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Outdoors forgives indoors 2

Contact with other people, other brains, is the great antidote to isolation – the great human disease.

So many times, my friends provide not just support, not just a listening ear, but great ideas and tips about the issues and tasks i am facing – sometimes definite, tangible answers to stuff, serious and very mundane, with which i am wrestling.

This morning i was venting to my neighbor about some itchy bug bites.  He asked me if Buddy’s flea medicine was up to date.  Boom – one sentence, problem diagnosed and on its way to being solved.

I’m gonna post a piece i wrote about 15 years ago about this phenomenon.

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I was in the camp bathhouse and – even in this magnificent Northern Wisconsin retreat – I was ruminating.  I just couldn’t seem to shut that old mental computer off.  I was running over and over a set of thoughts that really had been pretty well milked dry several minutes ago – yet I couldn’t put them to rest.

Then I swung open the screen door and morning sunlight evaporated the thoughts like burning off the morning mist.  I was once again part of the trees, part of the dazzling light, part of the wonderful, pure, mostly undisturbed eco-system.  That turbulent, disturbed, restless mental process went suddenly silent, vacant – and my attention shifted totally outward.  This felt lots better.

When I was absorbed in my own mental process, I was removed from my environment.  When the richness of the natural world pulled me back out, I was integrated into my surroundings.  Paul Reps, a Zen teacher, wrote a little one-line poem that goes “Outdoors forgives indoors.”   I find this true again and again.   The natural world has a capacity to straighten out the kinks that we create in our minds – to help us establish balance again.

This principle is as true on a figurative level as the literal one.  Locked up in our own personality, our own mental process, we easily become out of balance – preoccupied with our neurotic worries.  But when we balance ourselves out with strong, open contact with other humans, we have the chance to heal.  Any mental pre-occupation which we fully share with another is bound to change.

I like to ask myself, “What is it that I am most needing to share with another human at this point in time?”  Or, “What would be the most creative way to air out my own process right now – open it up to more contact, more response, more support?”

Other people, the intelligence of other human minds, are part of our natural eco-system.  When we hold our thoughts and feelings too long separate, too shut away from our species-mates, they start to turn sour and out of balance.  We need periods of privacy and introversion, in the same way that I occasionally needed the seclusion of the bathhouse at camp.  But I knew better than to spend all my time in there.

Outdoors forgives indoors.

My self or my work

It’s Monday morning – the beginning of another work week.  I have many tasks on my desk demanding my attention.  And many of them have to do with making money – immediate-term income, paying the bills, which at this particular moment in my  is very challenging.

And, as i walked the dog this morning, Life presented me with an abundance of thoughts and insights that similarly are begging for attention from me: to reflect on them, integrate them and to get them written – both to further clarify them and to get them into a blog, where they might eventually have life and usefulness beyond my internal process.

And, two hours after that walk, i am still sitting at my desk, entering into my various blogs the insights and reflections that were in some cases only pointed to by my brief notes to myself as i was walking the dog – and even more reflections and writing that have spilled over from those initial thoughts.  I am, still – for how much longer i don’t know, i’m trusting Life to tell me when it’s time to shift over to “tasks” – choosing to prioritize my own inner process, and these gifts from the Muse, over stuff that hopes to make me money.  I gotta trust – and mostly do trust – that being true to my self, to the promptings that Life is sending me, will in some way that i do not understand also lead to work, to income, to getting the bills paid.

(Later: while i was doing that writing, prioritizing self over work, an email came into my inbox confirming the details of a very big pet sitting job that dropped from the blue last week and starts next week – a big cash infusion, paid up-front, at a perfect time.  And a call came in, which i did interrupt my writing to take, on a brand new medium-sized pet sit to start next week.  Hmmm.)

Aerobics for my heart

The other evening i met a lovely young woman who is new to our church.  We were sitting next to each other at a social gathering and had a terrific little conversation – and i developed an immediate little crush on her.  She’s pretty, smart, funny and a straight-talking genuine person.  And, age-wise, she is very inappropriate for me – probably about 20 years younger than I, which at this point in my aging process seems like way too much difference.

And, as i have been noticing myself continuing to think about her, i am choosing (as with a couple of other recent personal connections with women) to see this infatuation as not an occasion for doing anything in particular, but as “aerobics for my heart”.  It’s wonderful for me to have such a strong positive  response to another person – any person – even if it may in part be driven by fantasies and lack of information.  It’s encouraging to see that my heart is thus available, not so encrusted in past hurts as to protect itself with a calloused lack of response.  It’s good to be reminded that this overly self-reliant, work-oriented guy still really does want and even long for a partner.

Thank you, honey, for being as lovely and cool as you are – you have given me a gift.  That gift does not need to be you (except as we may develop a sweet friendship) – jump-starting my heart is plenty, way more than enough.

I wrote this letter to a friend this morning.  For me it’s all about the choice to simply “be with” my own inner process, rather than to judge, manage or police it.  And my desire to share some of my inner process with the important people in my lives, rather than to let it only sit within me.  (Some names have been changed to protect my friends’ privacy.)

Louise –

I came back with a joking response to you last night about your “need to let go” response to my comments about the 30th anniversary of my separation from my wife.  But today I actually am observing in myself a complicated response to your comment.  Not anger, as I feigned in that note, but more reflection about why this anniversary is moving me so – and why paying attention to these thoughts and feelings is important to me.  And a desire to step towards you by sharing some of this reflection, to maybe take our conversation with each other to a deeper level – rather than to assume that our relationship is not ready for this kind of depth.

When I told my best friend Lynn about this reaction I was having to this anniversary, she said simply, “Wow, 30 years and there’s still this kind of reaction”.  Her response felt like a simple witnessing of my process, a taking it in – perhaps tinged with her own anxieties of her wish (need?) to leave her marriage, which has been very stuck for many years now.  It was like a mirroring of the fact that I was, indeed, having a powerful inner experience.  In some ways her response helped me to go deeper into this experience: it evoked curiosity in me about what this profound response in me was all about.

This morning some of this seems clearer to me:

  • In a very real way, this is the anniversary of a death: a death of a marriage, of the first major intimate relationship I had had, of all the hopes and dreams that had gone along with this committed relationship.  There’s a poignancy to it, a compassion for those poor kids (32, both of us) who were so over their heads, were in such pain at that period of their lives.  I imagine that our young friend Susan will have some significant inner response 30 years from now, when she reflects on her husband’s recent death – and to that very different kind of ending of a marriage.  This feels a little like that kind of anniversary.
  • I have a powerful personal commitment to simply observing the contents of my consciousness – to not attempt to control or manage them, which I don’t believe that we can really do anyway.  Your innocent comment about letting go triggered a little wince in me: “Ouch, is this a response that I should not be having?  Am I supposed to have done something different than I have: let go more or better?”I observed, this morning, some defensiveness in me: “Well, it’s not like I go around grieving or regretting anything about the end of that relationship.  I know and feel that it was in many ways a very creative and positive step, that it opened me to a different future, that I and my life are much better because of it.”  And I then realized that this defensiveness was not a response to your comment, but to the part of me that believes that there is something wrong about my response – that is continually judging whether I am doing my life right.  Getting a chance to observe this dialectic in me between the judger and the compassionate witness – this has been very helpful to me this morning.

I like that I am choosing to bring these thoughts and reflections to you this morning, rather than simply record them in a journal or one of my many blogs.  One of the gifts that I am tracking from my powerful anniversary response has been the heightened awareness of my own loneliness.  I seldom simply observe myself as lonely: it’s easy for me to notice sadness or depression, but I almost never think to myself, “Oh, right now you are lonely.”  I know that I am, I sometimes say it to my friends, but I don’t see it so crisply and consciously.  I like that I am doing this, am seeing my loneliness so straight, so unvarnished – both because I value being conscious and aware, but also because I am already seeing that awareness shaping some choices I am making.  Noticing that I am lonely has already caused me at certain times to give more priority to  responding to personal emails over other kinds of tasks – and to creating times to be with my friends, rather than “settling for” working at my desk and staying alone.  (My enthusiasm about accepting your dinner invitation last week, rather than choosing more time to work at my desk, was like that – and was maybe also influenced by this heightened awareness of my own loneliness.) And it has me wanting to share with you all this, to take the risk that our relationship is strong enough to go to a somewhat deeper level.

I hope that you can hear in this note my valuing of our friendship and my choice to “step towards” you.  I hope that it doesn’t feel like “Oh lord, one more thing I need to deal with.”  I like you a lot and am enthused about us becoming even closer friends.

“Well, how’d it go?”

I spent about two 1/2 hours running errands this afternoon.  As i was driving home, i tried to assess how the errands had gone.  Almost immediately – and very gratefully – i realized what a completely insane exercise this was.  What kind of math do you use to assess how well a section of time has gone?

  • I got the oil changed on my car.  This task was way overdue and has actually been kind of haunting me for several weeks, during which time i had obviously not made it a real huge priority.  But they were really kind of pokey at this garage today – very different from their usual speedy service – and it took longer than i expected.  But i actually pretty much settled in their little waiting area and mostly had a good time reading the newspaper – to the point that i was honestly a little taken aback when the mechanic came out and apologized for how long it took.  But a half-hour later i decided that i really “should have” used that time to call my son.
  • I had three broken errands.  The Foam and Fabric store has either closed this location or i had completely made up the idea that there was one down here in my area – so no new, non-mildew foam pad for Buddy’s doghouse.  The Verizon store was so crowded that i turned on my heel and left before getting through the door – so i’ll go a little longer with my Bluetooth headset not working.  The public library turned out to be closed, earlier than i would have expected – so i couldn’t get the info i wanted off the bulletin board about a program in the community on Sunday.
  • I got out of the Ingles supermarket for less than $30 – almost unprecedented.  But i judged, as i drove away, that i had really spent too long in there for the few things that i actually purchased.  But i did get all the things of which i was completely out – or about to be.  And i got to stand in front of and completely appreciate little Elizabeth, the intellectually challenged bagger who is so sweet and such a hard worker.
  • I got in and out of the CVS pharmacy in about three minutes.  I got the one item i absolutely needed – and it rang up $7 less than the retail price that was posted.  Oh, and i got some Dove chocolate on sale – maybe not a real lot on sale, but enough to justify getting it.

Bigger than all these bullets, perhaps, was that i never got into the steam-rolling momentum that can, for me, infect such a series of errands.  I more walked them than ran them.  Maybe not danced them, but that’s a stretch agenda.  And, when i started to obsess about how i had just used some of my time, i was mostly able to step back and just observe this process.

So, was it a successful outing?  Like i started with, this is a completely insane question.  Maybe “How’d it go?” is always a set-up for making shit up and making ourselves and others crazy.

I have a strong friendship with a woman named Susan who is much younger than me.  We have been tight for about three years.  We don’t spend much time with each other and mostly connect by email, phone, seeing each other at church and now Facebook.

We each greatly value the friendship, even as neither of us quite understands it.  There have been a couple of very synchronistic connections between us that have helped to cement it, to make it feel special – even as they have added to the not-understanding-it dimension.

One element of this not-understanding has been confusing to me in the past, even a little troubling at times.  My friend, in addition to being much younger than me, is also very attractive.  There have been times along the way that I’ve not quite known what to do with being attracted to her.  Was something romantic or sexual supposed to happen between us?  The idea didn’t make sense, but i did not know what to do with the attraction i felt.

Then a few months ago, something shifted.  My friend was stuck in a hotel room in a distant city and initiated an online “chat” with me.  “Chatting” is an unfamiliar medium for me, one that i find awkward and often not very satisfying.  But it’s much more comfortable for my friend, and it was how she then wanted to connect, so i hung in.  i think that being in this way out of my element may have helped something shift in me.

About 20 minutes into our online exchange, i had a flash: “She feels like a daughter to me!”  I could feel thoughts and emotions in me instantly begin to rearrange themselves: click-click-click-click.  Suddenly my confusions and at times inner conflict about the chemistry between my lovely friend and me all fell into more comfortable places.

When i was little, i wanted a younger sister.  I had read a novel in which the male protagonist adored and protected his younger sister.  The story opened a part of my heart with which i was unfamiliar and which felt very precious.  I never did have a sister: one blood brother and five step-brothers, but no sisters.

My life has been in many ways organized around relationships with men: brothers, fraternity brothers, patients in two VA hospitals where i have worked, corporate managers whom i have coached and consulted to – many of whom i have greatly admired and liked.  I have been in men’s groups for about 30 years.  I love men and the world of men: they more and more all feel like my brothers, even those from whom i am in many ways very different.

I also love women: i have had a wife and several lovers and some very precious close women friends.  It is clear to me that they are a different species, that there are elements of their world that i will never completely understand.  But they open my eyes to parts of the world – and parts of myself – that i would never otherwise be able to see.

I have a son, Terry.  He is the light of my life, the heart of my heart.  Since i have only one child, i am very very glad that he is a boy – my species.  We have things in common – share ways to be with each other – that would never have been the case with a daughter.  And i have always wished that i could also have a daughter.

I have two nieces who are very precious to me.  They also have tapped a part of my heart that might never otherwise have opened.  I watch my brother and how good his daughters have been for him, all the ways that they have opened his heart.  But they are my nieces, not my daughters – it’s different.

Then Terry found Alma.  They have been together for about six years, married now almost a year.  Well before they wed, Alma started to feel to me like a daughter.  Her beauty has never been in any way problematic for me.  Was it a taboo?  “She’s my son’s girlfriend, so i must not be attracted to her.”  It never felt that way: she had somehow slipped easily into a niche in my life – a kind of  relationship that i had never experienced, but that was waiting for her to occupy it.  This father and daughter relationship between Alma and I has grown stronger since she and Terry married, even as my love for her has continued to grow.  She likes to tease me by calling me her FIL (father-in-law).

I’m sure it was my close relationship with Alma that opened the door for my click-click-click-click with Susan.  The father-daughter part of my heart had come to life through Alma.  But i had not, until that “chat” a couple of months ago, experienced these kinds of fatherly experiences with a young woman who was not in some real-life way actually a kind of daughter to me.

My friend Susan doesn’t quite get it.  When i immediately told her in our online conversation about this revelation i had just had, she didn’t quite know what i was talking about.  She apparently doesn’t share this same spin on our relationship – and doesn’t need to.  She hasn’t had the uncomfortable attraction theme to make sense of.

My relationship with Susan is now for me dramatically freer and more relaxed.  I love her more than ever and find her attractiveness miraculously easy to enjoy and appreciate – it no longer is in any way distracting or confusing to me.

And I’ve had little mini-experiences of the same kind with other young women, women with whom i am not as intimate.  Attraction will surface in me, make me a little tense – then there will be a little click and i will go, “Oh, she could be my daughter”, and i will completely relax and a kind of sweetness will float up in me.  This is certainly not the case for me with all attractive young women, but i do enjoy it when it happens.

I have always been a nurturing father.  And in some ways a nurturing lover.  But these fatherly relationships with young women are opening a nurturing part of my heart that i find tremendously sweet and satisfying: providing a safe, warm, affirming, loving presence for Susan and other young women may, in fact, be nurturing for them.  But i know that it nurtures me.