House Cleaning

I spent Thanksgiving cleaning my dead friend’s plants and kitchen. Miraculously some of the plants were still alive. So now my own house is an intensive care unit for nearly-dead houseplants. And also I have piles of kitchen stuff I don’t really need cluttering up everything. It is chaos and I am exhausted and overwhelmed by it all.

And when a miracle is dropped in my hands I know to nurture that like there may never be another one. Miracles are usually messy and inconvenient and uncomfortable and overwhelming and exhausting. I thought I was going to be emptying planters of dead stuff, stacking them, hauling them home to leave in the backyard until spring. I did not expect to find several LIVE plants. They have had no care, no water, no anything for nearly a year. They should be dead. I’m not talking about cacti and succulents. Those were dead. I am talking about several dracaenas and pineapples and and bunch of tropical things I don’t have names for. High-water plants. Perhaps they were watered by angels.

So everything with any specks of life came home with me. And I can’t keep all of them. Most of them will need to find better permanent homes soon. There just is not room in this little house. It was already bursting at the seams.

Plants were a thing she and I shared, one of our many common bonds. Every where I look she is in my home. The grief is profound and exhausting right now. Not to mention the exhaustion of traveling and cleaning and carrying and moving. I am so tired.

And so grateful. It is an honor to look after the dead. This I am sure of: that she would want me to care for her plants and her kitchen. There is so much sadness, so much tiredness, so much tenderness in these moments.

I cried over sprigs of dried, dusty rosemary in a little cup. And then I gently dumped them in a bowl to compost.

There are so many feelings. Big feelings. I’m doing Addict Things like games and shopping simply because I can’t handle all the feelings all at once. It is way more than I can chew without choking. So I process a tiny piece and then numb out for a while. I sleep a lot and spend long hours on the phone with friends. Anything to have a moment of Not Feeling All The Feelings. And it is OK. Of all the dysfunctional things people to do Not Have Feelings where I am it is really very OK. I’m mindful of where I’m at, what I’m doing, what I have the capacity to do.

I’ve cleaned and washed and trimmed and pruned and watered. That there is life at all is a testament to the care she took of these plants. She bought good dirt and planted with love.

And that all of her kitchen things had been left unwashed is a testament to how sick she was and for how long. My heart is broken in a billion pieces. She didn’t want anyone to know how much pain she was in, especially not me. And I respect her boundaries and her privacy. And I hurt to see the evidence of how much care she didn’t have for herself. How much care she didn’t ask me for.

So everything has been washed. And now I have all this stuff to figure out how to put away. In my tiny house. I ordered a galvanized bucket to hold all the utensils and then my order got canceled yesterday and it fairly well spun me out. It was about the bucket and a container to manage the clutter. It wasn’t about the bucket. It was about my need to have a container to manage my grief, a space to integrate the the simultaneous emptiness in my heart with the fullness of my kitchen counter.

This grief is hard like that. So much emptiness and so much fullness, all at once. So much sadness and so much joy.

House cleaning is one of my go-tos for processing stress. Mess stresses me out. But also there is both the literal material cleaning and the metaphorical spiritual and emotional cleaning. I need my damn bucket so I can properly do this cleaning. Tomorrow I am scheduled to get my bucket and be able to properly sort and organize and store.

I don’t have boxes and bags all over the kitchen floor anymore. I have piles of freshly-washed pans and utensils. Some of the plants are already looking much happier, opening tiny new leaves. Most of them I think are going to recover just fine. The others, well, there was still green showing but not enough of it to even know what they are so they will remain a mystery, a possibility of resurrection.

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Some Thoughts on Being Bad

And I don’t mean badass.

Being “good” is entirely too much pressure for me. Owning my badness is much easier. I’m healthier, happier, more productive, more functional being not-good. “Good” is an expectation I can never live up to, one that demoralizes and destabilizes me like a top trying to spin on gravel. I just crash. Every time.

Sometimes I do somethings well. And sometimes I do somethings poorly. Which is fucking awesome because it shows I am a learning, growing, messy human being.

I just emailed a piece of writing. It is a draft of a thing I have been struggling on for a while. And I know it is not exactly terrible anymore, the gradual revising process has brought it out of the sewer. But I also know that it needs A LOT of work to be passable.

I’m anxious about sending such a horrible draft. And it is horrible. If one of my students turned that in, I would very gently put red ink all over it with suggestions on how to fix it. Which is exactly what I am hoping to get back. A whole bunch of red ink and gentle suggestions on how to fix it. Because that is how my writing will get better. It doesn’t mean I am either a “good” or a “bad” writer. It just means that I have struggled with this project, it means that I am learning new stuff.

Someone said I wasn’t a good Christian a while back. Excellent. Neither was Jesus. I’d say I’m in good company but Jesus asked people not to call him good because only God is good. Amen!

Why do we pressure people to be “good?” Especially when “good” then gets attached to a role? “Good Teacher.” “Good Mother.” “Good Wife.” “Good Daughter.” “Good Student.” “Good Worker.” “Good Gardener.” “Good Writer.” These are just a few of the horrible names people have called me over the years. They are some of the weirdest double insults ever. Backhanded compliments that imply both a value judgement and an identity based on my relationship to other people and things.

All that “good” stuff erases the work that goes into doing all the stuff. Sure, some of my students send me very sweet emails about what they’ve learned in my classes. But saying I am a “good teacher” says nothing about the time, about the process, about the energy. It says nothing about all the times I’ve learned by fucking up. The first class I taught? Yeah, that was not good. Sometimes I teach well and my class has great discussions. Sometimes my students and I are just tired and our discussions are a little awkward and stilted. Sometimes I have students who intentionally try to push boundaries and test me. Sometimes I have students who bring insight and empathy. Neither of those are a reflection on me. And neither of those are “good students” or “bad students.”

I could take apart every one of those “Good _____” things above. The list of my failings is endless. And all of those things are far more meaningful as verbs rather than nouns. Mothering is doing, not being. Sometimes I manage good mothering. Mostly I clear the low-bar of survival mothering. Often I pull off good gardening. And also I have killed many plants over the years. Once in a while I have good writing. Usually I have OK writing that can be revised into something readable. Sometimes I have word sewage writing.

Do I feel insecure about sending off a draft I have struggled over and know is still horrible? Of course. But also bad writing is a big improvement on no writing. And bad writing is part of the work, part of the process. I also feel free to have sent what I have.

That’s the thing about being bad. “Good” citizens will never revolt. “Good” mothers are crying in the shower. “Good” wives live in constant fear. “Good” daughters are never good enough. “Good” gardeners mostly shovel shit, literally. “Good” is like a curse, a chain, a constant infliction of shame. I like my badness. Badness is liberation, freedom, humanity.

I am not a good person. I am a person who generally chooses to do kind things. Part of kindness is having boundaries. It is unkind as all hell to do something resentfully because someone wants me to prove I’m a good person in their judgement.

I am a bad person. I have boundaries. I fail. I fuck up. I write terrible drafts. I get angry and frustrated with my family. I had to retake an undergrad class last spring. Emails get lost in my inbox. Earlier my kitchen literally smelled like rotten fish (it was, in fact, a rotten fish…). I skipped church on Sunday. The list of “badness” from this week alone could go on for several more paragraphs. It is only Tuesday.

I am a bad person. I refuse to carry the mountain of shame of trying to be good. Which is the heart of “goodness.” It is a shaming value-judgement, always carrying around the shadow of badness. It is one of those subtle ways we internalize What Others Think Of Us. (Life hack: what others think of me is none of my business.) Goodness and shame and badness have nothing to do with what we do. They are given as judgements of what we are. But they are not actually what we are. There is no objective “good;” there is only subjective good, an opinion.

Opinions are great for pizza toppings and interior decorating. But they are a nasty thing to label a person with. What, am I God to have an opinion on someone’s worth? Are you?

In my opinion the draft I sent today is embarrassingly lacking in a key connection I need it to make. I guess I’m just a bad writer and should never pick up a pen or sit down to type. Or maybe I’m a bad writer and that makes me free to keep struggling and accept edits and enjoy the (sometimes kinda miserable process) of doing the writing. Which is what gets lost in “good” writing. The struggles and the revisions and the process and the doing.

(Note: I say I’m a bad person to show that badness/goodness is a false binary. I’m just a person trying to make a few too many points for one blog post because I’m not a “good” writer.)

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Refilling and Fulfillment

Over my desk there is a little cork board with countless sticky notes tacked to it. They have all lost their sticky so the tacks poke holes through layers of paper, holding the paper up despite the desiccated glue. they say things like “our joy comes from what God is doing, not from what we are doing” and “take up your cross & follow me =/= burdens & inconvenience, does = what you will die for.” The first one I heard somewhere but didn’t write down who said it. The second one was some thought I had rattling around. There are a few I heard from friends and did remember to attach names to: “Everything is subject to revision and that is part of surrender – C_____” and “If I’m not learning, I’m not having a good time – A___.”

And then there’s “our defects drain us of our time and energy” which I think comes from 12-step literature. And “you can only spend so long operating at a certain capacity before everything shuts down on you” which I probably heard in a meeting.

Drained and over operating capacity. There are some things that when operated over capacity end up blown to smithereens. Not just blown a fuse and shut down but burned down the whole block into a bombed out rubble. Which has been most of the last three years for me. Summer of ’21 I found myself not so much dysfunctional as unfunctional. Suddenly even very basic stuff was completely beyond me. And anxiety began to compound the shut down.

Another little bit I picked up somewhere and didn’t make a note of is to the effect of anxiety being what happens when demands are higher than the resources available to meet them.

The demands of all The Shoulds far outstripped my available resources. And crowded out all of the needs. The Shoulds are insidious and slimy. I was so busy trying to be what I should be I could no longer be who I need to be. I was so exhausted trying to do all the things I should do for other people I could not longer do what I need to do for me. And it wasn’t even me putting all The Should on my shoulders. Little by little I absorbed The Shoulds from a high-demand relationship.

I began putting myself back together with the re-humaning of the recovery community. I started getting regular exercise and making sleep and nutrition priorities. I spent intentional time connecting with friends. And these things helped. But they were also more demands on my time so I still couldn’t seem to function.

I have been really really stuck on what is really a very small school writing thing. There is no reason for it to be such a challenge for me.

I learned to hate writing. It has been more than FOUR years since I posted a poem here. All of my creative self was slowly bled to death by The Shoulds. The pressure, the expectations, undid me. I was like the proverbial frog in the slowly heating pot. Little by little the things I need to do all got replaced by the things I “should” do. Until I couldn’t seem to do anything at all because I was completely drained. If it happened all at once I would have seen it clearly and quickly but it happened in invisible increments.

I’ve been afraid to write. Afraid that I might reveal too much. Afraid that I’ve lost the ability to work with words. Afraid that time spend on creative work “just for fun” wasn’t productive and was “supposed” to be spent on a life-draining relationship. Does that sound as gross as it is? I’m ashamed to admit that I got sucked into a dynamic like that.

I started just writing. Just writing to write. And little by little, slow like an earthworm with the sniffles, I begin to feel like me. I sleep better and have more energy. I can (kind of) think again.This is one of the things I need. The freedom to just write things through without pressure that it have a point or be successful or serve a purpose. No one looking over my shoulder, no one demanding my time, no one bossing me around. Without it things fall apart. I fall apart.

I opened the door and let the light and air in, slowly I begin to fill back up with myself. I wrote a few poems. Maybe I will even type them and clean them up a bit and post them at some point. I even have a (very bad, very messy) draft of this little school paper. (Seriously, I only need like 7 pages! It should be cake but there is that horrible Should creeping back in….)

There is that sad old adage about pouring from an empty cup. I don’t have a sticky note for that one. But of course, the NEED I have to be my own creative, unconventional, weird little creature went so long as a dry cup with ever increasing heat under it that there was no possibility of my being able to manage even the most basic aspects of life. Writing is a NEED for me as surely as nutrition and sleep and water are needs. This is the thing that fills my cup. Fuck all The Shoulds (and fuck anyone who shoulds all over me with demands to be something for him).

I believed that I didn’t have time to write outside of school because if I had time to do something creative for me then I had time to spend on other people. I knew better but I still believed the lies of The Shoulds. The truth is that I don’t have the time not to write.

Fulfillment is not something we can ever get from any one other person. He wanted me to fulfill his hopes and dreams and the predictable result is that I ended up empty. So I’m refilling my own cup and having faith that as long as I keep myself fulfilled with the things that give me joy and meaning I can again reach a place of operating with a little bit of capacity.

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