Making Room for Mom

Most of my panic has subsided into resignation. I’m nervous about my mother coming into to my home and finding fault with everything from my hair to my home furnishings. I’m not sure why I’m doing this. Is it for her or for me? Maybe it’s really a win-win situation. My mother gets to have a relationship with one of her daughters; I get to have a little peace about my mother’s emotional state and allow more acceptance into my life.

For a few years, three decades actually, I was the peacemaker in our family. I was constantly running from one faction to the other, trying to keep the lines of communications open; I worked hard to sidestep difficult situations and avoid unintentional betrayals of confidence. I never felt at ease. I had too many secrets to keep and not enough real connection. Then one day, I simply gave it up. I decided I couldn’t be the fixer any more. I no longer had it in me to put aside my needs and feelings so that I could hold the emotions of my family members. It was the most selfish thing I had ever done. It goes without saying that it stirred the anger of my entire family.

The rigid roles in my family meant that I was breaking tradition and being selfish. As the youngest daughter, I was expected to obey my elders—all of them—and defer to them in all things great and small. The instant feedback resulting from drawing boundaries with my family was that I was punished in cruel and cold ways. Both my sisters, each in her turn, put my possessions out on the street; one giving me a day’s notice to retrieve them; the other sister simply left them out during a move without notice. Did I mention that we didn’t live in the same states at the time? Choosing to live my own life has had huge consequences. It was like pulling a thread out of an old hand-knit sweater. The object has been altered forever. Yet, I don’t regret my choice to live my own self-defined reality.

It’s been about ten years since I first asserted my personhood and drawn that lines that I haven’t cared to cross again. My family is fragmented and dysfunctional; on occasion we circle in at the each other’s lives and draw back from the defenses erected. There is a dissatisfying taste in my mouth, almost bitter, when I remember harsh words and thoughtless deeds. I think I need to let go and practice forgiveness, which is a daily ritual, one that fortifies against pettiness and indifference.

Letting go and forgiveness have a complicated standing in my life. I find it easier to forgive my mother in some ways because she comes from an alien planet, an island in the Caribbean where a dictator and an abusive husband made her life a ruin. Still it does not dampen the anger in me when she alternates between haughty justifications and outright revisions as she denies the brutality she reigned down on us as children. I’m unwilling to let go of my truth. It keeps me sane. Opening my home to her, therefore, is a psycho-emotional journey into the historical trauma and violence of our family and a battle to maintain boundaries with an old woman who still feels that she owns me and is entitled to control my destiny.

This new element, that my mother is undoubtedly seventy-years old, adds a new dimension to dealing with this erstwhile queen of all. She brides, manipulates, scolds, cajoles, dominates and competes. She never asks for or says what she needs or wants. She is always a victim, one who must control everything but that which she actually can. I have learned to step away from the emotional landmines while not denying myself the opportunity to walk in the fields of compassion. During her visit, I had to withdraw from all else to be present for her. I concentrate on the small blessings in each moment. She is smiling despite herself. She is resting and engaging with me in garden work. She is feeding us delicious food from a deep place of wisdom, focus and attention. Paying attention, I know, is a small act, but one that has brought us some peace.

We managed to survive my mother’s visit. Our nerves our frayed; we are battle-worn; we relish in the silence and simplicity of our everyday lives. I am grateful to have had the courage and fortitude to invite her in to our home and to express my love in the ways I find nurturing and healing. I was never able to embrace my mother and connect with her in the manner that my heart knows is authentic; she would never allow it. However, I was able to make room in my life and enjoy the cooking that she is so proud of and that has given us all joy. After all, I’m not trying to change her. I simply want to love her the best way I can.

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Atonement: the Future of Good Relationships

A recent training with twenty-five women at Charlotte Maxwell Complementary Clinic for low-income women with cancer made me think about how I love the people in my life. I was reminded that many years ago, when I volunteered and served as staff there, I was emotionally open to hold the space for women who were often suffering and always courageous, no matter what else was going on in my personal life. I would hug any woman who wanted to be held, and I would forget any of my own problems at the door. In that space, once again, where I was working from my heart and listening to the pulse of the women around me, I realized that I have not, for a very long, lived in this way. Too often I’m guarded (not without good reason, mind you!), and operating solely from my intellect, resisting my intuition and blocking my emotions. Yet, there I was, physically holding virtual strangers and asking myself, “How could I step into that space and be there for total strangers and not for my own sister?” This is the question I’m grappling with.

Like most people, I haven’t got the “relationship” thing down perfectly. I haven’t always been there for the people I care about in the ways they’ve wanted. At other times, I’ve come through with flying colors. It’s occasionally hard to tell when I’ve hit the mark or not. Lately, I’ve been listening better, but it’s still not entirely clear when I get it right. I’m drawn to people who articulate their feelings openly, or who trust me with their unspoken realities. Can I really afford to avoid those people who express themselves differently? I think that I cannot. This has me thinking a lot about atonement. Why don’t we have more rituals to help us make amends when we stray? I don’t mean legal recourse, which we have in spades, but rather authentic space for reconciliation in our everyday lives.

The Jewish tradition has a yearly Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. They have it right. I believe my life would be much better—I’d have far more peace in my heart—if I had had the chance to apologize, ask for forgiveness and make amends at regularly scheduled intervals throughout my life.

Unfortunately, there aren’t too many role models for this one. Martin Luther King inspires me, but his work seems to be from another lifetime. The training the Civil Rights Workers underwent in order to resist oppression without resorting to violence is ignored and underrated though there is much that can be learned from their displayed discipline in the face of adversity and violence. They literally trained themselves to turn the other cheek.

Why don’t Christians have a tradition of non-violence and reconciliation as a common practice? Oh, I’ve read on the Internet that Christians honor this tradition, because Jesus would have observed these practices, but I cannot recall personally attending even one such service in all my many years as a member of different churches. Perhaps we take it for granted that since Jesus died for our sins, we needn’t trouble ourselves to reconcile with others. That’s not the whole truth. Communion and silent confession have given me great peace and comfort, but what about the intentional righting of wrongs?

I’m a teacher, so it always comes back to training and practice for me. In my opinion, I can’t get good at a thing until I’ve had some practice. Learning to make amends is now moving into the priority range for me. Perhaps I’m more aware of my mortality now that my mother is seventy, and because I don’t have a healthy relationship—friendly communications, even—with my sisters. All this has begun to unsettle me. At the same time as I want to have a relationship with my sisters, I don’t want to ignore the very real problems that have led to our present impasse. I need a ritual that will let me heal the deep emotional wounds that only sisters can inflict on each other and address my concerns as well.  I’d like to have open communication with my blood family. I’d also like to remain sane through the process.

This week I’m co-facilitating a workshop to help young people unlearn internalized oppression, and it makes sense to me that atonement has to be part of the work we do to heal our communities. We can’t move on, heal, or feel good with guilt on our conscience. It’s critical that we learn to forgive ourselves and other people. We have to learn to say, “Sorry,” and then take steps to build trust. It’s essential that when we get a second chance, we use it to make peace. This is not the popular social paradigm of our times—possibly of any times. Generations of families have been known to carry grudges (Note: Romeo and Juliet, or the Hatfields and McCoys—fiction and reality are telling us a truth).

We have to make atonement part of the fabric of our society.

In the Buddhist tradition there is space to air and resolve grievances. It allows individuals to talk openly about their troubles and begin to repair damage with the help of the Sangha, the community of practice. The community both witnesses and mediates, with the goal of keeping the community intact. Thich Nhat Hanh also teaches the practice of atoning by writing letters. Sometimes it’s too hard to face someone who has hurt us and whom we have in turn hurt. In such cases, a letter may allow for the full expression of our emotions. I’m not just talking about forgiveness, which is often a personal practice that has noting to do with reconciliation, per se. I need the ability and skill to speak thoughtfully and compassionately to the people I love.

Now that I’m committed to my monthly service at Charlotte Maxwell, I see that I will pour the love I feel for my sisters, who I’m literally and figuratively afraid to touch, into these women, who want to be touched by me. Even my awareness is a powerful reminder that I am learning and growing because this matters to me. My ability to express  love in ways that are meaningful for the people in my life is important. I know my prayers and meditations are bringing me closer to the healing I desire. In the meantime, I want and need to be loved for who I am and the gifts I bring into the world. This can better happen when I’m open. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the exceptional gifts of love I’m able to share with friends, family and strangers.

Visibility: the Fear and Redemption of Being Seen

 

 

We don’t want to stand out. We don’t own our gifts and talents. We shy away from the limelight. Students drop a class on the day that they are to present. We can’t stand to have our pictures taken. We put on brave faces and don’t admit to our troubles. Why do so many of us fear visibility? Let’s examine the tendency to hide and the motivation behind this action.

 

 

As an undergrad I studied literature with a voracious appetite. When I first learned the concept of “the gaze” and how some of us have the status of the viewed or the power to cast down our gaze upon the object, the body of the other, it sounded true, profoundly true, and unquestionable. It has the potential to humanize or dehumanize. As a woman of color, I have often been subjected to the unwanted gaze. I have been defenseless against it, and I have also been enslaved to it, desiring it and needing it to feel alive.

 

 

Unfortunately, too many people wander through life unable, owing to trauma or abuse, to accept love in the form of healthy relationships. When you’re a teacher, you encounter people who reside all along the length of this continuum, in which the opposite extremes of this reality are the most challenging: the needy “hungry ghosts” (so named by Thich Nhat Hanh), whose bottomless hunger attempts to consume your very soul, and the stalker, bent on owning, controlling or destroying what she cannot have. Both are dangerous. Both need love. Both may not be able, ready or willing to accept the gift. Audre Lorde said that “we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live.” This is must be true. I’ve read that sometimes schizophrenics don’t like to take medication because they lose contact with the voices in their heads, their friends, their community. In a sense, they are constantly being seen by their personalities. They are never alone. Barring mental illness, we all do intricate dances, moving between solitude and companionship, stepping up and sliding back.  But why do we let our illnesses drive us so deeply into isolation?

 

 

I believe we fear the visibility of our illnesses and diseases more than we do humiliation, which tends to be fleeting. We hide our worries, fears and doubts from others. We are expected to mask our pain, hold it together, go to work—crawl there if we must. I think of my unexplainable shame of having a shingles episode, going to work in agony. My mother insists that I not tell anyone about my shingles (if she only knew about this blog: ay-ya-ya!). More commonly, people feel apprehension to discuss cancer, skin disease, mental illness and depression. Ironically, though it is during the times when we are weak that support is most critical, we may not ask for help. Perhaps this ties in to some aspect of the American Myth of Meritocracy, the creed by which we live, consciously or unconsciously; being weak or sick places us in the “other” category, and we all strive to be included in the dominant culture, to assimilate into the norms that govern a “normal” existence, anything—anyplace—so long as we are not “other-ed.” We attempt to make ourselves invisible in order to avoid the yardstick of normalcy. This makes our suffering worse, possibly prolonging illness.

 

 

As a teacher, I find that visibility is a two-edged sword. In my quest to facilitate a classroom that is built on principles of engaged pedagogy, every student has a voice. On the one hand this is empowering for students to be seen; on the other, that visibility carries enormous responsibilities and ramifications. Some students have never been truly seen by a person in authority. This can lead to drunken power in some, usually those who already feel entitled or disenfranchised but who often possess lots of social power. It can also cause fixations in students, with the teacher as the unfortunate object of focus. A student may feel that she is special (which is not untrue) but will not know the boundaries of the relationship. These relationships can be sexualized in the mind of the student, and in a college setting, this doesn’t always feel safe. I sometimes feel vulnerable to the returning gaze. Suddenly the student wants more than I am willing to give; he takes it personally when he is not privileged above others. I cannot turn out the light. I have to see the relationship through to the end, praying that the semester will conclude well. Still other relationships are precious. The connection is deep, lasting and mutually reciprocal. I cannot have the one without exposing myself to the other. I have to be open to both, or I may miss a gem.

 

 

In my maturity, the need to stand out  and take up more room than is necessary has lessened, reduced by the loving relationships that sustain me in authentic ways, rendering the superficial gaze, just that. Yet, I understand that we must be seen in a loving, compassionate light if we are to thrive. In life, our good friends see us; their gaze nurtures us. I am learning to trust people more by opening myself to sympathy and empathy. It does not make me weak, as I have always assumed. It makes me visible. Had I discussed my shingles sooner with more people, I perhaps would have received more advice, and maybe recovered faster. I am stronger in community than I am by myself. I understand that better, and it’s blessing me.