Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On the Fence: Swollen Gates and Skittish Hearts

“Joy to hearts which have suffered long is like the dew on the ground after a long drought; both the heart and the ground absorb that beneficent moisture falling on them, and nothing is outwardly apparant.” Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

When I was a kid, my father used chicken wire and thick, wooden boards to fence in our backyard.  For a handmade enclosure, my Dad did a pretty good job, but, unfortunately, the gates he built had certain quirks.  By which I mean, moisture of any kind made those thick wooden boards swell turning the task of locking the gates into a dangerous mission. With time I learned the trick: Shove the entire structure upward and then slam that sucker shut.  Worked like a charm!  Opening it back up was difficult but such was our plight.  And for the most part, dealing with that old gate never proved more than a minor annoyance, until one rainy day during my mid teens.  For whatever reason, on that particular afternoon, as I hurled my weight against the gate in an effort rush indoors my hand slipped in between the two wooden planks.  To my horror, I realized that the swollen gate wouldn't budge and, despite my best effort, I couldn't pry my hand free.  As I struggled, I attempted to cry out for help only to discover that the pain and shock had rendered me unable to make any noise above a whimper.  I don't know how long I stood there shaking and trying to call out.  I do remember going rather limp at one point.  After what felt like an eternity (though probably not more than 5 or 10 minutes), I managed to pull my hand free and take my injured self inside.  Even now, after all this time, my memory of that day remains quite vivid.  But what stands out isn't the pain.  Its the silence.

As I aged, the inability to speak when hurt or frightened became my trademark. My brother began referring to me as "a bunny rabbit" (a label I disliked) because my response to any surge of emotion was to go quiet, stand very still, and wait for my chance to run.  Despite my irritation, his assessment was a fair one.  Even when I cared for someone (which should be a positive feeling) I stayed silent and avoided that person's presence like the plague. (Better to be safe than sorry) When I knew an answer in class I refused to speak. (Just in case, I misspoke)  When I found myself hurt whether from a work situation or something more personal, I sought solitude before letting anything show. (Stating displeasure only leads to punishment and humiliation)  As I aged, of course, I realized that at least in terms of work and school, I had to speak up whether I preferred to or not.  It was one thing to be man handled by customers, but it was a whole other to climb on top of rickety ladder placed at the top of steep basement steps with only a hungover meth addict between me and certain death.  Shocking though it seems that a woman, just assertive enough to avoid a life threatening fall, still believed silence was the best answer when it came to her heart...until about a year ago.  What heppened?  Well, I watched a hawk devour a bunny.  No, seriously, I did.  After a handful of on campus meetings, I ran into a group of students gathered outside the library.  Like a normal person, I stopped to see what the fuss was about.  And there it was: A Hawk Noshing on a Dead Rabbit.  What struck me, wasn't that the Bird was eating his Prey (that's fair enough).  No, it was that Mr Hawk insisted upon repeatedly beating his mangle victim's body on the ground.  As I watched with a mixture of fascination and horror, I remember my brother laughing and saying: "Way to handle the situation like a Bunny Rabbit."   After that memory resurfaced, I walked away muttering: "I'm not fucking rabbit.  I'm an threatening hawk...or, at least, a pigeon."  Even as debated what sort of animal I was, down deep, I understood that altering my perception would mean breaking the seal of silence I had encased myself in, a challenge I had refused to face.

Listen, Nature and Nurture made me a Class A, Level 85, Black Belt Avoidance Coper.  Asking this Gal to stand still, admit her feelings, and hold on is the equivalent of saying" Light yourself on Fire".  Its tall order! However, I resolved to start communicating even if it meant using morse code.  And a funny thing happened: Not long after, a shift in my outlook (barely perceptible at first) began to take place.  Suddenly, I was noticing things and people who had been there all along.  I started caring and investing in way I hadn't before.  Truthfully, I'm still frightened by future outcomes I can't see and the cost communication might bring.  But, I think, maybe fear simply comes with the territory.  When I was small my parents made me memorize I Corinthians 13:1-13 (yes, in the King James Version), or more simply put the love verses that get so overused at weddings.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, it not puffed up.  Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil:  Rejoiceth not in inquity, but rejoiceth in truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

"You know, you don't talk much....I like you!"
To be honest, the real meaning of those words illuded me for most of my adult life.  Love, I believed, came down to reciprocity and a fixed outcome.  In my defense, for the most part, my theory has proved correct and worked well.  Then something happened: I ran across someone I couldn't let go.  That realization was not a pleasant one.  I melted down.  No, no, no, no.  Suddenly, Jennifer Nicole's Fortress of Solitude and Love based upon the Exchange of Material Goods and a Predetermined Level of Affection was thrown out the window.  I've YET to recover.  Everything was so well decorated in my Fortress, but what can you do?  This caring no matter the outcome boggled my mind and upset my apple cart.  In hopes of finding an answer, finally, I went back to that chapter in Corinthians.  Here's what I concluded: 1.) the verses are an ideal not a reality 2.) love is about not knowing the future and still caring.  Love depends on Faith.  Faith in the character of others.  Faith that no matter the ending, that someone else is worth investing in as person with needs, hopes, and fears.  Hebrews 11:1 "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."  That's it: It takes faith to start a story when you haven't read the final page.   Despite the risk, I think, once you begin caring about someone outside of your own desires or expectations, push back the fear, and loving itself becomes easier.  That's daily the choice.  Either cling to memory of the fence and fear or care without knowing the future.  Some days I still do the former, but, at the moment, I'm working on the latter.

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