Part one of a two-part series on nurture and structure
I took the image above shortly after we moved in. The jasmine flourished throughout the yard, especially here. One day, as I was walking by, I recognized a piece of metal peeking out from among the shadows. I investigated. I trimmed. I discovered a bench. Though its rush seat had decayed, its metal frame still held a fairy figurine.
As with many of the discoveries I’ve made in our yard, this one delighted me and is among my favorites. In addition to bringing the joy of discovering something new, this find invited me to think about the twin pillars of support: nurture and structure.
The Dream that Changed
A few weeks ago, I had one of three repetitive dreams that have accompanied me over the years. This time, however, the dream was different. Ever since having this version of the dream, I knew telling this story would be my next post here in Story Garden. I’ve also stopped writing completely, which is contrary to the dream’s message and supposed resolution.
The typical version of this dream is pretty common:
It’s the end of a grading period. An exam is coming up. I haven’t been to any of the classes …
For me, this dream takes place during high school or college. The class is math, history, or band. The feelings are always anxiety and dread tethered to a general sense of not being prepared.
When I have the dream and reflect on my life events, I don’t identify underlying causes. In fact, when I am dealing with acute life stress, my dreams are very direct. This was my experience when I dreamed of a miscarriage just before it happened, when I have dreamed of wiser people speaking directly to me, and when I dreamed of early labor just before being told to rest by my midwife. I have many examples of how my dreams guide me.
In contrast, this vague repetitive dream seems to lack purpose and wisdom.
Between Me and Being
There are two general themes in my life that I want to change that similarly lack purpose and wisdom, yet cause anxiety and dread. They get in the way of letting myself just be and take in nurturing support.
The first one is my keeping running to-do lists in my head and on myriad sheets of paper.
Lists of tasks that must be completed by deadlines (communicate the rescheduled soccer game to parents; make final edits to an article; prepare for a law and ethics exam).
Lists of tasks without deadlines (fix the leak outside; exercise; write the book).
Lists of the someday-it’d-be-nice-to-but-I-don’t-have-to tasks (enclose the loft area; add pebbles the meditation garden; replace the kitchen light fixture).
Second, and equally void of wisdom, are the remnants of the ghosts of shoulds that follow me throughout the day. They whisper that I should be doing something else. I say remnants because I have largely changed this experience through meditation and yoga. Yet, there are times I stand paralyzed at the options before me.
Do I run on the treadmill or walk the dogs?
First thing in the morning, is it better to exercise or create?
What do I write? The book about grief, redecision therapy, play therapy, or a piece of fiction I have outlined?
All of these things feel important. They stand in the way of just being: taking time to fill up, relax, let go, unwind, and pursue the creative arts that fill me.
I stop at the point of prioritizing.
I choke at the choice.
I much prefer decisions to be made for me. I respond rather well to other people’s goals. Why not to my own? I pour my resources into others. Why not into myself?
Yesterday, I chose to walk the dogs for a total of six miles. I felt peace and I gave the youngest one the full three-mile minimum of exercise he requires at the moment. Yet, by the afternoon I was haunted by the words I didn’t type. Then, my children’s emotional needs directed my afternoon and dinner-making time. At least, there were no ghosts to haunt the evening’s rushed meal. (Everyone understands that sometimes life’s demands make decisions for us.)
Two years before the pandemic, I traded in a highly praised role (nurture) of achieving other people’s goals (structure) for more time for myself. I paid the cost of working at that job from my own deep pockets. And my children’s shallow pockets. The currency, however, was more precious than money. It was time. Unreplenishable.
I had expected to flourish, like the jasmine, at that job. Rather, I realized I wasn’t the jasmine. I was the bench. Not just the support: Hidden.
(I was also the fairy, in many ways, because I made it look easy. Magical.)
Like most things that appear to be magic, however, it was explainable. As I gave to one area of life, I took from another. I let go of sleep, downtime, weekend time, etc. My family rarely took trips together. When I wasn’t working a weekend, my husband was recovering from covering the weekend alone on top of his demanding commuter job. Then I pushed domestic tasks I didn’t do that weekend to the next week’s evenings. It was quite unsustainable.
We decided to change our lives because no matter how much I gave, it wasn’t going to change the system. In addition to working, I was the primary parent responsible for all children’s appointments, illnesses, school activities, and last-minute needs. And I was covering an increasing administrative load on top of everything else. I was no longer willing to allow my sacrifices of family time (being) to be the glue that held the job together.
We now live a completely different life. Yes, the pandemic was hard, but I could flex as my family needed. Now that the boys are back in school full-time, I have space to breathe, dream, and make my dreams a reality. I have space to be and create.
Yet, I find it hard.
Back to that dream.
This latest version of the school-stress dream was different. As usual, I was aware that I had a test for a class that I had forgotten. This time, however, there was another woman in the dream. She was older and wiser. She was nurturing, calm, and gentle. She was present, composed, and confident.
She was confident in me. She understood my situation. She led me to a room filled with books. She pulled for me the books I needed. She opened them to the pages I missed. She assured me I had everything to prepare for the test. Above all, she told me I have time.
I felt she believed in me.
I didn’t feel stressed. I didn’t feel dread. I was buoyed. Hopeful. Ready. Confident.
The dream didn’t resolve through a change in structure: I didn’t solve the problem by dropping the class, making excuses, or as I sometimes do in dreams, changing the scenario to my advantage. The dream changed in nurture: In the dream, I found nurturing support. I accepted it. That support changed my experience of the dream entirely.
This dream occurred shortly after my grandmother’s death. I’ve taken time to process this timing. Sometimes, I have dreams of people who have passed, and I feel them as a meeting of spirits across realms. The woman in this dream, though, wasn’t obviously my grandmother. There were similarities, but I believe that if it were “her” it would have been obvious.
I’ve come to see the woman as a wiser aspect of myself. She is the nurturing compliment to the part of me that took a fumbled and messy risk that set in motion the changes that brought my family across the country and landed us in a home with space for creating my work.
So, here I am, with the support I need. Yet, not deciding about how to prioritize and move forward.
Monday, a writing workshop instructor asked, “What would taking a risk in your own writing look like?”
Allowing supporting nurture from all the parts of me.
Choosing abundance. (Choosing which project to work on first while trusting the others will get their turn.)
Letting go of all the things I pressure myself to do that really aren’t all that important.
The risk looks like showing up for myself (being) consistently, not just according to a calendar, but showing up in a nurturing supportive capacity as I did in the dream: Giving to myself supportive nurturing through understanding, calm presence, and confidence.
So, what’s the risk in that?
To show up for me … is to step out from the shadow … and to be seen whether I fail or flourish.
Read Part Two:
To read more on creating a balance between nurture and structure, I have a blog and handouts at my website Soul & Steady.