Posts Tagged #love
It’s been twenty-five years since my mom died. Of course I always wished I had been able to compare notes on motherhood with her (she died just weeks after my firstborn came into the world). But now what strikes me is how much I’d like to be able to talk with her about roles. About how they define you and sometimes trap you, and how you must grow past them. And why that seems so hard!
I want to know how she grew past her roles of wife and daily-mom and daughter, all in a few short years. How dizzying that must have been. I wouldn’t know, because for the most part, she didn’t tell me. Always said she was “fine,” and diverted conversation back to me, and my life. And then, suddenly, she was sick. I’ve learned not to wait on having conversations with people I care about. Or at least, I’d like to say I try to do that. I don’t always succeed. It can hurt, for one thing, and what is more human than avoiding pain? Plus I still get trapped in roles.
(And where exactly does a role end and a boundary begin, anyway? Life is so tricky.)
I’m no one’s daughter, no one’s daily-mom, no one’s wife, no one’s most-beloved. I’m just: me. Of course I still play roles—writing coach, yoga teacher, design consultant—but those roles are not cemented to relationships with specific and dear people. They are more like the roles in a play, I suppose.
A couple weeks ago, I saw a live-theater performance of the Hunchback of Notre Dame in Indianapolis, and spent the night afterwards with extended (and very dear) family. The next morning was unseasonably cool. I snuggled up on their deck and thought about the play. The day was bright with birdsong and the chatter of neighbor children. I couldn’t make out what the children were saying, exactly, but it was clear as the blue sky above that they were working out the rules of a game.
YOU will be THIS, I will be THAT.
We don our costumes early in life. Even after we grow into adults, we are, inside, run by the rules of childhood. By the labels we and others stamp on ourselves. The artistic one, the troublemaker, the bully, the little mother, the Daddy’s girl. On and on. Some of us shake them off for who we are meant to be. Others bloom into their labels, and transcend them. And I would once have denied the past ran me at all.
In the dark theater, I watched Quasimodo sing his pain and longing. Watched him be labeled at birth as monster. I think we are all “half-formed,” and destined to stay that way, unless we unearth the past and question it a little. I was the baby, the cry baby, the gullible one, the artist, the poet, the one you could trick and tease and scare easily. The one who would finally, inevitably, cry. And be told, again and again, that my tears were wrong, I was wrong, I was “too sensitive.” I learned it better not to ask for understanding; that I was making something out of nothing. I could not be trusted, and so I did not trust myself, or what I felt or even reality. It was all my artist’s imagination, my poet’s drama. Better not to cry, or, if I did cry, better not to say why. I was the unstable one, the emotional one. My mother, at her wit’s end, used to threaten, “I’m gonna give you to the trash man, if you don’t hush up.”
Now, my mother was not a monster. No, she was flesh and blood and bone and beautiful. She folded me in hugs I still feel. She was human, and struggling. I love her with all my heart. Still, she could not handle my tears, which, looking back, I think may have mainly, early on, belonged to HER, tears she could not cry lest she never stop. Mothers of four have no time to cry.
I can see her, hands on hips, pointing out the window at the trash truck, I remember her saying it—and not just once—forgetting or not caring (I think forgetting) that a little girl who still believes in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny would never question that the trash men could take her away. I was terrified that the dark men with menacing white smiles and sooty coveralls were indeed going to lift me up like I was a clangy garbage can and roar me away in that smelly loud truck, and I’d never see my Mama again.
And so crying began to terrify me. But tears bubbled and burst out periodically. (Still do). It’s how I’m made.
Recently I had a revelation. A friend was laughing about how she thought of crying as an “emotional enema,” because she always felt so much better once all the tears came out; she felt clean and light, ready to face life again. Until the next time. Sometimes, she said, you just need a good cry. But right then it stuck me.
Crying always—with a few notable exceptions—made me feel worse. The tears bring up shame, brackish and foul, from the dark channels of early childhood. From roles I am still acting out, unconsciously?
The half-formed girl—Quasimodo girl—keeper of secrets in the attic, sleeping terrified clutching a crucifix, the voiceless one, the broken one, the trash-can girl—all my past roles lurked in the recesses of my grown self. They burrowed in deep, and curled hidden inside me for decades, only coming out at the most stressful times, sleeping and waking restlessly, pulling my strings.
On a sunny morning in Indiana, thinking about the past, memories of marriage and motherhood surged in this place of some of the best days of both those roles. Stretched out with my journal, watching the bees buzz in their hives, I felt a new me emerging, ready to really listen at last to all the hushed-up stories of trash girl’s pain, ready to watch it flame up and burn off and billow like the charcoal smoke rising up from the barbecue.
For this moment on this deck in this place, I felt at home with myself. Home is now, I thought. That is the feeling. Of being home in your body. I learned that term from a friend who held me while the hardest pieces of my childhood surfaced, jaggy, tearing me open. Held safe, I learned I could cry and feel better, instead of worse.
Now I am learning to do that alone, as I sort and grow. I’m learning to cry and sometimes actually feel better, lighter, clearer.
Quasimodo no more, maybe?
“What is ‘whole’ in Latin,” I asked my brother-in-law, who had come out to put brisket on the barbecue.
“Plenus?” he ventured.
Plenusmodo. Full-formed. Whole.
Mom knew Latin. I wish I could call Mom now and talk. About the roles she was saddled with by her childhood, about the things she locked away. About why she hid her tears and pain and struggles. Maybe we could let go of our roles, drop our masks, and just listen to each other? That’s all anyone really wants, I think.
To be seen beyond their roles in life. To be held, and heard, and loved for who they are, at the beating heart of their being.
anxiety field notes, entry 1.
What you resist, persists
so, if you RESIST anxiety,
it will PERSIST?
What you resist, you bury.
What you bury gets stuck.
Some things cannot be buried.
(Most things, actually.)
Seeds can, and should be.
Flowers should not be buried, if you want to watch them bloom.
If you bury flowers they die, they rot.
Bury anger deep in a trash can like a lit butt
cover anger with an placid lid, a smooth smile, it will smolder
poison the air
you will breathe it in
it will permeate every single cell in your body.
Unburied, anger dissipates, harmless as a whiff of stinky stinky cheese
but buried—it kills love.
Speaking of love:
Love cannot be buried, kept like a secret journal in a sock drawer.
at first, confined love smells like lavender, like a sachet,
love has to grow in the light.
Love has to see the sky in the morning
see your smile in the night.
Speaking of your smile:
Longing, what of longing, my specialty?
What you resist, persists—
does this mean I should not resist the fear
of you, so warm, fading from my mind?
Or does it mean I should resist this fear,
so your smile persists forever in my heart?
Speaking of hearts:
some questions are best buried,
dark-eyed as apple seeds
planted deep in my heart
to grow as they will,
wild upstarts, bearing sweet fruit, in time.
wild and green
On my wedding day, I was filled with anxiety, mine and my mother’s.
I was wild and green in the ways of the world, though I thought a ceremony in Butler’s green garden would transform me into a more peaceful creature. I stood with my mother, waiting for my intended to arrive. I was there and not there: I firmly remember the carillons that sang and the placid old canal that drifted by, the buzzing droopy-headed zinnias and black-eyed Susans, the old-world rose bushes—all beautiful, contained, tranquil.
Carefree, not wild.
That day I’d turn into a wife, half of a unit, domestic, safe and saved.
On the outside I was transformed already, placid as the canal, sure of myself as the bees were sure of their buzzing industry. Yet I was wild inside, standing there next to my mama, a roiling mass of ancient fears.
Wild like a frightened doe, tired from running, running. Heart beating hard, danger clanging so constantly that mostly I was not even aware of it. Danger simply ran in my veins, and had for as long as I could remember.
Danger was wild in the rivers of my blood. Danger splashed in the waterfall of my heart.
I had no business getting married, but to be wild is, after all, dangerous. Plus, I was tired of being hunted. Somewhere inside I thought being caught would save me.
– – –
Deer were always an obsession for me. As a very small child, I drew deer after deer. I painted pictures of deer, read books about deer. I loved deer and wanted to be a ballerina so I could gracefully move like a deer. And disappear, like a deer.
But deer are wild things. Peaceful, except when under attack. Always wary, though. If a deer is cornered, and cannot run away, if a deer is outmatched and at the mercy of a terrible predator, she cannot hope to win by fighting. In cases like that, she will freeze.
I froze once, like a deer
I froze, like a river
I thawed and ran fast again,
like a deer
Like a rushing stream, like snowmelt
down a mountain
even when perhaps I should have paused to think
I was wild and green all my young self seemed to know
was freezing and rushing.
– – –
On my wedding day, I was young.
Younger even than my 23 years. Being frozen keeps you from growing up. So does running.
I was green. The lushness of the garden, the safe feeling I had next to my intended—gave me a sense that I was on a path. A path that might lead me out of my wildness. My scary, uncontainable wildness.
The path would rescue me from myself.
This was a sweet green notion, a kiwi of a belief, juicy and promising and bursting with seeds of hope.
What I did not know, in my greenness, was that you cannot shed your wildness like a snake sheds her skin. The wildness is inside, part of you.
I was right about the path, though.
It did lead me out, and then, decades later, landed me back in the thicket of myself, heart beating wildly, learning at last to savor the moments of life that stretch across the bones of time like supple muscles. Stretching, tightening, strengthening, and finally, letting go.
I’m still wild and green.
Older now, I have learned to listen to the wind, smell danger, believe the things my own heart tells me, and to love the wild frozen little girl-deer I carry inside. I learned that love does not rescue. Love merely holds your hand, then pushes you to grow. Self-love and every other kind of deep love pushes you to the edges of your self.
And when you grow, you risk.
One person’s sunshine is another person’s scorch.
One person’s neat-cornered bed is another person’s prison.
Sometimes you have to grow alone, in the wildness, where the deer appear and disappear to keep you company, silently.
(I wrote this from a prompt by Natalie Goldberg, “Write about when you were wild and green.”)
This year marks twenty-five years without you.
I took this photo because this sky made me think of you, tumbling me back to a warm late-summer night when I was a college sophomore. It was the year after Dad died, and the humid air felt heavy with unheld grief. Grammy was not in the nursing home yet, you were caring for her and no one was caring for you; I was away at college, mostly, or busy running from reality. You looked shrunken but never admitted weakness or asked for help.
Even so, you had a light, Mama. You were never defeated. I remember walking with you, under a sky such as this one, talking of nothing much, letting go of everything but the shimmering sound of the cicadas in the Black Ash trees that were still so lush and strong, and like you were then–still alive.
The ash trees are all dying now, or already dead, infested with borers. You are gone now, too. But that night, under a blue sweep of sky, under a parade of pink-edged clouds, we walked. I still walk, Mama. You gave me that love of moving slower than a bike or car ride allows, soaking in the small things that are everything.
We got ice cream cones at Friendly’s, peppermint stick for you, plain vanilla for me. We walked and laughed and licked the ice cream.
Back home, the smoke alarms were blaring. Grammy had put a pan of milk on the stove to heat, and forgotten about it, gone back to bed. Mostly deaf, the alarm didn’t alarm her at all. The sweet night turned sticky. Things do.
Her days, your days, my days–all numbered. They always were, weren’t they? No matter how we tried to pretend otherwise.
Looking back, I wish we’d spoken of the time. Not about its running out, so much. About its preciousness. Love, Mama. It is sacred. I see that now. I wish I’d loved you better, been brave enough, awake enough, aware enough to hold your hand and ask you if you were afraid, those Fridays in the Chemo center. We held hands. We watched Clarence Thomas’s supreme court nomination hearings. Conservative, which was your leaning, you never disbelieved that he was a womanizer or worse. Coke cans and pubic hair jokes, we watched, uneasy, as Anita Hill was picked apart, as the poison dripped into your veins and the TV we could not turn off droned on.
I wish I’d asked you about what it was like for you as a white Yankee transplanted to the deep south, about race relations back then, as the civil rights era was just stirring, about what it was like for you as a woman in your 20s, and 30s. About the men who maybe treated you like Clarence Thomas treated Anita Hill. About how Dad treated you, when you became a mother and he a breadwinner. About what it was like to be in love, and what happened after that part ended. About what you’d have done the same, about what you’d have maybe done differently, given the chance.
But I didn’t ask such things. I knew the past was full of traps. I was afraid, you see, to ask you anything “upsetting.”
We were resolutely cheerful and ‘brave,’ those afternoons at the Chemo place. If you can call it brave, on my part, not asking you what was ringing in my soul: “Mama, are you scared?”
Because I sure was.
And I bet you were, too.
When I saw this sky, and felt you magically walking with me again for a sliver of a moment, I knew that you’d have liked to have been asked, about being scared, but you forgive me anyway. Your spirit filled me, told me: Always speak from your heart. Don’t mourn the lost opportunities. Stay awake to the ones before you right now. Ask the questions.
So even though I didn’t ask you then what you’d have done differently, you told me today. And whether I believe in heaven or not—and I’m not sure about any of that, Mama—you are with me still.
In the skies, smiling down at me, pink-edged and glowing with love.
Eyes open, heart open
Love more, fear less
Listen deeply, speak bravely
Think big thoughts
Relish small pleasures
–H. Jackson Brown, Jr.
This week brought the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death. The morning of the anniversary, I woke gently. I felt so peaceful, as if I had been rocked in my sleep. It reminded me of how I slept on the day she died.
I was a new mother then, my firstborn just five weeks old. Day and night had blurred into a fuzzy netherworld, especially given that I’d spent the past two weeks strapping my (often screaming) baby into the car, and driving back and forth between my home and my mother’s home, an hour away, crying along with the baby.
My mother was thin and fragile but was seeming to do okay despite her advanced-stage cancer diagnosis, right up until she wasn’t okay at all and was rushed to the hospital.
With that news, I strapped baby Avery into the car and drove north and stayed, in my childhood bedroom, alone in the house while my siblings made arrangements to come from much further away. My husband came up and stayed as long as he could, but work called him.
It was a hot July, and humid. Heat saps me in the best of times. Then there was the constant stickiness of sweat, mine and the baby’s; my breast milk leaks and her spit up and all the messiness of the start of life slammed up against the end of life, as each day I strapped Avery into a cotton sling slung across my body and went to the hospital, where my mother was threading in an out of consciousness, more out than in.
My mother’s last words to me were “pretty baby.” I think that was what she said.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.
And then my mother closed her eyes and seemed to be asleep, but it was hard to know. Hard to know what to do, so I sat by her bedside when Avery slept or nursed in her sling-nest, and I paced the room and the halls when Avery woke, fussy.
Some of the nurses scolded me. “What are you thinking,” I remember one saying. “Bringing a newborn into hospital crawling with germs?”
Now I’d tell that nurse to fuck off, doesn’t she of all people know that the baby has my immune system to protect her, and is too small to touch things herself, and she’s safe as can be, and besides, don’t you see? I need to be here. I need to be with both of these people. But back then, her scolding just set off a cascade of anxiety. There’s nothing worse than wanting to split your self in two, and that’s how I felt. Divided.
Suddenly I was summoned to a cramped room by a social worker who demanded to know how I planned to care for my mother, because there was no sense operating to fix the brain bleed; they couldn’t help her any further, and a discharge was imminent. I have no memory of what came next, but hours later or perhaps the next day, I was on a tour of the local Hospice, a gleaming new facility, baby strapped on me muttering to be fed, the Hospice lady talking on and on about pet visits while my milk let down, and my tears leaked. My body and my life seemed completely beyond my control, and I was all about control then.
The Hospice lady told me it might be days or weeks before a space became available, and that there was no way to know how soon my mother might die, but they could set up home visits. I was overcome with fear, dread, feeling completely overwhelmed.
When one of my older brothers arrived, I drove back to my home. Word came that a room had indeed miraculously opened at Hospice. Avery fell asleep, or my husband took her away and rocked her—I’m not sure which, but sprawled across the futon, I fell into the deepest, best sleep of my adult life. The sleep of an exhausted toddler. A sleep such as I had again on the twenty-third anniversary of my mother’s death.
On the day my mother died, my sleep had been broken by my husband, gently touching my shoulder, saying, “the phone, it’s your brother…”
It took a long, long while for me to figure out that I had not betrayed my mother by leaving, by taking a break. All I knew to do was hold on, when I should have let go.
I was too scared and tired to see the truth, that she needed me to be gone in order to let go. And there’s part of me now that thinks perhaps she also needed permission to let go herself. My brother told me he read psalms to her, and told her she could go. He had a faith that I did not. She let go. She went. And now, finally, I can see it was not an end at all.
I think the sweet dreamy sleep on the day of her death was her farewell, covering me like a soft blanket. I think the wash of peace on her death anniversary was her hello, her freed energy finding me, holding me for a long moment, then letting me go to live my life.
At least that’s how I decided to interpret it.