Back when I gave tarot readings for dollars, there was a card in the deck that I always stumbled over a bit. The fucking Six of Pentacles. (Swear's mine. It's not officially known as The Fucking Six of Pentacles, though it might as well be be because it addresses something that screws most people up in one way or another.) The Six of Pentacles has to do with giving and receiving, and whether you've got a healthy relationship to the particular end of the equation you're occupying the most heavily at the moment.
They say that when you're doing readings and you have a little trouble interpreting a particular card, that card might be something you have problems with in your own life. Hello, there.
I never gave a lot of conscious thought to how I gave or received until I worked with a writing teacher who used to talk about the importance of getting your receiving valve functioning. She said that it's particularly common for women to have their giving dial cranked all the way open and their receiving dial jammed somewhere near the off position. It was jarring to hear about this whole receiving mechanism business, for some reason. I pictured a twin set of copper pipes running through me somewhere, and while I was cool when I contemplated the one that flowed outward, it made me feel weird to think about the other one. When I imagined giving special attention to things flowing in my direction, it made me feel selfish and demanding, like some kind of pop diva with an elaborate dressing room rider. Tina requires fourteen boxes of Tazo Refresh tea; one bag of fun-sized Kit Kats; a case of 1998 Argyle Pinot Noir; a handmade silk Snuggie; two Wagyu beef cheeseburgers; a first edition of the collected poems of e.e. cummings; one adult male panda, etc. Obviously I'd absorbed some cracked ideas about give and take, and I preferred to identify exclusively as a giver, which was a nicer thing to be, and safer, too, or so I thought.
A huge portion of my identity, in fact, was built around being a giver. And let me tell you, while I did give a lot, it didn't spring from a totally saintly impulse. I gave all kinds of things, and I might have thought I didn't have any expectations in return but, oh, I did.
When you give compulsively, you can fall into the trap of imagining that that's all you're doing, but I think if you're jammed into giving mode, your whole system goes out of whack and some part of you tips into unconscious thirst. You might sport a nice, crisp martyr complex, and if you don't get flamboyant enough recognition for your efforts, you're going to give off the smoky odor of resentment. Or you burn yourself out, get emotionally labile/crumbly and become an unwitting drain on other people. I bet I could pick up some affidavits on that front if I cast back through the years. Sorry, folks!
I didn't know I was an unhealthy, compulsive giver. I thought I was just a peach, doing my thing. I wanted to give! I gave money, elaborate gifts, shoulders to cry on, sex, attention, cigarettes—whatever anybody wanted, whatever seemed valuable. And I didn't know when I was overdoing it, either, because I didn't know how to check that out.
I had no idea how to drive this thing—this body, this bundle of life force. And honestly, I didn't care. My stance towards myself, if you can call it one, was neglect. I didn't take care of things for myself. I flunked out of college, though I was intelligent enough to have made it through. I wouldn't pay my bills on time, even though I could have, and was constantly in danger of having my electricity/water/phone service shut off. I ate only enough to justify my next cigarette. I'd put off taking out the garbage, developing a fruit fly colony that I was constantly trying to vacuum out of the air. I bottomed out when I neglected a summons to appear in court (way too long a story for today), further neglected the warrant for my arrest and spent nine hours in jail ('nother day, I promise), where I learned, to my surprise, that I was actually real. I'd neglected myself so dreadfully because I sort of thought I wasn't, and so how I treated myself didn't seem like an object of any importance.
What, you may ask, was my damage? You can never totally pin that kind of thing down, but this post addresses some of it. (Warning for those who haven't read it: not easy material.)
Short form: there was some emotional neglect (and worse) passed down through the generations. I was taken care of physically and financially, and given a great education (which I squandered), but beyond that there was a hole. In any case, I got that I didn't matter, and I thought a good way to matter was to figure out what people wanted and give it to them—shower them with it, even.
But it wasn't free, nope, not with this giving tree. I wanted things back. I wanted to be loved, adored. I wanted to be a lavish, un-ignorable presence. I wanted to be a big, sparkly fountain to which everybody would flock. World-famous, super-delicious, the best source of love and happiness and comfort and pleasure going. I wanted to be addictive, you see, and impossible to abandon.
There's a Hindu goddess, Lakshmi, who's the patron saint of all this. She's the goddess of prosperity and abundance and love and beauty—a more maternal Aphrodite, more domestic, sweeter. You see her in all the imagery sitting or standing on a lotus blossom in her rosy red sari, with gold coins showering from her hands (four to choose from, with those four arms—more to give with!), hair flowing to her waist, a lavish figure, huge doe eyes. Everything about her is lush silky, spilling over. She doesn't just give wealth, either; she gives happiness, and if you chant her maha mantra 125,000 times, you might be granted some of her happiness-bestowing powers. I know this because I tried it, though I petered out several months before the powers were due to hit.
Once not long after college, I went on a road trip with my friends Scott, Hunt and Dan back to our campus to pay a visit to some of our friends who were still in school. This was in 1991, after the biopic of The Doors had come out, with Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison and Meg Ryan as Pamela Courson. I was obsessed with the movie, in love with the idea of the sixties, all that excess and free love and abandon—and those round, colorful granny sunglasses that Meg Ryan had were cute as fuck, so I got myself a blue pair and wore them everywhere. I kept my hair long and dyed it auburn, and dressed as hippie-chic as I could. When the guys rolled up to my house to pick me up and head out on the road, we decided to adopt nicknames for the trip based on our initials. Scott became Simon (&) Garfunkel Rock, Dan became Dr. Mealymouth Shithead, Hunt was a contrarian and chose MC Dum Boy for himself, and Dan handed me the jackpot with Truly Lavish Karma, which was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to project. If I'd have known of Lakshmi then, I would have squee'd with the Lakshmi-ness of it all.
I used to divide people into two categories: brittle or lush. I preferred lush people by a wide margin. I was attracted to people who gave it all up, or appeared to. I didn't like it when people held themselves in reserve, because I never did, and I often mistook reserve for brittleness. A brittle person was any blend of the following: rigid, judgmental, cold, unaffectionate, uptight, or generally uncomfortable with feelings. I'm still not nuts about people who dip very far into that list, but I've come through experience to appreciate reserve.
In August of 2012, I got sick, which I've mentioned here a couple of times before. What started out looking like a cold eventually had me bed-bound for upwards of six months. I couldn't function, couldn't take care of our kids, and suddenly Dave had to do it all.
The first problem was air. Bronchitis turned into asthmatic bronchitis which turned into a pure, debilitating asthma, which I'd never had in my life. Let me just say: breath, man. You don't want your breath fucked with. When the asthma kicked all the way in and I was locked in bed, I'd have hours where I couldn't guide any in-breaths at all. I'd feel an episode coming on and stack three pillows right in front of me, and then I'd bend over and lie limp on my stack with my mouth hung open, pure emptiness, waiting for inhalations to visit. I didn't get upset about it; I couldn't. Feeling took breath. Not available.
At other times, I'd get what felt like a brief, electric twinge-thwack to the heart, and then a black, downward-pulling feeling would creep up from inside my guts. It felt like death was pooling down there, trying to suck me in, and I'd physically hoist myself up as far as I could to stop myself from sinking into the pool. My guess is that these were panic attacks.
The next phase of the illness after the asthma passed was adrenal fatigue. On a good day I could sit up in bed and watch a movie, maybe have a thin-voiced conversation with Dave or the kids for a little while. On a bad day, I couldn't sit up or talk or hold a book or even a fork, but just lie on my side. Dave would come in to ask me something and I'd give a barely perceptible shake of my head to wave him off. I couldn't field questions, or movement, or anything. I read an inspirational quote on Facebook on a good day that I'd mentally clutch on a bad one, "All you need is a thin breath, a heartbeat and now," which was a fine thing because as often as not, that was the tally.
Then my immune system went down and my lymph nodes went haywire, at which point my doctor diagnosed me with CFIDS, or Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Hadn't enjoyed the journey thus far, flipped a little at the idea that this could rage on indefinitely, but my doc had some ideas for how we might treat it, which involved adjusting my diet and giving me one thousand supplements.
This kicked me into the final, shittiest few weeks of my illness, where I was throwing up all day and night. I couldn't eat—if I choked down a pinky's worth of steak or three bites of refried beans in a day with the help of medical marijuana and intensive self-coaching, that was good work—and eventually couldn't even keep liquids down, and now things were looking grave, as in possibly "the". Scary times. I was admitted to the hospital, spent a couple of weeks there while the doctors gave me IV fluids, ran tests and scratched their heads, and then my ship began to right itself.
I got better. A year and a half later, I'm totally fine.
But of course, naturally, I look back and ask WHAT DID THAT MEAN? How do I interpret that long, horrible dream? Because I'm not walking out of there empty-handed. I'm grabbing some meaning because you better fucking believe I am.
Here's what I think: I went on strike. I shut down to make a point. I wasn't making a point to anyone else, either; I went on strike against myself. Me, the management, with my brute incompetence and total lack of empathy towards my worker/myself. I used to give to get love way past the point of resistance. I'd feel an energy drain in my middle, anywhere between a trickle and a firehose blowing energy out of my solar plexus, and I'd be like, oh, there's that thing again. Oh, well. Nothing to be done. Love to get. Carry on. And I finally revolted. I could either start over and get it right or I could get the fuck out of this body, and I went with the former.
When I was in my freshly post-illness, strength-gathering phase, I was delighted and amazed by how simple my needs were. I didn't need to be anything other than alive. Sitting in the sun while the breeze ruffled the grass/my hair and my kids darted in and out of my arms was fullness itself. I'd get up and let my bare feet push against the earth, and I'd try to feel the energy from the planet seeping up my legs, going wherever I wanted it to go, and it felt so good it was absurd. Absurdly Lavish Karma.
I became fascinated by—what do I want to call it? Life force? Energy? Chi? Prana? I was mesmerized by the thing which moves us, the thing which animates us, the thing that corpses don't have. Are life and energy distinguishable? Are they different? I'm still awestruck by it, whatever it is, that force. I don't need a different god than that one.
I think about all the energy I poured into others, and that I wanted them in turn to supply me with, and duh, I see now there's an obvious middle way, with an eliminated middleman. These days I meet my own needs first, nearly without exception, so I can give from a position of strength. And if I only have five spare energy dollars to spend, then that's that, and I'm not borrowing against myself. Five dollars is fine. I can spend that thoughtfully and with love.
One of the funniest, best real-life gifts I ever got, in fact, was from my friend Kristen on the birthday right before I got sick. She gave me a brown paper lunch sack with nothing but a three-pack of travel tissues in it, with an orange and yellow bow (one of those stick-on bursts of ribbon curls, which looked hilariously/pitifully festive on that crumply sack) and a note she'd written on the bag in ball-point pen, pointing out that maybe these might come in handy because I cry a lot. She nailed me, with love, and it was so spot-on. It's right up there in my All Time Greatest Gifts Received pantheon, which has some doozies in it, and I bet it cost about $3.48.
(I don't cry with anything like that kind of frequency any more, by the way. I cry like a normal, not-that-weepy person, which is a sign that I've made some good adjustments.)
I give less than I used to. I give a lot less, even. But when I give, it's more often because I genuinely want to, and not so much because it's the opening gambit in some unconscious, would-be emotional trade. I'm taking the gamble that my value isn't based on what I give, that I have intrinsic value already.
I also pay a lot more attention to how the people I interact with drive their energy ship now, and I gravitate toward the ones who seem to manage their energy well, who seem attuned to how it works. I relax and open up in their presence. They make me feel springy and refreshed. And the converse is true, too. I have a little mule in me which digs in its heels and doesn't want to go forward if I'm in an exchange with someone whose energy seems out of balance/out of control, or somebody who's perpetually resentful, which is another sign of not-great energy management. I hold myself in a bit more reserve now. I'm not first-come, first-serve like I used to be. It's like dancing or tennis: your own game is better with a good partner, and I'm choosier about who I mingle my life-force with and how I mingle it with them after my little trip to the underworld.
We have a friend visiting us from New York right now, her name is Baly, and this last Sunday we went out with some friends of hers. We had a glorious trip on Lake Union in their boat, and at the end of the outing, during the golden hour when afternoon was swinging into evening, we all visited a community pea patch in their neighborhood. It was a huge, multi-tiered garden filled with Guinness-Book-of-World-Records-sized produce all aglow in that neon amber sunset. Massive, swollen zucchini, lemon cucumbers, fat marionberries, towering NBA sunflowers, the smell of rosemary and mint and lavender and basil wafting around: it was a balls-to-the-wall pea patch Garden of Eden. Finn and Fred ran around shrieking in amazement. Hell, we all did. I fell in love with some monster chard with fuschia-red stems so dazzlingly lurid I wanted to be them. I wanted to be the whole garden. This place was stupid, nuts, bananas with life force. It was completely aspirational and not just in the vegetable sense. Whoever the stewards are, they're wizards. Ballers. They're full-on, flip-around-in-mid-air gardening Jedis.
And I love Jedis. You know I do. You see Yoda sitting over there in my sidebar. He's not just there to look pretty. He's a reminder (and that garden is a reminder and my crumply bag of tissues is a reminder and my illness was a king hell reminder) that there's nothing cooler and more interesting and more important than learning to work the goddamn Force, and to do that, you have to know when to dish it out and when to take it.