Scraps

I want to tell you about my mother. I want to tell you her story, but even I don’t really know it.
My mother was a cipher.

I found out things about her life in snips and chunks and tiny worn scraps left in pants pockets, without context or narrative thread. I’ve spent years trying to put them together into a story, her story, and make it read like a whole. It’s hard. Her story died with her. I can’t get the rest of it, and the bits that I have are stained with my own bias.

IMG_0376

 

I know her childhood was abusive, and dismal. She grew up in a cold-water tenement with a shared bathroom. Her father beat her mother. Her mother beat the kids. My grandfather, when I knew him, was generally kind but not very engaged. My grandmother was a cruel, twisted woman who could cut you down with a look or a word. She openly played favorites and shit on everyone else. She was racist, hateful and vicious. No effort was good enough if it wasn’t perfect. She was nasty, through and through.

My mother was molested by the handyman in her building when she was 7 years old. When she told her mother, she was beaten, then made to scrub herself and her clothes in the washtub. All the while, her mother screamed at her and threatened that if she told anyone, she would never have any friends and the neighbors would call her dirty names.

Did I mention that she was 7 years old?

If you’re thinking her childhood resembled some Dickensian horror story, minus the workhouse, you wouldn’t be far off. There were good times, but mostly, it was a miserable existence punctuated by periods of hunger, abuse and self-loathing. All this helped make my mother into the woman she became—a woman who didn’t know how to love. She was critical, and judgmental, and always concerned with outward appearances. She used shame and guilt to control, and she was very, very good at it.

Mom was smart, and an achiever, but she was routinely passed over for scholarships and promotions because of her gender. She embraced feminism as a means of survival. Because of her struggles, she made sure I never missed an opportunity because I was a girl. She instilled in me the belief that I could do or be anything. She banned Barbie and Disney movies. When I wanted to be an international spy, or an astronaut, it didn’t matter what other people thought. Mom said I could be anything I wanted to be.

The simplest way to tell this story is to say that my mother had a terrible childhood, and it set her up to fail. She also had a mood disorder that wasn’t treated for most of her life. She was addicted to approval. She was a good victim, and a frequent one. She made victims of her children, until we fought back or ran from her. Then she didn’t know what to do, so she sought help. This is also the least complex way to tell this story, and unfairly  one-dimensional, because my mother was a multi-faceted being full of dichotomies and hypocrisies that were, more often than not, the result of an unexamined life. She wasn’t a bad person, but she was so very ill.

Later, as an adult, I tried to come to terms with my own abuse. Given that our narratives were different, we couldn’t really talk about it together. This made resolving it more difficult. I understand that admitting her complicity wasn’t a bridge she was able to cross, but still, it wounded me deeply. I’m still bleeding a little.

The closest we ever came was when she said to me that she could understand if I hated her. That from me, she could take that. It lifted a weight from me that I hadn’t known I still carried. It also made me realize that I didn’t hate her. Despite everything, I loved her. I didn’t like her much of the time, but I loved her. I understood how damaged she was, and that she just didn’t have the tools to do things right.

In January, it will be 10 years since my mother died, here in our home. She died unexpectedly one morning. My daughter couldn’t wake her up, and her breathing was erratic, so we called for the ambulance. They loaded her into the rig, and once inside, her heart stopped. After 45 minutes of resuscitation efforts, her heart rhythm continued to be nothing more than a flat line. Despite my medical background, all my years of training and “insider” knowledge, it took me 45 minutes to ask them to stop. They remain the most difficult words I’ve ever spoken.

As I stood next to the gurney holding my mother’s cooling body, I lay my head on her chest and sobbed. This was the best we would ever be. This was the closest we would ever come to resolution. I lost more than my mother that morning. I lost a bit of myself too.

I have since learned more parts of Mom’s story, but I don’t know where they fit. I can’t ask her about them. So I sit with all my little scraps of paper and sift through them, trying to piece together what is true and what is exaggerated. Each revelation changes how I think of her, because we have no new truths to balance out the old ones. I don’t like this. I feel like maybe I’m betraying her, but I can’t be sure. Maybe by accepting the good things I was betraying myself. I can’t know.

I’m coming to this anniversary, and feeling less concerned with knowing what’s true and what isn’t. My mother will always be a mystery to me, and I will never have the answers I seek, so I will have to live with the unknown, simply because it’s unknowable.

I’m going to scatter her ashes this coming year, and let her go. Let go of the mystery and the wondering. Let the wind pick up all the scraps and bits of paper and take them. I know everything I need to know. The scraps are just scraps. They don’t make a picture. They just make a mess.

 

Blah….

The holiday season came up fast, and with it my birthday, and my son’s. I have been swimming in preparations for a trip my kids are taking with their father across the country in a couple of days, to spend Christmas with his family. I haven’t been good about sticking to my blog schedule, and tonight this is catching up with me. To be blunt, I find it biting me squarely on the ass.
I have a story to tell. I have had an eventful few days, and I have things to say, but they will have to wait. Not for long, mind, but at least until Tuesday, when I can guarantee some uninterrupted time to think and write and give my words space to breathe. Everything is in the pot, and it’s bubbling away, but the soup isn’t ready yet. The beans are still too hard.
So I will be posting late this week; though I know there isn’t really a “schedule” per se, there is one in my brain, and I’m blowing by my deadline tonight. I’ll be back later in the week. Hope you will be too.

Quietly

I am trying to write something at least weekly. This week feels like I’m digging out a splinter—push, pull, adjust the light, scrape up, scrape down, ouch. Still, that little niggling thing rests, quietly, just below the surface. It won’t oblige.

100_0540

The world outside is making introspection more difficult and more important. I’m at turns horrified and impressed by my fellow humans. I think because there is so much happening right now, I’m having a hard time distilling my thoughts down into a cohesive whole. So I’m trying to find the linkages, the human elements, and improve my understanding.

The response to the refugee crisis has been making me heartsick. I know there are so many good people, who want nothing more than to help. I know that there are so many who understand that, except for a few indigenous people, we all came from somewhere else. Some of our families came here just like these families, running for their lives, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, nothing left behind them but shelled-out buildings that they used to call home. Parents watching helplessly as their children grow thinner and colder every day. They need our help, and we should give it freely, because they are part of our human family. There is no reason that the situation couldn’t be reversed, except for an accident of birth.

But the most noise comes from those who would ban all Muslims. There are acts of terrorism, aggression and outright assault happening all over the US, targeting Muslims or those who look like they might be Muslim. Mosques are being firebombed and defaced. People are standing outside houses of worship with guns. Presidential candidates are weighing in on the merits of registering Muslims in some kind of database, and having them be somehow easily identifiable on the streets.

Each week brings new incidents of people of color being gunned down and otherwise abused at the hands of law enforcement. Cries for justice go mostly unheeded—until the video surfaces. Even then, there are those who want the “whole story,” as though there is any story that would justify the killing of an unarmed person. We are divided when we should be joining together, to understand what has gone so terribly, terribly wrong.

I could continue. You don’t need me to, though. You know what’s happening, just as clearly as I do. We have traded away intellectual discourse for talking points and propaganda. And for many, we have traded our sense of humanity for a false sense of security.

Someone commented the other day, and I’ve thought about this a lot since then, that those people who project such hatred and distrust do so to help mentally manage chaos. And I think this is the smartest statement I’ve heard in a long time.

What do people most fear? They may say they fear spiders, or dying, or being alone, but what they really fear is the unknown, and pain. They fear that which they cannot control, and that if something beyond their control or understanding happens, that they might be hurt because of it, or suffer loss. Natural feelings, these.

One of the keys to empathy, according to Brené Brown, is to make oneself vulnerable. You must be open and willing to share of yourself. This is how you find the place where you connect to others. This is how you locate them in your own heart.

Vulnerability is risky. It’s uncomfortable. It requires a level of trust, and trust can be hard to give. Vulnerability open you up to the possibility of being hurt. Without it, though, you aren’t able to access the true places within yourself, and you won’t find the connections you seek. From these connections, empathy and compassion grow and flourish. Without them, there isn’t anything but fear and distrust.

So it’s come to me that this splinter I’m picking at, this little obstinate particle of a thought, is that these people who I am so often furious with aren’t deserving of my anger. They need my compassion. They are mired in their fear. They are trapped by their need to put all the world’s misery into tidy little boxes and label each one. They hope that by corralling their fears and giving them names, this will somehow calm the chaos that is inherent in our lives; that they will know what to avoid, and what to gravitate towards, and this will somehow keep misfortune from howling at the door. They cannot withstand the strain of knowing that they are no match for the vagaries of the universe, and thus they hide under the covers of racism, and privilege, and conspiracy. And for this, they need our compassion. You wouldn’t be angry with one who was afraid of the dark; so then, I can’t continue to be angry with people who are afraid to live in the world as it exists, with all it’s wonder, and beauty, and limitless pain. I will instead sit, quietly, with my hard-won splinter, and think about how I can be kinder to everyone I meet, and especially to those I disagree with. It would seem that they may be most in need of it.

This doesn’t mean I won’t continue to protest injustices that occur. Quite the contrary. But the people who are propping up these petty dictators? They are not going to change their minds by being argued with, or judged. If they were, it would have already happened. But maybe some quiet compassion will encourage them to lean in to the discomfort of the chaos. Maybe they will make the connections that will allow them to poke their heads out from under the covers and see what’s going on.

It can be so beautiful out here.

I’d love to know what you think. Please leave a comment if you’re so inclined…

Adrift

47 Juneau, Alaska May 2015      “So, do you think it was impulsive?”

The question wasn’t unexpected. I sat in a chair facing my psychiatrist, looking at the grey mist outside. I had confessed why I was so torn up; that I had, in the course of the last month, been involved in a brief, intense, but ultimately disastrous romantic relationship. It had left me drifting, demoralized, unsure of myself. I had pushed away all the warnings from my conscious mind. I had silenced all my misgivings, and dove head-first into a whirlpool of emotional turmoil that left me stranded, heartsick, and wounded. Unmoored, I sank back in the chair, and sighed deeply.

Of course it was impulsive. Impulsiveness is the hallmark of my life.

Everything I have done of any import has been impulsive. Everything.  It’s the thread running through my life; my standing joke among friends (though it isn’t particularly amusing) has always been, “It seemed like a good idea at the time…”

There’s added weight to her question now, though. My diagnosis (and treatment) has changed in the last few months, from simple depression to bipolar disorder. So now I have begun to wonder about the root causes of my impulsiveness. How much is personality, and how much pathology? How much is demeanor and how much disease? The line has proved elusive.

In the process of unpacking this new diagnosis, and beginning new medications, I have wondered how much of myself I will recognize when I come out the other side. In a way, it feels like having a stranger come over and clean out my closets. I don’t know what they might throw away, and if it’s something that I really wanted to keep, how I might get it back. There’s a sense of violation and panic that is almost indescribable when I think about it. I see the folly in the thoughts, have heard others say similar things when they don’t want to treat their mood disorder. I comply with my medications and therapy, and perform self-care as diligently as possible, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I am filled with fear.

I fear that my periods of creativity are driven by my episodes of hypomania. I fear that by smoothing those out, that it’s possible I won’t be a creative person anymore. The thought of this terrifies me. I don’t know who that person would be, but she wouldn’t be me.

I fear that all my highs will go away, and all I will have left will be the lows. The only thing that makes a low mood bearable is knowing that the upswing will be coming. I don’t think I could survive being in a continuous state of depression, and that makes this the most frightening thought of all.

I fear that the things that end up in the discard pile might be the things I love about myself, the things that I think define me. That the parts of me that my friends and family love might go away, and left in their place will be blank spaces, or worse, something nasty and vindictive. That they will leave me for good, not because I’ve chased them away this time, but because I’m just not compelling enough to hang on to anymore. That one morning, I might wake up and not know who the fuck I am anymore.

Ultimately, I am willing to take the chance. I am adrift, unsure of where I will eventually land, but I know I can’t stay here. I need some control back in my life. I need to rewrite my story. I need some self-respect, so I can love people better, myself included.

So, I sank back in my chair, and I sighed. I took hold of my grief, and my panic; I settled them on the floor for a minute, so I could sit with her question. I searched for the honest answer. I let my objective brain take the wheel, though fear was biting me, hard. I looked at her, and answered, “Yes, I guess it was. I need a better handle on things. So what do we do now?”

I don’t know when I will come to safe harbor. What I do know is that I will get there. I was made for rough seas. I will probably lose some of the crew along the way, but the best of them will stay on board. Together, we can weather the storm.