One step at a time

 In Boundaries, Ruminations

Ruminations on boundaries, stopping… and treehouses

When I was a child my father built us a treehouse. It started life as a temporary bus shelter (long story!) so was long and thin rather than square, although to be fair that may also have reflected the shape of the available tree. The tree itself was a big apple tree on the far side of the orchard. It was quite big and the treehouse was relatively high up (or at least it is in my memory). It faced away from the house, high above the chainlink fence that had been erected at my grandmother’s insistence to separate us children from the stream that formed the actual boundary of the garden. From the treehouse, though, the stream was a more vivid presence than the fence, chattering its way rapidly over rocks and under little wooden bridges. It was an idyllic spot; high up in the branches, with just the birds and the sound of running water for company. Luxuriating in the memory I allow myself to be transported back there…

There was some debate about access. Obviously I wanted a rope ladder, a pre-requisite for any good tree house, allowing the occupant to retreat from the world by pulling it up behind them. But my mother objected on safety grounds (my siblings were both under 10 at the time) so we ended up with a fixed ladder attached parallel to the front of the house, requiring a slightly tricky sideways manoeuvre when opening or closing the door. I can feel the slight lurch in my stomach as I successfully make the transition from ladder to solid floor. Deep down even then I think I knew that I’d have found clambering on and off the top of a rope ladder quite scary, but that didn’t stop me feeling slightly disappointed about the lack of privacy afforded by the rigid one. That wasn’t the only disappointment if I’m honest. My dreams of a cosy nest away from prying eyes to dream and read (and of course to have Secret Seven style meetings with my gang of faithful friends) were rather dashed by the fact that it was always a bit damp, meaning that leaving anything up there between visits was rarely an option.

Once inside there was a decision to be made: door open (so you can see out and get the full treehouse experience) or closed (so no-one realises you’re there). There was a window too, with slowly discolouring plastic sheeting nailed across it (another disappointment – a proper treehouse would have an opening glass window, not to mention some furniture!). My nostrils fill once again with a pungent combination of damp wood, fading creosote and the whiff of my own disappointment. This isn’t what a treehouse should be. But it’s better than nothing and I’ve lugged these cushions up here now… Still wishing that I had a rope ladder to pull up behind me I settle in. Peaceful, quiet. Just the leaves rustling in the breeze, the birds making small talk, the sound of the stream burbling over the rocks below. Other noises drift across the garden… the dogs barking at the postman, my siblings playing, the mechanical sounds of whatever job is keeping my parents busy today… and beyond that the daily routine of the dairy farm down the road… I could stay here all day and they wouldn’t know where I am…

Even then, though, I remember a deep-rooted feeling that I should be doing more, it should be better. My mother sometimes commented that the treehouse was a wonderful place to sit and watch wildlife so I try doing that for a while, but nothing happens so I soon get bored. I’d much rather be reading, but it’s difficult to get comfortable on just the small cushions I’ve managed to carry up with me. And it really is a bit damp and smelly… As for those Secret Seven meetings, even if I’d had a group of friends to invite there was barely room for the three of us up there let alone a whole gang!

And so we used the treehouse less and less, and it got damper and damper and smellier and smellier. And a part of me was aware of all the trouble my father had gone to in making it for us, and that we were – I was – disappointing him, letting him down by not using it more…

I hadn’t thought of the treehouse in decades, and yet there it was, clear as day, in my head this morning.


I think it’s connected with the fact that today I have finally stopped. Really properly stopped, deep inside. It’s taken me a long time to understand what stopping really means for me. That I don’t need a ‘valid reason’ not to do something, I can simply choose not to do it. That ‘not letting other people down’ does not justify failing to listen to my own needs. That ‘because someone wants me to’ does not mean I am obliged to do something. That a fear of letting people down is not a valid reason for pushing myself too far. In short, I’m finally beginning to understand the concept of boundaries, and to start establishing my own. Really stepping into the idea that until I can say ‘no’, my ‘yes’ is worthless. That it’s not only ok but essential to intentionally spend time being, not doing.

This week I have let a lot of people down. I let my Tuesday evening yoga class down by cancelling because I had a migraine. I let a friend down by being too unwell to provide the feedback she’d asked me for. I let my Wednesday morning yoga colleagues down by having to ask one of them to teach in my place. I let a local networking group down by missing our meeting on Friday morning. I let my parents down by telling them I couldn’t dog-sit on Friday afternoon, even though I had no other plans. I let the organiser and attendees of Dance of Awareness down by failing to go to on Friday evening (because the future of the group is in doubt due to low numbers). I let down a friend who’d asked for my help next week by telling her I didn’t have the necessary energy. And why did all this happen? Because on Monday I let myself down by failing to realise that I was expending too much energy (and, indeed, that I was doing so on something that wasn’t particularly beneficial to me).

So there must be a lot of people pissed off with me at the moment, right? Wrong! Not one of those people was anything but totally understanding and supportive of my right to say no. Of my right to set boundaries. Of my right to put my own self-care above their convenience. Not one of them has given me any indication that they feel let down by me. Just as I wouldn’t have felt let down by them if the tables had been turned.

Of course, the next step is to be able to respect my own boundaries even when it does piss someone off. When somebody objects to my saying no, or can’t see beyond the inconvenience my doing so causes them. But right now I’m grateful for being able to do this one step at a time… this week I’ve reached the top of this particular ladder and taken that first, stomach lurching step sideways, negotiating the gap between the stability of the ladder and the safety of the treehouse. It may not be perfect but it’s my own perfectly imperfect space. Next time the process of getting here will be easier. Next time maybe I’ll even manage it carrying a couple of cushions. And deep down I recognise a profound sense of gratitude that I didn’t have to negotiate a wobbly rope ladder on the way up as well!

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