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Let the light in to see more clearly

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I read for many reasons, but even my escapist fiction has to offer more than just distraction to keep my attention. Rich character development, interesting relationships, well-crafted writing, embracing humor, and philosophical depth and breadth are high on my list of essentials. Part of my attention is always asking at some level, “How is the author doing this? How does she create tension and hold my interest? How does he know when to spin out details, when to withhold?” I no longer finish all the books I start; there are way too many unread, good books out there to persevere through uninteresting pages.

Louise Penny offers up the essentials I look for in her series about Sureté Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and Three Pines, Quebec, which I just decided to reread. The small town, which actually resembles a smaller, gentler, less touristy Ely, attracts a variety of characters seeking refuge from complicated lives. Clara is an artist who finally gains some recognition for her unique portraits. She says that she likes to leave a little space in each painting, a kind of a crack, an opening or incompleteness that allows the viewer to participate from their own perspective and see beyond the paint and canvas. Inspired by Leonard Cohen’s poetry, she has a stanza from “Anthem” on her wall:

“Ring the bells that still can ring;

Forget your perfect offering.

There’s a crack in everything;

That’s how the light gets in.”

Man, I wish I’d written that! If you haven’t heard his poetry for a while, or ever, find a book or Google it. Your day will be immediately richer. These lines reflect concepts I’ve explored in this column and that most of us have experienced: that we often gain depth, wisdom and perspective from harder experiences. Even knowing that, we still don’t want to volunteer for those challenges, clinging to expectations that life will be smooth sailing, feeling betrayed when it isn’t. We somehow develop the expectation that we must look good at all times, that we must appear in charge and on top of things to ourselves and others. Perhaps this is the 21st century version of an evolutionary survival mechanism. If you were protecting your cave or castle from intruders, human or four-legged, you probably didn’t want to appear weak, uncertain or inadequate, but you would also want to actually be prepared, not just appear so.

These days, image is all. Supermoms are expected to appear cheerfully on top of everything, juggling kids, jobs, housekeeping, and community service, then be ready to jump into bed for an energetic romp. Superdads are expected to bring home a good income, build or fix up around the house, intuitively understand engine repair, have time and attention for the kids, and be sensitive, communicative and considerate lovers. People in the “sandwich generation” might be caring for aging parents as well as children. And don’t forget having date night to keep the romance in the relationship…or at least give you the chance to see each other once a week.

Uncertainty? Banish it with the right, white, brightening toothpaste. Need a boost in confidence? Change your shampoo and your thick, luxuriously swingy hair will carry you through the day successfully. Television and movies have groomed children to appear and be more sophisticated than their years with even first graders slinging the lingo, “dude” this and “awesome” that. They may learn it’s not cool to be authentic.

Years ago I had a co-counseling partner I shall call Sara. We knew through our experiences as friends and co-counselors that our friendship had deepened below the surface when we exposed more of our humanness, when we trusted each other enough to take the risk to bring the full spectrum of our fears, uncertainties, joys and dreams out into the open.

We agreed that we disliked the term “needy.” It was so easily tossed about as a judgment against people who reveal themselves more honestly while disguising the speaker’s discomfort with their own imperfections. God forbid that we should allow ourselves to be vulnerable. The Siberian tigers might eat us alive. Sara was blind, so she had lived with many variations of “special needs” labels applied to her, and as a feelings-oriented, sensitive person, had often been told to toughen up.

Sara and I recognized that often our very needs are what allowed us to break down our self-sufficient barriers and ask for help. So we decided that we would “re-language” these concepts, at least in our own exchanges. Instead of saying “needy”, we would say “open”; instead of “needs” or “neediness”, we would say “openings,” as in “Wow, that person sure has a lot of openings!” or “Thanks for being open with me.” Just doing that with each other helped shift our own thinking.

We both had inventive minds and liked to play with creative ways to co-counsel, such as simultaneous counseling. We would talk and listen at the same time instead of the usual format of taking equal amounts of time, swapping talking and listening roles. We laughed a lot and found we actually could benefit from the sharing and could take in some of what the other person was saying, one more way to take ourselves a little less seriously.

Chief Inspector Gamache told his subordinates that the following advice he had to give them was the most important thing he would ever say; that he would say it only once; that if they learned nothing else, they needed to learn to say four things: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I don’t know. I need help.”

Some of my closest relationships have developed because there was a need in my life or theirs– a crack in our “perfect” lives combined with our willingness to let the light…our light…shine in the hidden recesses, to be ourselves, resisting the urge to get out the spackle. It didn’t have to be dramatic. Sometimes offering a ride or cleaning the kitchen, picking up some groceries, helping paint a living room, just lending a hand or an ear lightens the load and the friendship.

Who do You See?

by Betty Firth

You ask how I am, and I say

“Fine”, “Good.”

You tell me you’re “OK,”

the chronic lies of casual

sound bites,

because you don’t want the

long story

with all the boring,

excruciating detail.

I usually appreciate the long

story, but sometimes my

mental eyes glaze over,

like creeping frost, cooling

my interest.

I don’t have time for this.

I just don’t have the attention.

I certainly won’t remember.

Maybe I just don’t care.

That hurts the most, because

I want to care

about every hard memory,

every tick bite and rash,

each success of every grand-

daughter in the dance line or

the track meet,

every victory and every loss,

and I just can’t, at least not

more than a moment.

I’m caught in this rush of

time, moments barely

captured,

pushed on by the next flood

of bills to pay, friends with

cancer,

25th anniversaries, 70th

birthday, lost cat, winter

storm,

spring plants pushing up

through the barely-thawed

soil,

and suddenly, where did the

summer go?

Who do you see when I’m

standing in front of you?

Who do I see?

Fragments of our realities,

a mosaic with missing pieces.

How many bits are enough?

How many are too many,

pushing you away

to the shelter of easier

friend ships, easier answers,

the comfort of less

complicated questions.

How to sustain?

At what point will my mind

freeze,

Protecting my heart from

yet another disappointment?

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