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

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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.

When Life Throws Curveballs…

I looked up in the Campbell’s Clinic waiting room to see a boy, ten years old or so, with his gaze on me. He looked over his left shoulder from a row of chairs that faced the same direction as mine. His was a soft gaze, as if I were a older woman he was glad to see, a grandmother or a beloved great-aunt.
When I caught his eyes fixed on me, I expected him to avert his look, embarrassed at being caught, but he was too innocent for that.
Instead he smiled, as much with his crinkly eyes as with his mouth. Shy, yet direct.
And then the boy I imagined was his brother, sitting barely an inch shorter, was smiling at me too. The same blue-green eyes, the same wave to his sandy hair, the same sprinkling of freckles, marked them as more than friends. I returned their warmth with a nod and a smile, glad to be the recipient of their charm.
The older boy hopped up when the name Ethan was called, the lime green cast on his right arm now visible, embellished with an exuberance of neon permanent markers. Ah, he’s the patient.
A woman with the same eyes and loose tendrils herded Ethan, his brother, and a sleepy-headed toddler girl aroused from her mother’s lap, toward the waiting nurse.
Ethan glanced back at me, with the slightest deliberate nod, before his smiling eyes disappeared from the waiting room into the depths of the clinic.

As our wait stretched toward an hour, we moved to more comfortable seats with a different view, my husband with his new knee, and me. The rambunctious liveliness of Ethan and his family was replaced by the slender dignity of a matron in a beige Chanel suit, ever so slightly frayed at the cuffs. Her long thin fingers were manicured with classic red polish that matched her almost smudged lipstick. Her hands were unsteady, wearing the thin skin and blue veins of age. A single diamond ring was on her right hand, tasteful but not tiny. In her younger years, the hair she wore in a classic bob might have been true auburn, but on this day white roots marked the crooked part, an awkward track across her crown.

She wore hose. Subdued nude stockings. Beige pumps. I scanned my inner timeline and I couldn’t recall how long it’d been since I’d seen a woman wearing hosiery and closed toe heels. In the summer. To the doctor’s office.

Sitting across from her erect posture, I sat up straighter, suddenly self-conscious. Her legs were crossed at the ankles, the way I was taught by Mrs. Underwood in Home Ec., circa 1969, and her barely trembling hands rested in her lap. No magazine to thumb through, no phone to fiddle with. I had no idea how long she’d been sitting there, but I was sure that her composure was long practiced and unconscious. I’d given up practicing at about sixteen years old. This woman clearly had not.
Beside her sat a tidy woman wearing comfortable pants and a cotton blouse, maybe ten years younger, maybe twenty. There was no chair left open between them, though there were more vacant chairs than occupied, so I supposed that they were together. The companion read a magazine with one eye and dozed with the other.
The matron tilted her head toward us in acknowledgement, a graceful movement with a wordless smile. She made eye contact and I saw that her glasses (on a pearly eyeglass chain, of course) needed a quick cleaning.
It was only a few minutes later that she arose, her companion reaching out to steady her, when the name Miz Marjorie was called. The way we Southerners drag out the titles of address for our matrons made it impossible to tell if she was Miss or Mrs. Marjorie.
She drew herself up to her full height, her bearing telling her attendant to allow her the privacy of her doctor’s visit.
Hers was a story I’d never know, yet her composure touched me.
Intrigued, I wondered what changes Miz Marjorie has experienced in her lifetime and what changes lie ahead for young Ethan, so bright and perky. All I know for sure is that yet more changes lie ahead for both of them and for each of us. It’s the inevitable reality.
What would Miz Marjorie share with Ethan if she could leave him a set of informal instructions to refer to when life is throwing him curveballs?
If she could leave him gentle guidelines from her lifetime of experience, she might pen something like this:

My Dear Ethan,
Perhaps you can use a bit of what I want to share with you now but I suspect that, in a future day, it will be of greater help to you.
As you grow, there’ll be more changes come at you than you can imagine, some expected ones and others that will leave you feeling as if your life is out of control. And indeed, it may be.
You don’t have to like it. In fact, I have found that there’s an odd strength to admitting that I don’t like certain things. I’m not thrilled with all the changes I’m dealing with right now, but honesty is always preferable to denial. So be honest about what you’re feeling.
Maybe you didn’t ask “Why?” when you broke your arm because the reason was clear: your arm came in contact with a surface that didn’t give way and something had to give. Result: a broken arm.
In your future, however, there’ll be things happen that don’t have clear causes. You may find yourself asking “Why? Why? Why?” when the unforeseen comes. It’s that way for most of us.
I’ve learned from experience to ask “what?” and “how?” and “who?” more often than “why?” I ask myself questions about what I can do, how I can help myself, and who is a good resource, and I begin to make a plan. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but even an imperfect plan gets me closer to what might work.
You’re an active boy. Good for you! Keep that up. I totter around but I still make myself move. Get outdoors as much as you can when you’re under stress. Feel the sun and the rain and fully occupy your space on this Earth. Take care of pets, tend a garden, hike, walk barefoot. Nature is a natural therapist and she’s free.
Spend some time each day being still, too. Take quiet time to simply breathe in the experience you’re living in. Pray, meditate, breathe, read. I like to start my day with quiet time and end it the same way, but, I imagine, you’ll find what works for you.
I used to be hard on myself when I couldn’t get used to changes as fast as I thought I should or as fast as others thought I ought to. Eventually, I got it that change is a process. It takes time and many steps to change.
Some changes will take longer than others to get absorbed into your life story and that’s okay. Be gentle with your spirit when others push you to be where you can’t be yet. Ease up.
Even when change is painful, maintain a gratitude practice. Note one thing each day, no matter how large or tiny, that you are glad to have in your life. When I’ve gone through the hardest changes of my life, this one thing has consistently reminded me that life holds more than the yucky place I’m in at the moment.
And speaking of the moment, Ethan, stay with your feelings as they arise. They are temporary. Whether happy or sad, confused or serene, they will change. Acknowledge all of your feelings. They are valuable messengers from deep inside you. You’ll be glad to know that acknowledging them doesn’t make them the “boss of you.” They’re only part of your experience, not the core of who you are.
Question whether your decisions are for your wellbeing or whether you somehow hope to change others. The sooner you learn that you can make effective choices only for yourself, not for others—no matter how much you love them—the clearer your choices will be.
When life comes at you hard, surround yourself with people who sustain you. This is not a time to force yourself to be with draining sorts.
Be cautious when making decisions, because the stress of change may cloud your reasoning. Seek wise counsel. Even then, go to more than one source. I’ve found that advice isn’t always good advice.
Finally, as you grow up, you’ll learn what is deeply satisfying to you. When you feel the stress of change, look toward the activities that have comforted you in the past. Do more of those things. If you neglect those activities, you neglect yourself, so remember that your life is precious. Take responsibility for it. Care for it.
Tuck this letter away, Ethan, and use it when you need it. It is offered with love.
Miz Marjorie

 

Though I’m decades past ten years old, I’m reading over Ethan’s shoulder. When change comes at me fast and I’m not sure I’m thinking clearly, I still want the wise counsel and living example of a Miz Marjorie to show me how to live above my present circumstances.

~~~~~~~~
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.

ASK

Bird's Eye View

 

I have learned that what I ask for never shows up in the way I think it should.
I have learned not to let that minor point keep me from asking.

~~~jaylene
The Ragged Phoenix

Merry Mandala!!!!

May we live the cycle of embracing the darkness and being pulled toward the light.

May we live the cycle of embracing the darkness and being pulled toward the light.

The celebration of Christmas isn’t over for me. There’ve been years I feel a let down on the 26th, but not the past few years. Rather than the end, this feels like a beginning. Every Christmas, every Winter Solstice, every turning of the dark season toward the light, is more an opening to continue expressing the light than an ending of anything. I no longer rush to take down my little tree. It is no longer a chore but an unfolding, a changing of the environment gradually.
It is a relief to let it be beautiful a while longer. To know it will be tucked away when the time is right for me. To know it is all a process of Love.
Whatever, however, you celebrate this season, may you linger in the warmth.
May we carry it forth. May we be changed.

Abundancing!

True abundance isn’t a substance that can be banked; there is nothing of “grabbing and snatching and stashing” that relates to Life’s wealth.
Nope, real abundance is experiential; it is fully experiencing one’s own Life; it is active.
Right now I’m inventing the term “abundance” as a verb.
I abundance.
You abundance.
He, she, it abundances.
It is born of allowing ourselves to stay with what is showing up: The expansive moments and the tight emotional spaces that are claustrophobic, the exhilaration and the sorrow, the generous and the miserly gestures, the tension and the release.
Abundancing is waking up with the realization that an intention has become tangible with substance as solid as the mountain that has finally been tunneled through. It’s knowing that a decision has arrived under it’s own steam rather than been determined by analysis, as if Life were a game and decisions toted up in won/loss columns.
Abundancing is hearing the train leaving the station and getting on board with a ticket stamped “Trust the process.”
Let’s ride.
Let the abundancing commence.

Sometimes it feels like a mess. Sometimes it feels glorious.

Sometimes it feels like a mess. Sometimes it feels glorious. Trust the process.

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.