years after the fact, why the memory of it sent me out, years ago, to find its vintage twin.

One of my earliest forays into the world of eBay was the mission to find a replica of my dollhouse. I saved my search, kept up with new postings, and compared them against the image in my mind. Nope, not that one. Maybe this one…. but no. Oh, this one looks like it. Yep, that’s it!

I didn’t have a clear memory of the facade, since most of my time was spent at eye level with the interior, and I was sure that the one I’d bought was the exact same style as mine, red roof and all. There was no doubt I’d found it.

There was no doubt, that is, until ten years later when I found IT.

A red-roofed image, unexpectedly familiar, caught my eye and a gulp of recognition stuck in my throat. Displayed in a local shop window, I recognized the printed stone design on the exterior of a fifties era dollhouse. The tiny stones were amazingly similar in color to the faux stonework I’d painted during my mural painting years.

At gut level, I knew that I was looking at the origins of my own pink-green-blue-gray rocks. This was imagery that had become hard-wired into me. I cannot paint stone without those tones mixed in. I don’t even want to.

Here in front of me was evidence of how my childhood attempts to make sense of an uncontrollable world had become instinctive, part of who I am at the core. The comfort of my dollhouse with its dependable design, the setting where I could direct the action, the impact in my later life of what I was doing as a three-four-five year old, had been hidden away beneath events that I saw as more significant than my being Mistress of the Dollhouse.
It was all hidden until I began to write this essay about neighbors and loss and finding a dollhouse. Tapping away at the keyboard, gently rapping at the door to poignant and dusty places that want to see the light of day, it began to come together: I still love colored stone and arranging houses and scene setting and red roofs.

I found my old neighbors, still living in my heart.

And I still believe in the power of play.

Now, excuse me, while I dust off my dollhouses.

She rests.

beyond the deep blue velvet curtain
of making breakfast
folding towels
sweeping garage
checking homework
unloading dishwasher
paying bills
scrubbing earsgrace extended
hangs a gossamer sheer
a fine and fragile barely there veil
thin as a breath
every night she pulls it aside
crawls through to her life beyond
and
she rests.

Jaylene Whitehurst
Thursday, April 04, 2013