Mary Licanin

An open letter to myself

You are going to be okay.
No, actually, you are going to be absolutely fine.

You’ve been through so much in your life, you’ve learned so much from all of it, and you are an incredible person because of it.
You are kind and compassionate, empathetic and unconditionally loving. There are no stronger traits than these in human life. You are amazing. You are a minority in your field. You have survived personal abuse and neglect. You faced situations that seemed impossible to find your way through. You stumbled and you fell – many times.

Yet, you became something because one by one, you defeated the demons.

And then, when you weren’t satisfied, because you don’t settle, you went after more, and you became something more. You became someone admirable. Not many know your story, but you know where you’ve been and what you’ve overcome. You are strong. You are the bravest person I know. And you are my hero.

Now, the next challenge begins. I want you to take all of that compassion and loving kindness you’ve learned to give to the world, and start learning to give it to yourself. Hard.

If it feels selfish (which, remember, isn’t a bad thing), think about how much more you’ll be able to put back into the world once you accomplish that. It’s time.

The Lover

Imagine you are your lover – because you need to be your first and last love. You came here together and you will leave here together. The love and attention of others will always be changing, always impermanent. Sometimes there will be an over abundance of it, other times there will be none. Learn how to have to make room for it when it comes, and how to once again let your own self love and attention ease back to fill that space when it’s gone. Yours can be reliable if you ensure it. Only you can do that, and this is the only love and attention you can guarantee yourself forever. Without it all other love becomes less valuable, less important, less like something that can bring you joy and more like something that will bring you trepidation.

Inevitable Darkness

When you start feeling the darkness coming, be kind to yourself. Understand that everyone has a threshold for stress tolerance and you are not weak because of this. If the darkness turns into a void, find patience for yourself. You’ve been there before and you will, with time and patience, find your way out. If you can do nothing else, get up, dress up and show up. Push yourself to stay active and socially connected, even if that means going to a meetup or talking to a colleague about work. Hell, just go to Starbucks and order, and call it an accomplishment for the day. Do something to ensure you’re not isolating or withdrawing. We all need human connection. If you feel like you crave it more than most, maybe it’s because you look outside yourself to validate your worthiness, success, beauty, importance….

You will always have more worth to yourself than to anyone else.
Your success will impact your life more than anyone else’s.
You will be most beautiful if you can be beautiful to yourself, because you know your ugliest self best.
You are the best person to love, care for, and nourish your soul, because nobody will ever know you like you know yourself. External love is garnish.

Take damned good care of yourself. You have gotten this far, and you will continue to go even further. You, yourself and you.

The Toxicity of Cynicism

That said, I know that time and experience has started to make you cynical. Let this wash off of you. This is toxic to your joy. Some people will come and go quickly, maybe they see a shallow opportunity in knowing you, or they just move on for reasons you may never understand. Others will not have yet grown to understand how to love with the same vulnerability as you have. They are all traveling their own journeys and that has nothing to do with you. Others will love you to the best of their ability. Don’t compare it to the way you love, because it will never seem to be exactly the same. Learn to appreciate and accept love in whatever form it takes. As innumerable as grains of sand in the desert, so too are there as many different types of love. Every one is a precious gift – accept them all.

Every person that comes into your life offers a lesson you can take away, if you keep your mind and heart open to listening and learning. Cynicism closes that door, if you allow it.

Remember, too, that relationships will change over time, and everything is impermanent. This may mean that someone you love goes away, and it may mean someone draws nearer to you. Open your heart to both extremes, and to all shades in between.  Don’t be afraid of pain, welcome it. Sit down and have tea with your sadness when it visits, and lean into it. Remember the dread will pass, and remember that every interaction enriches your life experience and ability to offer compassion to the world. And if you remember nothing else, remember that your first love (you) will always be with you.
Out of the ashes rises the phoenix.

Interconnectedness

If you have trouble thinking about yourself as a lover, and I can understand why you might because it’s pretty fluffy and ethereal, think about it from the Buddhist perspective and almost the polar opposite, that there is no “me” or “I”. We are all one. Okay, this may be ethereal too, but you do understand it, reach a bit if you need to.

While there is much suffering in the world, and you give your compassion and positive energy to those enduring hardships, so too are there parts of this great collective sending out loving kindness to you. Open yourself to allow feeling it. Since you can’t always see it or directly witness it as an outpouring, this is a kind of faith in humanity. Even in the darkest times, you know in your heart there is kindness in the world. All you have to do is open your eyes to it to see it in all things.

And if all that fails you, find a dog.  No, seriously.

Be Mindful of Goals
(but not absorbed by them)

Ease up on hitting your goals. I know this sounds contradictory to what you think every self help book teaches, and to what you’ve always done. I’m not saying to travel through life aimlessly, but let go of being goal oriented. It’s going to sound cliche, but learn to truly see the value in the journey getting to your destination. You face challenges to meet your goals. You have countless opportunities to accomplish milestones along the way. While you’re preoccupied day after day lamenting in the fact you ‘still’ haven’t reached your goal, you’re missing out on the joy you could be finding in all the little milestones you’re hitting. You only get to do today once. Find the joy of accomplishment in every one. Some days that will only mean you got up. Other days those accomplishments will feel bigger, more tangible or seem more meaningful. None are better accomplishments than others by weight of what society values. You are your harshest judge, and you need to set your sights on those things that make you a better version of yourself, because in the end, that’s what really matters to you. Don’t ever change that, because that is what makes you so uniquely you, and so very precious to me.

I love you,
Me.

God is good! A different perspective.

God is good!

The ornery me just chuckled at the prospect of someone reading and responding to that opening sentence with an “Amen!”

There’s irony in that I’m writing this on a Sunday morning, when once upon a time I’d have been heading to mass, and might have strongly agreed with someone expressing that sentiment. I like to think that I’ve grown spiritually over the years (although some (including the younger version of myself) might argue that I ‘lost my way’ when I ‘turned away from the church’).

In either case, something that’s gnaws at my core (shenpa, is that you?) is when I hear people exclaim, “God is good!” Usually, it’s not accompanied with things that make people sad.

He lost his battle to cancer today. God is good!
The fire took our house, barn and our son. God is good!
I lost my job today. God is good!
After 6 months of pregnancy she lost the baby. God is good!

No, I’ve only heard or seen this proclaimed when someone is pleased with what they consider a positive outcome, apparently the one also set forth by God, since s/he’s getting the credit for it.

He won his battle with cancer. God is good!
The fire took our house, barn but not our son. God is good!
I lost my job today, but got a new job offer on the same day. God is good!
They were able to put the baby on life support. God is good!

I’m not sure if it annoys me more because it feels like those saying it are saying “I win! I win! I win!” or because they are sucking up to the always listening deity and they want to make sure they’re on his good side, else they see a less desirable outcome next time – devotion built on fear.

What I would like to say to these people:

You actually really don’t get what it means.
If you are a “God is good” proclaimer, consider reasons why one might actually say this. If you are Christian, you believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins. Wow, that’s pretty amazing – God is good! You might also believe that he is merciful and forgiving; that through him you learn empathy; that he’s always with you, good times and bad; that he loves you. For those reasons, for God’s sake (pun intended), if you want to proclaim and exclaim God’s goodness, understand what you’re saying and use it in the appropriate situation.

Don’t abandon logic.
I doubt you think that people who die of cancer, or get into accidents, etc., etc., etc. are deserving of those things. If they’re not, but those things happen, then how does God being good have anything to do with your fortune or their misfortune? If you believe that God does good things for good people, does God make/let bad things happen to bad people? How many people do you know in power who are bad people? Have you heard of nasty people that live into their 90s, but sweet young hearts that are lost as infants?

Science really does play a large part in (almost?) everything that happens.
For example, when your chicken coop and chickens didn’t burn down during the fire, even though your garage right next to it did, it’s likely the reason is literally because of the direction the wind was blowing – not because God is good.

Cancer beat that person in your family because your family carries the gene for it and their body couldn’t overcome it, not because they deserved it. That person in your family that beat cancer beat it because something in their biology worked out that way, not because God is good.

God probably isn’t stupid.
If you think that saying it is some kind of a protection against evil, think about it for a minute. God is probably way smart, and “all-knowing” probably means s/he knows your true self, and so s/he knows if you’re just saying it because you fear not saying it means you’ll fall out of favor.

Is the world a coincidence?
Maybe there is a God, or some great intelligence that has set this all in motion. The universe, all it’s perfections and imperfections, and in it the world, down to a quark — everything we have conceptualized is wonderful and often amazingly intricate. I have a hard time believing that everything that is, is the result of a long chain of accidents. I guess it’s possible, but I highly doubt it. On the other hand, when good or bad things happen to good or bad people, I’m sure there’s not a deity pressing a good person/bad person button.

Memory - Mary Ličanin Photography

Don’t Send me Flowers

Easter.

I wouldn’t have even remembered the holiday had it not been for the 9am wake-up call on Saturday, the first in some time that Goran and I explicitly decided the night before, to sleep in.

I don’t necessarily disbelieve in Jesus or the Christian values I was raised with, and I’m open to the possibility, but I find it hard to celebrate holidays in a way that is supposed to be based in an absolute belief that an event occurred, when I’m not really sure whether or not it did.

I choose to celebrate life every day. Easter would be no different – the holidays of spring all come with a common message of birth, rebirth, and new opportunities to do new things in new ways. Who can challenge anyone’s enjoyment of that? The beauty is that every day, regardless of season, holiday or belief, is a chance to renew ourselves, choose new habits, learn or try something new. So optimistic!

This Easter, the rude awakening that came at 9am on that aforementioned Easter Saturday we agreed to sleep in on was a flower delivery person. When we didn’t answer the knocking, the jovial guy (clearly, and almost annoyingly, a morning person) called my phone from our doorstep. I could hear him leaving me a voicemail. “….flowers!….not home!…..leave them at the office!….thank you!” Every phrase I could understand was punctuated with a smile. I suppose most people are pleasantly surprised at the arrival of unexpected flowers, and I also suppose that would make me feel like a Santa Claus, too.

Lying in bed, I went through the motions in my head of listing of potential candidates that might want to surprise me with flowers. In reality, I knew noone on that list sent them.

I noticed the look of confusion on Goran’s face, remembered his hearing isn’t half as supersonic as mine and realized he was trying to figure out what was going on. “My sister sent me flowers.” I sighed, and then pulled the blankets over my head, just not wanting to deal.

No matter how hard I tried, there was no going back to sleep for me. I was frustrated. Then I got frustrated at being frustrated, because really, who gets frustrated over flowers?! We begrudgingly got out of bed, had coffee and got dressed to head over to the apartment complex office before they closed, to pick up the flowers I didn’t want, and to read the card I didn’t need to read, to see they were from someone I didn’t want them to be from.

But sure enough, they were from her.

The war that’s raged in my head and heart for months slapped me across the face in lavender and lilac. I carried them straight-armed because they smelled like infection and I couldn’t stand for it to be under my nose.

“We can keep them outside,” Goran offered, always doing what he can to make things better.

My sister is 20 years older than me. She battled mental illness most of her life. A few years ago, she had a breakdown and had to be hospitalized. It wasn’t the first time. That’s not entirely her fault. After that, she was diagnosed with cancer. She beat that. She was surprisingly strong (stronger than I would have been) through it all.

Unfortunately, somewhere between the breakdown and the cancer, she met and was preyed upon by some opportunistic people, who saw her as an easy target. And she was. She lives alone,  has a big house, is paranoid and quick to hide things from her siblings, and can be manipulated into thinking just about anything is her idea and a damned good one.

Most of my siblings have tried reaching and/or helping her. One by one she alienated all of us – even me.

For a time, she’d tell me about her financial difficulties, and, being in a decent financial position (and understanding what it’s like to be on the opposite side of the coin), I sent money. She was one of the few that helped me when I wasn’t sure how I’d afford groceries, and it felt good to be in a position now to help her. Only after a time, it started becoming more clear that she didn’t have money because these people who she made her new family were either directly using her money, or costing her so much money that she didn’t have enough to make ends meet.

I wrote out a budget for her to follow. Eventually, she got her finances in order – or so she told me. I never know when she is lying.

So that morning, lying in bed wishing there were no flowers waiting for me, I kept asking myself over and over , Why the f*ck did she spend money she doesn’t have on flowers?!?!

In August, after weekly phone calls about a domestic situation with this new family of hers, I offered to fly up to NY to help her handle it, because clearly she was having a hard time handling. In return, she basically told me to f-off. She chose to protect the people who were using her for her money, house, and anything else they can drain from her, and while I was trying to help her, I was somehow turned into the villain. I was hurt, but more than hurt I was angry at her for making such a foolish choice. I decided then to stop calling every week to check in.

She repeatedly makes bad choices, and then is adamant about sticking to her poor decisions, refuses help she needs, and then lies about it…. yet, I can’t help feeling sorry for her. I know she is truly alone, although she’s surrounded herself with people she pretends in her mind is her family, and I know she realizes we (her siblings) have all stopped checking in. I sent her a Christmas card in December, with a note saying I hoped she was well, and ended with “I love you”. Because I do. She’s my sister, no matter how stupid she is, no matter how many mistakes she makes, no matter that she lies to my face, and no matter how angry I get at her for making choices that put her in bad situations.

Only now I don’t know how to love her.

I stopped calling her after she turned on me. It wasn’t the first time she had been nasty with me, but, like everyone else in my family has, I usually let it go because she has problems. This time, though, I realized I was being dragged through the drama and she had no intention of making a change. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want it. I made it clear to her that I am here for her if she wants help. Otherwise, I decided, I couldn’t afford (emotionally) to be a constant sounding board, helplessly getting phone reports of the drama she has no intention of doing anything about.

All this makes me wonder, am I being compassionate enough? Am I being a good person? Am I being selfish because I don’t keep trying to reach her? When does compassion become enabling? Is showing compassion to myself okay, if it means showing less compassion to someone else? Is this a situation where I’m supposed to “put my oxygen mask on first”?