Posts Tagged #memory
Today is my birthday. So much has happened since I exited my mother’s womb those many years ago. The story of my birth and my mother’s labor are lost forever. All I have are a few hazy details.
“Oh I had twilight sleep,” my mother told me. “No memory of any of it,” she said, shaking her head each time she mentioned it, as if trying, again, to summon the experience that her body had, to shake it out somehow. “They told me I said really awful things,” she confided once. “The drugs make you crazy.” She also said it was good thing, of course. She’d felt the pain of childbirth before; I’m not sure how many of her births were “twilight” but I’m pretty sure at least one of her preceding birth experiences had happened too fast for many interventions. Maybe she really chose twilight sleep, willingly. I don’t know, and I cannot ask her. Why give birth with pain? Twilight sleep was the modern way. Like formula was modern, better than anything a woman’s breast might produce. I can see how she would choose that, or maybe feel there were no other options.
I read up on twilight sleep. From the distance of the years (it was abandoned in the late 60s/early 70s) it sounds like the stuff of nightmares, like some kind of awful date-rape drug, a mixture of Morphine and Scopolamine. It erased any memory of labor and birth, but did not eliminate pain. Often women became panicked, or even psychotic, and attempted self-harm. They were routinely restrained to their beds with lambskin-lined straps, to prevent bruising as they thrashed, a common thing when the dose was wrong.
But the body remembers even when the mind forgets, and a shadow always crossed my mama’s face when she talked about my birth, about the twilight sleep.
“It was the strangest thing,” she said. She seemed to disappear as she said it. Her face misted over, like a mirror fogged.
“In twilight sleep, sensation is still present though in diminished degree; the patient feels the pains of uterine contractions, frequently she moans, draws up her legs, and in other ways shows that she is suffering, but these painful sensations are not recorded in the memory cells… if asked a question, she will answer often in a dazed and confused fashion.”1
Today, on the anniversary of my birth, I’m thinking about pain, about the necessity of feeling what you feel—emotionally and physically—in order to move toward wholeness and health. Of course, seeking pain relief is not a bad thing. But there’s the issue of agency. Who is deciding that this is the best thing? (The same people who decided midwives and unmedicated births were a menace, that’s who.) Even if it was what Mama chose, I struggle with the issue of awareness, and the idea of not having a loving advocate while in a state where you will not remember what is done to you. (Remember, husbands paced in the waiting room back then, banished). I imagine having twilight sleep presented as the only ‘sane’ option available. Of being railroaded and gas-lighted.
While my own birth-giving experiences were not without interventions, I remember them all and I consented to each one. I felt tremendous pain, which I lived through and processed. No shadows cross my face when I remember the births of my children. I’d do things differently now, given the chance, but I made my own decisions, and had my then-husband with me the whole time.
Reading about trauma taught me that what is not processed, felt and released properly becomes trapped. I think of the trauma of being split from your body as you give birth. Far from being forgotten, unprocessed trauma lies in wait. Perhaps it was the cause of my mother’s battles with depression. Perhaps it was the cause of mine, too?
Suppression of feelings is what leads to deep despair. But I’m not depressed anymore.
Now I hunger to feel what I feel, in real time. Still, I find myself retreating into old patterns of escape. Patterns so fine I cannot even see them. Perhaps they were died into the wool of me, during my twilight birth? Knitted in during childhood experiences that divided my mind from my body? Unraveling takes time.
Last summer, I worked with a life-coach in her final months of training, as her test-client. The coach asked me lots of hard questions. Questions like: “and how do you feel, right now?”
I often answered in meandering, rambling ways, embroidering. She’d cut me off. “Where are you? I’ve lost you,” she’d say. “Just tell me how you feel, and where you feel it.”
Often, I didn’t know. This stunned me. Really? I didn’t know? How could I not know?
“Say you don’t know,” she coached. “Say you feel confused.”
Slowly I wake. Reams of paper, hours of walking and thousands of sun salutations later, that “where do you feel it?” question still often makes a shadow pass over my face, still frequently dazes and confuses me, still makes me shake my head as if that will help the right answer emerge from the fog of disconnection.
With another birthday comes new threads of silver hair and some bit of wisdom. I see one thing, anyway: the heart of anxiety, or my anxiety, anyway, is avoidance of feeling what I am feeling.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is not feeling safe in your own body.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is being told how to feel, to having your lived experiences denied.
Or maybe: the heart of anxiety is feeling your body is not yours to control. To have men in power who want to take away your birth control, free your rapist/harasser (if you dare to speak up at all). On a day when we have an overt misogynist in the White House and many, many other such men leadership positions, when social media is filled with #metoo hashtags denoting individuals who have been sexually assaulted or harassed, I think of the assault of not remembering the day you gave birth. Of the men that decided that was a good idea, and the women who really didn’t get a lot of choice about their birth experiences, as men made those decisions for them.
“Even if I had been asked what I wanted during childbirth,” one woman who was given twilight sleep shared, “I wouldn’t have known what to say.”2
I think of the islands of memory that were considered a ‘side effect’ of twilight sleep. Of the women I read about, laboring alone for hours in a drugged haze, feeling the pain with their bodies, who afterwards could only recall being shouted at to be quiet. Of women with eyes bandaged shut, ears stopped up, so as not to have ‘sensory memories’ to latch onto. Of the fear their bodies surely remembered, while their mental memories were magic-erased by scopolamine, a drug made from deadly nightshade. I think of the breach of trust inherent in this treatment. Birth? Oh, who’d want to remember THAT? I read about a woman, surely not the only one—who didn’t believe the baby given to her was her own, and subsequently had no attachment to her baby. I read of children born as perhaps I was, struggling to breathe (a side effect of twilight sleep), whisked away from their mothers for hours because the mothers were under the influence of dangerous drugs that made their behavior unstable, and robbed them of memories of their own experiences. Of the fathers who were also robbed of the experience of being there during birth. Of the way misogyny wounds women, and also men.
I think of my mother’s obstetrician, the same one who told her twilight sleep was the way to go, the man who weighed her at each visit, insisting she keep her weight gain under 25 pounds, and berated her when she gained too much. Because he was watching out for her, so she could “regain her figure.”
That’s a whole other layer of #metoo.
How am I feeling? Grateful for my mother’s incredible strength. Wistful that I can’t ask her more questions about how she felt. Angry at the continued denial of cultural misogyny by so many. Happy for another year of feeling what I feel, and saying what’s on my mind, what’s in my heart—or doing my best to learn how, anyway.
Better late than never.
Vaguely heartshaped, that’s how you described her face, and I always imagined her—with my child’s-eye, literal imagining—as having a face the color of a pink valentine’s candy heart, a face with a pointy chin and also big eyes made of chocolate, because you said hers were brown and melty.
That’s how I saw her, my grandmother I never knew.
The photos were all lost in the legendary house fire, so I never got to see her, how she really looked. I used to long to be able to visit her, like my friend Annie did her Nana. I thought that the first thing I’d do was crawl in her lap and tell her how much you missed her and how much you talked about her. It seemed that would please her, and the way your face looked when your talked about how her singing made the moon rise, how she played a mean game of cribbage and could bait a hook with one hand made me want to know her, and please her.
Later, when I was near-grown, everyone began to remark how like her I was. I used to pull my dark curls away from my face and look for signs of the tell-tale sweetness emerging, but to me, the eyes reflecting back in the mirror were cold as the glass itself, cold as any Canadian January. My face itself was more of a pillow shape. I began to wonder what sort of sieve memories run through, to sugar them so.
Much later still, describing you to my own children, I honeyed your brown hair, I made your eyes the color of the ice on a bright day in March, that fresh slate color, and I made your hugs as warm as raisin-oatmeal cookies fresh from the oven. I waited for them to pepper me with the questions I once would have asked.
My children were raised on your photographs, though. Raised, too, on reality TV and iPods and textbooks, not fed random poetry and left to wander woods and libraries alone, the way I was.
I thought I was doing the right thing, educating them, drilling them with the math facts that I myself could never pin down, the after-school tutoring, summer enrichment programs, sending them to the Catholic school for good discipline and rigor.
But I think I made them blind.
This short piece was written from a prompt in workshop, using the Amherst Writer’s and Artists method.
I, too, am from a sift of lost faces
from patterns I can’t untangle
from an endless string of cats purring
from tall pines and the hum of box fans in the window
from Carolina humidity and red dirt
and Spanish moss dripping everywhere
like paint from my sloppy brush, messy
And now, I am from here.
(snippet from a writing prompt using the classic George Ella Lyon poem, Where I’m from, a poem that has inspired many, many poems, and is one of my favorites.)
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.
Warm up! Write eleven three-line poems about things you see right where you are, right now.
Eleven Miniature Poems, March 25, 2017
The cutting in the windowsill vase
is shooting out roots
but it cannot grow there forever
2 | Fur
Cordelia is striped, like a tyger burning bright
descendant of some fierce African wildcat
trapped now in domesticity
3 | iPhone
Black glass gleams like your eyes did
if I touch the screen it will light up with worlds and words and wayz
I think of the mirages on hot highways in summer
4 | Coffee
Bittering now, sitting alone on the ledge
waiting to be held again in my hands
longing to be swallowed in my mouth
5 | Highlighter
Neon-yellow, it seeks and finds what
should be remembered, the important bits
is the rest really forgettable? Unimportant?
6 | Quilt
Grape jelly purple, my round babies once
sighed and slept beneath you
Sometimes I see you breathe
7 | Berry
Stray, lost, dried-up scarlet berry
remnant of Christmas past
(it’s almost April)
8 | Postcard
Dear Mama, it begins
I’m feeling excited, it continues
I see it tremble in the window breeze
9 | Clothespin
Tiny clothespin, tiny strung line
I have hung memories on you
they shine on me every day
10 | Sketch
She’s playing the sonata forever
her left foot pedals, her fingers fly
I can still hear the music
11 | Lintbrush
Lurking like an aunt before the funeral
descending to pick away any flaws
I feel judged
The sky today is milk-colored, snow is flurrying down and the naked trees shiver in the wind.
It′s a day when anything might happen, in a world where everything is shifting under my feet.
Things I thought solid suddenly slippery as black ice—
It′s a day to breathe in the chill air and watch your exhale make a tiny cloud. A day to remember what a mystery that was when you were a little girl bundled in your red parka, itchy wool mittens attached by clips.
It′s a day to remember America was not great back when you were a white child in the white suburbs outside Toledo, in a brand-new tract home in a place called Sylvania. No. It wasn′t great. “Great” was merely the undercurrent of every advertising slogan, “Great” was a story spun by ad men and sales men and con men. (They are still selling you fear and telling you it is happiness).
Men who sold your mother on the notion that the ache in her heart could be eased by a Midol or a Virginia Slim′s cigarette or a new Chevrolet or an A-Line dress. Men who told her that her uneasiness was her own fault, and that comfort would keep her safe. Men who peddled fear and separation and complacency. The TV glowed and mama stopped looking at the trees.
(Her eyes were sad but the jingles told her she was happy.)
You were a little girl, and you felt that ache. Feel it still, when big flat televisions trumpet
news news news.
And so you′ve learned to look outside.
It′s a day to look at the milky sky and the black arms of the trees shivering and remember the world is not black and white, not wrong and right. A day to remember that anyone who tells you the ache in your heart is nothing is a liar, or someone who wants to steal your life from you. Anyone who tells you to stop feeling what you are feeling may as well tell the trees to stop trembling in the March wind. Might as well tell these tardy snowflakes to stop falling.
The ache is there to help you. Listen to it.
Denial of what is will pull you under, into despair.
Acceptance may break your heart, but a broken heart is an open one.
Let the snow fall into your heart.
Feel what you feel. Cold, alive.
After all, anything might happen, if your heart and eyes are open.
It’s your birthday, Mama. In the picture you’re about 12 or 13, but you did headstands for as long as I can remember. When I was a teenager, I lived in fear of your doing one when a friend was over. The other mothers didn’t do things like that.
I’m beginning at last to see you more fully, twenty-five years after your last earthly birthday. A truer picture emerges as I learn more about life, about myself—maybe it’s you coming clear or maybe it’s me? But the veils are falling away.
For a long time, I kept my memories of you behind those veils, blurring the edges and obscuring the painfully sharp details. The veils were garnet-colored, the blood-red of your birthstone. Looking at you through them softened the memories of you, made them pink and pretty as a sunset, and as distant.
The summer I was eighteen your anchoring roles were torn away. Your last baby (me) off to college. And then: Dad died. I still remember the grief, suffocating and thick as the August air. Suffocating because we were locked into pretending to be strong and calm, you and I.
At exactly the age I am today, you became a widow. And all these years later, I am a divorced woman. Funny how both of us emerged from long marriages, newly single at the same age. I feel a new kind of kinship with you. I guess our relationship isn’t over, is it? It’s true what they say: the people you love live on in your heart.
As I find myself, I unearth pieces of you, and you continually surprise me, Mama. You are not all fierce hugs and pots of vegetable soup, not just chewy raisin-oatmeal cookies and games of cribbage and piles of books and papers everywhere, though I see you in my mail stacks and my habit of saving the tiniest bits of leftovers.
I also find your “hot-spit” spirit in the shards of my anger, I find your ancient wounds, and mine, in my middle-of-the-night panics. I hear your voice sometimes in my dreams, and in shrill of my own voice, when I lose patience and boil over. Oh, I am fine, Mama. More than fine. Like you, I’m resilient and now: I don’t have to pretend to be ever-strong and ever-calm. I can just be me, roiling emotions and all.
The last gifts you gave me are the ones I’ve spent the last couple years opening. Remember that night in the kitchen after your chemotherapy, in the window of time before you grew queasy, how you and I sat and you told me some things that maybe you never told anyone else, because I needed to know them? Or maybe you told others, it doesn’t matter. You gave me what I needed to figure myself out. I didn’t quite know what to do with most of what you shared; I was embarrassed by your shame at your human failings. My own baby was stirring in my belly, and somehow I thought it best to push difficult things aside. Pretend it was all okay. I was afraid, you see.
I told you not to worry about the things you’d shared, things that were hard for you to say. Personal things, confessions of your weaknesses. I dismissed them all away with a rushed out thank- you-for-telling-me. I put those precious words, the evidence of your humanness, your stumbles and triumphs that were just you and not my mother, into the bottom of my very deepest brain-drawer when you died. And I pretended I was ever-strong, ever-calm. I was carefully incurious.
Silly, blind me. You meant to give me a shortcut, didn’t you? You were trying to let me know: it’s okay to be human, that falling apart—happens sometimes. That the key is trusting, and sharing, and connecting. Getting up, and forgiving yourself for falling.
And all of that starts with not pretending to be strong or calm when you are not. It means not pretending at all. It was like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy realizes she’s had the power to go home all along. Pretending to be what we are not, to deny who we are, drives us into very lonely territory.
This year, I finally learned how to do a headstand. Like mother, like daughter.
I’m so glad, Mama, that you are still here, in my heart, while I figure things out.