The old neighborhood
The last post commented as follows:
This may have been one of the greatest understatements, and greatest truths, of my life.When I left California at age 60 it was to begin again and find myself, having lost myself in so many directions.
Very early on I began to give myself away to please others. My overactive mind and sensitive intuition were always at work trying to find ways to please, to entertain, to make others happy. I was great at nurturing others when the chance arose. I have the Safford gift of gab from Mom's side of the family (and the Safford tendency to embroider a story because plain facts are less entertaining). I hasten to add this latter trait is not any conscious attempt to lie, it is just how you tell stories. What I did not develop was a healthy way to defend my inner self: to honor my sacred flame and keep pure my deep well. What I thought, what I needed, and what I felt were repeatedly shoved aside. In my early forties I was stunned to realize, though rarely live out, that it is all right to say "No." All my life was lived at least trying to say "yes" and the toll has been immense.
If you have known me for a long time it may be hard to read that I tried ideas like trying out clothes in a clothing store, uttering them out loud to see how they fit. But there was no guarantee what you heard is what I really thought or felt. That was deep within. It is only in my sixties that I came out as a genuine introvert. My exterior has been mostly performance. Even I have trouble to this day knowing what I really FEEL about things, knowing what I truly WANT or NEED.
Part of the reason this seems so incongruous is that many emotions that most folks feel reluctant to share I will express and share easily. I have no problem going on a rant or crying in public. But the deeper stuff has been locked down so deep inside that when I slow down and talk about what truly matters to me it is extremely difficult to say what I am feeling. Moments when it breaks through come as times of immense grace and I know when they hit. I am so grateful for those friends with whom I feel safe enough to experience this and am blessed that this includes coworkers who have been there for me in the recent years of my journey.
I recently posted the satellite photo shown above on Facebook and talked about how over the decades I have had dreams set in the neighborhood where I lived as a boy, or in settings highly evocative of that landscape. It does not happen often, just once in a while, but the geography is quite specific, even as it is also fluid and unreal in the way that dreamscapes can be. That post led to comments from family members sharing their memories, especially of the house. My maternal grandparents bought the house (they were the second owners). It was built around 1910 and had the characteristic front porch with pillars of homes from that era. There were pillars partially separating the living room and dining room too, though Dad removed those to open up the space. And the old floor heater we would stand over (briefly) to warm up and over which Mom would put a drying rack for clothes in the winter. Blue jeans with stretchers in them so they dried as though ironed. Sweet.
Although the house has figured in dreams, I am intrigued more by the neighborhood. As a boy my world was, as cousin Sharon pointed out, the territory I could walk within 1-2 miles from home. I also rode my bike like a fiend but in dreams it is almost always on foot, rarely driving. The streets are as they were when I was in elementary school and the walk from home to there figures in dreams. I have acute memories of sensory details. The darts we made from weeds. Dirt areas where concrete sidewalks were lacking. Mature trees, modest middle-class homes. Quiet. Lots of quiet. It was not a noisy neighborhood. Noise came from the traffic on Fresno Street and Belmont Avenue (and the Rambelaine Kennels where bulldogs were raised until those closed). But how noisy was traffic in Fresno, California, in the 1950s?
The details that stand out are my perceptions when I was by myself. See: introvert. When I was (and am today) walking alone, I take in the world around me and I am not giving myself away to others. I feel safe and happy. And that is why I remember the physical campus of my undergraduate college far more than I remember my classmates. And why I bond with trees.
Yes, I go way beyond tree huggers. I have always felt a closeness to trees as though they are my guardian spirits. Part of me has always been an animist. To me the entire cosmos is alive. The consciousness of a rock may be a very slow consciousness but I do not believe anything God has created is without life. So if you are shocked to learn I have always been part pagan, well, there you have it.
When the sycamores that defined our street were cut down by the city and replaced with holm oaks and non-bearing plum trees, I was devastated. Those "new" trees are now mature but in my dreams it is the old sycamores (plane trees) that remain. I have one in front of my current home in Albuquerque and they are also found by the office where I first worked in ABQ. In autumn of 2005 the sycamore leaves were falling to the ground and the wind made them scuttle across the sidewalk. It was a distinctive sound that instantly carried me back half a century! Their unique smell also took me back.
Growing up and spending summers in the Sequoia National Forest, I developed a deep love for the yellow pine belt, its trees and flowers, wildlife, and geologic formations. Walking alone in the woods was my private, VERY introverted time. I saw parables and symbolism in the natural environment. And once again, the trees were my friends. It is interesting that I work for Smokey now, at least part-time now that I am semi-retired, helping Forest Service personnel, including firefighters, travel for work. For all the time spent even working on staff during the summers, it is the hills and trees, streams, and wildflowers that I remember and think about. Not the people.
It is not that I hate people, except in rare moments of misanthropy, lol. But for someone who was driven to please others, people are an invitation and demand to give, perform, and not be self-directed, self-contained, and self-aware. In a word, draining. And I do not blame others for the fact that I distorted myself to give them what I thought they wanted or needed, just saying that is how I responded.
Back to trees. When Bill and I separated in 2002 I found a condo unit on a second story that looked out at lovely mature alder trees. I had met alders on the campus of UCLA when I was doing graduate study in history. These were beautiful trees that greeted me each morning as I left and each evening as I came home. It was a bit like living in a tree house! I would reach out and touch them, sometimes pausing to pray with them. They were anchors in a difficult transition. And within a year the HOA had them cut down because nearby pine trees had become diseased and these might also. The joy of living there was lost. The landscape of my life felt barren and exposed.
I never felt pressure from trees. Well, we all know people who like their pets better than humans, right? I hope y'all are not too offended if I often prefer trees. It is not as drastic as it sounds, especially since it is getting easier for me to be myself and guard that selfhood, so I no longer require the immense defenses of my past. I have, to tell the truth, been like a fortified city, with thick triple walls and moats, alligators and dragons and all. I have been opening gates.
If you have followed the past year and a half on Facebook you now have some more context for what opening myself without giving myself away has been like, why 2013 was exhilarating and unsettling, why I know in 2014 how much work I have still to do, and why I look forward to 2015 and beyond. You also know why I needed an immense and drastic break in the pattern when I left my native state in 2006 and never looked back.
The territory in which I feel safe to be myself is expanding all the time. It is not easy to dismantle a lifetime of defenses. But I am finally emerging from the trees. They will always be my friends but there is a larger world in which I can now be authentic and maintain my own integrity. I may even figure out what I want, but that won't happen overnight.