The Lighthouse

Men in boats about to capsize,
look to my light with longing.
Envy my firm footing.
Do not know whether they should hold on to
their wrecked ships or
swim to shore.

They assume I’ve always been here,
safe and dry.
They do not know about the storm so violent
that I could not distinguish the sea from the sky.
About the night I released my hold,
grabbed my baby, and swam
toward hope.

© 2011 Petra Martin

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The fortress

The day I walked through the doors of Gifford Grade School at the beginning of third grade, I entered my sixth school. By then, my father’s career in the military had taken my family from:

Gifford was a Lake Wobegon sort of town. It had around 600 inhabitants, and we lived there for three years—long enough to put down roots. We caught fireflies, got lost in  endless fields of popcorn, and actually knew people where we trick-or-treated. We skied down snow drifts, became Cub Scouts and Brownies, and sang for the residents of the local nursing home.

Then, Dad retired from the military, and we headed west in the station wagon, towing a travel trailer behind us. I loathed the forever place to which my parents retired and missed Gifford terribly.

At 11, I was on my way to my seventh school, and something snapped inside me. I had said so many goodbyes over the years that I couldn’t bear the thought of saying any more. So I addressed the problem by building a fortress that surrounded and protected me. By preventing hellos, it would prevent goodbyes.

It worked. It kept me safe—and very lonely—into adulthood, and despite my best efforts, still exists today. Occasionally, someone breaches the wall, but it’s relatively rare, and I wonder sometimes what makes it so effective, especially now that I no longer want it to be.

Recently, however, I was minding my own business at a coffee shop, when I turned to find a stranger inside my battlements, fiddling with a cream pitcher. I had no idea who he was, or how he got there. We exchanged a few sentences over the course of the evening, and went our separate ways. I was shaken.

The stranger appeared inside the battlements several times after that, and each time I felt a sense of joyful recognition that was completely inconsistent with how well I knew him. Then, one day, he skittered under the portcullis just before it closed and declared his love for me from the other side.

What am I supposed to do with that? Leave? The fortress?

I am intensely and inexplicably drawn to the stranger. Can I work up the courage to leave these walls I’ve come to know so well?

And will he be there if I do?

Life, and how we move through it

As I walked through the forest on my son’s birthday yesterday, I reflected on how challenging life has been since the moment, 12 years ago, when he was born. At the same time, I’ve grown weary of thinking about how hard it’s been. Weary of feeling sorry for myself. Weary of My Story.

I realized that the past twelve years have felt like walking through chest-high water, which is something I used to do on purpose for exercise. There’s a much more efficient way to get through water. It’s called swimming.

Walking through the water of my life hasn’t exactly been a conscious choice. I do it because it’s all I’ve ever known. But I’m ready to find a more efficient and joyful way to move through life.

I’m going to sign up for swimming lessons.

Damsels, distress, and ethics

Like any young damsel in distress, I always dreamed that a knight on a white horse would rescue me someday. Didn’t matter what the distress was. Maybe it was my night to do dishes. Maybe I forgot to do my homework. Maybe my siblings were especially annoying that day.

Fast-forward to today, and I am actually experiencing real, grown-up distress. As always, I dream of being rescued and relieved of my burdens. But for the first time, I realize that it’s completely unethical to allow anyone to do it.

When you’re a damsel in distress, you’re in it for the rescue, not the knight. And that’s not fair to any man.

So I sent the knight away.

Using a compass instead of a map

I recently read a heretical book called Goal-free Living, and loved it. Among other things, author Stephen Shapiro advocates navigating life using a compass instead of a map, which I found especially relevant, given the fact that I created a tool whose very purpose is to help you access your inner compass.

Our first maps are given to us by well-meaning parents, teachers, clergy, and employers. They provide a bird’s-eye view that enables us to “see” destinations that may be thousands of miles away. Unfortunately, they cause us to become so destination-focused that we don’t see where we are in the moment. Compasses, on the other hand, give us a sense of direction, but don’t provide information beyond our line of sight. They keep us in the present.

Why would anyone choose a compass over a map? Because using a compass forces us to look within, identify the true north of our passions, tool up to pursue them, and follow where they lead. Using a compass means making room for synchronicities and serendipities in life. It means being alive, NOW, rather than postponing life until after our goals have been met.

I called this book heretical because ours is a very goal-focused society, and a book on goal-free living seems to go against everything that we believe in. Nonetheless, as I’ve spoken to others about it, I’ve encountered relief. Some have said that they live life in a goal-free way, but have felt guilty about it. Shapiro’s book makes them feel validated. Others have recognized that living goal-free is a more feminine approach that has been frowned on in our patriarchal society. They weren’t really able to put their finger on that distinction until they were exposed to Shapiro’s book.

I agree with that. Motherhood blew the map right out of my hands. I lived goal-free for a decade, picked the map back up earlier this year, and then another gust of wind came. Now, here I sit with my compass, feeling validated, excited, and scared all at the same time.

Being afraid–and liking it

Night before last, I had a dream in which I was speaking to a local author. “I just had a thought,” I said. “Maybe you can help me think it through. You know how some people love to be scared? They go to scary movies and pick out the scariest rides at amusement parks? I wonder if some people are like that in real life and just like to be scared.”

I’ve never sought out scary things on purpose, having found real life scary enough. I can only guess that people who deliberately expose themselves to frightening situations must feel safe in all other areas of their lives. No one experiencing the real-life horror of a concentration camp, for example, would queue up to see Friday the 13th.

Now, let’s say that we are eternal, and knowing that makes us feel completely safe as disincarnate beings. We can dip our toe into the sea of mortality whenever we want. Let’s further say that our sense of safety leads some of us to seek out the contrast of deliberately bringing scary situations into our lives when we’re incarnate.

“Am I one of those people?” I wondered. “Am I saying ‘yes’ to scary things just for the experience of it? If so, I’m ready to knock that off right now.”

This morning, while walking through the forest, my thoughts veered toward something frightening, and I stopped myself. “You’re making a choice, Petra,” I said. “You’re choosing to walk into the horror show. Why do you do that?”

I’m beginning to realize that most of the fear I’ve experienced  in life has been anticipatory. My scary pie chart would look something like this:

Enough of that. Here’s to staying off roller coasters and out of horror shows.