I attend, for the most part faithfully, a writers' group called Use Your Words. The Inner Truth Project, an outreach to victims of sexual abuse and violence, hosts us, but we are a group of women and man (occasionally more than one) who share about current projects, do homework, respond to writing prompts, and eat chocolate. Sometimes a guest facilitator or speaker runs the show, but most of the time, sweet Wendy Dwyer keeps us on track, or at least sort of. Writers, nay, women, often get sidetracked.
The homework assignment for the last session was this: Write about an area where you'd like to do better. I left it until the day of, which happened to also be the day I got a Dictionary Word of the Day: ullage. Could be the amount by which contents fall short of filling a container, could be the quantity remaining in the container that has lost part of its contents by evaporation, leakage, or use.
How appropriate for the assignment, I thought. The ullage of our lives could be said to be that which needs more work to fill us completely up, round out our character, etc. And at the same time it could also refer to a measure of what has been used up between our birth until this point.
The irony of one word meaning both things is that we are containers. As babies, we are mostly full. Fill us with joy and love during our infant years. Think of all the nurturing we receive when people hold us as if we are worth all the gold in the world. In that moment, we are precious. Fragile. Complete strangers will sniff at us, as if faced with expensive ambrosia. Our skin is stroked gently. We are bounced up and down rhythmically and immediately when grandmothers (not necessarily our own) get to hold us.
Early on, then, many of us are full. Over time, however, we leak, the holes and cracks we get in our containers the result of stress and strain or outright damage. We give of ourselves, using our storehouse of joy and love and patience on others because it feels good to us, or it's the right thing to do, or to get something in return. Sometimes we do, sometimes it's from a different source than the one we expected or thought we needed. We are neglected and the good, the love, the feeling of being in sync with ourselves and with the universe begins to evaporate.
How to make up the ullage? Where we actually lack – in knowledge, needed skills, hobbies to embrace – we can learn. We can increase the contents of our vessel. But we can never stop giving out, either. There will always be the ullage, because we will have always lost part of the contents. The trick is how we lose it. As with so many things, the choice is ours.
I don't want to evaporate. I don't want my love or joy or peace to respond to the heat of stress or anger by vanishing, little molecules of me breaking off and being swallowed by the negative force coming against me. I would say this even more strongly: I refuse to evaporate. There are people who ignore me, or neglect me, or act as if what I want or what I say is not important. Whatever. I refuse to go up in their puffs of prideful smoke. I'm here, and until God calls me home, I'm here to stay. Ignore me at your peril – or at your preference. I'm still here.
I also don't want to leak through rifts of unforgiveness and bitterness I've allowed to develop and widen. When you ignore a crack too long, there will be a break eventually. A shattering. Spillage that is difficult, if not impossible, to sop up. Never does it all get put back together as it was before. Not to say we can't heal, we can and do. But the fault lines remain, even if we find ways to hide them. They say it is easier to build men than to repair them, which is true. When a tiny crack appears, I want to address it. Forgive the one who hurt me, or ask the one I hurt to forgive me. Keep short accounts, in other words. When we don't forgive, we give our offender power over us, a power that he or she doesn't deserve.
The best way to have ullage, I am thinking, is to use what we have, and find a reliable source for replenishment. Spiritually, the source will be God, not a religious thing but one of relationship with someone who has proven to be trustworthy and faithful. We only scratch the surface, any one of us, in true understanding of how unfathomable the depths of his love for us are. Fortunately, we don't have to understand his love to accept it.
Back to the writers' group assignment, though. What area would I like to improve? Beauty. Not physical beauty, although I definitely need to stay on top of things like my weight and health, the message I communicate to others through my appearance – do I value myself in this moment? Am I confident? Do I feel beautiful, and if so, why? Does it depend too much on this or the other, or another person, or can I hearken back to that moment in my infancy when all I knew, from everyone I encountered, was acceptance and love and affirmation? That all-encompassing awareness of love was the first awareness we experienced. Life has a way of throwing up roadblocks, but knowing we are loved is still important.
As a pre-teen, I remember reading something in a book titled Calico Palace. It was about the gold rush days in California, but what I remember was a man telling a woman that "every woman is as beautiful as one man thinks she is." That's always stuck with me. You could pick that apart and analyze the psychology of it, the political incorrectness, but it is part of who I am today.
Physical beauty – or knowing that we are confident and attractive and enough for whatever comes our way – that's one thing. But where I want to grow is another. Creating an atmosphere of beauty around me. Beautiful words. Beautiful artwork. Beautiful smells and tastes. Recently, I had the privilege of attending an artist's private showing in her home. Everywhere I turned, there was something clever and creative, something that said "A clever and creative woman resides here." It was invigorating. I felt like a little sponge, soaking up the artistic atmosphere.
My world is too silent. Too drab. Often I am a quiet English countryside when there is a touch of morning fog and a lone whippoorwill sings out now and then. There is a time for that. But I also want to be a raucous Calcutta marketplace full of overpowering color and spice and heat, a tabla and sitar speeding up their beat and melody in the background as my heart is beating faster and faster, exhilarated by life.
In what area of life would I like to do better? In living, really living, every moment. There is beauty inherent in life, all around us. I want to do better at sensing life, enjoying life, and celebrating its beauty.
(c) Ellen Gillette, 2018