Scale

In response to WP Weekly Photo Challenge – Scale.

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Layered Emotions

“I don’t want any apartment plants, they’re just not my thing.”

That was my usual go-to reply whenever somebody wondered why there were no plants in my home. “I’m not good at taking care of them, I have neither the time nor the patience to keep them alive,” I would continue, if they insisted.

That was the easiest way of avoiding a conversation on a topic that was somewhat unclear to me too. I liked decorative plants. Yet I knew I didn’t want them in my home.

Frustrated and tired, I was walking fast towards the exit of the large store – one of my last hopes of finding the perfect curtain rail. I was in the middle of renovating and redecorating, and it was more exhausting than I had initially imagined. They were all either the wrong size, or the wrong colour, or the wrong shape, or the wrong price. I was obsessing over curtain rails, the same way I had been obsessing over each and every little detail, when I stopped abruptly in front of a 50% off shelf. I picked the small colourful pot with a small cactus, instantly wanting to take it home with me.

It seemed perfectly healthy, I thought while carefully placing it in the cup holder in my car. The moment I saw that prickly thing on that depressing shelf, I felt just the energy boost I needed. For a second, I could see it clearly, where I would place it and how it would look, once the renovations would be over, when everything would be the way I wanted it. It helped me see the bigger picture, the one that was going to be worth all the stress and effort. For that, it deserved to be given a proper home, especially since it seemed like it was just what mine needed.

It grew quite a bit ever since (for a cactus) and it now has little ones… because the truth is, I’m not really terrible with plants. I never have been. I do like them and I do enjoy taking care of them… even if there have been a few green casualties over the years.

Detaching certain activities from certain people and the memories they bring up is not always easy, or even possible. It can take years. Or years may not be enough and we may never get there.

I grew up in a home where decorative plants were treated better than people. I was always shocked when hearing my grandmother talk to her potted plants, not because I thought it strange, but merely because I never heard her use such a warm, affectionate tone towards a human being. I must have been 8 or 9 when I caught myself feeling jealous of a cactus – what was I supposed to do to deserve such attention, such praise?

Nevertheless, plants and people weren’t all that different for her. They were all things she could show off. When a plant wasn’t as impressive as she would have liked it to be or one of her friends had a better looking version of it, said plant would be given away. They may have received her kindest words, but her care for them was erratic and shallow, I eventually realised. Large plants were never repotted, it was too much effort; but they were placed strategically, where they could be seen and appreciated. Small plants were constantly being moved in larger and larger pots, because she was convinced that was all they needed to grow faster and prettier. Only years later, when I started caring for my own decorative plants, did it occur to me that she never fertilized them. As for the one that incurred my childish jealousy… that was her favourite one. The very old, very large cactus didn’t go with anything, but it was her pride and joy; and as a result, it got dragged in a nice, cosy spot in the living room, right by the door. Nobody could miss it… except for the sun light.

We give up too many small pleasures because of the negative experiences with which they’re associated. Sometimes we give up entire pieces of ourselves. Digging through the layers and layers of pain, memories, healed scars and bleeding wounds form our past may lead to some pleasant moments and experiences they might be suffocating.

This morning I picked two cherry tomatoes and put them in a ball with the ones from previous days. My small gardening experiment amused me over the summer. Looking at the cherry tomatoes, I picture my great-grandmother and I can hear her laugh at them and then at me, joking at my expense. As a child, I would visit her in the country and she would teach me all sorts of things about gardening. When I wanted to have a small patch of ground for my own flower garden, she lectured me on the waste of time in growing something you can’t eat, but then taught me how to plant bulbs and care for them, so I’d get the flowers I wanted. She would mutter about it, but I knew that caring for the small flower patch between my visits was something she enjoyed doing for me.

She’d call me crazy for growing cherry tomatoes in flower pots outside my window and we would laugh together. She would probably find the mini herb garden acceptable and useful. She would call my orchids and other decorative plants an atrocious waste of time and space, then she’d point out which ones need more attention. Plants and humans had some things in common for her too – they needed to be constantly cared for in order to thrive and she could generally see them for what and who they really were.

Peeling off those layers (when possible to do so) is often a lot more painful than letting them build up and suffocate certain pieces of what used to be…

Structure, Restructure

I leant over the small fence, resting and taking in the view. My feet and I were no longer on speaking terms, but it wasn’t really as bad as I had feared.

Once I no longer had to focus on breathing and on stepping the right way, memories and thoughts started bubbling in my mind, all at once.

I looked at the tents spread a few metres below me, trying to remember when I last slept in something like that. I was still in my teens. Look at them, they seem such feeble structures… yet they were the epitome of shelter and safety during those trips of ours. In many ways, I was a creature of comfort, even as a child; and nights spent in a tent didn’t quite go with that part of me.

Looking at them now, I experience a different kind of gratitude and satisfaction, this time deriving from knowing I don’t have to make that compromise anymore. Sure, we used to have fun back then – we were together and we were escaping… That was it, the escape… That’s why climbing the mountain, the hike itself, were less satisfying now than I remembered them being back then.

It wasn’t an age thing. Anything that wasn’t home, anything that allowed us to detach ourselves from our families and everyday lives was bliss. For a while, we were in a different universe. We could pretend we wouldn’t go back. We could attempt to believe in freedom and convince ourselves and each other that everything was possible. After all, why shouldn’t it be? If we could push our boundaries like that, if we could conquer and survive nature, then nothing could stand in our way.

My mind went blank this time too, the same way it did back then, allowing all my resources to focus on the physical effort. Not thinking of anything was comforting, but not in the same way. Now I was calm; back then, I felt such a rush simply by not thinking of anything anymore… But now I don’t need to forget about going back home, there’s nothing scary waiting for me behind the locked door. Now it truly is a trip, not an escape. This time I feel like I’m travelling, not running away without looking back.

Those feeble tents made for good shelter, in spite of all their uncomfortable features. We were resilient too, and if we had to, we could look after ourselves – occasionally, even after each other. Our dysfunctional families were what we had in common. Only now do I realize how dangerous some of our escapades had been. Our parents rarely knew what we were up to, and most of the time we were sure we preferred it that way. But did we, really? You can do whatever you want, as long as you don’t ask for money. You can have all the money you want and do as you please, as long as you aren’t in the way. You can do whatever you want, as long as you get good grades. You can do whatever you want, as long as you keep up appearances and don’t embarrass the family with scandalous behaviour. Each one of us received their freedom at certain costs, and we chose to enjoy it together, because we understood and supported one another.

Then we started choosing our own paths, building on those shaky foundations, structuring our beliefs and characters. So we grew apart, because dysfunction was no longer enough. When constructive, destructive and self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves within each and every one of us, often all at once, while we struggle to find our way, it takes more than dysfunction, we need to have more than that in common. Or at least that was the case for us.

You get much clearer a perspective from that place, thinking back and appreciating the present. I take the Sprite bottle my friend got me. I don’t normally have fizzy drinks, but I wanted something sweet, something I would have liked back then. The two of us remained close and in our own personal, very different ways, we found some sort of balance. The kids we were would be pleased with the adults we are, I realize while staring at the forest, the mountains and the tents of past, present and future. We may not have kept in touch with the others, but these days one finds out things even without trying. So we know that some of them followed in their parents’ footsteps, no matter how much they hated the perspective back then. They now have dysfunctional families and children of their own, who try to escape. Dysfunctionality breeds dysfunctionality. Some are somehow frozen, unable to be self-sufficient, constantly relying on their families or partners for support. Some lead normal, average lives, somewhere in the middle, completely ignored by certain people, utterly envied by others, depending on perspective.

We all failed, we all succeeded, it just depends on the moment and the point of view. But what I think we could all agree upon, if we were to meet around another camp fire, sharing stories and dreams, is that the stability we silently craved is one shaky, complex and tricky structure, that constantly needs to be propped up.

Distracting Windows

There’s something about windows… Whenever I’m in a new place, just wondering about and taking in the sights and architecture, I often get distracted from the big picture. My eyes fixate on windows and I find myself wondering what it would be like to live behind some of them. I lost count of all those times I bumped into people, looking up distracted, ignoring everything and everyone around.

Then there’s the other side of the window…

Do you ever get the feeling that there are certain people meant to inhabit that ground floor flat, the one closest to the entrance, with the best view of everybody entering and leaving the building?… I wonder, have they always been that sort of people and their choice of a home is merely an extension of their personality… or is it always location, location, location, and they morphed into the neighbourhood busybody exactly because of it? They always know who you date, what time you got home, from where and with whom, yet somehow they never notice who dinged your car… It’s all about prioritising, I suppose.

Everywhere I lived, in every building I visited several times, they were there, and they never failed to make themselves noticed. I remember the one living in the building I grew up in… and all the ways I had to invent in order to get in and out at the wrong hours, without being noticed. I tell you, it was not an easy job. Getting home late in the evening generally went unnoticed by my grandmother. But another pair of curious eyes would see and report as soon as possible… and god forbid I made my grandmother look bad in front of the neighbours. So what’s a kid to do? Well, nothing else but come home even later, making sure that said lady was sound asleep by that time.

There was no way of escaping them, I concluded a few years ago, when I was contemplating moving. I eventually found a place that was tempting. A couple of visits with the real-estate agent brought him, the ground floor guy, out of hiding. When looking out the window failed to provide enough information on the newcomer, he went out in the garden, blatantly staring at the windows of that flat. To his great delight, we were on the balcony, so his curiosity was appeased. I remember driving to that building the following day, wanting to take one more look without the agent before making my final decision. Parked in what would have become my parking space, I was analysing everything, weighing the pros and cons. The head eventually stopped peering from behind the curtain… because the neighbour decided to come in front of the building to nosily stare at the car and whoever dared to trespass on his “personal” space. Did I really want to live right above this person?… Well, that wasn’t the deciding factor, but it certainly weighed heavily.

Summer is a busy time for one of my current downstairs neighbours, and the good old window and that pulled aside curtain corner are working overtime… so much so, that she even leaves her door slightly open once in a while. The window is just not enough. She may be the keeper of all neighbourhood gossip, but she isn’t among the most obnoxious ones, so I find it easy to tolerate her whenever I fail to avoid her. Hurrying by the open door, I realise I’ve never been too curious to know what life is like behind it… and that’s because the woman living there never fails to overshare. Furthermore, her endless, indiscrete inquiries make people want to keep their distance. Ironically, what most likely is the consequence of loneliness and a need of human contact, is also what prevents her from getting close to anybody.

Bridge

There are certain bridges we should learn to stop crossing back and forth, as they take us to the worst version of what our lives could be. Then there are those scary, almost hidden ones, the ones we hardly ever notice or take into consideration… Who knows what unchartered territories, what world full of options might await on the other side of those bridges, the ones not yet crossed, not yet deemed as worth burning …

Transient Moments

Every time I go to the mountains I am somehow pulled towards these seemingly insignificant water streams. I could almost say that the sound of undisturbed nature is incomplete without that murmur of rushing waters.

Once in a while, it stares you in the face, the enormous strength and consequences of something apparently so small cannot be denied or ignored. Bit by bit, over what seems an eternity, water droplets have carved their way through impenetrable walls.

There’s nothing else to be done other than admire the force of repetitive transient, apparently insignificant moments.

Fleeting instants and unexpected people walk into our lives and leave it just as fast, like water streams… They occasionally leave indelible marks, the consequences of which we only notice much later. Once we do, we need to accept that nothing can ever be the same.

Local Knowledge

Summer arrived particularly early that year. For us, locals, it felt like a well-deserved, yet unexpected treat. It may not have been my native town, it may not have been that long that I lived there, but I liked to think of myself one of them. Of course, being a student who had to not only survive exams, but actually maintain a certain grade average was something of a drawback… but nothing I couldn’t handle gracefully, I figured.

I’ve never been one to study well in libraries or excessively quiet places, so that early summer weather was a real gift. I could simply go and study on the beach, the sound of the sea drowning all that unwanted noise in my head. It was still too early for tourists to flood the shore, so we had the beaches to ourselves, a few people here and there enjoying the perfect weather, delighting in that sandy peace.

I passed my exams, I managed to get a bit of a tan and the study experience proved to be a lot more enjoyable than I could have ever expected. I certainly had to make a mental note and return to that particular beach the following year, in case the weather was going to be on my side, I decided.

I was quite proud of my little discovery, in fact. Not far enough from home to feel guilty for the time wasted to get there, the place wasn’t completely abandoned. Bur the best part was that the very few people populating it seemed to be single, no screaming children disrupting my study sessions. There were other single young ladies working on their tan and it felt like a stroke of luck to have stumbled upon that place where men seemed to be rather polite and civilized when trying to approach them. I remember being offered drinks a couple of times, but they took my refusal very well and I could just burry myself in my study material again. I didn’t really feel offended that after trying to approach me, one gentleman proceeded to try his luck with another girl – she was gorgeous and I had admired her designer beach bag from the moment she arrived. A while later I lifted my nose from a book and noticed they were both gone.

My friend burst into loud, incontrollable laughter. I really didn’t see why my study experience was such a thigh-slapper.

“I had no idea you were looking for a summer job,” is all he manages to utter between fits of laughter. “So how much did you make,” he wants to know next…

I may not be the blushing kind, but I could feel even my earlobes burn as he imparted his knowledge. Clearly the ladies on that corner of the beach were working, but not only on their tan… on the bright side, I was informed, it was a high-end corner beach. Everything – details I had completely ignored – fell into place. Some strange looks I got while sitting there, in the sun, surrounded by all my study notes started to make sense; some of the guys’ giggles when telling them where I had studied were clearly justified. However, the girls seemed oblivious to it when I later shared my hilarious, yet somewhat embarrassing faux pas. Hmmm…

It may have happened many moons ago, it may look entirely different now, but I still smile when I pass by that place and I remember studying on the beach that early summer. You can know a place… and you can know a place…

The Order of Things

She had a “cat that ate the canary” look on her face, but I chose to ignore it. I was too tired, too hungry, and the only thing I craved more than food was a cup of coffee. If nothing else, you could always count on her to have a fresh pot handy when she was home.

I blindly reached for a cup, but my fingers wrapped around what turned out to be a wine glass. Nothing was where it was supposed to be and I was pointed to the most illogical place for a coffee cup. She had taken upon herself to reorganize my kitchen cabinets, the way she would have liked them to be. The same way her mother used to do to her… the same way her mother-in-law used to do to her, until they took back the spare key they had so gracefully offered her. Who cares that this is my home, not hers? Who cares that she knew what a nuisance this type of behaviour can be?

As I was being given a tour of my own kitchen, I tried not to choke on the cigarette smoke. Who cares that I’m not a smoker?

“Do you like it?”

I hate it.

“It’s fine. It was fine before too…”

I was a student and it was the first time my mother was visiting me, in my own home. Of course I wanted everything to be perfect… as close to perfect as it could be on a student’s budget. Sure, everything was old, but I took pride in how spotless and tidy the place was. I had worked really hard to get it in such a decent shape. But I didn’t feel like arguing after the long day I had had, considering everything I still had to do that evening.

“Did you go out today?”

“No, I was waiting for you to come back. Do you really have to spend this much time at the university, even when I’m here?”

Ok… just let it go… breathe and ignore her… one more sip of coffee… you can do this…

“Well?…” She gestured widely around the kitchen, clearly waiting for some sort of comment.

Well, what?

“Have you nothing to say about all the work I had to do for you today?”

I knew that tone of voice. Just breathe, choose your battles.

“Oh, you mean the cabinets… thanks, it was very kind of you, but you really shouldn’t have bothered.”

“The cabinets? Is that all you have to say? I break my back for you and that’s the thanks I get, you don’t even notice… you and that husband of mine, two peas in a pod, just taking me for granted.”

I looked around carefully, only to notice that aside from a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke and some dirty dishes in the sink, the kitchen was just as I left it. Then she angrily grabs at the old fridge, pulling it aside.

“Can’t you see I cleaned behind the fridge,” the voice is shrill, bordering on hysterical.

Forgive me for not using my X-ray vision… and for being one of those few deranged people who don’t go looking behind the fridge, first thing when they get home. But most of all, sorry for not generally noticing you cleaned a place that had already been scrubbed clean and disinfected only one day earlier. And that was only the second day from a three week visit…

Those who know me, tease me about being a neat freak… but I’m nothing compared to the neat freak my mother used to be. Whenever this tendency of mine seams to take an unhealthy turn, I remember her scrubbing the spaces between the tiles with a tooth brush when I was child. That will never be me.

Many things have changed since that visit of hers. Many things will forever stay the same. She no longer cares about having a spotless home; but she bitterly criticizes everybody else. I no longer care about her approval, but I do tend to go overboard when expecting her for a visit. I do eventually manage to step back, take a deep breath and say to myself, “The hell with it, nothing will ever please her anyway.” Last autumn, just before her impending visit, I had that revelation while polishing the exterior of my entrance door. The following day, she was waiting for me to find my keys in my bag, while noticing my neighbour’s door.

“What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they know the door is the first thing one notices about their home?”

“Don’t you know that’s possibly the last thing anybody cares about?”

I smile and she smiles back, because she chooses to consider such comments part of my strange sense of humour, cynical ways.

Many of us spare no effort in our endeavours to change that often perverted order of things, where we become our parents. Difficult as it may be, it is doable; and it can often be a great self-control mechanism. Yet it can only go so far… Certain things are beyond our control, I realize while staring at a recent photo of my mother. Tired and in a foul mood, with no makeup on, she looks exactly like my grandmother when she was about her age. So I wonder… as the years go by, will I end up hating my reflection in the mirror, simply because I might feel my face belongs to somebody else more than it does to me?… All I can hope for – worst case scenario –is to only ever see that reflection in a mirror, and not when the two of us are face to face.

Carol Balawyder’s “Mourning Has Broken”

Instead of sharing an image of a spectacularly dangerous corner of nature or of anything else around us that might suggest great peril, I’m stepping outside the confines of this week’s challenge. In fact, I’m dropping the “photo” part of the challenge altogether, and I’m focusing on the topic alone. Thus I would like to share a few thoughts on a book I’ve read recently, a book written by somebody you might already know from the blogging world. And yes, there is a connection… As I see it, one of the relevant dangers of being human and of allowing ourselves to experience the greatest joys of our nature is loss. Death is part of it – an unavoidable part of it. So we are all confronted with it and we have no choice but to learn how to deal it.

“Death is messy and often is accompanied with unfinished business. The leaving behind of everything and everyone you could possibly imagine. There is no way out of it.”

Carol BalawyderMourning Has Broken

Putting pain into words is one thing; putting those words in writing is another. But putting that writing out there, for everyone to access and interpret is an act of bravery. After reading Mourning Has Broken, one can only admire Carol Balawyder’s courage to share her experience with grief and loss.

I’ve read other books written by her, but this one touched me the most. Perhaps it’s the disarming honesty with which Carol writes about the pitfalls of dealing with death, loss and grief. Perhaps it’s the fact that everyone who has ever dealt with such issues can relate to the tone of the book and the emotions shared, if not also to some of the exact manifestations. Either way, a sense of gratefulness and respect builds up as one keeps reading – gratefulness for sharing and respect for the woman who has managed not only to work through incredible loss, but to also find hope and meaning in her experiences.

Grief is personal and there is no sure “recipe” for surviving it, and Carol’s book doesn’t try to give advice; but in trying to make sense of pointless, heart-breaking events, she does manage to cleverly insert a sense of hope. Somewhere, underneath all the pain, guilt and regret, there is strength – strength to move on, strength to remember, strength to hurt and fall apart, yet somehow continue living. The dead survive through the memories and feelings of the living, and allowing this connection to manifest itself once in a while is not only natural, but it can also be helpful, we are reminded. Memories of the past find embodiment in the present – a recipe, a book or a clothing item are not only a reminder, but a way to reconnect, to understand, to find peace.

There are numerous kinds of death and they never really find us prepared. What we know may seem useless, so we despair, but we also try and create our tools to help us deal with such situations. If nothing else, Carol’s book is a ray of hope from somebody who has survived and wakes up every day knowing she has to keep working at surviving. This is something that had to be said, Carol Balawyder’s fluent style convinces the reader – the same reader who gets a distinct feeling that the writer not only knows what she’s talking about, but has also thoroughly researched the matter, to facilitate the mourning process. The answers she found, she shares with us… and for that, we can only be thankful.

“Mourning, I realize, must come in small parcels. To realize the immensity of the loss at once would be too overwhelming and unbearable. It must be done in bits and pieces of dreams disappearing one sliver at a time.”

Carol Balawyder – Mourning Has Broken

Wanderlust

The snow covered mountain tops seemed… they seemed familiar. We had been driving up and down through the mountains all day long, we were heading towards yet another landmark, but… there was something about those peaks, like I had seen them up close. All day I kept trying to figure out which mountain was which, as terrible at geography as always. My sight oversaturated with all those wonderful landscapes, I still couldn’t help staring in that particular direction. Then I noticed the signs, as we drove into possibly one of the dullest small towns I had ever seen.

My throat closed with emotion for a moment, as I recognized the memory and remembered the place. The name of the place typed into the GPS, I never even glanced at the route. The destination was the main concern. I turned my head and as our eyes met and we smiled melancholically, I knew my friend was thinking the same thoughts.

For a week we woke up to see those peaks first thing every morning. An indescribably old, barely functional truck drove us and our rucksacks several kilometres down a terrible, pothole filled road. Not too long a hike and we were finally at what we chose as our camping site. I stare at the mountain and I remember all the drama and adventure of that trip as though it was yesterday. The guys who climbed all the way to the top of those steep rocky cliffs… the guy who abandoned his girlfriend on the mountain, on a storm, in the middle of a passionate fight, and then went after her… that day I decided to hike up the mountain on one of the more accessible trails and how I decided that torrential rain wouldn’t stop me, even if that meant I had to drag my boyfriend after me, even if that meant my best friend felt compelled to come after us, worried something might have gone wrong. I remember how intense love felt back then; I remember how friendship used to be more important than anything else. But above all, I remember those nights around the camp fire… we were just a bunch of teenagers, having little else in common but our wanderlust and our need to escape our lives. Somehow, right there, in the middle of nowhere, having nothing else but a fire, our tents and each other, we felt safe. And we were happy.

We look at each other again.

“Were we… what, fifteen, sixteen?… Sixteen, we must’ve been sixteen… that’s right…”

And we do the math, but avoid actually saying how many years have passed since then; we feel old, and at the same time, we’re giddy like children. We keep driving down today’s road, giving voice to yesterday’s memories.

As the days get warmer and longer, this crazy urge to just pack my bags and go – anywhere, everywhere – takes over me. Sometimes it finds an outlet, and it also finds company. I can’t help appreciating the irony of then versus now… just like I can’t help noticing how many various ways there are to reach the same destination. We keep focusing on the destination and finding value in the journey that takes us there. How about the company we choose? What if that’s the most important part, especially when it comes to the more difficult journeys? I only know this – if wanderlust hits and I want somebody with me, that person is somebody truly special to me.