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A Lightbulb Moment

All the lights are on! This weekend, my dad finished installing our kitchen cabinets as well as three pendant lights that hang above them. Hallelujah, let there be light! Now we can finally see what we're doing, giving us a boost of productivity by providing both visual access and a more pleasant work environment--which will soon become a warm, welcoming place to cook and eat and converse!


This bright, warm light is a great metaphor for something else I've realized over the course my month-long home renovation staycation--which, though hard and busy, has been a clean break from my nonprofit work, my novel-writing creative work, and most of my social life too. I had an "aha" moment about illuminating the kitchen that my family has designed and built ourselves with a set of clear, warm lights that my husband and I chose together, as well as the fact that we are no longer living in other people's stuff.

We're approaching 40 now, and we've finally been able to take on major home renovations to make our home both functional and pleasing for us to live in, according to our own lifestyles and tastes. At the same time, we've come a long way in detaching ourselves from inter-generational trauma cycles and the hazards of dysfunctional people who exploit our good qualities--our generosity, our compassion, our helpful talents, our willingness to make room for other people's influences at the expense of our own expressions and preferences. It has been a long road learning how to put up strong enough boundaries to keep our lights shining without fear that they will attract predators or petty jealousies. 

This is isn't just important for our own sake, which would be good enough. We're somebody's parents now, and our daughter is our ambassador of hope for the future of humanity. 

We have a responsibility to care for her by modeling self-compassion and initiative to build (sometimes quite literally) the life we want to live in as well as behaving with kindness toward others. It isn't healthy to think oneself more important than others, and it's equally unhealthy to believe oneself less important than others. The most useful compassion is whole and balanced and steady, rooted in both self-love and emotional empathy for other beings. What good is it to raise a kitten to be sweet, cuddly, and trusting if you're just going to let a dog eat it? 

The sad truth is that there are people out there who lack emotional empathy (the kind that causes people to care about others' feelings rather than merely understand how they tick), and they can lie and cheat and steal and manipulate and torment their victims without a drop of remorse. Temporarily, certain mental illnesses and drug addictions can cause people to become real monsters. My husband and I both grew up in close proximity to some very sick, sad, dangerous people and were raised by loving parents who nevertheless didn't have strong or wise skills at setting appropriate boundaries. We had to find our own ways out of that wilderness.

One of my favorite things about being me, which has been used against me many times, is my love of a good story. I relish a dramatic narrative of every type--funny, happy, sad, scary, complex--as long as it isn't hopeless. I crave a seed of redemption or at least rebellious subversion, and if I don't get it I'll keep looking or try to make it happen. I love to consume and to create good stories, fictional and non-fictional. This quality of mine has allowed me to enjoy films from all over the world and thousands of great works of literature. It's helped me to write my own juicy novels. It allows me to stay curious and interested in all aspects of life and human experience across cultures and beliefs. And, and, and, it has been a liability when people with bright, shiny, moving stories have taken me for a dangerous ride--to get me to do something for them or to shrink myself out of their way or just to let them sadistically hurt me.

But I know better now. I haven't developed any superpower to suss out individual people's motives or read their minds, and I know better than to try. Instead, I've developed a better sense of when another person's drama isn't about me or for me and I need to avoid it rather than try to engage and get tricked into enabling yet another round of pointless dramatics. Sometimes even listening to the manipulative stories or hateful opinions of a self-obsessed or cruel person can drain us of joy.

Last week, my parents adopted two tiny kittens from the same animal shelter where my family adopted our cat when she was a tiny kitten. At this shelter, cats are kept in such a way that they are physically inaccessible to the dogs so they won't be trampled or mauled, but the facility doesn't have the capacity to keep the kittens insulated from the dogs' incessant barking. We have sayings in English that minimize the idea that harm can be caused by a voice as well as by a physical assault. "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me," goes an old fake-it-till-you-make-it, whistling-in-the-dark mantra. People say of bullies, "Their bark is worse than their bite." Meaning, in many contexts, that the bark is a sort of empty bluffing that shouldn't be taken seriously and can't hurt if you choose not to fear it. While that may be true to a certain degree, the bark itself can do some amount of unavoidable, physical harm. The kittens at the shelter often come standard with a heart murmur, which is commonly caused by the intense stress of living--even for a short time--in the presence of loud barking. To the kittens, it doesn't matter that they are kept in sturdy cages that dogs cannot bite through. It does not matter whether all of the doggos are perfectly good puppers filled with unconditional love and loyalty and eagerness to spread joy. The kittens simply cannot meditate away the stress caused by that terrorizing noise, regardless of the intentions behind it or whether there is a real, inherent threat of a bite. It all sounds and hurts the same.

People have the advantage of being able to know when a threat is baseless versus credible, but that knowledge only provides partial comfort and safety. We can decrease, but not eliminate, the harm others can cause us with their "bark." In addition to developing skills to cope with that barking when we must inevitably encounter it in life, we must also create enough bark-free space and time in our lives that our hearts can continue to function. We need self-love and positive, healthy relationships. And vulnerable, authentic, tender, focused love can only thrive within strong, protective boundaries. That means blocking, eliminating, or minimizing contact and involvement with those who are malicious, prone to uncontrollable rage, or lacking in emotional empathy. It is not our job, nor is it possible, to "fix" anyone else psychologically who doesn't want to be fixed or who is unable to understand what they must do to get better. It is our job to take care of ourselves and others who are able to truly benefit from and make use of our care and goodwill. Protecting ourselves and our loved ones from abuse is not unkindness, and identifying a lost cause is not a failure on our part, though a manipulator will often try to convince us otherwise, as a way to trick us into opening up again. "I'll huff, and I'll puff..." In fact, enabling abusive behavior is a very bad thing to do--for the sick person as well as for ourselves. It only perpetuates harm in all directions. Sometimes love is tough, and compassion is always courageous. People-pleasing and niceness can feel like an easy way out, but they are workarounds, not solutions. The best they can do is buy us time to build up our strength and wisdom. The worst they can do is enable more harm.

So I pledge to keep my happy lights on whenever I want them on, in my professional life, creative life, and social life--and to protect them within strongly built walls and locking doors and windows. All are not welcome here. My house, my party. I can't share my light and warmth and fresh-baked cookies with those who can benefit from them if I let in forces that only wish to destroy them. We can't have nice things if we don't keep out the flying monkeys. We can't get any healing or loving or enjoying of life accomplished if we allow ourselves to be distracted by help-resistant complainers, liars, thieves, and bloodsucking whiners (I'm referring to mosquitoes, of course).

In addition to helping my parents prepare for kitten adoption and take care of the kittens, I have been brushing up on my Spanish so that I can be more helpful to Spanish speakers who come to my workplace looking for English language lessons.

To make it fun and therefore more effective for me, I quit taking dry online grammar lessons and started watching Spanish-language films and listening to my vintage rock en Español CDs in the car. I've revisited the sun-soaked longings and tender desires brightly vocalized in d.d. y ponle play by Jumbo, recalling for me the intense, sometimes silly, firefly-pulsing, driving, bouncing, giddy melancholy of adolescence. I've delved into the searing, sizzling drama of the Amores perros ("Dog Loves") soundtrack, snapping my jaws and growling along with Julieta Venagas:

Tus amores perros me van a matar
Sin haberme dado siquiera un poco de felicidad

I've crooned with Saúl Hernández on Jaguares' sensitively sensual album Cuando la sangre galopa, especially the song "Como tú," a warning cry about toxic love and emotional sadism:

Y es tan fácil que te hagan daño
que ni en el último suspiro te dejas querer

Amor ro-o-to-o-o-o!

These songs remind me of my youth, my history of sad-sack-and-rescuer relationships that I've had to learn how to recognize and escape and avoid one year at a time, and of how far I've come in understanding myself and human life in general. 

I am proud of that, and also reminded of the soft spots I'd rather keep and protect than destroy and crust over. A vulnerability can be a strength, with the right boundaries around it. Wisdom is a gift to accept with gratitude and honor with growth. I never want to stop refining the art of living in the world as myself.

What good is shining a light if there are no eyes to see it? I have one more metaphor to throw on this blog post pile: During my staycation, I also started wearing soft contact lenses for the first time in my life. I wore hard contacts from age 13 through most of my adulthood, which were supposed to slow the progression of my astigmatism. Maybe they helped, but even so, my prescription quickly slid beyond the reach of vision correction surgery or soft contact lenses. It stabilized by my late 20s, and now, a decade later, my vision has improved due to the aging process causing the tissues in my eyes to firm up and contract. My vision has improved so much, in fact, that I am now able to wear disposable soft contact lenses, which give me better than 20/20 vision with total comfort and uninterrupted peripheral vision and the ability to focus clearly on objects both near and far, something I haven't experienced since preschool. It's a trip!

I can see in the pool and in the lake and in the shower! I can wear regular sunglasses! I can be amazed by the sharpness of a blade of grass and the faraway leaves on a tree! I never have to worry again about a contact lens getting shattered or lost!

As a teen and young adult, I had recurring nightmares about getting ready for the day and finding my drawer full of variously sized and colored contact lenses and not knowing which were the "right" ones. At that time in my life, I felt that I was being "gaslit" quite a lot. (I hate that buzzword, but you know what I mean.) I knew that people had lied to me, or passed along others' lies that they sincerely believed, and I knew that I was confused, but I didn't know what the truth was or how to find it--which lenses to use to seek it.

When I started using my new soft lenses this summer, I wondered if those dreams would return.

They have not. I'm wise enough to trust my own vision now, and I'm healed enough to raise a daughter who doesn't have to grope her way through the same wilderness of confusion and anxiety that I did growing up. What a comfort, a relief, and a proud victory.

It is a gift to have earned this sight, both metaphorical and literal. I'm grateful for it. I'm celebrating it. I'm delighted to choose my own light fixtures in my kitchen that serves as a lovely metaphor for claiming and honoring my own place in the world and my ability to nourish, serve, and enjoy the company of my loved ones as well as myself.

How good it is to have beautiful lighting and the clear sight to enjoy it! And to share this pleasure with my family, including a cat who is very happy that the big, scary construction zone is turning into a kitchen again and that the loud, hard work of rebuilding is almost finished.

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