On Love and Freedom

Yesterday I wrote about love, as the most powerful activity of being human.  But today I’ve been thinking about freedom, the most powerful quality of being human.  Are we capable of freedom because we can love?  Or could it be that only truly free creatures are capable of love? The older I get, the more deeply I love and the more free I feel.  Seems like it must somehow be related.

When I was young, I loved in an intensely possessive way, so fiercely attached to the object of my love that I couldn’t separate myself from it.  Those were the loves I felt for my parents, for my brother and my sister, for the people in my life every day.  There was no self-awareness, no ability to experience myself as separate from those people or from the emotion of loving them.  And I was not free.  While the bonds that wove my life to theirs kept me safe and secure, I was also unable to imagine anything beyond them; my youth was not a time for freedom, but for nurturing and growth.

When I grew a little more, the jungles of romantic love opened before me and I plunged in.  These are the loves that shaped my heart and, more importantly, opened my mind, because these are the ones where I learned to recognize myself as the lover, a separate vessel from the beloved, full of an emotion as bewildering as it was intense, hinting at a depth I was unable to fathom.  As I grew older I began to see that all loves are related to each other, that they fed and informed each other and me as I experienced them.  And I began to feel free.  I began to realize that the love is what matters, that loss doesn’t end it or turn it to something else.  I love my children like that, without any boundary or self-protection.  That’s where the freedom begins.  Love without reserve breeds freedom of thought, which in turn breeds freedom of action.  And as the capacity for love grows, it becomes less and less dependent on the beloved and more and more self-fulfilling, which breeds more and more freedom…see where this is going?

So now I’m a lot older, though not as much wiser as the years might suggest.  I have made quite a hash of the traditional forms of love, but somehow I find myself loving and being loved by people who are okay with that.  I find the act of loving other people translates seamlessly into a kind of mental fluidity, a dance of awareness and intellectual inquiry that connects us to one another while at the same time framing us each in our particular splendor.  Loving people morphs by degrees into loving ideas and back again, and with each step towards a larger love, the freedom blossoms.

I have met people both older and wiser than myself who have allowed loving to shape and refine them to a level of freedom that I can only hope for.  These are the people who make no distinction between giving and taking, who lead and follow in the dance with equal grace.  These are the people whose freedom is limited only by their imagination, and for whom the line between loving and knowing is stretched infinitely thin.  One day I hope to be one of these people, able to love without possession and to live freely in spite of fear.  On that day I fancy that I will be most fully awake and myself, most completely free to act authentically and without constraint.  If there is more to being human in this world, I don’t think I’ll need it.

©Mary Braden 2013

Love to the Internet

The more I think about this notion of writing every day and giving access to the entire Internet to read it, the more interesting it becomes.  What if no one wants to read it?  What if people read it and feel inspired to make negative remarks?  What if people make suggestions that I can’t understand?  For an introvert to be facing the idea of such public scrutiny is alarming at best.  But there’s another prong to this dilemma, namely that it’s much less scary to type words into a document and send them up the mast for strangers to read than it is to stand up and speak them in a room full of people.  Using words as proxies comes naturally to an introvert.  We send them out as scouts, and heralds, and as ambassadors for our true selves every day.  Typing them and releasing them onto the Internet isn’t all that different from what we do verbally in our daily lives.  Scrutiny of the words doesn’t hurt me; if someone doesn’t like the words, that’s not the same as not liking me.  The Internet as a forum for my voice is in many ways a safer and gentler place than an actual forum would be.

What to send out into this great forum?  I don’t have any bones to pick about politics or philosophy, although I do have opinions on both which can be fairly tidily boiled down to “Just love—radically, bravely, creatively, fiercely, intelligently, with every fibre of your reason and your passion and your spirit—and you’ll be doing the right thing.”  Hardly the stuff manifestoes are made of, really, but it keeps me out of most debates.  I happen to think that love is the most powerful force humanity holds, and that it means something far richer and darker and more potent than the Hallmark people would have us believe.  Sure it involves the kindness and the sweetness and consideration that we all conjure in our minds when we talk about love.  But it also involves making sacrifices beyond anything we imagined, and being glad we did it.  It means being willing to speak truth honestly, even when it may cause pain or confusion.  It means being able to listen while in the grip of unholy anger, and able to speak from the depths of unfathomable sorrow and disappointment.  It means learning new ways to give and teaching ourselves new ways to receive.  It means a degree of openness and acceptance that makes us desperately vulnerable, and a degree of courage that exposes us to incomprehensible risks.  The joy of love needs no explanation.  It is worth, however, noting that the more radically one enters into love, the greater the joy.  And I believe that all matters of the mind and spirit must be informed by radical love to be truly useful to humanity. No wonder I’m not sought out to discuss these issues!

©Mary Braden 2013



The Introvert Awakening

The dust is beginning to settle here at Farandwee, and I’m starting to see the return of sanity on the horizon.  With my husband working and the stepdaughters in school, peace reigns around the home office.  Even the dogs’ obstreperousness has calmed down since they began a regimen of brisk daily walks.   As the days take shape around a midday core of peaceful silence, I find my inner landscape returning to its former tranquility.

It’s been touch and go for a while, I can’t lie.  Sharing my cocoon with an entire new family has proved to be an enormous shock, like being the only person in a room who doesn’t speak the language .  Some days I feel like I simply cannot make myself understood, an embarrassment only exceeded by realizing that I am also failing categorically to understand anyone else.  I must seem to be handling this transition with at least passable grace, since no one has appeared to take me away in a special jacket to a padded room.  But inside?  I haven’t felt this insecure and discombobulated since I was a teenager.

I have a whole new respect for the power of silence. No, not the silence.  The emptiness. The absence of other human beings.  The simple act of being alone in a room is enormously powerful, liberating the spirit and freeing the mind.  It’s not that people don’t contribute to that too.  But while other people may be the best teachers, the actual learning happens in their absence, when their words and actions can be held to the light and mulled over gently until the truth emerges.

I would tire of being alone eventually, I suppose.  I’d miss the marvelous man who shares my life, and the bevy of children who remind us every day how blessed we are.  I’d miss my colleagues, dear and trusted friends that they are.  I’d miss my little village community where all the faces are familiar and the smiles bright with recognition.  But for a few hours every day, being alone is sheer bliss.  The crowded chaos of the last few weeks have reminded me that peace is more important and more real than happiness, and a necessary prelude to the ecstasy of joy.  For some, that peace may come from being amongst people, energized by their energy and warmed by their warmth.  Not for me.  Although there are a handful of people in my life who don’t disturb my solitude–my mother, my children, my husband—there are none who can improve upon it.

The flip side of solitude, of course, is that not even the most confirmed introvert can subsist upon a steady diet of nothing but.  It can be lonely and frightening in the emptiness, even with music, if there is no alternative.  The comfort of being untroubled by the presence of my fellow man has to yield to the even-deeper primal desire to belong to a community.  Even though I require solitude to generate and maintain my inner peace, I also require the delights and comforts of being close to the people I love. This tension is what keeps us fully alive, I sometimes think, balanced on a tightrope between our private and public selves, torn between the clean, cold clarity of solitude and the warm, noisy confusion of the tribe.

Being flung practically overnight from one end of the spectrum to the other may be the most amazing transition I’ve experienced.  14 weeks ago I lived alone.  A week later my children joined me, and 3 weeks after that my husband moved in.  Less than 6 weeks later his daughters joined us.  I have to remember to forgive myself for the anxiety and the panic that still wash over me in waves at times, although the waves are fewer and less frequent.  It feels like a crazy tilting rollercoaster because, for someone as attached to her solitude as I am, it is a crazy tilting rollercoaster.  The only sustainable way to survive and even thrive on this ride is to make sure there is enough solitude in the mix to keep my internal engines humming smoothly.  Only if I seize those hours and grapple them to my bosom will I be able to engage fully, peacefully, authentically with this new, still-foreign yet dearly beloved tribe.

This journey is full of surprises, none perhaps more unexpected than my realizing how intimately my ability to love is entwined with my need to be left alone.  The wellspring of love inside of me is fed by quiet, by being alone in an empty space, by the absolute freedom of solitary consciousness.   When that spring is full, then I overflow with love and the presence of others is a joy.  When that spring starts running dry, it isn’t the comfort of others that I seek; it’s the closed door, the restorative rhythm of thoughts and feelings flowing at their own pace, the buoyant, nurturing emptiness.

©Mary Braden 2013

The Introvert on a 2-Day Pass

The Introvert is alone for the next 32 hours or so, while the newlywed husband and the two teenaged stepdaughters make a fast overnight trip to upstate NY and back.  They left before noon today, and it has been quiet since. The pets are snoozing on the furniture, so deeply asleep that their legs hang inertly and drop with an unresponsive thud when lifted by an inquiring hand.  Opera is playing through the TV speakers, but there is no picture on the screen.  A few cracker crumbs are all that’s left of a small plate of nostril-twitchingly ripe goat Brie.  The kitchen is fragrant with the scent of roasting peaches and the heat of the oven feels good in the cooling afternoon.

It’s amazing, how quickly the peace fills my head.  The music takes me all the way back to childhood, curled up with a book while my Daddy sang along with the precious vinyl records.  I remember him telling me the stories—all love and death and betrayal—and hearing the passion and despair and adoration right there in the music.  I remember dancing with him at my college graduation and at my first wedding.  I can still smell the clean cotton and the sweet tawny smell of pipe smoke from his sleeve, and hear his voice, warm and sure.  It’s pure magic that I can flick a switch and hear the same recordings that filled that warm room 40 years ago.  And when I’m alone with the music, he’s right here too.

There’s no reason in the world why I couldn’t listen to opera while my family is around.  They’re lovely people and used to my being a bit peculiar where music is concerned.  But while I love to have music playing always, there are some things that dig too deep to share with anyone else.  For some it’s a color or a flavor or an aroma that takes them suddenly and awkwardly out of themselves and into a place of intense emotion.  For me, it’s the music of my childhood.  It’s too hard for me to be around anyone else while that is going on.  I had a happy childhood and the emotion is a happy one, but too immediate and too potent to endure with an audience.  When my father died, years ago now, I immersed myself in the music that he taught me to love, clung to it while reality pummeled me into grudging acceptance, and finally came to love it all over again as the symbol of all the beauty and joy and meaning he taught me to see.

It’s been months since I had enough time alone to listen to an opera, since the old music wormed its way under my skin enough to make the tears start.  It’s balm to my soul.  All the brittle, anxious edginess of being up close and personal with other people vanishes and the constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing simply evaporates.  It’s too sweet and sad and perfect to leave room for anything else.  It just is.  When it’s over, I’ll take out my knitting and put in a DVD of “Swan Lake” so I can wrap myself up in Tchaikovsky’s enormous sound and watch the people dance while my hands nestle in the deep, soft shawl I’m making for my daughter.  Because after the wrenching ending of the opera, my heart is at peace.  The fading notes leave cool tendrils of happiness all through my spirit, binding up and comforting the silly angst of everyday life and whispering strength and serenity and joy back into the emptiness that had built up underneath it.

I’ve heard that one doesn’t have to be entirely alone in the house to have this experience, that it’s possible to step behind a closed door and have the same soul-healing peace.  I’m not there yet.  At this stage of my life, the chances of being undisturbed are nearly nil and even if everyone in the house were entirely devoted to protecting my privacy, I’d feel guilty for neglecting them.  That’s my dream, though, to be comfortable and relaxed enough with my beloved new family to leave them to their own devices and take a few hours to re-charge and re-group in total solitude.  We’re all better off when we’re able to tap directly into what feeds us—and for this Introvert, it’s the stillness and the music that restores my flagging spirit and basic willingness to face my fellow man.  Promise to self:  find a way to do this more often.

©Mary Braden 2013

Phoenix Over The Hill

The phoenix rising from the ashes doesn’t spare a thought for the ashes, the drab and random detritus of a former incarnation.  It moves forward and upward, buoyed by new wings, new eyes, new strength.  Ultimately, it finds itself exhausted and alone, at the brink of another incineration.

I am no phoenix.  My rebirths look more like horrible accidents than flaming pyres. My flight through this world involves a good deal of careening off immovable objects, punctuated by sudden apparently pointless shifts in direction.  I repeat old mistakes, often disguised as new ones to prevent any chance that I might learn from them.  My tears occasionally heal my pain, but mostly they are just embarrassing and make my eyes swell.

I’m okay with that, because every time I pick myself up off the dungheap of my latest adventure, I learn a little bit more about how I got there.  Unlike the phoenix, I have plenty of time to take a good hard look at the debris I leave behind, and to choose how much of it, if any, to bring with me into the next stage of the journey.    The debris is memory, the residue of experience and feeling that forms my impression of the past and predetermines my response to the future.   It’s the barnacles on my emotional hull that slow its steering and in time can disrupt the integrity of the ship itself.  Memory can’t be left fully behind, though.  For one thing, my brain won’t allow it.  For another, some of it is useful.  Unlike the phoenix, I get to figure out where memory has tricked me in the past and to leave that behind.  I also get to select the memories that give me strength and hope and bring them with me.  Every time my life requires me to regroup and start over, I get to stop and take a good hard look at the situation.  How did I get here?  What did I get from it?  What did I lose?  What do I want now?  And then, sometimes sadder but always a little wiser, I start putting one foot in front of the other again.

I find that as I get older and more experienced at screwing up, I also become much more comfortable with it.  I don’t seek it out, by any means, but I must say that the prospect of dismal failure is much less frightening than it used to be.   The opinions of others don’t carry as much weight in my mind as they once did.  A consequence has to be markedly more negative to dissuade me these days than, say, 20 years ago.  I find this extremely liberating.   It’s also a lot riskier than my younger self would have been comfortable with.  Paradoxically, I find that I make fewer mistakes and spend less time second-guessing myself nowadays.  Interesting.

There are so many more exciting things to do too, now that fear has loosened its grip somewhat on my faculties.   People have seen me mess up so often they’ve stopped looking over my shoulder and even given up on offering advice.  Many of them have even decided to accept that I don’t always behave as they would like and to engage with me as I actually am—a gift I have come to appreciate perhaps more than any other.  I am continually and delightedly flabbergasted by my friends’ willingness to overlook my faults and like me anyway.   I’ve even begun offering that gift to those in my life who simply refuse to conform to my idea of who they should be.  As I round the corner of middle age and look around me, I see no need for us to judge each other for our differences.  As long as we try not to harm one another, what difference does it make how we live our lives?  10 years ago I would have been terrified by such a notion; now I embrace it.

This started out as a meandering chat about the decidedly unromantic path of human beings along life’s unexpected paths.  And now it’s about something altogether different…the excitement of realizing that it’s okay to screw up, it’s okay to change direction.  It’s even okay to be wrong.  The important part is to learn from it.  As long as our missteps take us upward and forward, no matter how circuitous the route, then we have a touch of the phoenix in us.  Not the unthinking, if gorgeous, mythical creature, but the fiery, relentless, eternal spirit that transforms thoughts into life and life, ultimately, into flight.

©Mary Braden 2013



The Introvert as Stepmom

My children have gone back to school after a wonderful summer…my eldest to start college and my baby to start his junior year of high school.  The inevitable bleakness of their departure has been substantially enlivened by the presence of my two new stepdaughters who moved in a couple of weeks ago.  I really enjoy having these two blossoming people in my space, both physical and emotional. They’re not from my world at all, these two.  Different upbringing, different experiences, different expectations of life, adults, the future.  It makes me realize how the years of mothering my own children have smoothed the interactions between us into an intuitive, gentle dance where all the partners know the steps and can navigate the complexities of getting their needs met without a second thought.

Not so these two.  They know the steps to their own mother’s dance, not mine.  They don’t have any idea what to expect from me, or even what they want from me, let alone how to get it.  It shows in their awkward courtesy, their unwillingness to share their real feelings or their desires with me.   What an immense upheaval it must be for them, uprooted from their home to start a new chapter of their lives in a house and community they didn’t choose, under the eye of a woman whose only role in their lives so far has been to force them to share their father’s love.

This is an amazing experience for an introvert, most comfortable in quiet and solitude, at ease only in the presence of those she has known and loved for a very long time.  Now there are two young, frightened, infinitely dear new people here, and I have to come out of my shell and figure out what they want and how to make them welcome.  I have to find a way to let them know that I have no desire to trump their mother’s place but that I would be grateful and proud to be their friend, to help as much as they’ll let me.  Of all the challenges I’ve faced in my unconventional life so far, this one is the biggest, the deepest, the best.  These are not my children, and yet they are.  I love their father, and so I love them.  I can’t raise them; at 14 and 16 they’re already finished with that.  They have a full set of habits already, skills acquired during the years I wasn’t there.  My task is to learn to understand their signals, to become fluent in a language I was never taught.

And I must also avoid comparing them to my own children, who I know as well as I know myself.  Of course I adore them—they’re mine, and I have brooded over them and wept over them and rejoiced with them since the day they were born.  I wouldn’t trade a minute with them, and look forward to a long and close future with them as they build their own lives.  But these two new daughters are an unknown quantity.  Where my own children are an open book, these two are a mystery.  How inadequate and powerless I feel when I am unable to connect. How easy it is to turn that into a judgment against them instead of owning my own anxiety and fear.  This is quite a job for an introvert!

As the reality of being a stepmother starts to sink in, I’m beginning to understand what I have taken on, and the realization is both daunting and thrilling.  How amazing to be able to share with my husband these last few years before his nestlings spread their wings and fly.  What a test of myself and of what I believe about love and faith.  What a chance, to share in these young women’s lives as a loving, interested presence with no axe to grind.  I have nothing to prove, and thus nothing to lose.  My only role is to love them and to offer them my friendship and support to the extent they allow.  This is a gift—chaotic and scary and overwhelming though it sometimes feels to my introverted soul.  This is where the rubber meets the road, where years of watching and studying and mulling must be turned to action.  I am humbled and blessed by the opportunity.

©Mary Braden 2013

The Introvert Considers Transparency

Adjusting to life as a partner with another person is an epic journey.  This being my 4th marriage, one might suppose that I had done it before, but due to a certain failure in my powers of selection coupled with a matching deficit in self-awareness, this is the first time it’s really been a conscious activity.  And what an adventure it’s shaping up to be!

For one thing, I’m having to think a lot more than I’m used to about what I’m feeling and thinking.  A lot more.  This is not my strong suit, by any means, so I do it awkwardly and with a good deal of embarrassment.  And that’s before I even contemplate the possibility of couching those feelings and thoughts in words that might make sense to another person.  I’ve been a careful observer of my own inner landscape for a long time now, and feel pretty comfortable with what I know so far; trying to get it out of my mouth to another person (no matter how gentle and brilliant and tender he may be), is a horse of a different color.

The big revelation so far has been how terrifying it is for me to lay myself open for another’s inspection.  I’m used to thinking of myself as a brave soul.  I’ve weathered my share of convoluted and ugly storms in life and come out a little wiser than I went in, and there’s not much that really scares me these days.  But this, this opening of myself with deliberate transparency is downright hair-raising.  I’m starting to realize how deftly I have protected myself from such vulnerability in the past, how neatly I’ve hidden weaknesses and disappointments and fears in ways that protected me equally neatly from having them acknowledged or understood by those I claimed I wanted to be close to.  Huh.

The depth of my own resistance to sharing myself with the man with whom I want more than anything to share my future and grow contentedly old astonishes me.  My crankiness, exasperation, slippery rationalizations, lame excuses and flaring defensiveness all signal that my deep desire to be open and fully honest with my partner is at odds with some pretty deep anxieties.  I find the thought of letting someone else see my inner gnarliness horrifying, even though I have zero reason to believe that anything will come out of it except deeper mutual trust and understanding.  Although I feel fairly comfortable with myself even in my darker moments, the violence of my revulsion at the thought of being judged suggests to me that perhaps I am judging myself more harshly than is good for me.  Is an unexpected benefit of this foot-dragging slouch towards intimacy going perhaps to be exchanging my own ruthless self-assessment for the far more loving and tolerant assessment of the man who loves me? And could that perhaps be something I can also do for him?  Hmmmm.

I’ve encountered some surprising delights along the way, too.  There’s a comfort bordering on the sublime that comes from being accepted unconditionally, and I’m beginning to trust it and look forward to it.  There’s a deep relief that wells up at the thought of being free from the burden of repackaging the inner Farandwee for presentation to the outside world.  And there’s an amazing gratitude that blossoms at the notion that someone cares for me enough to hang in there with me while I walk this necessary but uncomfortable path.   It inspires me to strive to do likewise.  The knowledge that I am being heard and accepted without judgment makes me want to listen and accept the same way.  The joys of the first few steps along a path where I can find peace and safety in one person’s company make me want to be that one person for him too.

So I have my work cut out for me.  This is a lifetime endeavor, and one which is destined to be especially difficult for an introvert, who lives most happily in her own private inner space.  Shining a light into that space and letting another in, no matter how beloved, is a challenge.  But it is the right thing, the existentially hospitable thing to do, and the result is an inner space both warmed and brightened by the exercise.  I will always be introverted, most at home when undisturbed.  But there need be no further hiding or masking or deflecting.  This is a new kind of togetherness, and it promises to be a grand adventure indeed.

©Mary Braden 2013