Their end, her beginning

Miss Edith Carr.  If the reader finds his or her feelings regarding Kate Comstock confusing in A Girl of the Limberlost, Edith provides an equal conundrum.

We initially meet Edith through the eyes of her fiance, Philip, who has come to the town near Elnora’s house to recover from a long illness.  Philip is devoted her for her beauty and refinement and they have known each other for many years.  Though devoted, we see Philip’s definition of a quality woman expand as he grows to know Elnora and appreciate her vitality, hard work, and love of nature.  He does not fully recognize it himself, but the seeds of a love relationship are being planted.

When Philip returns to Chicago we begin to see Edith more fully and see how she has a carefully cultivated image of self as being irresistible to all comers and worthy of worship by the man in her life.  She occasionally will end the engagement with Philip in a fit, but he manages to soothe the temper and reunite them.  Their relationship is finally broken when she is magnificently dressed in a gown designed in the purples and yellows of the emperor moth for their engagement party and when a live emperor moth appears at the party, Philip leaves her side briefly to send it to Elnora.  Edith then (rightly) understands that there is a deeper connection there than she imagined and is angry that he would try to make her like the moth which represents Elnora to him.  In this she is rightly angry (in my opinion).  However, it seems that another root of her anger is in her pride being wounded due to her belief that she has full power over Philip and that his role is to cater to her every whim.  In her anger she publicly throws her ring on the ground, ending their engagement.

What follows is the humbling of Edith Carr.  In spite of being warned that Philip will not return after so public a break, she fully believes herself irresistable to him and demonstrates this in many ways.  When she fails to lure him back we see her begin to come to terms with the true nature of her attachment to him and how little she actually brought to the relationship.  Ultimately, she is broken to the point where she sends a message to Philip’s regarding Elnora’s location (Elnora having gone away to give Edith time to try out her plans to lure Philip back.  Philip at this point has been hospitalized for “brain fever” due to his distress over not being able to find her).  It is this action that shows that in her loss Edith has come to fully understand what it means to love another.

In an era that often sees love as something that you seek to get and earn we can learn from Edith’s struggle with her distorted view of what a marriage relationship should look like.  In her distortion, she believed that love was built on being something that others adored and expected that adoration to be shown in indulgences of all kinds.  When she has come to terms with her own imperfections we then see her wrestle with accepting that she is worthy of being loved.  Both of these are fallacies that many embrace.  The first is that love is about me having exactly what I want and desire and the second, that I have to be deserving of love to obtain it.  Both of these distortions belie the fact that healthy love is a gift.  It is not a commodity or something to be demanded.  It is not earned (if so, what infant could ever account for the depth of parental love).  Love requires the sacrifice of the giver–sometimes of time, sleep, comfort, or even sacrificing the safety of invulnerability.  In a healthy relationship there will be mutual care and sacrifice (we can discuss another day the difference between love and co-dependency) leading to both parties having their needs met.

Edith is at peace with herself, Elnora, and Philip at the end of the book–she is worn from her emotional struggle, but ready to move forward.  She struggled with whether she was still lovable after discovering that she was selfish because her original view of love was built on a concept that certain people earned it, fortunately we see her embrace a broader view and allow herself to be loved in a tender and deep way.

Take-out Version:  Love is something we should seek to give, not earn.  Take time to consider both how you give love in your relationships and your beliefs about who you have to be to receive love.

Free to dance

Its time for Part II of our Limberlost series!  I actually find Elnora’s mother, Kate, to be one of the most intriguing characters in the book.  Those of you who commented that you plan to read the book, this will contain some plot spoilers so you may wish to wait and read it in the future!

We meet Kate Comstock as she is sending her daughter off to her first day at the High School in the nearby town.  She is critical of Elnora’s appearance and we later learn has intentionally witheld information from her in hopes of souring her educational dreams with reality.  Her bitterness is mystifying for the reader.  We know throughout the tale that she lost her husband while Elnora was an infant and that she has memorialized him by refusing to cut timber on their land, keeping his clothing in place in her room, and on many nights weeping openly and loudly for him at the edge of the swamp where she helplessly watched him drown.  We eventually learn that her weakness from childbirth left Kate unable help her husband when he was drowning, leading to the wedge of grief between her and her child–a grief that she has nurtured and kept alive over the years.

The author does a wonderful job of allowing us to see that Kate is not merely driven by bitterness but also exudes strength as a woman who values self-reliance and wisdom.  Most likely she would always have been austere and practical in how she expressed emotion, spent money, and related with others.  We are given glimpses into the good parts of Kate–the woman who is secretly hurt when her daughter seeks out others for comfort, who is surprised at the magnitude of her daughter’s accomplishments, who is slowly softening towards her daughter, though she barely recognizes it in herself.  It is tempting to hate her and yet we see how not all that she does for her daughter is misguided, even when it stings.  The reader is not allowed to be comfortable in bitterness either.

The turning point in Kate’s life comes when her sister-in-law finally reveals the truth that Kate’s husband died because he was trying to avoid being seen returning from the house of another woman.  This truth shatters Kate’s glorified image of the man she was married to for barely one year and frees her to reach out and love the living.  We see Kate become free to enjoy life, enjoy her daughter’s talents, take pride in her appearance, and cease living in fear.

There is a beautiful image in the book where Kate asks Elnora to play the violin for her, (Elnora having hidden the talent she inherited from her father for many years), and we see Kate begin to dance in the moonlight.  Whether it is intentional or not, it brings to mind the well-known passage from Ecclesiastes 3 that contrasts the time for mourning with a time for dancing.  Learning the truth about her husband was a catalyst, but she had made many small changes along the way that had chipped away at her bitterness and had the humility to let go when she realized her grief was hung on a hollow image.

She stands as both reminder and warning to examine the grief and resentment we hold close to our hearts.  Grief is normal and will be part of certain seasons of life.  It is healthy to walk through the sadness and anger with the understanding that there is a new life on the other side–one partly shaped by the grief–but life indeed.  Kate chose to keep the grief alive rather than to walk through it and resume emotionally connecting with others.  Be aware if your grief begins excusing you from engaging in life and loving those around.  The good news is that there is always space for healing and for claiming the future years for many a dance in the moonlight.

Take-out Version: Grief is normal, grief is good, grief can bring change, but grief that isolates and embitters should be examined.



If I’m Not My Job, Who am I?

In the process of preparing to lead a group that focuses on the emotional impact of job loss I was recently reading sections of Les and Leslie Parrot’s “The Career Counselor.”  The book lives up to its title and addresses many topics surrounding career counseling, but a section highlighting the various stages of emotion an individual may experience at the time of the job loss particularly stood out in this reading.  I’ll refer directly to the author’s words:

 Shame occurs with the loss of a job because the disapproval is from some authority with power to judge.  When a worker has been fired, it feels as if everyone disapproves.  Guilt comes from what I do.  Shame comes from who I am.  If I am fired, I must be an  unworthy person (Parrott and Parrott, p. 177).

Now, the CBT therapist in me wants to point out that you think everyone disapproves, leading you to feel sad/ashamed/ rejected, etc.  That point aside, this cuts to the heart of why a job loss is difficult, regardless of the circumstances.  The loss demonstrates to individuals that they are no longer good enough for the thing that took up the majority of their waking hours for months and (possibly) years—the thing that they were once recruited for, promised would be long-term, sacrificed for, and struggled to hold onto—this thing now sends the message, “sorry, you’re expendable.”  As the quote points out, being fired, regardless of the circumstances, can drown out all previous positive feedback in its finality.  As noted by Parrot et. al., the reaction to this feedback is often shame.  Naturally no one likes negative feedback, but why is job loss so powerful that an individual can become deflated overnight?  Isn’t a job a merely a tool that enables you to feed your family, afford shelter, perhaps even to afford fun vacations?  Don’t we all complain about having to go to our jobs week in and week out?  Logically, we might expect the first reaction to be fear for how to provide rather than a sudden loss of confidence.  Logically we know a job can be replaced and that the loss does not negate the years of experience and successes, yet it is a struggle for individuals to hang on to that knowledge–a truth echoed by those who minister to individuals walking this path.  Sometimes I wonder if the experience of shame is heightened by our society where we are trained to compare ourselves with others by our work.  Would you know how to start a conversation with a stranger without asking about his or her career?  This is taken as normal, yet other cultures do not necessarily look to this as the first point of inquiry.  Valuing job as a marker of status may be neutral, but it is important to consider that we can define ourselves by other things.  The unemployment period can be beneficial in that it allows an individual to consider values around work, relationships, self-care, and more.  Perhaps for you this is a time to explore where your identity is grounded.  Do you look to your work, your relationships, or your accomplishments to find value?  Or do you base your value on an acknowledgement that you are a person of worth regardless of your external trappings?  For my readers of faith, do you take time to realize your value to God?  Losing a job will always be a time of uncertainty, fear, and lead to struggles with self-worth but it does not have to be a time where you become lost in these struggles.  If you are struggling with shame after job loss take a breath, reach out to a friend, and consider your value as a person apart from your work–you might be surprised what you discover!

Take-out Version:  An identity based on what you do crumbles easily.  How would it be different if you weren’t defined by your job?  How would you define yourself?