Monday, June 13, 2011

The Velvet Ropes in the Theatre of My Life: Boundaries

I grew up in New York City--land of noise, constant stimulation, non-stop entertainment.

There's a seeming chaos in The City, to the uninitiated. But New York has it's rules, it's order, things that make it negotiable to those who stick around long enough to learn what they are. It's easy to feel overwhelmed if you don't do like the New Yorkers. And one thing New Yorkers do well is lines (queues, in Brit-speak). Lines tell you where to go, and also where you cannot go. This can be very comforting in a hectic environment. Look for the line in a crowd and you can find the way into a popular eatery, or the source of the music, or...

When I was about 8 years old, my grandmother took me and my younger brother to Radio City Music Hall. It was grand--huge, ornate, imposing. The line snaked around the block, defined by heavy red velvet ropes, suspended from brass posts. As we stood in the line, making our way closer to the entrance that would signal our transition from Outsiders to the Privileged Few, I watched people and read posters for future shows. Slowly I realized that I was being watched in return. Passersby would scan the faces in the line, looking for something. Maybe they were jealous, maybe they wanted to take the afternoon to watch the Rockettes and Song of the South (yes! That was the show!) instead of having to hustle off to their next appointment. I am not sure, but I saw that, even behind the velvet ropes, even before walking through the grand entrance, that I was already "other".

The line somehow gave me space, set me apart. I am sure someone has done a study of the science of lines and crowd behaviour, but I can tell you from my little-girl observations that boundaries give us space to see where we stand. If we embrace them, they can define our space, give us breathing room and create order. I am a person who needs a certain amount of order in my life, so I guess it's time I looked at the boundaries I do and don't have in my life.

Because I have been overwhelmed recently.

I can only imagine where I would be if I were not nourishing myself well. As it is I have not had the energy or desire to write. It has taken all of my resources to do the daily tasks and to focus on my family. We have had a variety of our children and grandchildren here, at one point last week numbering eleven people between our two boats. Neither boat is huge, so it's natural that--with everyone cheek by jowl--we have had some frayed nerves. The stress of writing my thesis loomed large on top of it all.

A selection of us took an overnight trip to Victoria last week, a lovely two days in our charming neighbor city across the Strait. The outing was organized by our homeschool group, which provided for a tour bus, a hotel, and various attractions. It was a wholly different experience than we had previously had, exploring the town on foot between the morning and evening ferries. If you ever visit Victoria I highly recommend the Castle and the Miniature Museum--both were charming and great fun. I can't say enough about how beautiful this very European-feeling city is! We are really so very lucky to live in a small town with a world-class city ninety minutes away by water...

I did get a migraine while away, a stark reminder of where I used to be. I was not able to treat it the way I would at home, but did the best I could with the tools I had with me. I think that something in my lunch that day contained hidden MSG, judging from the unpleasant reaction I had. My older daughters collected the makings for ginger tea with honey and lemon from the restaurant at the hotel and the dim sum place where they ate dinner. They fixed in the the room's coffee pot--such resourceful kids! We made an ice pack out of a plastic bag, which I ended up sleeping with. I survived, but I am so glad that such an experience is now rare for me.

Back to the Velvet Ropes (aka Boundaries): I tend to be a very giving person, wanting to help wherever I can. Like most people with this tendency (mostly women, I think) I usually put myself last. I have variously been a teacher, cook/baker, midwife and health educator. And Mom. All of these are nurturing, even feminine, occupations, which are often also poorly paid. Many of you in caregiving roles (paid and unpaid) will recognize the tendency to give even when our personal resources are dwindling.

I lived like that for many years, first as a special education teacher in a residential facility, then in an unhappy marriage, and then as a single mom in midwifery school--finally happy but overextended. It seems I have always had boundary issues. In all of the drama surrounding my divorce, my dad (The Shrink, which he is) reminded me that "you never have to drink the soup as hot as it's served." Which is to say that I am ultimately in charge. I can respond in a situation, as opposed to reacting. I know this, but do not always live it (but The Captain is always ready to hold up a mirror for me, to gently remind me that just because someone says something doesn't necessarily make it true. Deep breath drop the shoulders....)

Even when the stressor is a good thing, as in visiting family, weddings, babies, etc, we can neglect ourselves in a way that leads to resentment, a lack of flexibility, an impaired ability to handle the varying needs and circumstances. It makes me in particular crochety, edgy, almost prickly.  I gather I haven't been much fun to live with recently.

I am trying to do some "selfish" things, to restore balance. I opted out of cooking dinner yesterday, instead shutting myself into my personal space for some quiet time. I also spent a while poking around in one of the local antique/junk shops yesterday afternoon--and found a few treasures! Today I go do laundry, not a glorious job, but it is time alone, so I'll take it gladly. And, after talking with my advisor, I think I will delay my thesis until this storm passes.

Still, I struggle with this issue. I want to be a giver, but I realize that I have to be full myself to do that. The last few weeks I have also been reaching out to a few friends who really empathize, who are solid and supportive of what I am processing. They also act as mirrors, giving me their perspectives while not allowing me to wallow (too much). I truly appreciate these wonderful people who have taken the time to listen as I said the same thing over and over, seeking a deeper understanding with each conversation. You know who you are, so please accept my hugs and loving appreciation.

Writing may be erratic this summer. I wish it were otherwise, as the writing does feed me as well as you all, but it's another little "selfishness" I need to embrace. I will write as I am moved, as I have things to share. I hope that will be several times a week, but if it's not, I know you will understand that I am taking care of myself and my family.  That I am welcoming and installing very elegant velvet ropes in my life so that I will know where I stand. The theatre of my life is non-stop, but sometimes I am backstage, sometimes I am in the audience, and only sometimes will I be front and center. Thanks for joining me as I define those roles!

Do boundaries serve you well in your life? Do you wish you had more or fewer?
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