Thoughts: Safety

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Back to the routine. A little late this morning, but back to it none the less.

The woman I love and I ran away for a few days over the New Year’s holiday. I didn’t write a line. I disconnected from work and church, and other than my kids, I didn’t answer the phone or texts. It was just the two of us.

We slept late. Ate well. Wandered through shops and sat on rocky beaches. We reconnected in a way and at a depth that is hard to do when life is swirling around you. It is at times like our few days in Rye, NH, that you fall in love with each other again, as opposed to simply loving each other.

This was our Christmas gift to each other and it was far finer a gift than anything we might have picked up for each other over the holiday. I have enough things. Probably more than I need. But time with the people who are precious, uninterrupted, focus-on-each-other time. That’s rare. That’s wonderful. That’s important.

We spent some time talking about the new year. What did we want for ourselves, professionally and personally? We talked about changes and growth, hopes and things we want to do with intent. we talked about our kids. We talked about silly things, odd things we found in little shops, the sound of the waves pounding the shoreline and the warm sun (It was 51!).

We talk a lot. I think we talk more than most couples. That is unusual for me. I’m not a talker, despite the fact that I have to speak a lot in my work. Left to myself I am quiet. Because I think and process emotions slowly, I don’t ramble on about them much. My mouth always seems to be a day behind my feelings, and when that is the case, you don’t talk in the moment much. At best, you write about it days later, when the emotions have settled in and taken form. All that makes me not the easiest person to have a relationship with. I can be frustrating without meaning to be.

But we talk. There is something about this woman I love that makes me more able to talk in the moment. I’m still not the best at it, but with her, I feel safer to work my thoughts through verbally than I ever have before. There is a safety to verbally work through things that I have never felt. I can stumble through things without going under attack for half cooked (I am avoiding the phrase “half-baked”.) thoughts.

More and more, I have come to a place where I believe safety is at the center of success in life. Feeling physically safe, financially safe, emotionally safe, frees us to be our best selves. As both a pastor and a life coach, I see it in other people’s lives. When people feel safe, they flourish. When they do not, life comes apart. Mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, professionally – without safety, we collapse into ourselves. We lash out. We hurt ourselves and others, even people we love.

Safety is everything.

I rant on this from time to time. People tell me I should write a book. But at this point, I don’t know where to begin. I have spent big chunks of life feeling unsafe, mostly relationally. This whole feeling safe thing is new to me. I am still adjusting to it. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by it. I don’t always know what to do with it.

But I do know it is something really, really good. It deserves to be treasured and it deserves to be nourished. So give me more trips to new places, and less stuff. I’m going to savor this place and this woman who brought me to this place. For me, it’s not just a new year, it’s a new life. And a few years into us, I find myself still amazed at the difference.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

Poem: And in the Evening

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And in the Evening

Come.
Sit with me.
Let me feel your warmth
as the sun sets.
Your head on my lap.
The soft rise and fall of your chest
as you sleep,
safe.
Together.
As one.

About this poem

There is a special intimacy when someone sleeps close to you. An intimacy born in safety.

Tom

 

Thoughts: Homer’s Garden

Homers Garden 2

I spent some time in my studio yesterday. It’s the second time in a week I’ve cut aside some time to paint.

The woman I love is always concerned when I am not painting. She knows the bigger story of my life, and how, many, many years ago I got so involved in a busy life that I let my creative life get pushed aside and how, after years of letting it evaporate, I slowly came undone.

Was that the reason for my undoing? Not alone. Other things, in particular, my marriage, were also coming undone at the same time, but the lack of creativity was the sign I have come to understand, of something else, something else.

The lack of expressiveness.

In the end, I have come to believe, creativity is less an end to itself than a method of expressing ourselves, of opening ourselves up, of getting things out that are bottled inside us. When we let our creativity lapse in favor of the prosaic things of life like cutting the grass or being nursemaid to everyone in our lives, we stuff. We stuff emotions. We stuff struggles. We stuff the demons that need to be released to be healthy.

And that’s not healthy. At least it has not been healthy for me.

I can do it for a while. I suspect we all can. Sometimes things rise in our lives when there is too much going on. Sickness. Death. Loss. Big moments. For instance, I have had a couple of months getting my son ready for college, preparing some changes in my work, laying the groundwork for my wedding and upcoming marriage.

All good stuff, but stuff none the less. Stuff that’s eaten into my normal schedule of writing and painting. I still write (You readers know this, since you check in most days.).

Normally, that would be a recipe for “issues”.  But I can do it for a while, as I said. And this go-around, it’s taken less of a toll than normal because I am in a rare place in life where I have someone safe to be expressive with. Someone I can talk through all the things that chew on me or make me rejoice. Someone I can feel safe to be myself with, good, bad or strange. Someone I can be uncertain with.

Safely.

That’s what I am coming to understand about myself. That to be expressive I need to be safe. Creativity – my poetry and my art, is a way of creating my own safety. I can write through things on my mind or my heart, even if they are not fully formed, and it’s relatively safe.

Oh, some people may (and do) attack the work, but that’s not the same. For the most part, they don’t attack me (OK, a few do, but that’s the price of putting it “out there”.). They let me ramble. They let me stumble. I don’t have to fight through their harshness to express things. I just do it.

It’s the same with my art. The beauty of abstract art, similarly to poetry, is that it is designed more to provoke thought and emotion than to tell you what is. It is expressive.

(I am not in the middle of this essay and have no idea where I am going. Truly, I am rambling.)

10 minutes and a cup of coffee later……. Safety. That’s where I was going. I create because it is my path to understanding. Often, mostly, understanding myself. Where my heart is. What is going on in my

I create because it is my path to understanding. Often, mostly, understanding myself. Where my heart is. What is going on in my head. I am slow at that whole emotional processing thing, stunted, I have been told, by a childhood where a boy’s emotions were ridiculed and dismissed and treated harshly by a father who had no use for them.

Expressing feelings was an unsafe thing to do, growing up. A sure-fire way to fire up my father’s ire and anger. Volatile, violent anger.

I never knew why. For the most part, my dad was a pretty nice man. People liked him. He was a great raconteur, a teller of stories. He was generous when people were in need. He was amazing with his hands and his understanding of mechanical things.

But he was also an alcoholic and was never angrier than when I tried to express an emotion, good, bad or strange. No wonder I got stunted emotionally, able to feel, unable to properly express.

I found out why a few years ago, before his mind slipped away completely into dementia. It was Thanksgiving and my whole family was there. He had just gone all angry and mean on my son for, yep, expressing his feelings, and I stepped in and confronted my dad, pushed back with just as much anger as he was expressing.  All the anger at what my Dad had done to me came out in that one moment and the boy who had never been able to fight back was now a man and I pushed back.

My dad retreated.  Something that almost never happened. There was tension in the house like you can not believe. People never fought back against my dad’s anger. It was a quiet Thanksgiving.

The next day,  I talked to my father. He was repentant. Sorry.  I asked him why he was like that. And he talked in a low voice about being a boy himself, and feeling and wearing his emotions openly. He talked about being in a rural community and being bullied for having and talking about those emotions, and how he learned he had to be tough. Silent. Stoic. Emotions, he said, were dangerous. They were unsafe to have.

There it was again. Safety.

Without it, we close into ourselves. Without it, we never develop fully. We never become our best selves. We suffer and never heal. Relationships come undone. Families come undone. We come undone. We act out. We erupt and cause damage.

It has only been in the last few years that I have carved out a place of safety, emotional safety for myself. And I have flourished. I am happier now, divorced and paying out long term alimony and living in a smaller house, doing new work, than I have ever been. I am free to express, maybe imperfectly, but free to express none the less who and what I am through my poetry and art and ministry.  I am in a relationship with a woman who makes me feel safer than I have ever felt, to just be me.

I have long believed that safety was transformative. I worked hard when I managed people and crews, to make them feel safe to grow and talk and share, and my greatest joy in the years I was building large businesses was watching the people who worked for me grow and blossom into something more like themselves, and in the process, grow exponentially professionally.

How did that happen? They had a safe place.

I have seen my kids do the same. Both came to me broken and afraid while they were in high school. I did nothing special. No secret formulas. No disciplined programs. All I did was give them a safe place to be, and in both cases, withing a year, the change was dramatic. In two years, it was mind boggling. They became vibrant, alive, leaders. fully themselves and have leaped into lives they want.

As a pastor, I see it too. People hurting. Feeling unsafe. Relations broken because of a lack of safety, more often emotional than physical. Relationships with God too, broken because people in a church were harsh rather than nourishing, where people were not allowed to find their own path to God, but had God force fed to them. When I work more as a facilitator than a teacher or preacher, people find their own way. Because they once again feel safe in their faith.

My recent spate of not painting had nothing to do with feeling safe or not feeling safe. It was not a block. I was and am in a place where I have safety in my emotional life. I can be who I am, what I am, warts (and oh do I have warts) and all.  I can safely express who I am and what I am to those closest to me. And if life gets busy, and I don’t paint or write as much, I am not stuffing. At least not now.

All the same, I am glad to be painting again. I am glad to be in the studio a couple of days a week. Glad to see my thoughts and emotions showing up in color and line again. This little painting, for instance, is called “Homer’s Garden.”

I was thinking about my former father in law, Homer Duty. I loved that man and I was terribly sad at his loss. I still feel it some days, particularly in the spring. He loved his yard and loved his garden, and he loved the people around him.

He would have been sad that his daughter and I divorced, but he was of such a spirit, that had he lived, I believe he would have stayed a friend. And he would have liked the woman I am marrying in a few weeks. He would likely have given me something from his garden.

The forsythia are blooming, and one of them came from a cutting from one of his forsythia bushes. I have carried those cuttings with me from place to place ever since he passed, and when they begin to bloom, I think of him.

This week, they began to bloom.

And I painted.

Be well. Travel wisely. Thanks for indulging a wandering mind today.

Tom

 

Added Later: This painting has now been posted for sale. Click here for details.

Thoughts: On Safety

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The weeks of Christmas and New Year’s used to be time of rumination for me. A time to look back at the past year, and ahead to the next. I probably look very quiet and maybe even withdrawn for those couple of weeks every year, but inside, my mind is spinning madly, taking all the puzzle pieces of the past year and trying to make sense of them. What events changed me? How? What was my part in those changes? What did I do well? What have I done less well? What things from my past affected my decisions? Where was that positive and where did that past hinder me from moving forward. Where the heck is forward anyway?

The weeks of Christmas and New Year’s used to be time of rumination for me. A time to look back at the past year, and ahead to the next. I probably look very quiet and maybe even withdrawn for those couple of weeks every year, but inside, my mind is spinning madly, taking all the puzzle pieces of the past year and trying to make sense of them. What events changed me? How? What was my part in those changes? What did I do well? What have I done less well? What things from my past affected my decisions? Where was that positive and where did that past hinder me from moving forward. Where the heck is forward anyway?

It has always been easy to take that time because in my work, the last couple of weeks of the year are very slow. Most of my clients, unless there is an emergency, don’t want to see me. Most of my vendors are closed for the last couple of weeks. So it is a natural time to do this.

I haven’t done much of that kind of thinking the past decade or so however. Ever since my divorce, I’ve kind of lived in a moment to moment place. Planning ahead didn’t make sense to me, or maybe I just was not capable. When you see 25 years of relationship evaporate, along with all the hopes and plans that quarter century represents, something in you questions the value in making plans.

At first, I was simply in survival mode. My emotions were like the emotions of anyone who experienced deep, deep lost. A loss not just of relationship, but of identity, of direction, of purpose, of…. of so much of who and what I was, or who and what I thought I was.

I healed. Most of us do. But that habit of living in a short term place became just that, a habit. It had worked for me in the trying to survive time, and I fell into it as a safe way to live. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I can see that. I stopped making plans. I did my work. I kept my commitments. I met my deadlines.

Some of it might have been driven by depression, which I have fought for a lot of years. Depression often keeps us from being all we can be. It darkens the sun in our lives. Depression makes it harder to see life in terms of possibilities. Many people think depression keeps you from functioning, and for a few that is true. But for most of us who battle it, we function just fine, but without the drive or joy or sense of possibility that the other 93% of the world gets to experience. It is harder for us to push forward. And so, many of us don’t. We live day to day. Looking too far forward was just too hard.

There’s nothing wrong with day to day, but for me, it was not my natural state. I lived most of my life living in a place of perpetual possibility. I was always making plans. Making things happen. Joyfully diving into things that left me over my head and yet, somehow, pulling it off anyway.

But not for the last decade. I’ve had moments of happiness, but not a lot of deep joy. I’ve had moments of work that I was very proud of, but no direction, no purpose to it beyond paying the bills. I went to church, but didn’t do much except go and worship and heal. I created – poems, essays, art, photography, but with no purpose in mind. Nothing connected. Everything was a moment in time.

The past couple of years have been hard. I lost both of my parents within a year’s time. We sold my parent’s home and broke up all the things that had been a stable part of life since I was ten. I ended a long term relationship. I lost a job. I had about a year where everything that could go wrong, did. Looking back, it was an amazing string of bad fortune.

A lot of my friends worried that my depression, always looming in the background, would rise it’s ugly head and start to win the battle.

For some reason that has not happened. Just the opposite. Don’t ask me to explain why. I have no idea.

Maybe it was my kids. My daughter moved up here to spend her senior year with me, then went to college. She came to me broken emotionally, and in the six years since I have seen her grow back into herself, and grow back into the person I knew she was on track to be. A leader. Compassionate. Smart. She graduated from college. She has dreams again. She is moving towards them. My son moved up here last summer, also broken, though in different ways. In the mere six months since he’s been here, I have seen him blossom. Parts of him I thought might be lost forever are coming back. There is joy in him.

My role for both of them was simply to be a safe place. They’ve taken that safe place and took the steps and did the work to become their best selves. And that courage they showed, and the fact that they have, I believe, wonderful lives being their true selves ahead of them, that began to have me thinking beyond today.

Maybe too, part of my change has come from my parents’ deaths. I have spent a lot of time looking over their lives. How they lived them. How how they lived them affected me and my sisters and still does today. It also pointed something out to me. Neither of them retired until they were in their mid seventies. In fact, hardly anyone in my family ever retired until they were quite old. Way older than I, at 60, am.

I can remember my grandfather. My dad’s dad. After years of having back pain, it got so bad that at age 70 or so, he got back surgery. I remember him telling me afterwards that he never bothered because he figured he was near the end of his life and it didn’t matter. But getting rid of the pain gave him a new lease on life. He bought a new car. A new truck. He began to plan ahead again. And lived till his mid eighties.

And suddenly, this year, all that sunk in. Assuming I take decent care of myself, and someone doesn’t take me out on the NJ turnpike, I’m likely to have a fair number of years, good years, active years, left. Maybe a plan or two would not be a bad idea. Maybe there’s time to accomplish some of the things I’d still like to accomplish.

Maybe too is was because I have a relationship now that lives in possibility. Where it’s safe to say “This excites me” or “This scares me”, or “I am good at this.” or I suck at this.”. It is the most emotionally safe place I have lived in for many, many, many years.

I have been told that I am a “safe” person to talk to. That for the most part, I am gentle and easy to talk to. That people don’t worry much when they are around me about what I think of them. The people I love seem to know that perfection is SO not needed to keep that love. If that is true, it comes from a place of knowing, in painful detail, my own shortcomings.

I don’t think I realized the value of that safe place. It was just something I do. But now, having it in my own life, I understand its value. I understand that it frees you to take chances. It gives you a positive energy. It lifts you up. It gives you permission to fail as long as you keep making the effort.

And suddenly, you feel you can plan again. Or at least I do. I have begun to think in longer terms. In terms of possibilities, of futures. I feel more comfortable making commitments.

It’s funny. I have been talking and writing about how important a sense of safety is for many many years. In Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way”, a book I used to reclaim my own creative identity several years ago, safety is her first step towards a creative recovery. I think it’s the thing that allows us to flourish. A safe place.

But while I’ve tried hard to create that safe place for others, I think I had forgotten how much I needed it myself. Funny how blind we can be. If I did understand it, I likely would have done things to create that safe place a long time ago. As it turned out, it just happened, God at work perhaps. But it happened. Slowly over the past year or two. In what should have been the worst of times.

So what’s the lesson? Safety first perhaps? I think so. Yes, I do. Rediscovering safety, emotional safety, has changed me. It has healed me. Not completely. I still have a long ways to go. But It has me looking, for the first time in over a decade…. ahead.

Be well. Travel Wisely,

Tom

Poem: Keys Rattling in the Night

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Keys Rattling in the Night

Late at night, after the thunderstorms, when the birds have fallen quiet
and the only sound are the coyotes echoing gently
through the mountains,

I think of you, your soft voice and the way
you deliver truth with a whisper and a gentle touch.
I think of you and your perfume,

sweet as honeysuckle at dusk, a presence in the air
even when I cannot see you, or touch you.
in the dark or night I lay still. and pretend

the wind bears your essence as it blows soft in the night,
a pretending that is memory and promise in equal measure,
your truth a key that unlocks more than passion,

something more basic, deeper and frightfully honest:
Safety.

Safety to unveil each and every scar and be seen
still as a creature of beauty, without reproach
for all I am not.

About this poem

Safety, to be our beautifully flawed selves, is one of the keys to love, I believe.

Tom

Poem: Here

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Here

It is here, in the quiet arms
of the one who loves you most,
that you find peace in your imperfections,
not accepting them as inevitable,
but knowing you are loved no matter what
flaws riddle your stonework,
whatever weakness leaves you far more fragile
than you appear.

No wonder then that this quiet place
is where you come again and again,
where you linger even when the world calls you
into it’s storm.
For it is here where you find healing,
and peace, and truest love.

About this poem

It could be a spiritual poem – I was reading John 3:16 earlier this evening.

Or it could be a love poem. Or it could be a poem about family, or friends.

Mostly, it is a poem about safety and Grace.

Tom

Lost, Found

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Lost, Found

We are lost
in the crowd around us,
just two more faces
in the midst of a sea of them,
nothing to distinguish us
from the madding crowd.
rats fleeing from the storm
fighting to survive,
frothing wildly in the night..

But for us,
the air is still.
The water, quiet and serene.
There is no one here except
you and I,

two hearts that have found peace
with each other.