Tuesday, May 31, 2011

My Word This Year - Acceptance

One of my friends lives in Hawaii. She and I have had long email conversations about life and things spirituality over the past couple of years - we both had this sense that she was to help me in some ways and she has. I think I still need to step back and think about how she has helped, but suffice it to say that she has. (My friend doesn't know I'm writing this - I write it knowing that maybe I shouldn't but hoping that she understands how I am processing what has transpired between us.)

When I saw her in February in Hawaii, she told me that her word for the year was the Hawaiian word (I think) for "move", which was a way to encourage her to become more active. She asked me what my word for the year and I wasn't sure at first and then I said, "maybe acceptance". Her reply if memory serves was, "be careful what you choose because some words are more work than others".

I haven't really thought much about it in recent months, but tonight, as I was sleepless in bed, it came to me again. I really do think "acceptance" is my word for the year. It has to do with accepting people as they are. It has to do with accepting my health situation. It has to do, to some extent, with me giving up this tight control I like to have over parts of my life.

I grew up poor at times - sometimes we lived in subsidized housing and on food stamps - and my parents were alcoholics. (The alcoholism wasn't bad and the drinking didn't happen often - maybe once or twice a month. But it was there.) I was the oldest girl and ended up being the babysitter of the younger ones as I grew up. And, while I knew I wanted a child, I also knew I didn't want to be a stay-at-home mom. I came to realize I had already done my stint supervising little kids. So, Eddie went to day care and I was at work. I did feel some subtle societal pressure that I was making the wrong choice. But over the last few years, I've made peace with my choices - and now some of those choices mean not going to an evening lecture or committing to any late afternoon meetings, because those times are for me and Eddie. Work just isn't that important for me to return to in the evening most of the time. Home is just as important.

To get back to my point about giving up this tight control is this: I grew up poor. I didn't want to stay that way. And, I developed a strategy whereby I kept tight control over things so that I could get to a point where I wasn't poor anymore. My intelligence has opened up opportunities for me to get away and I am fortunate for that.

I am an anthropologist, which means that I like to learn why people do things the way they do. Then when I learn it, then I can do those things as well. I am an anthropologist because I want to fit in to whatever new situation I find myself. Growing up, I didn't feel like I fit in at all and I always attributed it to being poor and/or too smart. Anthropology, though, gives one certain tools of observation - I observe the way people behave toward each other - all the time, I never turn it off - and then bring those behaviors into my own life.

I wanted to escape a poor lifestyle. So, I "studied up" - how do middle class people live? My education has allowed me access to middle class America and so I got some ideas of how middle class people existed. For a long time, that meant exerting a certain level of control over my image - how do I look to others? What can I change about my house or my clothes or my mannerisms so that I can blend in? How can I surround myself with people who are middle class? I tried to control the people around me so that they also "looked" middle class. I wanted them to behave in certain ways and would get frustrated when they didn't. I didn't want to be around people who didn't live like this because it brought me back to being the poor girl.

But after several years of trying to blend in and not really being happy, I came to realize that while my socioeconomic status says "middle class", in my heart, I am still more blue collar than anything. For example, a lot of my work colleagues grew up in solidly middle class homes. I'd go to social events with them and they'd enjoy talking about politics or NPR or whatever. BORING! I just wasn't interested. (I hate to watch the news, for instance.) Instead, I say, "give me a beer and let's go play softball!"

I also don't like wearing makeup, I hate high heels. I don't particularly like wearing dresses. I will wear simple skirts in the summer time with sandals. It' getting to the point where my work or lecture clothes are a nice pair of jeans, a nice shirt, with a jacket. I don't color my hair. I am not fashionable. But all of those things are trappings that go with an image of middle class. Our society is all about image, it seems, and I don't really want to play that game.

But I digress.

Over the past few years, my therapist and my acupuncturist have both helped me to become more comfortable with who I am as a person. For so long, I felt like I was on the outside of a house in our society, looking in to the promise of middle class America. But I was always always on the outside - I never fit in. It took just one phrase from my acupuncturist to change all that: "That used to be your story. It doesn't have to be your story anymore."

Wow. All of a sudden, I was the person in the house. Just like that. I realized that I, in fact, did fit in. I had tenure. I had family. I have many many friends and colleagues. I am in touch with people all the time from all walks of life - from my colleagues to my ball-playing buddies. People had already accepted me and I didn't realize until that moment that I already had what I wanted - to be accepted and to fit in.

In sessions with my therapist, I also came to realize that while I was accepted, I also occupy what anthropologists call this "liminal" space - a place that is "betwixt and between". It refers to rites of passage as discussed by Van Gannep. Van Gannep wrote about the structure of rites of passage - that all cultures and all peoples celebrate the passage of life from one stage to the other. These celebrations or rites all have a certain structure: the person (or persons) who is changing their status (say from childhood to adult), separate from the others in their society (think kids in the gym in high school graduation) because they are undergoing the rite. Then the rite or ritual happens - this is the liminal or "betwixt and between" stage. This is when the person is neither their original status or the one they are moving into. Then the person or persons enter the reincorporation stage, where they are presented to their group at their new status. (Other rites include marriage, baptism, military boot camp, etc.)

Anyway, as I said, I occupy this "liminal" space. I am betwixt and between. I have a middle class occupation (a professor), but I don't really socialize with colleagues outside of work because I don't necessarily like what they like to do. I'd rather go play volleyball or softball with my friends and drink a beer. I am also a King Islander who grew up in Oregon. I act more white than I do King Islander. I have learned to act more King Islander over the years, after much patient help from cousins and other relatives in Alaska. But again, it's a situation where I am "betwixt and between" because I don't ever quite fit in with my King Island relatives. I have, however, been accepted by them and for that I am grateful. I don't quite fit in with my colleagues. I don't quite fit in with my ball-playing friends because of my occupation and some of the issues I support. I don't live and breathe my job (I see colleagues who work like 60-70 hours a week. That's crazy.). I think once I realized my "between-ness" between this group and that group, I learned to accept myself and others around me more. My life has become an eclectic kind of blend of dipping into middle class and out again, of being a King Islander for awhile and then an Oregonian.

The point is that my "liminalness" (if there is such a word) has given me a certain degree of fluidity and flexibility in how I live my life. I kinda like that.

But to get back to "acceptance". As I said in my last post, my family moved in with me. When I wrote the first draft of my dissertation in 1997-98, I lived with my folks again for the first time in like 15 years. It was kinda hard. I had been angry with them for a long time for being poor and alcoholic and I didn't spend much time with them. I came to accept them, to some extent, at that time. But since they moved in, there's been another adjustment period and , as with all close living situations, we get irritable and frustrated with each other.

My dad just had open heart surgery in February. During her recovery at home, she said that one thing she learned was more patience and appreciation for family. But at the time of the surgery, my parents had been driving me nuts. I needed time away from them so the day dad had surgery, I went to Vegas to see my friend for two days. I don't even really feel guilty - my sister and brothers took care of mom and were involved with all the medical personnel. Dad was barely aware I was away.

But now I am home recovering from surgery and in just over 24 hours will be in surgery again. Even in these close quarters at home, with my folks taking care of and being with them all the time, I rarely find myself irritated. We are getting along quite well surprisingly.

Somehow or other, since the April 1 surgery, I have learned to be even more accepting and more patient. I think it has to do with understanding that they are just doing the best they can as I am. I think they recognize that too.

It reminds me of what my friend Phil told me a few months ago, after we returned from Hawaii. In difficult situations, it's best to learn how to navigate in terms of "spirit", not ego. (Phil had me read excerpts from a book called "This Thing Called You" and while I cannot, in any way shape or form, adequately paraphrase what Ernest Homes said, what I took away (or created in my mind to help me visualize what he said) from the reading is this: we are each threads in this tapestry of life. If I start tugging on my thread too hard, I mess up the design - the flow gets obstructed. When I tug on my thread, my ego is involved. I need to not tug that thread because then I start tugging other peoples' threads and messing up the whole design.

I think I'm learning to remove my ego from the situation - that is, that part of my ego that wanted control so I could fit in. And once I do that, things just flow easier. I don't feel like I'm butting my head up against a wall or trying to control what the people around me do. Things are much more peaceful inside me and around me.

That is acceptance, too. Like the serenity prayer - to accept the things I cannot change. So, I think "acceptance" is my word for the year. Okay. Finally sleepy again. I'm going to try to get back to sleep 'cuz it's 3am and the deep thoughts are no longer so deep! HA!


j said...

You said a bucketful, Dee. Much of what you said resonates with me, though to different degrees, in a different way. There is much to be said for living our lives as we see fit to do so. Cuz nobody else can live 'em for us! xo j

Joanna said...

Hi Dee,

I have noticed over time that we have a similar take on life. I grew up in a home where alcohol was a negative factor and I was the babysitter for much of my life from ten years old on. I can sense how evolved your life view is. It is your spirit (or life view) that permeates your posts and hopefully leads us all to gain some perspective of our disease.

I think having cancer makes one an outsider to a certain extent. I became really aware of this a couple of months ago and it had significant impact on me because it fed my longstanding belief that I have always been an outsider. You seem to me to be a teacher in life (not just academics) because you share your spirit with us all. I would like to develop some of the acceptance you have developed all along the way. I know it takes effort and maturity to develop this acceptance.