The Boundary Puzzle
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
We require a behavioral and verbal repertoire to define boundaries because we came from oceanic enmeshment. We humans start our lives as symbiotes and remain pack animals, who crave connection as badly as do our furry friends who, in the absence of their own species (read cats and dogs), will curl up to us for warmth, soothing touch, play and loving affection. Remember Ashley Montagu’s 1971 book, Touching? Our skins, our persons, fail to thrive without bodily connection.
The psychological and self-help literature on boundaries often treats personal and psychological boundaries as analogs for territorial ones, lines in the sand. But boundaries have vastly more vagueness and movement, and are frequently negotiable. They do not have exact placements because of the ways in which social, psychological, professional and even global contexts define, and redefine them. The interpersonal and larger social contexts in which we speak of intrusion, inclusion, extrusion, or codependency and isolation, selects the meanings that calibrate, with great nuance, the boundary crossings that construct or deconstruct us.
Body boundaries: A woman’s body has housed us. For the invited or intruding indweller, her startup body had all the equipment necessary to provide shelter and sustenance, but quickly scaled up to a highly sophisticated industrial complex, whirring and whizzing, exponentially massing up and sloughing, weaponizing us for combat and cooperation in many arenas of survival: development, individuation, choice making, emotional connection, and social embeddedness. The walls of this body-house expanded, the supporting beams flexing at their joints, an ocean lapping at its shores, while outside in the neighborhood birds sang, traffic hummed, a relative yelled, televisions dulled their watchers or interrupted their dreams with reiterative sensory blitzes.
And then the first goodbye: a cry, a slap of air opening our lungs, the blood-cord severed. This first move–the expulsion from indweller to out-dweller–already a shift in worlds, would otherwise destroy us but for the porches, swings, branches and floors of our mother’s body, our second home. No wonder those of us who grew up in the country loved tree houses so much, the model of our mother’s exterior home for us—the one we climbed, rode, sucked, and upon whose pillows and bones we slept our deepest sleep.
From blood to milk, from cord to mouth, attachment shifts. Still, a baby’s cry sounds the mother’s alarm; the bald-headed baby’s sleep a maternal sedative, a baby‘s suckling, some relief for her mother.
Men and women, whatever our hue—peach, tan, almond, olive, or mahogany—all swam in a woman’s interior sea, surrounded by the continent of her body, and fed by her bread and wine. Her blood traveled through our tiny tributaries, her music became the dance of our bones, her hopes and dreams and touch our eyes and skin. But our very essence, an explosion of DNA from two tribes, from two stranger camps, caused each of us, as crisis, to proliferate, cell by cell, synergizing our parents’ differences until they could function as one. We have it in the very core of our nature to make a family of strangers. In fact, the idea of purity—of race or ethnicity or family lineage—never works out well. Inbreeding makes progeny fragile, prone to illness and oddity; even the single trait overbreeding of animals, such as dogs, can cause serious health problems. Our sturdiness, our very survival, concerns the story of our making family out of strangers. We are all mutts, and over time will become less distinguishable by feature and hue. Boundaries between strangers in language, ethnicity, and nationality will look more like zippers or ebbing and flowing tide lines than straight ones.
Women’s bodies house babies, as do jungles their wild beings or apartment buildings in East Boston their renters, and all reiterate the fundamental question of ownership between landlord and tenant. The frequent misalignment, regarding ownership of house and home, and their analogs shows up everywhere, every day: between parents who own the house and their adolescents who claim ownership of their bedrooms and rights to messiness; between landlords who own the apartments and tenants the psychological space, between women and fetuses, between nations and residents, between our planet and the nations that, though squatters, we mythologize as subdividing it. Even slavery, the owning of one human by another, though legally disallowed in our country, rears its head ubiquitously in the fuzzy ownership rights within marriages and parenting (and step parenting) relationships, as well as between employers and workers regarding human energy and time.
Our experiences of boundary trespasses also presuppose the existence of clear, separate domains of ownership. With some exceptions, these domains have so many exceptions as to create frequent misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and sometimes felicitous surprises. A kiss, an investigative probe into our past histories in areas of money, taxes, employment, medical and mental health, and the law, may seem invasions of privacy in many instances, but we make exceptions, or exceptions are made by powers greater than our own, for these boundary crossings. Sometimes these invasions will benefit us, and sometimes cause detrimental actions.
Boundary nuances are more psychological than physical. When human beings are very young, parents take care of toileting, feeding and cleaning. And when mom was dying, my sisters and I took care of her toileting and intimate personal care, with love and respect. Our roles with regard to each other, and the understanding that defines those are far more powerful at creating comfort than whether someone’s hands are on our bodies. We do not consider pap smears, colonoscopies, or cardiac surgery to be intrusions or abuse because the expertise and role of physicians, and the location of these practices, defines these intimate contacts as helpful and healthy.
Perhaps, paradoxically then, the need for vagueness, even infringement of boundaries enhances survival: Susan Brown, a new mother, eloquently articulated her view of the way in which women get cultivated into an essential caretaking role with regard to other people’s lives, starting in utero and reinforced continuously after birth. Like a surgical mesh, the conjunction of a mother’s life with that of her newborn sees the two growing into one another, their fibers of being overlapping and interweaving in a way both inextricable and impossible to articulate. Susan said about her husband, “He is still who he is with the addition of a baby. He has a quiet ride to work and can stop for a coffee or get breakfast. He can get up from his desk and take a break whenever he wants to, can pee when the urge arrives, get a drink, get food, chat with colleagues. My old life is totally gone. I often have to choose which one of those—eating, drinking or peeing—I will be able to manage after I put the baby in her crib for a minute. I’ve lost my old freedom entirely. He’s still living his life, but I’m living her (the baby’s) life.”
Sharon stayed married to Roy—whose body and brain fell apart from his alcoholism—for 30 years. A “codependent,” she took care of everything—his and her finances, what he ate, when he ate, made his doctor’s appointments, woke him for his part time jobs, when he had them, organized their social calendar, communicated with his extended family, washed his clothes, set them out for him, took their dog to the vet, took him to get his excise tax paid. She was living Roy’s life as well as her own, as if he were still symbiotically attached. Even after their separation, at long last, she still takes care of some things, fills in some gaps in his limited capacities. She even found him an apartment, still pays his more separate bills online. The leash has lengthened to the extent her guilt will allow.
Mark’s story, an alcoholic–in recovery too late for his wife to endure– reveals the importance of connection, within which our sense of self thrives. Connections and boundary separators coexist in all relationships, even between warring troops talking across trenches during a truce. Spouses, parents and children, friends and coworkers interact within a complex, pulsating, expanding and contracting microcosm of intentions, desires, directives, etiquettes and power differentials that formulate and reformulate the minute to minute shapeshifting of boundaries. We dance with each other. Come close. Step apart. Gaze. Shut our lids. Mark and his wife sold their house. She took their son to live with her. “I just want to go home,” he cried, “but there is no home.” A man without a home, a family; a man freefalling into an undefined, borderless space, utterly disoriented, stared at me across the coffee table, hoping that I might point the way out of the Town of Temporary and the State of Despair. Completely severed from our connections we are strangers in our own lives. Strange, estranged, unbound.
Within our own persons we might describe degrees to which we experience connection and boundary divides. That we play multiple roles in life, that we express different aspects or facets, does not surprise. Some theorists speak of persons as having parts. As Philip Bloomberg write, “the mind (is) a configuration of shifting, nonlinear, discontinuous states of consciousness in an ongoing dialectic with the healthy illusion of unitary selfhood.” When our selves experience conflict—I am on a diet so can’t have dessert; but I want that chocolate cake—we negotiate with ourselves. If a self occupies an intolerable status within our collective of selves, then that self might get cut off from consciousness, banished to a borderland internment camp where its voice gets silenced most of the time.
Sometimes we drift in and out of each other’s thoughts and dreams and creative foment. Our inter-mentality gets mobilized when we brain storm or empathize, our mirror neurons firing up their engines. Together we put pieces of puzzles together, retrace steps, find things, discover or invent new processes, mobilize and coordinate skill sets. The creative fuzziness of our intellectual and creative boundaries—this imperfect but glorious mind-reading and attunement—works often to our benefit. In the kitchen with my sisters, and with my mother when she was alive, all of us would seamlessly move around and, without any words exchanged, manage to cook a large family meal and bring it to the table, hot and enticing, with exact timing. And all of the cooking pots and pans cleaned up along the way.
Intentions, even ignorance, often hold sway over the sanctity of boundaries, and this can sometimes make you laugh. Remember? While your toddler, utterly enthralled, reads her board books on the kitchen floor, you sneak into the bathroom, silently close the door, and sit on the only throne you’ll ever know. And then, as if the world has suddenly gone dark, the door barges open. There’s your two-year old with that beaming face of discovery, relief, and adoration. “I’m here mama!” Grabbing the toilet paper she pulls at least six feet of it off and hands it to you. And what does a polite adult say in that situation, but thank you?
And if at the theater with the short intermission, you rush into your stall in the women’s restroom, with the unfortunately broken lock, and another woman pushes the door into your head, while saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ you easily forgive, underpants down at your calves, in mid squat over the dewy toilet rim—previously sprinkled on by the former temporary owner of the two foot square space where the relevance of your noggin seems to be in question.
In a hostage taking situation, a negotiator comes in peace, hands raised to signal no weaponry. An exception might get made for talking which, yes, offers more nuances than gunfire.
And speaking of talking, of words, those brash culprits, poets, dash across the boundary of the everyday numinous: claw, pry, slip through the wall of dumbness our very existence applies. Words, even piles and piles of them, can but refer to the unutterable coldness of a vernal pool, stepped into as snow still melts, the heart racing dare of it, the uncertainty of its nascent, translucent eggs. Poets plunge head first through thickets of tangled unknowing with flashlights, illuminating the unsaid—the impossible to say—so that our marvelous mirror neurons can fire us up, embroider our surfaces with pleasure, and distract us from the breach. Words in all of their intriguing combinations, live in neighborhoods on the other side of the tracks from our bodies—breathing and hungry and laughing or dysphoric in an orchestral wonder of grunts, grabs and expulsions of gas.
For us, boundaries protect, confine, clarify, mystify. We decide when to negotiate them or we flail at the mercy of their violation. But in other than the human world, migratory birds don’t give a fig through whose air space they fly. And stars throw indiscriminate fistfuls of light.
Camel Saddle: What boundaries do you need to feel safe? How do you tend to react when others breach those boundaries? Do other people ever complain to you that you’re stepping over a line with them? What boundaries were clear or vague in your family of origin and do you subscribe to those now? How do you believe we as a nation would do well to treat our borders?