Posts Tagged #relationships
Today in workshop: coloring back in time
In today’s Amherst Artists & Writers workshop, we finished with a prompt rooted in mindfulness and childhood memory. Here’s how it goes: you choose a few crayons from a big bowl, make sure everyone has drawing paper, and together we all breathe in the smell of the crayolas.
Now imagine you are sinking back in time, drawing with crayons, when someone’s told you to go color. You have nothing else to do, and busily you begin to draw what you would have drawn then. We have twelve minutes. Draw until you feel moved to begin writing, just noticing the feel of the crayon as you make lines and scribble—as long as you want to, you can skip writing entirely—and then write until the time is up.
…What came up for my workshoppers was wonderfully diverse in tone, ranging from wry to meditative to inspiring. I’m always blown away by how writers can take risks and write from the heart when we relax and get in front of that internal critic. Try it yourself sometime! Playing is fun, and brings out creative ideas.
Here’s what came up for me:
My mother never called anyone an asshole
Orange, I thought it was orange but the name on the label said “scarlet.”
I remember the fatter crayons they gave us in kindergarten, fat like our fingers were. I remember the way the color flowed out onto paper and everyone noticed I could draw what I saw, a gift, they said, pointing. But I just wanted to be small and unseen.
Seen, I blushed like the red crayon and inside turned cyan and chilly like the car on winter mornings on the way to school.
Seen, they said, “Oh, look how cute, she’s so shy!” And how my mother never told them to “stop talking about her as if she’s not here. She’s listening, assholes.”
(My mother never called anyone an asshole, but if she were alive now, I think she would.)
Mama got feistier and feistier as she grew older. But back when I was in Kindergarten, she was shrinking pale blue and gray and lots of black skies. There were no petal or dandelion-colored flowers blooming in her smiles. I drew her tulips and daisies and roses. I used all the crayons in the big box, sharpening them with the little sharpener to make the flowers as real as I could make them, but they were never real enough for her to feel them in her heart, it seemed.
She was blue and alone but much later, when I was all grown up and she was dying, she was brave and alone, instead. She would have called an asshole an asshole, I’m sure of it—if only she’d lived a little longer.
She was blooming like a warm summer day, right as she died back.
(I just wish she could come back.)
Waiting for the sunshine
You stood in the kitchen, waiting for the sunshine.
Oh, Mama. You waited.
You waited while the tickle in your throat rattled and rattled. Every phone call, eruptions of coughing. I listened, there was nothing else I could do—and sometimes I’d cut in, “hey, I’ll call you back, how about, when you’re feeling better.”
Now I see it through a backwards lens, time is funny like that, now I’m about how old YOU were then and my daughters are the ages I was then; I was your little last bird flown. Now I know the feeling of that emptiness, that new empty-nest, and how precious those calls become. Now I can feel, all these years later, how alone you must have sometimes felt, in your small kitchen, especially that last winter, coughing, insisting, talking, waiting, insisting that you were just fine.
You couldn’t really talk, but you didn’t want to hang up. It was a tickle, the end of a long lingering cold, a cold-on-top-of-a-cold, it was nothing.
Now I see you, frozen in the amber of that long-ago cold alone kitchen. Me not so far away in miles, but twenty-something me. So busy, busy, busy. A budding Bokonist, junior capitalist, believing that being an adult meant staying on the spinning hamster wheel. And also believing that you were going to be around for years and years, Mama. You were my mother. Life without you wasn’t comprehensible, and I didn’t imagine it, wouldn’t even try.
So I believed you, about the cough being nothing.
And still you coughed. I began to notice the unendingness of it. Worry crept in. I insisted you go to the doctor, but not soon enough. You locked my worries out and I let you. I locked them up, I guess. They were scary. Where did I learn to lock up so well? From you, Mama, you who waited in your small kitchen, vinyl-tiled, traces of avocado green barely visible in the corner, a little spot you missed when you carefully painted over with eggshell cream.
The wall phone is still avocado green in the mists of my memory. The round orb of the pendulum lamp casts a golden glow over the Formica table of the past, littered with bridge hands and newspapers and you, sitting there, smiling. So warm. I wish I could climb back into that kitchen, climb back to you.
I went to a movie with a friend the other day, an art film. Over ice cream afterwards he asked me, wonderingly, did I think the movie meant that all a man really wanted was a mother? I looked into his slate-gray eyes, and I thought of you, Mama.
No, I thought. It’s not just men who want that.
I thought of that horrible Psychology textbook photo, of the poor little monkey in the experiment who could choose, while starving, between a wire-framed “mother” equipped with milk and a nipple, or a fur-covered “mother” to cling to.
The little monkey always chose gnawing hunger and the fuzzy mama.
My friend’s sad eyes after the movie made me slide backwards through all the years. His eyes made me want to find you again, find you and fold you in my arms, to mother you, Mama. Because that is what you must’ve most wanted.
Because sometimes, life is scary, and you just want your mother.
But life is a funny circle, too. Scary and funny. In seeing how I failed you, I found you once again.
You’re here, waiting in the sunshine. Sometimes the darkness covers your shine, like a cloud. But you’re always there.
(Fastwrite from a prompt on regret).
In this one, you are standing by the old canal at Holcolm Gardens. The sun has made your hair catch fire, the sun is coating your tanned legs and long arms with a honeyed light, and for some silly reason lost to me now, you are holding up a big red box of Cheetos, holding it proudly, as if you are Carol Merrill and the box of snacks is a glistening prize that a nervous contestant is pondering.
In this one, you’ve driven back east to visit me, with a loaded Magnum 357 tucked under the front seat for company. It was the last time I would ever see you, but I didn’t know that then.
I guess you never really do know?
In this one, you are as I imagine you still are — slender and strong, tough and flexible as a zip tie. I was sure, in the way only a young person can hope to be, that somehow we’d stay best friends forever. That some how the trauma-bond of our shared childhoods and barbed wire moments of our teen years would bridge the miles, bridge the chasm growing between us, already as deep as a Colorado ravine.
In this one, I was laughing and my boyfriend was squirting lighter fluid on the grill and you were smiling, that sharp sickle-shaped smile of yours. Behind your mirrored aviators, your sky-blue eyes must have been smiling too.
In this one, I already missed you, even though your were still right there, holding the Cheetos.
(This was a fastwrite from a prompt: imagine a photograph that you have in an album or on your phone; get a picture of it in your mind, and begin with “In this one, you’re…” Write for 10 minutes.)
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.
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.
I wondered what they find to talk about now
after all those summers, baking hot
all those winters, pelted with sleet
still standing, side by side, steadfast together
do they ever wish they could escape,
or do they both secretly dream
of deeper connection, a current
transcending their important jobs,
their high-tension roles
or maybe they don’t talk at all, just sing
and tell jokes and laugh
maybe they are still best friends?
Happy rebirth-day to me
I don’t know the actual date of my rebirth-day. It was a Monday, the day after Easter, 2012. I suppose I could easily google it, but I prefer to let the day float in time, tied forever to the anchor of Easter. I wanders through time the way the ancients believed a woman’s womb wandered in her body.
My rebirth day began like any regular day, only slowed down. It was so hard to summon the will to get up. I’m pretty certain my husband called goodbye from the hallway, heading in to work early. I made coffee for me, hot black tea for my daughter before she scooted off to high school. I sliced an apple, sprinkled it with cinnamon, ate listlessly.
I had a full day of deadlines ahead, but I was tired as I climbed the stairs to my attic office. When I walked, my leg throbbed. I couldn’t focus, and there was a tickle in my throat. Damned perimenopause. After working through lunchtime, I decided I should go to the doctor.
“I had a terrible charlie horse on Easter morning,” I told the receptionist. “It really hurts a lot. I need to get into see someone today, please.”
“Is it swollen? Red? Purple? Streaking?”
I looked again, but it wasn’t. It looked exactly like it had the evening before, when I’d rolled my yoga pant-leg up and asked my daughter if it LOOKED swollen. Cause I could see in the mirror: it did not. Like me, on the outside my calf looked normal. The hurts were inside.
“Dr. S has a slot Thursday at 3:30,” the receptionist offered. “Or call at 8 am tomorrow and we might be able to work you in same day.”
I felt defeated and suddenly tearful. Working from home, my bedroom was just across the hall from my office. I did something I never did. I laid down in bed, while the sun was shining bright in the sky.
I sank under the covers, felt so peaceful, amazingly peaceful. I began to drift off—and then, wham! I woke with a start, as if someone had shaken me. An insistent inner voice demanded that I go, now, to a doctor. Any doctor. By this time, my daughter was back from high school. I limped downstairs and asked her to please drive me to the urgent care. I was so exhausted I couldn’t have managed to get there. I felt numb.
In yogic philosophy, samskaras are pathways worn into your thought processes by repetition, like the ruts worn into a pasture by cows plodding to the barn at feeding time. Over and over, that trip to the barn. Conditioning. Samskaras can be positive, but most of us struggle with our negative ones. The ruts of repeated beliefs and behaviors are worn so deep. Change seems impossible. My samskaras—my willingness to turn away from my own pain, to ignore it, disown it, to discount my physical sensations and emotions—a path of not trusting my own body and mind—almost did me in.
At the urgent care, I got really lucky. They were slow, and I was seen quickly. The nurse who did the patient interview was thorough. After the question about family history of heart disease, when I said my father died from a heart attack in his mid-fifties, he made a note on his clipboard and excused himself from the room. Seconds later, he returned. “We’re not going to charge you, you need to get right to an ER. We think you are having a heart attack.”
“But I don’t have chest pain?”
“Tell the ER we suspect heart attack,” he repeated. “Have your daughter drive you straight there, so we don’t have to wait for an ambulance.”
It was, in fact, not a heart attack. My charlie horse was not due to potassium deficiency or even perimenopause, at least, not directly. It was due to deep vein thrombosis, thanks to the low-dose “safe” birth-control pills that were supposed to make me feel better. And the DVT had been throwing off clots, caught by my waiting lungs, slowly filling them. “Multiple pulmonary embolisms in all lobes,” the cardiologist said. “Usually, this is diagnosed on the autopsy table. Any one of those clots could’ve caused instant death. You’re very lucky to be alive.”
And so a new samskara was born on my rebirth-day. “Very lucky to be alive.”
I know now, I was always lucky to be alive. I just had been focused on the wrong things, avoiding confrontation, denying what was true, ignoring pain, smothering joy, trying to cover up pain instead of facing it. I’d had it wrong for so long. But that day, I began anew. “Very lucky to be alive.”
Old samskaras are persistent, though. My self-defeating ones haven’t gone away.
Turmoil falls like rain, slipping and sliding me into old familiar grooves. I pick myself up faster now, though. I let the rain wash over me. I even laugh at it sometimes, laugh at myself for slipping. I remember a summer day when I was with a dear friend, someone from this new lifetime. We were walking once, and got caught out in a deluge. I reflexively began to cover my head, futilely, looking for a place to run. Recoiling, I was trying to change the reality of the rain that was falling, reverting to old habits. He, on the other hand, laughed up at the sky, let the rain wash across his smile.
I felt a surge: I was lucky to be alive, in the rain, with my friend.
“Very lucky to be alive.”
We grow old, if we are lucky. Life hurts sometimes. Pain comes, uncertainty comes, loss comes. Sometimes it feels unbearable.
- This dewdrop world —
- Is a dewdrop world,
- And yet, and yet . . .
The Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa wrote that, after two of his children died when they were very small. He somehow found, even after such losses, beauty, and the will to go on. He too must have known he was lucky to be alive.
Life is hard, change is hard. I once thought perimenopause and my changing body and crumbling marriage were the end of me. That I was powerless, defeated. It seems almost comical now, looking back. Yes, my marriage ended, the imagined future I had hoped for ended with it. And yet—
“I’m lucky to be alive,” I think, with each pink bursting dawn, each deep breath, each morning’s first sip of hot coffee, each warm hug, each aching goodbye, each day and hour I get to live and write and walk and feel, the good feelings and the hard ones, too. Maybe someday I’ll wear away my old faithful, fearful samskaras with gratitude. Maybe someday my fears will dance hand in hand in the rain, smiling, laughing, transformed.
I’m still figuring out what comes next, and I accept I always will be figuring it out. Always falling down and getting up.
Always –“very lucky to be alive.”