A Beautiful Picture

(photo by Ellie Conant)

In some patients who had turned away from their mother in dislike or hate, or used some other mechanism to get away from her, I have found that there existed in their minds nevertheless a beautiful picture of the mother, but one which was felt be a picture of her only, not her real self. The real object was felt to be unattractive – really an injured incurable, and therefore dreaded person. The beautiful picture had been dissociated from the real object but had never been given up and played a great part in the specific ways of their sublimations. ~ Melanie Klien, A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic Depressive States,

 

May 2013

We’d tempted fate.

We hadn’t meant to. Just feeling our oats, enjoying our lives, our home, our neighborhood, our careers, and our children. We were pleased with our bank accounts – our retirement looked reasonable enough for self-employed late bloomers, and the college funds were starting to accrue. The children were thriving, our marriage was in a good place. We had beloved friends, my mother had moved nearby to help with childcare and take on the tasks of an everyday grandmother.

We were healthy and fit – we were walking vigorously together in fact, in laps around the park before splitting off into our personal daily workout: I would practice bagua tai chi, and meditate, David would go run a few miles. It was spring, still wearing light sweat shirts, and the ground was damp and spongey.

We loved our work: both of us psychotherapists – we shared an office and had full and thriving practices. We were desirable. Effective. Non-traditional – maybe even a little renegade and rebellious. Our clients found our style direct, demystifying, refreshing.

Our kids amazed us: insightful, thoughtful, bright, beautiful. One diligent and orderly. The other creative and chaotic.

They were newly enrolled at a private school with an arts based curriculum – which seemed instantly to take enormous pressures off them and respond more to their individual gifts and deficits – and the kids seemed engaged, creative, cared for in their new environment. It was one of the cheapest private schools available, and it was going to be a challenge, maybe even a strain to pay for it – but we tried to run the numbers and if we took on a few more full fee clients a week it wouldn’t be impossible.

Psychotherapeutic work was challenging, invigorating, hard sometimes – but not in anyway a drain. We could always take on more. We enjoyed our competency, tried to be useful when other parents or the schools asked us for a little clinical guidance or our two cents on some socio-emotional problem. Our professions also offered us a role in our communities, and we felt capable and valued.

Our lives were stuffed with meaningful over-activity. Maybe even to the point of gluttony.

We were adoptive parents and active and connected throughout the adoption community – which felt like “our tribe”, our “people.” We presented at conferences, wrote articles with and for adult adoptees, lead parenting workshops, wrote a monthly column for an online magazine for adult adoptees. We had founded a non-profit organization for adoptive families that was now standing on its own without our labors. We volunteered our time and expertise to causes and organizations that were vital to our values, and did so with efficacy, and passion.

Adoption had also forged our relationship to the Korean American community – and a close circle of defacto aunties and uncles – who offered themselves as role models, who fed us all Korean food, who taught us to cook and how to shop in Korean markets. Who taught us songs and curse-words and how to write our American names in hangul. And Korea school, on Saturdays.

After chaotic and unformed twenties spent flailing around New York City as desperate actors, in miserable underpaid day gigs, after negotiating graduate school and loans in the decade after that, we had arrived somewhere, we had built something. We had spent years wondering if we’d ever have a life that felt real to us. A home. A family. A community. A career.

Life felt solid, in a good way. Secure under our feet. Satisfying. Mapped out.

And then one of us dared to say so.

I can’t remember which one of us said it, but it could very well have been me because I was certainly thinking it so I’ll accept responsibility:

“So, we are pretty much set from here. We’ve got everything in place and if we just hold here – we are cool, set up for life. We are gonna be O.K. Isn’t that nice? We spent our whole twenties and thirties wondering if our lives would ever come together, and it did, and we have, and we are going to be O.K.”

I’m sure that was the moment that our hubris drew the attention of the gods.

We wouldn’t notice the cracks opening up underneath us for several months, maybe even more than a year later. The first hairline fractures were imperceptible. But then the ground opened up wide – wide enough to twist your ankle in, and then knock your steering column out of alignment. Eventually the sinkholes would open up large enough to swallow us all whole, giving us breathtaking, staggering glimpses of the underworld. All of us would be changed forever. Some of us would never be seen again.

And I would end up with an entirely new life assignment, a mission that I did not choose but was trained for and then drafted into:

 

To live for the rest of my days in the crack between the worlds.

*****

 

October 2013

 

My mother sat down next to me on a bench at the playground, over looking the Brooklyn Promenade and the New York Harbor. The children raced and screamed and flung themselves headlong down the twisty double decker slide.

I brought us box lunches, and as my mother and I ate she said:

“Last week I woke up in the morning and I had an inverted nipple.”

“Huh? What…”

“I said I have an inverted nipple. Since last week. There is a lump about the size of a quarter.”

“Have you felt anything before? When was your last mammogram?”

“About three months ago. They found nothing.”

“So that seems like something grew super fast – I don’t think most breast cancers grow that quickly? Probably just an infection or maybe some kind of cyst or something. Did you go to the doctor?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, go! Make an appointment as soon as possible. See if you can get in tomorrow even – because then they’ll have to set up another mammogram, and that will take time, and a biopsy… So call today, call soon.”

“I will when we leave here.”

“Okay. I’m surprised you didn’t already call?”

“Well, I wanted to wait, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it if it was nothing.”

“Well, its something enough to get to a doctor ASAP.”

She saw a doctor, and they scheduled a mammogram, and a biopsy for a few weeks ahead and then I forgot about it for a bit.

The next week, David and the kids and I walked along 32nd Street, Manhattan’s Koreatown, headed over to the seasonal launch of a Korean Adoptee mentorship program that the kids had been attending for several years. We stopped first in the Korean book store, as we always did, picking out stickers and pencils with Korean cartoon characters or the Korean flag on them, looking at the books, and cookbooks, gazing at the golden statues of armored “turtle boats” and war ships that sold for thousands of dollars.

We wandered in the crisp, sunny day down the street toward the hole in the wall kimbap shop to get take home for dinner. Eli, eleven years old, graceful and handsome, funny and rambunctious, ran around us in circles, raced ahead bent over from the waist with his arms behind him for aerodynamic effect, as fast as a small human bullet train. He hopped up onto “a siamese pipe” – a flat topped pipe about two feet high, next to the entrance of a building, with two openings for attaching firehoses if necessary. They were plugged against buildings all over the city, painted in bright colors – welcome spots to sit on briefly if you need to tie your shoe. Kids all over the city loved to hop on top of them to pose briefly and victoriously before leaping back down to the concrete.

But something happened. I’m still not sure what it was. I blinked. And my boy seemed to crumple. From standing triumphantly on top of the pipe, he buckled and went down in segments, his knees, belly, chin and head struck the concrete. Hard. I ran to him.

He stood up and caught his breath.

“I’m okay” he said and took my hand. We walked a few steps together with his hand in mine when he crumpled again, hitting the pavement, unconscious. I screamed. David was ahead of us and came racing back, gathering him up. Eli was seizing, convulsing in his arms. I screamed for help, for someone to call 911. Korean grandmas and grandpas came swarming around us, popped out of the shops and began to intervene in their own way. One put ice on his head, another rubbed some stinky ointment below his ears. No one seemed to be calling an ambulance so I let David hold him, now limp and stunned and I called 911.

In a few minutes an FDNY ambulance pulled up. Eli was disoriented, but awake. Not sure what had happened to him, his response time seem slow and strange. Altered. The doctors at the ER suspected a contact seizure, but when we went to our pediatrician the next day, he wondered, as did I, if the seizure had started before he fell, if it had caused him to fall – rather than being the result of the fall. It could be epilepsy, or it could be, god forbid, a brain tumor.

My boy. My wild-peculiar-fascinating-beautiful boy.

I could barely breathe. It was probably nothing. Probably just a contact seizure – but he does also have migraines, and those vision issues… Stop. I can’t deal with that. He’s fine. Look at him. We’ll just take it a step at a time.

We would need a neurological evaluation and an MRI.

David and I were traumatized and terrified- our beautiful boy could suddenly have an entirely different life than the one we had been watching him grow into. Or, fine, nothing. Good. He’s safe. We get to hang onto our basically stable reality.

We would not know the final answer for many months.

Mom got her mammogram which revealed a growth, as we expected, and I went with her to the surgeon to arrange a biopsy.

It would take some time for the results. I imagined it would be fine. A cyst. People don’t get huge tumors out of the blue in just a few months. She’d be fine. Her mother lived to 83. We didn’t have any cancer in our family.

The weeks of waiting. I had no idea if our lives were about to be turned completely upside down forever or if we would be allowed to go back, if it would even be possible to go back, to the way we were before we foolishly displayed our hubris before the gods.

We prepared Eli for the MRI as best as we could – and prayed that they would find nothing – no tumors, no cancer. On the day of the test, he bravely hopped up on the table, laid his head in the vice that would secure it, and we reminded him that he would have to hold perfectly still for 90 minutes in a loud machine with out moving at all. David sat in the room, draped in lead aprons, near Eli’s feet. It seemed impossible that a boy who never stopped moving, would be able to withstand this level of restraint. But he did it. Like a little atman. Just laid down, and when to some inside happy place which allowed him to sit in that machine without even a single wriggle. I stared at the readout slice by slice, cross segment by cross segment – looking for any large, horrifying anomaly.

The phone rang. It was school.

“This isn’t an emergency call. We wanted to let you know that we had a lice check today and Lucy was identified as needing to be sent home until you have remediated the problem. Eli isn’t here today, but you will need to get him checked and we recommend you and David as well. We have a packet that lists the lice busters and nit-pickers who can work with you, and can certify that the children are louse and nit free and ready to return to school. Will you be able to come and get Lucy shortly?”

“Well, Eli is in the middle of an MRI right now, we can come as soon as he is done? Can you give me the numbers of a couple of the delousing services that you have? I’ll try to call so we can all go straight there after picking her up.”

This wasn’t stopping. It was escalating.

By the time Eli was released from the restraints in the big loud x-ray can, I had already called all the nitpickers – and secured an appointment with a lady in Crown Heights two hours later. We would have just enough time whisk our son out of the imaging center, hop the subway to pick up Lucy at school, grab lunch, and then hop on back on the train to the delouser’s kitchen.

My husband congratulated our son, remaining as anxious as I was about what the imaging might have revealed, or relieved us of.

“You were amazing in there E.! Like a little Buddha – totally still!” Eli was at that time, very into doing things “the Buddha way” so this was experienced as the highest compliment. They walked slowly toward the parking elevator. David wondered if we should go grab a bite….

“But um, we can’t – because Lucy has lice, so we have to go straight to school right now – grab her, get some food, and then get on the train to Crown Heights to get to the nitpickers in time for our appointment.” He stared at me not comprehending. “Come on! we’ve gotta move, we don’t have time for this -”

“WHAT are you talking about! Stop talking in that tone – there is no reason for you to be talking to me like that.”

“Listen: Lucy has LICE. We have to GO and pick her up at SCHOOL. And then ALL of us, Eli, you, me – have to go to the nitpickers house and have her check all of us. She does it in her kitchen, its a whole operation. And then we have to go home and we are going to have to wash all of our sheets and towels in hot hot water like three times – and we are going to have to bag up all of the kids stuffed animals, anything that we can’t wash and dry in high temperatures, we are going to have to BAG all that stuff, we are going to have to bag the slip covers on our couches and our throw pillows that the kids lay on to watch TV. And vacuum everything else down – the furniture, the mattresses. Its like a whole THING and we’ve gotta go!”

“OKAY. Okay.  But you still don’t have to just dump that on me.”

“But how else am I supposed to dump it?”

On the train to the nitpicker, Lucy said: “Well now I know what it means when the lice check lady said ‘This one is just a princess.’ Its code for this one is gonna get sent home”

We would have to stop by a dollar store and get clean shirts for everyone as everything we were wearing would have to be washed after we had our heads checked or picked clean. When the train went above ground and we had a signal I called Ellie:

Ellie was one of our family’s oldest and dearest. She had come into our lives as the partner of one of David’s cousins: Half-Korean, with a white dad and a Korean mom – Ellie instantly identified with the kids – who were 3 and 4 at the time they met – they fell madly in love with each other, and forged some bond of recognition that David and I knew was essential. The kids having time alone with Ellie – to live in their own world of horseplay and Korean food and pretend – was as natural and necessary as time alone with their Grandma.

Three years from this point both Ellie and my mother would both be dead. And after they were both gone I would be diagnosed with a slow, unique and likely incurable cancer that I would live with, at least for a time, but would destroy any hope of going back to the way life was before.

But we couldn’t know any of that yet.

“Ellie, we are totally screwed today – are you around? We are on our way to the nitpickers because Lucy is a Lice Princess, and Eli just had his MRI all morning, and after all four of us are checked and deloused David and I need to debug the entire house! If you are around – and free it would be great if you could grab the kids and get them out of the house? We are so screwed right now.”

I didn’t know that this day, this clear crisp early fall day, was what life was going to feel like for the next three years, and then forever. The sensation of the floor about to give way out from under you – and then it does, on repeat. Thinking it can’t get worse, but it does and then hoping it won’t get worse again.

Let worm gnaw, there can be no rebirth until the skull is picked clean.                ~ Henrik Ibsen

We walked in the warm sun through Crown Heights until we reach a white clapboard house with a low white wooden fence in front of it. The mother of the household ushered us into the kitchen – which had a row of hair salon stools set up for customers to sit on. Other families waited nearby on a black leather couch, scratching their heads involuntarily, tugging on their socks. No one made eye-contact.

I tried to breathe and surrender to the moment. To the impossibility of the day.

Warm and chatty and nonjudgmental, the wives and daughters in this Orthodox family explained what they were doing step by step. First, they had us all change into the package of Haines Men’s Large White T-shirts we had picked up on the way. They sat us on the stools and massaged great handfuls of clean smelling hair conditioner into our dry hair. They then combed through our slippery scalps and follicles with metal lice combs. It was rhythmic, sweet smelling, comforting.

“This one is HUGE! Come look! This has been here a VERY long time!” the nitpicker checking the woman in the chair next to me cried out, all of them gathering around to gawk at the specimen.

And when my lady determined that I was lice free, and David was, and the kids had only a nit or two and no mature lice, and no sign of infestation – caught it early- I breathed a sigh of relief. Small blessings.

Okay. So just the house to bag up and run through the laundry. And then the MRI results three days later. And then back to our regular life, right?

We paid and thanked the women and left with our too large white t-shirts with rolled up sleeves and hair slicked back like 50’s greasers.

“Stay clean!” she called after us as we waved goodbye.

The sun was still shining. I had no idea how many hours had passed since the day had begun – the morning felt like it might have been years before.

And on the train, as we were still above ground, my phone rang.

“Bark Bark Bark!” was the ring I had set for my mother. “Bark Bark Bark!”

“Mom” I explained to David, and answered:

“We got the results back” my mother said. “Its cancer, its positive, its malignant.”

And the phone went dead as the train plunged into the tunnel. The rest of the ride would be underground.

******

“This isn’t going to end well. This is going to eat me alive. My mother is going to die in the slowest, most dependent way imaginable, and I’m not going to be able to do anything about it.”

“Oh, come on,” they both chided. “Maybe it will be okay, maybe she’ll be fine and tolerate the chemo and bounce back…”

“Not my mom.” I replied. My mom doesn’t bounce. She sinks. She prefers sinking, she chooses it.”

David and I were having dinner with our friend James, also a psychotherapist, a day or two after my mother’s diagnosis was confirmed. I’d watched her respond to a lung infection that took half of a lung, a heart attack, a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. I’d paid for her dentures when she had all her teeth pulled. I’d lived with her. My mother was not bouncy.

I’d been to her initial biopsy appointment with the surgeon, listened to the mastectomy plan, taken notes about the kinds of aftercare she would need. And although her apartment was just fifteen minutes away by foot – I knew that between the kids and work, the only way I would be able to get her through post-op recovery was to move her into our apartment. She would sleep in our room, David and I would sleep on the pull out couch in the living room.

She was clearly vulnerable, scared. She hadn’t asked the surgeon a single question. She hadn’t asked about when she would meet with an oncologist or what type of breast cancer she had or how it was staged. She didn’t ask about her prognosis. She didn’t ask for a second opinion. She didn’t ask about home health care assistance.

The cancer was a triple negative breast cancer. It had been found in one lymph node.  My mother attached to the notion of  “only one” lymph node as a good sign,  and the doctor did not correct her. Neither did I.

I knew if I asked the doctor a single question, if I took the helm of her cancer care, that I would be consumed whole – that I would be able to preserve nothing of myself as a mother to my own children, or my career as a psychotherapist.

My mother had no one else. Since moving to NYC and taking up residence in a studio we paid for she had not attempted to forge a single friendship, she had not sought out a part time job. She had not volunteered or or even considered volunteering with any organization. She participated in no church or spiritual community. She took no classes, had no hobby or creative pursuits. She nervously avoided eye-contact with my husband. She had no husband, no romantic interest of any kind. Her relationships consisted entirely of near daily phone calls to her older sister in Minnesota, and once monthly check ins by phone or email with my two younger brothers.

She watched TV. Read detective novels. Babysat for my kids when asked. Came to my place for dinner, reluctantly, when we would try to pry her out of her isolation. She provided herself with nothing. She lived on as little as possible. She had camped out in deprivation, and could not be persuaded to pitch her tent nearer to any other human being.

I was it.

Whatever financial, logistical, spiritual, emotional, psychological support my mother would receive would come from me. And if I did not provide it for her myself, she would do without. She’d been that way for years. A stubborn and persistent refusal to actively care for herself. Being autonomous, independent meant needing nothing from anyone else. Never exposing a normative human need to another human being – other than me. “Its fine. I’m just fine.” she would insist, especially when she wasn’t.

This is the psychotherapist’s inescapable dilemma – our parents are very often our first clients, the ones unconsciously who trained us to reach through their injuries to receive intimacy. As adults, we seek our a profession that rewards us for the skill set that has been ingrained in us, the job that we can never retire from. Alice Miller, author of the famous and infamous “Drama of The Gifted Child” named this core-conflict explicitly in her earlier writing: “Prisoner’s of Childhood” in which the prisoner, is the psychotherapist – who is never able to leave their inherited position behind:

It is often said that psychoanalysts suffer from a narcissistic disturbance… deductively from the type of talent that is needed by an analyst. His sensibility, his empathy, his intense and differentiated emotional responsiveness, and his unusually powerful “antennae” seem to predestine him as a child to be used – if not misused – by people with intense narcissistic needs. ~ Prisoners Of Childhood, Alice Miller p. 22

My “antennae” were tuned to hear the unspoken, unnamed, unacknowledged hunger that lurked behind her every protest that she was “just fine” in her deprivation.

I was not fine. Not fine at all. I would have to contend with the primal archetypal drive to care for my ailing parent, a profoundly dependent parent – and also abandon her, repeatedly, to profound and painful needs that I would never be able to fulfill. To leave her in a vacuum with her own suffering while I did what I could.

I knew my mother’s quiet, shut-down, ancient wish to disappear, to be as invisible as possible meant that this would end in death. I would never be able to fill the hole that haunted her. I would have to feed my dying mother whatever I could, any and everything I had to spare – knowing that she would remain in starvation no matter what I gave.

I explained to James and David that this was it. I was officially circling my core psychological conflict – I would have to determine how to give my dying mother some proportional piece of my core while preserving my very substance. In Junginan terms: I would be fighting the She-Dragon, the Great Devouring Mother, while I also cared tenderly for my isolated, impoverished disabled mother in all her humanity, the mother who loved me more than anything, who thought I was the most beautiful creature on the planet.

I didn’t know what was ahead for any of us. But I knew it was going to be a shit show, maybe a transformative one, but a shit show none the less. There was no point in hoping otherwise.

*******

I cancelled as many work hours as I could afford to attend the crucial appointments, but I couldn’t take my single, friendless, mother to every single test, every exam, every scan, every cardiac screening, every meeting to discuss every result.   I asked: Did they have a treatment plan yet? Had she asked? When would it start?

“I don’t know” she replied testily. “How am I supposed to know?”

“Well Mom, I think a lot of people might ask. You can ask the doctor. You can ask them when you are at an appointment, or you can even call them on the phone and ask them a question.”

“What does it matter? I’ll find out when they tell me.”

I dropped it. I cleared my morning client schedule again to attend the next 9:00 am appointment with the oncologist. I kept my 12:15 appointment on the books. Chemotherapy hadn’t even begun and I was already missing so much work, losing income. Tuition payments for this too expensive school were looming.

I had no idea where they were in the process – if there would be more blood tests, more levels needed before chemotherapy started. I had no idea if chemotherapy would be pills or infusions, in hospital or outpatient, how many times a week, how much assistance with activities of daily living my mother might need. I did not know how sick, how weak, how dangerous, how dependent this would get. I did not know if she would need home care attendants. I did not know how to get assistance if she needed it. I did not know how to feed her, or how she would feed herself.

She ate like shit. Never ordered a vegetable. Loved mashed potatoes and fried foods. Fast food daily and her idea of a healthy lunch was a Subway sandwich. She never cooked. Green vegetables were represented by canned peas – which she loved. And pickles. And Swedish Fish. Once, before she moved to be with us, I asked if she was prepared for a Minnesota blizzard heading her way – and she told me she had stocked up on cigarettes, Pepsi and Ritz crackers. For decades I would tell people that tobacco counted as a vegetable on my mother’s food pyramid, until half of her lung was removed and she had to quit smoking.

I assumed that this appointment would be a treatment planning meeting. The oncology office was only a few blocks away, but still we took a car service. Her knees and joints were ravaged by rheumatoid arthritis, her heart weak from a heart attack, her breath fast and shallow after having half a lung removed. Seven blocks, especially in the early winter, was simply too much.

The nurse came and joked and teased and babied my mother. Nurses loved her. All nurses. They found her adorable, and pleasant and funny. Her doctors enjoyed her too, saw her as fragile, sweet.

She had been through a lot. There was no disputing that. She had been sick, in one way or another, for a long long time.

But the truth was I resented the nurses pampering and babying her anyway. I resented that they told her she was brave and that she dared to believe that, even though she was mostly inert and avoidant. I secretly, privately, in my darkest heart, hated that they had no idea how burdensome her passive compliance could be, and hated them for rewarding her for it. “Don’t baby her, make her grow up!” I wanted to yell. But I didn’t of course.

I listened and watched and bit my tongue as my mother morphed into whatever her care taker wanted her to be.

“Are you Irish?” the nurse asked. “You look Irish.”

“Yep” my mother nodded “I am Irish all right.”

We weren’t Irish and if we were, it was news to me. We were only Irish the way millions of white people were Irish: 1/16th Irish and 1/8th German, and so on. We certainly were not Irish the way this Irish nurse was Irish. But suddenly here was my mother acting like our ancestors had been tragically impacted by the potato famine. Like she had grown up in Limerick next door to the McCourt family.

When my suddenly Irish mother finished having her blood pressure checked, we filed back into the waiting room, to be called into the doctor’s office. This oncologist was simply the doctor nearest to my mother’s home. My mother in the seven years she had lived in New York had never attempted learn the subway or bus system, had never ventured into Manhattan by herself by taxi or car service. She took cars to our apartment and back, and walked to the movie theaters and the Brooklyn promenade a few steps from her apartment. She had not asked for a second opinion, or asked us to help arrange one for her.

She seemed either to wish that I would scoop her up and take care of every single thing, or to be left, passive and inert, rolling down the path of least resistance.

The doctor was a kindly older woman, probably in her mid-sixties – who clearly identified with my seventy two year old mother as a peer. When she spoke to you she seemed to be speaking to herself, allowing you to overhear her internal dialogue, as if Alice’s White Rabbit had been trained in oncology.

“All right then, lets see, okay so today we have the results of the biopsy and what you have is called triple negative breast cancer – which means that it does require chemo therapy – now, so the first thing you need to know is that it is treatable. Okay? Treatable. So lets not be worried about that. And lots of people are able to walk around, and work and stay engaged in their regular daily activities straight through treatment, so that is good. Other people get pretty tired and need to rest and that is just fine too… ”

“Good,” my mother said. “It’s treatable.” I would hear that word “treatable” from so many cancer doctors that I would come to understand that treatable means only that. It does not mean survivable.

“Okay now, so, lets see, nausea won’t be a problem – we have medications to control that… of course you’ll find that many of the foods you like – you eat well? Lots of good fresh food? Fruits and vegetables?” she continued answering her own question -“Yes, yes yes – of course you do. You take very good care of yourself. You’ll need to do your best to keep eating a healthy balanced diet with lots of veggies and fruit- Oh and yogurt – its a good idea to eat yogurt every day. Many of your favorite foods won’t taste the same and so you’ll have to experiment to see what tastes good to you.”

My mother had consistently refused to try any unfamiliar cuisine since moving to the city. She rejected all “ethnic” cuisines. Ate none of the vegetables I ever cooked other than green beans. I knew there would be no eating experiments.

I took notes to help me bite my tongue.

“What else, what else?… Oh, yes, you’ll need to drink plenty of water. At least one of those very tall bottles of water a day. It’s important to stay hydrated and to flush the chemotherapy through and out of your system.”

My mother drank bottled green tea loaded with high fructose corn syrup and Pepsi exclusively. I’d never seen her drink a glass of water in her life.

“Let me see, what else should we cover? Oh, yes, you’ll be immunosuppressed. Which means that anyone who comes to your home will have to wash their hands, and you’ll need to avoid exposing yourself people with colds and flus. Do you have a cat?”

Yes. Two. And she rarely changed the litter, couldn’t or wouldn’t dust or clean for herself while insisting she could and would. She regularly dismissed the cleaning ladies that I sent to her apartment.

“Well you’ll have to have someone else change their cat litter, because it is dangerous for people who have suppressed immune systems.”

Added to my list.

“And I’m sorry to say, of course, that you will lose your hair, and some people do get mouth sores, and we have mouth rinses for that… but lets not worry about that yet”

She already had mouth sores. Her poor oral hygiene had caused her to aspirate oral bacteria deep into her respiratory system, causing a giant pus filled abscess to destroy the lower half of her left lung five years earlier. As part of her treatment plan, they had pulled all of her teeth, and I’d been the one to send her three thousand dollars to buy a set of dentures. And although she smiled openly with them in for the first time in her life – she had always been ashamed of her natural overbite – her gums had never made peace with the false teeth.

No need to ask if my mother had questions. She had none. And I, perhaps stubbornly, perhaps selfishly, refused to take control of her experience. I would follow behind her and do what I could to ameliorate her suffering, but I would not rescue her, I would not assume responsibility for her as if she were mine to care for. I had children who needed me. I had clients. I had a household to support. I had school tuition to pay for, my mother’s apartment and living expenses and a mortgage and college and retirement funds to keep supplied. And long term care insurance so that I would never be this kind of burden to my children.

“So why don’t we get started?” the doctor said, clapping her hands together.

“What? Today?” I had a new client in an hour and a half.

“Sure. Why not?” my mother said.

“We do it right here in the office,” the doctor said handing me a prescription. “You’ll need to run to the pharmacy to get her this anti-nausea medication. She’ll need to take it within the next four hours after we administer the Adriamycin.

“Oh, get me some hand sanitizer and some of those disposable hand towels too for the bathroom.”

She was going to feel like shit pretty quickly – I dashed to the pharmacy – I checked my watch: if I was lucky it would take about fifteen minutes to get to the office from mom’s place. I had about an hour and a half: If I ran to the pharmacy, I’d make it in time to see that new client. Or maybe I’d be a little late… I’d missed so much work already, lost so much income, spent so much on extra babysitting, disappointed, inconvenienced or pissed off so many clients.

So: fuck it – I’d just get through what I could. I left her with the doctor, ready for her first infusion – ran the eight blocks to the pharmacy, where they didn’t have the anti nausea medication but could have it delivered within the hour. I grabbed the supplies she would need, hand sanitizer, hand towels, and some food I knew she might be willing to eat. I raced the five blocks to her apartment, unloaded the supplies, changed the cat litter. I was hot, dressed in work clothes – and my hair smelled of the cloud of cat litter dust. Back to the pharmacy, where they still did not have the medication – but it should arrive at any moment and they would deliver it before I got her back to her apartment.

Next: Over to the doctor, to see how she was, help her get up, get her coat on, get her into a car service, get her settled at home and give her the pill. Then off ten blocks to the subway: I was going to be late – but maybe, maybe maybe if the subway was pulling into the station right as I got down the deep elevator and dashed to the platform and the Great and Mighty Subway Gods and Archangels smiled down upon me I could hop on and get to Wall Street, walk the three minutes to the office, ride the elevator up to the top floor, and let myself into the waiting room – and greet the new client only five, or maybe eight minutes late. Five minutes late didn’t even count as late in New York City, right?

And of course each step took three to five minutes longer than I had calculated, as I rushed along and apologized to everyone for my thinly-disguised-with-false-cheer-so-obvious impatience: to my mother, to the doctor, to my mother again, to the pharmacist, to the doorman, to my mother.

And I felt like shit. And I could see that my mother was utterly starved for emotional support, was overwhelmed and frightened, yearned for time and attention. But I did not have it, beyond the entire morning I had already designated and spent. And I did not feel tenderly toward my mother, and I knew just how much she wanted that tenderness from me, because there was simply no one else in her world who could offer it.

And because I was her daughter. I had been her baby. The very baby who had rescued her from a lonely disconnected marriage and who had “taught her what love meant” as she told me every year on my birthday. “This is our day!” she would say.

Yes, she loved me too much, she loved me to the exclusion of everything else, she neglected herself profoundly, she put too much upon me, and always always had. But she did love me. But mostly I behaved love for her, I enacted and verbed love at her. But I rarely felt it. It wasn’t a noun or an object I could offer up. She wanted me to feel love for her, to adore her and admire her more than she wanted anything else.

I just didn’t have it. Instead I had guilt. I had a karmic debt to her. I had empathy for her emptiness, but no capacity or desire to fill that emptiness, to stave that hunger.

Fuck. This wasn’t going to get better. Or, it might get better at after the next 6 months of chemotherapy only to get worse again. This was going to be long, and exhausting, and impossible – and drawn out.

All this churned in my brain as I speed walked through the crowd and the slushy streets, too hot in my sweater, a trickle of sweat rolling slowly down my middle back. I could smell myself, the smell of a frantic and stressful morning, as I played subway roulette with my office arrival time.

The Subway Gods did not smile upon me. I arrived twenty five minutes late. For an initial consultation. For a new and obviously irritated potential client. One who could pay my full fee. Who was simultaneously referred by both another client of mine, and a colleague – both of whom had recommended me as highly professional. The client waited in the elevator bay, unable to gain access to the waiting room since I was not there to buzz her in.

“I had just said to myself: ‘two more minutes and then I’m leaving.’” she said.

There is debate in the psychoanalytic psychotherapy community as to whether practitioners should apologize for such failures, or if by offering up an apology, they are binding their client’s aggression. And maybe on a good day I would have apologized like a human being, and deftly made space for her justifiable anger -– but on this day, fuck it, I could not. I would not.

Understandably the client was suspicious of me. And worse, she was an intern training to be a therapist. Who thought she knew exactly what was supposed to happen and what wasn’t and what the rules are and what they are not. But what she did not know was that I was in no mood to be held to some inhuman standard – I was not an ever-flowing teat spouting nurturance enough to soothe the masses. I sat in my chair letting her stew in her anger. After I ascertained that she was not in active crisis, I could barely listen, consumed with my morning.

Although if I had chosen a profession that was any less insane, one that truly allowed me to be a human, I would be permitted to explain that I was coming from my mother’s oncology appointment, and I was flustered and ambushed by a string of impossible logistics and I would apologize for miscalculating. If I lived in a culture that offered respite to caretakers or at least permitted an adult daughter to express feelings of exhaustion and resentment at caring for a parent who had been passive and sick in one way or another for their entire lives, the client and I wouldn’t have found ourselves trapped in this shitty unspoken situation. If I could only explain — “Listen, I’m sorry that I didn’t give you a heads up that I might be late, but you see, the last thing I want is to let my devouring mother consume any more of my time, energy, career, income, or core autonomy than is absolutely necessary. So – I was gonna be damned if I let her sabotage my work day. Clearly I made the wrong call. I’m very sorry it inconvenienced you.” — we could move on an get to work.

But instead: I had to sit and listen to this stranger’s oozing if understandable hostility. As she discussed her presenting problem and ran through a brief history it became increasingly clear to me that this woman and I would not be a good therapeutic fit even if we met on the very best day of my life.

Sweating – I took a tissue from the box on the the coffee table positioned between us, and wiped my upper-lip, tamping my forehead a little. I wanted to grab fistfuls and stuff them down the front of my shirt, into my bra which felt like a heavy sponge soaked in hot water hanging from my chest. I noticed I was squinting, my brow furrowed – the sun beat down on me through the open blinds of my south-facing office window. As she spoke, I stood up, nodding to indicate attentiveness, and crossed the room to adjust the blinds. She stopped speaking and glared at me. I noticed how intensely I hated her.

“What do you think you are doing?” she asked.

“I’ve adjusted the blinds because the sun was directly in my eyes.” I said as I walked back to the chair.

“Well, I just feel that you are all over the place and that this is all very unprofessional, and this just isn’t working for me.”

My response surprised me: “Excellent. I absolutely agree. We are in perfect agreement that you should see someone else. That I should not be your therapist. So we should probably stop right here.”

She looked stunned – shocked I hadn’t groveled. I walked to the door and opened it.

“I’d offer you a referral but I suspect that you have plenty of other, and probably better options to follow up on than anything I could provide. Take care.”

She gathered her bag and coat and left.

I stood in my empty office directly under the air vent as my damp shirt grew cold upon my skin and I understood that whatever came next would require that I learn to live more ruthlessly.

Death is stalking me. Therefore I have no room for doubts or remorse… You on the other hand, feel that you are immortal and the decisions of an immortal man can be canceled or regretted or doubted. In a world where death is the hunter, my friend, there is not time for regrets or doubts. There is only time for decisions.         

~ Carlos Castaneda Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Another Thing:

Perhaps I am an alien – or more likely, just experiencing alienation, again.

But I watch our culture’s primal death denial play out so constantly, so strangely, in such peculiar ways – and so few seem to question it.

I’m sure I once saw it all as normal too. And although it certainly is “the norm” I have come to see it as a sign of cultural madness. Evidence of the pervasive disease of individual and collective exceptionalism and the mass illusion of immortality.

There was a time, upon hearing the news that a friend or an acquaintance had died, was dying, or had a life threatening illness when I needed to know the details too.

People ask me about my own cancer diagnosis:

“How did you find out?”
“What symptoms did you have?”

Upon hearing of the death of others:

“Was it an accident? Was she ill?”
“I heard he had heart trouble for some time – his poor wife”
“Was he texting behind the wheel? Had he been drinking?”

So similar to the questions we ask about crime victims who have encountered an act of violence: “What was she wearing? How much did she have to drink? What time was it? Where did it happen?”

Our own bereavements and vicarious proximity to tragedy changes us – we are drawn closer to the void- and we are deeply curious what caused those who were swallowed up to fall in.

As if we could learn from their failures.

And I know there are many benign, essential and utterly understandable reasons we are curious about such things – we want to comprehend the loss. The details seem as though they might help us to accept death as a reality – like gazing at the body in an open casket.

But I know, because in the past I have asked such questions too, that we also use the answers, quietly, privately – never in the earshot of those more directly impacted – to reassure ourselves.

“He had a heart attack while jogging?”
(That is exactly why I don’t run)

“It started with your foot going numb?”
(Oh good, I’ve never had that)

“It was already advanced when they found it?”
(Note to self: schedule annual physical)

“Oh, AIDS? So sad.”
(Not gay, not an IV drug user, monogamous –whew, I’m probably clear)

These details don’t bring us any closer to the mystery – in fact, they merely help us to disregard and distance ourselves from the most overwhelming of truths.

No matter how or when we die – we will die.

Some will die sooner. Some will die later. Some will die by accident, some by disease, some by violence, some of advanced age. Some will die by foolish error, some will die by utter happenstance, some will die by their own hand. Some will die in their sleep.

Does it matter if he killed himself or was hit by a truck?
Does it matter if my foot went numb or I had blinding headache?
Does it matter if he was speeding or the car malfunctioned?
Does it matter if she was in front of a bar or in her bedroom?

Our lives matter whether they are long or short.
Our lives matter whether they are cut off by error, aggression, fate or decay.
Our lives leave indelible imprints on others, sometimes hundreds or thousands of others, whether we live well or horribly.

No matter how we die.

We all die of our wounds and our vulnerabilities no matter how or when or where.

The details won’t help you skirt death.

They will only help you put it out of your mind – and I’m not certain that is a good thing.

It is necessary to respect the finality of death, but it is pathology to be so fearful of it that we pretend that our loved ones and ourselves are exempt.

We might consider if it is pointless to seek such answers. Like a child filled with an endless string of unanswerable why’s:

Why did she get cancer? Why did he fall to his death? Why was he depressed? Why do people die? Why do bad things happen?

There are no answers.

Maybe instead of seeking answers and closure we could try to withstand the questions.

Do you ever think about how you are going to die? Do you think you might get cancer? Die from a sudden heart attack? Be struck by a train? Die by your own hand? How are you scared to die? How would you like to die? What makes life meaningful, even beautiful in the face of the ever present reality of suffering and death?

Maybe those are the kinds of questions that could free us from our fears.

The bereaved so often speak for the dead – and understandably those who grieve speak from the aftermath of the traumatic disappearance of someone they have loved.

But dead and the dying do speak for themselves and we are often so preoccupied with death itself that we miss their urgent messages:

Life is precious

Be brave, you will regret it if you live a life controlled by fear.

I wish I could be around a fire with you tonight, squeezing you all and holding you tight.

Now comes the mystery.

Make the most of this day. Whatever that means to you, whatever you can do, no matter how small it seems.

Don’t waste time, this is all the time you’ve got.

Love each other xo

On Watching Battle of the Sexes

It took me a week or so of nudging:

“Hey, you wanna go see Battle of the Sexes with me hon?”

“Nah, not really… can’t we just rent Wonder Woman again?”

I really wanted at least one of my kids to come see it with me, and my son is just not that into movies. But I hoped I could get the girl to go. I’d watched far more than my share of dystopian tween films for her.  I hoped I could  leverage that to get her to come see my pick.

“But you always tell me you like movies that feature bad-ass women! This is about a woman who is a total bad-ass! She was a total hero when I was a kid!”

“I told you I don’t like seeing movies from olden times!”

“It’s new, just came out! Emma Stone is in it! You love her!”

Eventually she succumbed to my annoying parental persuasion. We sat in the back row, and I watched my childhood flash before my eyes on the screen with my girl’s head resting on my shoulder.

My father was the wealthy son of an old oil family, prominent member of the yacht club, and an inherited membership to the white-only country club in town.

My mother was the daughter of farmers, Grange democrats. They met in college, which my mother had attended to get her “Mrs.” degree as the old joke went. To become a wealthy man’s housewife was a goal she had initially perceived as an ambitious one. It got her up and out of the farm-town, population 60, that she had been raised in, into  prosperous (and segregated) bedroom community outside of Minneapolis.

She joined the Junior League, and learned to sail, and cooked and cleaned and decorated the house. And my father sailed and played tennis in the summer, and coached hockey in the winter. They were pretty, and wealthy, and occupied the big house on the hill. And this is the world I was born into in 1964.

What my mother hadn’t anticipated was the depth of my father’s misogyny. His willingness to humiliate. His expectation that he would be served. His demand that he have the last word. His “white glove test” on the mantles and woodwork, to ascertain that they had been dusted sufficiently. His willingness to punish and withhold her “pin money” when she failed to meet his standards.

And there on the screen, were my father’s men: well-groomed and buttoned-down in their leather men’s club chairs, and there was Emma Stone, as Billie Jean King refusing to play for pin money, demanding that women athletes be paid the same as the men.

My father thought the notion of “women’s equality” was a hilarious idea, and “women’s libbers” were simply women who were too ugly to ever get a man to marry them.

He considered himself a raconteur, and always laughed loudly at his own wisecracks. I never got the joke.

He would mess up my shiny bowl cut and say: “This one here is too spirited and needs to be ridden with spurs!” to a circle of  yachtsmen on the dock or to a group of men after church. And they would all laugh but he would laugh the loudest and a little too long.

He encouraged his friends to call me “Beriberi,” a nickname which referred to the distended and bloated abdomens of children who suffered from B1 deficiency. “Hey there Beriberi! Look at that fat belly!” the friendly smiling men would tease and poke.

My mother’s body was targeted for her small breasts. “Flat as an ironing board!” he’d tease at the huge annual Harvey Wallbanger cocktail party they threw each summer. “Just a couple of mosquito bites!” and my mother would blush and smile and say “Now Rod, that’s enough” and wander off to restock the onion dip.

I wanted to be tall and slim like her. I thought it would rather be called Twiggy, instead of Beriberi. I thought my mom looked like Cher, lean and tan with strong shoulders and long black hair. But when we watched Sonny and Cher on the talk shows, Sonny made the same kinds of jokes about Cher’s small boobs. Maybe that is where my father got them.

My father’s favorite “Mom” joke went like this: “When I leave town, I feel like I should hang a sign on her… In Case of Rape: This Side Up!” And all the men would laugh and laugh, and usually one of the women would swat him playfully and say: “Roddy, you are just terrible!” but they would laugh too.

He might have stolen that crack from Phyllis Diller or Joan Rivers.

Except they would have told it about themselves.

When my older sister’s best friend asked my Dad for a recommendation for college, he wrote a “joke letter” first,  about how she shouldn’t be admitted because she was so flat chested, and then after she read it through first ashen and then blushing, he gave her the real one. My sister laughed, she laughed. Her parents laughed.

These were the jokes everyone laughed at, it was all just in good fun. But something about it made me feel surrounded, like I needed to suck in my tummy and hold my breath all the time. A man with spurs would come from the future to break my spirit, a circle of men could poke at my belly whenever they wanted, and there was no where to go, not even to college, where I would be safe from humiliation.

On the movie screen, Billie Jean King is falling in love with a woman, and my daughter leans over to me and whispers:

“Her husband is so nice! Why doesn’t she just tell him she is bi?”

“Because everyone had to be in the closet then honey. No one could talk about being gay back then. People thought it was a mental illness and sometimes it was a crime so everyone had to hide it.” I whisper back.

“EVERYONE?” she gasps, and I shush her back into a low whisper.

“Yes” I say as I cup my hand around her ear: “ All gay people, all trans people. Everyone who wasn’t straight.”

I think back to the 1970’s and wonder which ones of my parents’ friends were bound in a closet, as trapped as I felt.

I think about the segregation in my community, my father’s willingness to use the n-word when he was angry and sometimes even laugh and wield it as if it is a complement: “Dionne Warwick is the new super n*****!” He says, turning up the car radio when a Burt Bacharach song comes on.

I think of my daughter’s world, the adults she loves and who love her: a life filled with gay and queer folk and people of color, teachers, chosen aunts and uncles and god-parents. I think of her ability to understand and to instantly reorganize pronouns in relationships with queer and trans friends and family. I think of her willingness, as a kid of color herself, to call out racism, misogyny when it is transacted around her, or toward her. I think of how the day earlier, when I made an teasing off-hand and unconscious comment to her brother about how he should be sweet to me in public since girls will be mothers someday and they notice – she corrected me instantly: “Not all girls want to be mothers, or will be.”

“You are absolutely right honey, No one has to be a parent to be a complete person. I wasn’t thinking.”

Sometimes, shamefully, when I am tired and unfiltered, 1972 can still come out of my mouth.

She covers her eyes and buries her face in my sleeve when the actresses begin to make out – just exactly as she does when she sees straight couples kissing on screen.

And I remember this silly tennis match, this buffoon Bobby Riggs prancing around the court with a giant candy bar, Sugar Daddy, my favorite Halloween booty.

I did not perceive him as a clown as a child, probably because there was such a thin line between the jokes men made and the dominance that they asserted that I couldn’t tell the difference. I just knew he said mean things about girls. Like all the men around me.

We had watch Riggs beat Margaret Court a few months earlier – with my dad yelling and cheering loudly from the couch. When Court lost my father stood up and let loose a loud growling “YEEEEEEEEEESSSSS!”

He was always screaming at sports and the sudden eruptions made me jump.

And now Riggs was going to play Billie Jean King, who was a “libber.” My mother and I quietly watched. I was terrified that she would lose. This match was bigger. More grown-ups seemed to think that Billie Jean could win. I was scared to hope: If she lost it seemed to mean to me that I would never get out. That every exit was blocked.

My father’s cheers at every point Riggs won frayed my nerves. I sat on the floor, legs crossed on the oval braided rug. I didn’t like to sit next to him on the couch because I’d had dreams of falling between the cushions, of screaming as loud as I could and no one hearing me, the couch smothering me.

I prayed silently the way children do: “please let her win please let her win.”

I needed my father to lose. I needed her to unseat him.

I thought I might not be able to withstand watching her lose. He wanted me to stay. “She’s like you, she needs to be broken like a wild horse!” he laughed his wheezy laugh. “Barefoot and pregnant and in the kitchen!”

So when Billie Jean King crushed Riggs – I saw for the first time that my father was crushable. I saw my father’s face crumple momentarily. He grumbled in defeat.  “A fluke” he mumbled, and switched off the set.

And there was oxygen. Air to breathe.

And I jumped and cheered and my mother told me to quiet down but I didn’t.

And I knew for the first time that there was absolutely a way out.

My daughter couldn’t possibly imagine the way that tennis match was like fresh rain in a drought.

And as the crowed cheered on the movie screen, my heart was filled with gratitude that there are oppressions that my daughter cannot conceive of alongside all those that she must contend with, and those she is vigilant about.

She cannot conceive of the bind her grandmother and I were trapped in.

My mother would leave my father in the summer of 1975. Seven months after the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which allowed women to begin to build their own credit lines. Divorce rates would skyrocket from twenty or so percent in the fifties and sixties, to a full fifty percent of all marriages.

When my mother left my father she had no credit rating. No bank account. No credit card. No professional resume. My father would complain bitterly about how was getting “gouged” by paying alimony and child support. He would reduce her payments, and ours, when she moved with us to California, and eventually take her to court attempting to eliminate all financial support.

She worked pumping gas and we were latchkey kids. She hired Jacoby and Meyers who advertised on television. Letters arrived in the mail from the expensive lawyers he had retained:  “Lindquist and Vennum.” Like villains from a spooky children’s book.

She didn’t win but she never looked back. And she never let anyone ever speak that way to her again, or to me.

She “took back” her own name. And I never after that considered giving mine.

And my daughter knows that whatever she decides to call herself in this life, that she owns her own identity.

My mother continued to struggle with bad men and bad decisions as she struggled financially, working low wage jobs for the rest of her life.

She was sometimes a bad-ass too, more often on my behalf than for herself. There was the time a high school teacher wrote me an “erotic” poem. He had titled it “To _______.” I showed my mother who read it silently. She walked to her secretary desk, and took out a piece of stationery, folded it in quarters and told me to give it to him the next day at school. Of course I read it: She had written in her perfect penmanship:

“Dear ______, keep your ____ far from my daughter’s _____ Or I will have you brought before the school ______.”

When people hear about such events, they are often quick to name this as “abuse.” But back in the olden times,  we had  no words for such things, and you cannot protect yourself from something you cannot name. There was no “sexual harassment.” This was years before Anita Hill, and “abuse” meant exclusively “beating” your wife. There was no public censure for misogyny. Misogyny was ubiquitous and endemic.

Every single girl I knew faced this reality in some form. If not at home, then at school or in the world. It was normal then. My mother was the aberrant one.

This was just the way things were.

And as we left the theater arm in arm, my daughter asking questions and chatting about the power of the Williams sisters I thought: These men are not gone. These men are in positions of power in every industry and every corner of our government today. Their contempt for women is just as thick and ugly. My daughter will still have to contend with them.

But heroes matter. So many have served as heroes, and feel defeated that white men like my father are still in power. Yet they have set emboldening examples to those who come up behind them. They have strengthened the legacy of liberation.

And now, there are literally millions of heroes. Millions of role models, women, LGBTQ folk & people of color who have claimed their power: Our kids have access to a pantheon of heroes.

You don’t just win by overthrowing oppression. You win by showing others that they are not alone when they stand up themselves.

And as we pulled into the drive way, I considered:

If that tennis game, that single act of heroism could change our lives, what liberation might grow from millions of heroic acts?

A long way, baby.  We’ve got a long way to go, but it is important to remember we have come a long way too.

Seedlings

raw-1

 

Each year I plant seedlings. 

I receive them in bright shiny envelopes printed with colorful images of abundant harvests, airbrushed and unreal.

The perfect tomato. A bushel of turnips with dark leafy greens. The shiniest cucumbers. The most luscious strawberries.

The tallest sunflowers.

The seed carrying its imprint, a centuries old heritage, an ancient genetic history that I know little of. Could these be the descendants of Friar Mendel’s sweat peas?

It begins even before they arrive, preparing the potting soil and disinfecting the little hot house, assembling their nursery. 

I start in the dark of winter. I plant the seeds. There is snow on the ground. We will enter into a dance of trial and error. I will try to gauge their need for dark and damp, moving them into the sunshine in time. I monitor their growth, how cold, how warm. Shifting things about and moving them around the house – from closet to windowsill, closer or further from the radiator depending on their need for heat, sun, water, cover, damp,  open air.

I make mistakes. I let them sit dry too long. Or I overwater. I  keep them covered beyond their time, too warm, too moist.

I plant two or three seeds per hole, and multiple small sprouts, delicate green fraternal twins, grow from the same spot. I’ve know you are supposed to pinch one off  – choose the strongest and divert the soil’s nurturance toward the one most likely to produce a harvest.

I never do this. I don’t want to be the one to choose.

It is nature’s prerogative, let her decide for herself.

Maybe I lose some plantings this way. But no matter how many I plant – some will grow and some will not.

And I talk to a friend, another mother,  who lives in the same space that I do: The past unchangeable. The future unknowable.  I tell her I am starting my garden and that I try not to think about what I will get to harvest or not.

And she says: “Even better. Just plant the seeds. Just that. Just plant the seeds.”

And the sprouts grow and the days get longer and the sun comes closer. I wait. Until the seedlings are strong enough to be viable. To sink down into the ground and stand through storms and wind.

To be exposed to predators and parasites.

I wait until their stems are strong enough, until the leaves are broad enough, until their roots deep enough to gather their own resources. (I’ll still water when its needed, and sprinkle chicken poo and compost around now and then)

I’ll determine that now is the time. That this is the moment that the growing season dictates. Time to survive the elements and move out into the agricultural wild.

To grow in rows.

To bear fruit, create seeds. 

To feed other living things.

Or to return their energies to the earth if they do not thrive.

And on a cool spring evening while my husband cooks dinner I will carry them all out into the crisp damp air out to the smell of mud and pollen.  To face the risks of freeze and flood. I will leave the seedling tray outside on the earth knowing I will transfer them later, soon,  maybe just a few more days.

But not quite yet. 

(Possibly too soon, or too late.)

To live an unprotected life.  

I leave them out in the last light of the sunset in the garden. And I head back to the house.

And I will know what happens next only when it happens.

Just planting seeds.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RSVP

Artwork: The Dreamer, by Wonsook Kim


I was recently asked to share my story at the Korean American Story Gala, where they kindly honored me with their Trailblazer award. I didn’t respond to their kind invitation for almost two weeks – and spent most of that time planning to say “No thank you”  concerned about what it meant to be “honored” as a white adoptive mom, who is too often on the receiving end of “God Bless You’s”  from the Korean American community, that I have not earned.  I have come to understand these “bless yous” as the expression of the complicated feelings, the wound, around adoption that exists in the Korean community. I eventually decided to  accept the award, and  try to talk about what it means for me as a white adoptive parent, to try to bear witness to  the losses that the adoptee community and the Korean community contend with when they encounter each other – and to speak to  my responsibility and complicity in that. I sweated hard over this five minute speech, trying to walk a fine line of naming what I have seen, and knowing my place. 

Here it is:
Just before we traveled to Korea to adopt our son, I sent an email to the clerk of the small Quaker meeting in Seoul, to ask about their meeting times.

He wrote back and said that he would meet us at the airport.

And for the next 10 days we spent some part of each day with Bongsoo: He drove us to the DMZ, and the folk village, we went to museums and met his wife and children, we went to dinners together and to Quaker meeting. We had animated discussions about social justice, reunification and Western imperialism.

The night before David and became parents we met Bongsoo for dinner at the spinning restaurant on top of Seoul Tower. And he looked at David and me and he said, point blank:

“Why do you take a baby away from Korea? And why do you take Korea away from the children?”

I didn’t know if it was the revolving restaurant or Bongsoo’s question that made my head spin so violently.

But then I realized that his challenge was an invitation, not an insult.

So I looked at David, and then I took a deep breath, and I said to Bongsoo:

“I promise that we will do our best to answer your question in all honesty, but will also do the same for us? Can you tell us more about why you haven’t considered adoption and can you explain why you believe that there are so many Korean children adopted by foreigners?”

And we proceeded to have one of the most formative conversations of my life. It was not easy, it was full of hard and uncomfortable moments of challenge for all three of us, that undermined many of our perceptions about ourselves and each other.

And fortunately, it also forged a life long friendship between our households.

And afterwards I realized that it was an inherent part of my responsibility as an adoptive parent in an interracial Korean and American family to accept any invitation, no matter how challenging or uncomfortable, that would help me to better understand my children’s experience as Korean born Americans and as adoptees.

This invitation, issued on the eve before motherhood, made it clear to me just how pervasive, how unchallenged, and how oppressive the narratives of white adoptive parents are.

– and how the stories of white adoptive parents too often drown out adoptee voices, first family voices, and the voices of the birth nations and birth communities.

I decided to do whatever I could to listen, and learn, and maybe, if and when I was invited, to support adoptees and the Korean community in building a world where the voices and perspectives of Korean adoptees, – my children’s voices – would be valued and legitimized.

I received other transformative invitations over the years: When my 5 year old son invited me to create “an adoption class with only adopted people in it” I accepted the challenge– and extended it to a group of adoptees and adoptive parents – this invitation grew into All Together Now – and we constructed a space where adopted children define their own experiences, and adoptive parents listen and learn from adoptees.

Or several years after that, when Joy Lieberthal Rho asked me to meet her for lunch and invited me to help her to support Sejong Camp – and I became a part of Sejong Cultural Education. As a result I spend a week each summer at a Korean culture camp, where I am the only white person, and the only adoptive parent. Each summer I try to sit still and quiet and listen and wait for the campers and counselors invite me in: to soothe a child who is homesick for an adoptive mother, to offer support to a queer teen coming out to their Korean parents, to help an adopted adult find an effective way to confront their white parents about their experiences of anti-Asian racism…

But above all it means, as a white adoptive parent, that I must discern: 

  • When I have been invited to listen to stories that are not mine to tell or intrude upon.
  • And when I am not invited at all, and not only respecting that, but sometimes actively guarding the spaces from others who might intrude.

I do not always read these signals as precisely as I would like to: there have been many times when I’ve gotten excited about a project or a problem and Joy or Ben, or others have reminded me, with great kindness and patience, that I am a guest, in a sacred space that was constructed for others.

As my daughter and son now move into their adolescence, and claim their own space in the Korean Adoptee community, it is especially important for me to be still and move further back, and wait – to see if I am invited

Remembering that as an invited guest, the stay is both conditional and temporary.

And the best guests are the quiet ones, who clean up their own messes, and are sure not to overstay their welcome.

Thank you Korean American Story, for the invitation.

Safe House

The recent executive orders  regarding amnesty and immigration has turned so ugly, and fills me with grief and rage for the extraordinary men and women and children I have known who have lived in the U.S. without documentation. It  is perhaps the one of the darkest outcomes of this dark election.

I decided to share this small excerpt/draft from a larger non-fiction project I am working on – exploring  good and evil, memoir, and psychotherapy.

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West Coast, April, 1978

14 years old

I woke up in the middle of the night and saw a man – a white man with blue eyes and a black beard – standing next to my bed. In the pitch black. His eyes lit by the reflection of the street light shining  through my bedroom window, the one that stood at the corner of our backyard of tall weeds. I screamed so loudly that the sound of my own voice  terrified me even more and I screamed louder still as I flew down the hallway toward my mother’s room. “A MAN!!!!! A MAN!” My mother and brothers raced toward my room as I ran in the opposite direction. Away.

Father took off down the stairs to the back basement to make sure everyone was in place and accounted for:

There was no evidence that anyone had been in my room at all. The doors and windows were all secured. The house was searched. Everyone was in their proper place.  Father’s verdict: Just a nightmare. Or me trying to get attention again. (The nightmares, gone for a while, had come back and I’d taken to  sleeping on my younger brothers floor two or three times a week to just to hear someone breathing in the same room.)

No good reason at all for me to have terrorized the whole house by screaming at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night.

It was the “others” in the back basement that Father had checked on. The ones who came and went only for one night or short stays, who were passing through, who had escaped from the strawberry fields mid-season – the ones who weren’t “regulars” so we didn’t all always learn their names – but recognized them by sight as they snuck down the side fence through the tall grass to the hidden side entrance. Usually we paid no attention and were used to the comings and goings of quiet strangers in and out of the basement. But Oscar and then Eddie – they had lived with us since the beginning.

None of them had work papers or green cards or visas. All of them had crossed the US/Mexico border illegally.

We met Oscar almost as soon as we arrived in California. Father, who was by now completely suspended from the pulpit, wanted to start his own business. He spent a few months trying to build fiberglass boats in an industrial park  warehouse. (It was the  first of many get-rich-quick schemes: a “Pyramid Power” sleep aid that people were supposed to stick their  pillow and head in at night.  The Paperbacks Only Book Bus – a retrofitted bus filled with book racks and books for sale that immediately ran afoul of all local zoning laws. “Guano Gusano”-  bags of earthworm shit sold as fertilizer with a creepy smiling worm in a sombrero as its logo.

Father came home from the boat warehouse one night with Oscar. Maybe he was sixteen or  seventeen years old – I didn’t know really, to me he was just old enough to be generally categorized as “grown up.” A shy, pretty boy with a curly mop of hair-  we couldn’t communicate with him since at first we had no Spanish and he had no English – but Father knew Latin so he could understand him well enough.

He’d been sleeping outside behind the industrial park, and was in the US to earn money and send it home to his parents and siblings who were very poor, almost starving. He was sick with fever, no where to go, no access to medical care.

What about the “back basement” Father wondered,  behind the garage, behind the spare bedroom and the rec room –  that large basement crawl space next to the unused garage with its practically hidden side door? A dirt floor sloped steeply upwards where the house was cut into the hill. A cot with a bedroll. A lightbulb or two. Some fans in the summer heat. A few blankets in the damp California winter. An outlet in the garage with a long  orange indoor/outdoor extension chord to power the small TV tuned by coat hanger antenna to the Spanish station at the lowest volume.

From that day on, Oscar lived “with” us, in the dark, dirt room. Sometimes he would have to hide  in a small shed which also served as an outhouse with a medical supply commode inside – entirely hidden in the unbelievably tall blind of weeds growing in our completely feral  backyard. The neighbors complained bitterly that our yard was a nuisance, a fire hazard, a home for pests –  but they would have hated us even more if they had known the realities it was actually hiding.

Oscar brought friends –  Eddie came the next year –  and their friends and co-workers who needed long term or temporary shelter, or emergency support, the others who we never knew. We shared Mom and Father’s old clothes, used sheets and blankets, and school books – whatever we had to spare that could be of use or sold or circulated. When we had leftovers from dinner I brought  them down.  No hotplates permitted.

We had a big Spanish English dictionary that we used when we needed to communicate something from upstairs to down, or from downstairs to up: Comida.  Frio. Calor. Agua. Gato. Perro. Papel hygeinco. Bombilla.
“We are put here to feed, clothe, house the poor.” Father would say. “And to make sure they have proper medical care…”

“Medical care? You mean they can’t go to the hospital ?”

“They could  be deported if they did.  I was a medic in the Korean War, remember? So we needn’t take that risk if we can address it ourselves.”

He took his large, metal military looking medical kit downstairs to the back basement once a week and would close the basement door and  stay down there for an hour or so. Once he gave Oscar some strong brown alcohol and put stitches in Oscar’s foot when he stepped on a piece of glass that cut right through his flimsy, worn sneakers. He took everyone’s  temperatures and kept them hydrated when they all got the barfing flu. He put cold towels on Eddie’s forehead and chest when he had a fever that went up over 104, and tylenol every two hours until the fever broke.

I was down in the rec room watching TV with Oscar when  he suddenly reached for the big dictionary and whispered, his eyes big, his tone grave:  “I. love. you.”

“Como?” I said.
“I love you.” Oscar repeated with a flicker of fear in his eyes. He handed me the dictionary.

I didn’t take it. “No lo entiendo? Um…  Buenos noches!  See you mañana!” and I marched quickly back to the upstairs.

Oscar was almost an adult. I was thirteen-  I didn’t know what was going on, only that it felt like the glimpse of a terrifying secret – and I was certain  that he already knew that those words translated to:  Te amo.  Te quiero. Te adoro. I knew that even though I hadn’t ever had Spanish in school yet.  Unsettled for the rest of the night, I finally told Mom what happened just before bed and Father went down to talk in the basement.

After about  twenty minutes or he came back upstairs:

“Oscar told me that when he was getting dinner earlier, the woman  st the register and looked him over and said ‘I loove you!'”  Here Father dropped his voice into a cartoon girly seductive whisper, flared his nostrils, flipped imaginary hair off his shoulders and made kissy lips. Father and Mom both started laughing at his show.
“She said ‘Who are you? I luuuv  you…’” now with even more mincing and lisping and  a flappy wrist just like when Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye acted silly and dressed up in lady’s clothes.

“…so Oscar just wanted to know what it meant. That’s what he was asking. It was just all just a big misunderstanding… So its good we cleared that all up!” he brushed imaginary dirt briskly from his hands.

I  knew Oscar to be kind, his eyes always soft and protective when he was around us kids.  We watched afternoon TV together after school in the rec room  – with Oscar mediating  our sibling bickering about what channel to watch with patience and fairness.

We’d spend afternoons together so  Oscar’s English could get better – and we could learn some Spanish. “How to you say ‘palm tree’ in Spanish Oscar?”  we’d ask, pointing at one out the window.

“Oh, muy difficile!” He’d answer deadpan:

Palma.” and then roll his eyes and shake his head at us  making us all laugh.

I was in charge of my brothers  at home at night when Mom and Father went out on dates – whenever we asked where they were  going  Father would only answer: “Out. Away from children. Out.”-  I felt safer knowing Oscar and Eddie were downstairs, just a scream away if  some bad guy came and I needed help.

I didn’t think that Oscar was in love with me. But I didn’t think he was trying to tell me the silly story Father reported either. I didn’t know what Oscar was asking but wasn’t about  love. It was about something more frightening that that.

The mystery remained unsolved with a fresh distracting  scoop of danger each new day.

When we had friends over  they would sometimes see Oscar or Eddie or one of the others coming home along the fence: “No trabajo aqui!! NO TRABAJO!”  they would yell as their parents had taught them to when Mexican speaking laborers came to their front doors seeking yard work.
“No, no its okay. I think Father asked him to fix something in the garage – our lawn mower is broken or something…”  I’d say pointing the the seven foot tall wall of weeds behind the house.

We never permitted anyone to use  any of the  bad names for Mexican people in our presence –  which caused battles with white friends  at school . But we could never ever tell anyone why we fought so hard either, or about the people  who lived in the basement.  Mom and Father explained that we were  committing a federal crime for “harboring illegal aliens” and they could be sent to prison if we said a word about it to anyone at all.

It had to be an absolute secret.

At night we all froze in place and hoped everyone was inside and away from the small cellar windows whenever the INS choppers circled overhead shining spotlights in everyone’s yards and in our bedroom windows. “INMIGRACIÓN! INMIGRACIÒN!”  blared from the helicopter’s loudspeakers, trying to flush frightened human beings out of hiding in order to capture them, like hunters did with game.

There were close calls. The time that Oscar got pulled over after borrowing Mom’s moped. His fake ID somehow passed inspection, but the officer wanted to confirm that the bike was borrowed and not stolen, and escorted Oscar back to the house. Mom turned white as a ghost and Father told us to stay inside and to tell whoever was home in the basement to be absolutely still and for none of us to speak a word.  He went out onto the front patio with a relaxed smile,  his hand extended for a handshake.

“Hello!” he said, introducing himself using his Reverend title.

“Can I help you officer?” Father calmly, glibly assured him that everything was just fine officer,  his hand on the police man’s shoulder like they were old friends posing for a class reunion photograph.
“Well, no,” he said chuckling,  “certainly no crime committed at all.  Oscar and his whole family are my parishioners! We’ve known them since he was a just little boy, and watched him grow up! We lent him the moped to go visit his grandmother in the hospital. He spoke loudly  like Oscar was hard of hearing, like the white people around us usually spoke to Mexicans and Mexican Americans. “How is she Oscar? Beuno? Getting discharged soon I hope?”

My brothers and I lay on our bellies and peered at the scene from under the full length curtains my mother had closed in front of the sliding glass door  before she stepped out. I held my breath, waiting to see them all carted away in handcuffs, silently making  a plan about what we would do, whose house we would go to until we could reach Dad and he would fly us to live with him forever while Mom and  Father served their time in federal penitentiary.

I believed we were practicing liberation theology, living out Christ’s radical Gospel, to serve the least among us, to minister to the poor, to see the face of Christ in every human being.  We might be brave but that didn’t matter compared to the bravery we were supporting. This was the very least we could do, and it was still not enough.  Mom and Father said this is why the “hobos” had marked my Grandmother’s stoop- because she would always cook them a warm meal and hand them an old quilt and offer a few nights stay in the barn. This is what “good” Germans should have done for the Jews.  This is what only a few good white people did during slavery times and the Underground railroad. This was having the courage of our convictions. This is what Christ calls us to do. We must disobey all laws that go against God’s laws. We must  be willing to lose everything, as Christ did on the cross.

We went to lots of protests as a family, and because we were the only kids ever there  they took lots of pictures of us. I got my photo in the San Diego paper holding a sign that read “I’m not going and neither is my brother!” when we went to a demonstration against registering 18 year olds for the draft. I got credit even though the words were Father’s idea.  We marched in ecumenical solidarity with the religious leaders of our town when the synagogue got spray painted with bad words. Father wore his collar even though he didn’t have a pulpit anymore.  We marched in support of free speech when the Christian  fundamentalist mayor tried to close down the one adult book shop in town, with the gay bar in the back. We gathered there again and lit candles with a small crowd of men from the community the day that Harvey Milk was shot dead.

Standing up for what what right was important. But caring for the poor was Christ’s most elemental ministry.

One day Oscar went missing –  we hadn’t seen or heard from him at all for over two weeks. Had he been injured? Was he lost? Sick? Deported? Early in the morning, over our breakfast cereal before school – Father told us that he had received a call late the night before from a coyote, a man who helped  move people across the borders without getting caught. He said Oscar was captured  by immigration and was in a cell in Tijuana.  The coyote said that if we wanted Oscar to come back home we were to put $1,000 in cash in a paper bag left at a special drop off spot at a certain time. Father said he was going to the drop off spot late in the evening – and we had to make sure everyone was out of the basement and that they brought all the bedrolls and personal items went with them –  just in case it was a trap set by the INS to capture Eddie and the others and arrest Mom and Father. If he didn’t come back by a certain time – we were to make sure none of them ever came back because our safe house wouldn’t be safe any more.

For any of us.

Father did return on time but with someone who was completely unrecognizable to me. Oscar’s face was blackend and  bloody,  his whole face swollen beyond anything I could comprehend. His eyes  swollen closed and so tight they looked like the creases of two ripe purple plums. He had huge bruises and lacerations on his face, and torso. His foot was so swollen he couldn’t tie his shoe, a possible fracture. He looked to me like he had been stomped to pieces.  I had never seen anyone so harmed, so wounded, so broken except for paintings of Christ on the cross.

He went in and out of consciousness for several days. He had a terrible concussion – was confused, disoriented, dehydrated. Father and Mom checked in on him, waking him hourly in shifts.

When he was strong enough to stand and talk and eat he came upstairs (only after we had drawn all the curtains and shut the window and locked the doors, the standard “coming upstairs” protocol).

My Spanish had improved by then, Father had his Latin, Mom could now understand some  and by now Oscar had more English words too. We sat around the dining room table while Oscar ate some broth:

“Can you tell me what we did wrong? Was there something we did that angered the coyote?” Father asked.

“No.” Oscar responded. “Not the coyote. Inmigración…. Inmigración.”

It took us all time to take it in: US Immigration officers had done this. Had beaten a skinny, shy adolescent boy nearly to the point of death.

“Its not Constitutional!! We have to do something! We have to get them arrested or fired! ” I said.

Father turned to me: “He isn’t a US citizen. He has no constitutional rights. They can do whatever they want to him. He’s not even going to end up in a U.S. jail once INS has him – when they dump him across the border there is no record or recourse at all.”

The reality cracked open my fourteen year old brain: Oscar and Eddie and the others who came and went and smiled and thanked us and hid in the weeds – had no human rights at all. None. No protections. The men who had done this to them were capable of extraordinary hatred, like the Klu Klux Klan, but were government employees and there could be no recourse. None at all.

Father reminded me that sometimes even U.S. citizens, and people born here had been deprived of their rights  and subjected to violence- like slavery, or the Jim Crow South or like the Japanese Americans during World War II, or the way that Native Americans were forced to live on reservations.

I understood, finally, what unfathomable danger these men and women lived with, what courage they had to call forth in order to send money to support their families at home. I knew they lived secret lives of legal non-existence, of hiding, of lack of access to basic services to make sure their parents and siblings could survive. For the first time I understood that the people in the basement could be killed, their bodies disposed of, and that no one would ever know. I was flooded with how lucky we were to have Oscar back, to know what happened to him – that he could be erased, annihilated and we would never even know what had happened.

I stopped saying the pledge of allegiance at school after that. I got sent to the principal’s office repeatedly. I didn’t care. They couldn’t make me. They could call my Mom. They could call Father.  I would never again pledge allegiance to a country capable of this.

Father would remind me: “Martha, basic human rights, your own and others are are something you must always be prepared to fight for. They can be taken away in the blink of an eye.”

God called us to this.  This is what it meant to be faithful. To do unto others. It meant risking everything for justice for everyone.

There was only one part of the pledge I would recite silently in my head, my hands at my sides, my lips still, a private prayer not a public declaration of loyalty:
“With liberty and justice for all.”

On Leaving Gladstone’s Library

 

 

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How do I write about writing without talking about what I am writing about?

I don’t mean to be cryptic, I don’t mean to build suspense or be tantalizing – because the final product, if there ever is one, will a long way off.

So don’t hold your breath.

So there isn’t any point in my being coy – but I do need to find ways to skirt around the subject of my writing in order to talk about the process, and to acknowledge the incredible gift that has been given to me in the form of a two week stay at an extraordinary residential library in Hawarden, Wales: The Gladstone Library.

I came to be here through the kindness of someone who once would have been called a stranger, before the days of social media – and now is called an “online friend.”  Someone I have never met but know and trust through Twitter. We both like birds, and mud, and walking and occasionally capitalizing words not to holler but for EMPHASIS.

Melissa has done kindnesses for me before: I don’t remember how we first crossed paths. She read some blog posts. She said kind things about them. She revealed that she was a novelist. She encouraged me to write a book. She arranged for her literary agency to confer with me – and they offered kind and helpful guidance.

I’ve only done one small thing for her: As she worked on her second, lovely novel and hit a snag she contacted me through Subtext Consultations – and we pretty quickly worked our way through it – sorting through the complex relationship dynamics of the mother and her adult son depicted in her story.

And then 2015 happened, which for me turned out to be a year of caretaking, fear and loss as my dependent mother, and Ellie, a beloved friend, both died after long and challenging cancer treatments. And in the middle of it all, after one death and before the next: Melissa sends another gift:

“Out of the blue, but – could you use two weeks in a beautiful residential library in the UK in 2016 to work on your book? Let me know – scholarships are available and I’ve just put you forward to the Warden, who is really keen. It’s the most wonderful inspiring place have a look here: gladstoneslibrary.org

Hmm. Let me think a minute – if after a year of exhaustion and doctors and drains and surgeons and ports and home care and death, could I use two weeks to myself to work in a beautiful residential library to work on some imaginary book about what I don’t yet know?  And keen. She used the word keen which American’s never use but which is so totally adorable: OF COURSE. OH MY GOD ARE YOU KIDDING ME RIGHT NOW?  YOU ARE KIDDING ME. THANK YOU, THANK YOU!

I riffle through their gorgeous and comprehensive theological collection by way of the online catalogue and see photos of the stunning reading room, and immediately write the Warden, Peter Francis, (an exceedingly kind man) – and even though I can’t tell him a single thing about what kind of book I might write, or even if I can, I only promise him that I will make my stay of use, to myself and to others. That is a commitment I can make. And I receive word from the library a few weeks later and they say:

Yes. Come.

I tell Ellie, who is still with us, and she is thrilled and supportive: She spends long weekends at our home, and we talk late into the night, after everyone is asleep about our hopes, our pasts, our fears and our sorrows – I start to tell her stories that I can only tell now that my mother has died. I wasn’t aware, while my mother lived, of any story that I wanted to tell but was prevented from telling – but in the months after her death it is suddenly clear that there are stories that did not and could not exist at all, questions that could not even become questions while either of my parents were still alive. And now, that they were both no longer here, those questions could be formulated, and mysteries could rise up, and searches could be initiated, clues could be pondered, and theories, conjecture, and intuition could assert themselves. I had inherited the seat of narrative responsibility and suddenly I had a legacy filled with obfuscation and mystery to make sense of. And Ellie understands this before I do even. And says so: “Here is start of your book Unnie! You’ll do your ‘Shrink Thinks’ stuff to it, make it all pretty and wise – I mean you’ve gotta have clients who deal with shit like this, right? Or maybe its too personal?”

No, I think this is it. This is a nonsense story in my life that I have to make meaningful now that I own it, and that is the work that every client I have ever seen is undertaking in some form. How to take apparent meaninglessness and exract meaning from it.

And I go back to Gladstone’s on-line card catalogue and I realize that yes, actually, there are questions embedded in these events that are not psychological questions, but are, in fact, theological questions: Questions about psychopathy and deceit and sin and encounters with  psychological evil and surviving and healing and resurrecting yourself from it. Questions about the purpose of having empathy for those who can feel none and self-preservation and exorcising demons, and forgiveness and acceptance and the limits of compassion. And the fact that this collection now exists as a resource for me is felt, along with Ellie’s enthusiasm and encouragement, to be confirmation that this is the work that I am now calling “a larger writing project” because it may never be anything other than a large pdf, so I still dare not say “book” because it really still feels just too audacious.

And days go by and we lose and memorialize and grieve Ellie but I hear her supportive voice speaking inside of me every night just before sleep. And months pass and the day comes when I arrive at the library.

It’s beauty is relieving the moment I pull into the carpark and look out the window of my room.

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I spend the first few days in my cozy room and in the comfortably appointed lounge, reading about psychopathy/sociopathy. I am saving the reading room, I am saving the stacks, until I have made it through the heavy, dark, ugly part of this work. My routine emerges: Wake at 7:30. Breakfast at 8:30. Begin reading at 9:00. A half hour for lunch, and a little chat with the other guest – all here to study or read or research, many of them clergy but not exclusively so – all gathered to sit and read and sleep quietly near each other to concentrate on something too complex to tackle surrounded by the distractions of  daily life. Some are here for a day or two. Some for weeks, some for months.

My routine emerges. I wake at 7:30 to read, take notes, and write. I take a half hour break for lunch. At 4:30 I have a quick cup of tea, and head out to walk through the park, and to search for walking trails through the woods and meadows and farmlands. I look for birds – pheasant, partridge, English robins,  songbirds I don’t recognize, owls and hawks that I never see on walks in the US. I regret not bringing my binoculars.

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I come home and rest for whatever time remains before dinner. I have a glass of wine in the lounge after dinner, and chat for a brief bit – and then head back to the reading room until 10.

Meals are simple, delicious and nutritious and on site. I skip dessert. I have a box of biscuits in my room when I need a bite.

The reading room is beautiful, quiet, a space as gathered as a Quaker meeting. Each person sitting in focused silence, going in deep, deep into challenging content, alone together. There are desks set in privacy, between bookshelves, around the second floor gallery and large comfortable leather club chairs for those who prefer to curl up. Each person is   facing down a blank screen, or taking notes on a text pulled from the archives, or staring out the window wondering, contemplating, reflecting on a literary or academic or spiritual dilemma.

 

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And I wrestle simultaneously with trying to fill in holes and follow up clues from a family mystery, while searching for a through-line for this book, and wanting to find some way for this not to be a pitiful or confessional story, but a story that I have made meaningful for myself and I am not sure that I can. What if owning and surfacing this story and chewing on the psychological and theological conundrums that live within it is only enraging, or heartbreaking, or boring, or purposeless, for me and for others. What if I can’t pull this one through? I resolve that that may be more than enough, and I can keep whatever I produce tucked in a drawer and it will be worth it because it will have filled in some hidden and obfuscated parts of my own history.

But, near the end of my second week, I find the key:  I read a phrase that  triggers a memory of the first time I heard the expression. Some quick investigation shows me that this phrase, and what I understood of it as a child and what it actually means, is the pathway toward both a personal liberation from a pitted and contentious internal conflict, but also the construct that allows this “longer piece” to have a through-line that reflects my values, and my wish to write about how we find might find  meaning in meaningless events, how we are sometimes able to turn sows ears into silk purses.

And it emerges as a certainty. And this key, this theological construct – something I have sought in the psychological literature but never truly found – except perhaps peripherally in Jungian discussion of the transcendent function and alchemy (but I am not such a Jungian so I just briefly scan the densest alchemical texts and the numerology makes me sleepy). And I carry and test this idea in my heart for a few days and it continues to release something small and hard, scarred, and maybe even twisted shut inside of me – and fills that space with light. 

And it doesn’t fade over several days. It remains clear and solid. 
When I speak briefly to others at mealtime or in the lounge in front of the fire – they all say the same thing: Their time here  has been amazingly productive. It is such a special place. They were able to get so much done. They found the missing piece they had been searching for.

And my last night here: a blessing:

I sit by the fire and an older man comes to sit near me. I had seen him at lunch but had kept my nose in a book. We chat about the fire and the English weather. Like you do. And I ask if he is working on researching or writing like so many others, and he says “Oh I just come here to read. But I should write. One day, I should write maybe…” And I ask him what he might write about, and he tells me he is a live-in carer at a religious community for people with learning disabilities – which I translate into American as: a residential counselor for adults with developmental disabilities.

He says that he is filled with stories he could tell, he should tell. Lessons that the residents have taught him. Things that they understand easily that he needed to learn or relearn or be reminded of. He says that each person he has worked with has been a teacher in his life. 

And I tell him I know  exactly how he feels.

He told me of a woman, who saw him escorting a resident with Down’s Syndrome to an appointment on the bus. How she whispered to him about the grief she felt when she saw an adult with Down’s Syndrome as she second guesses a decision she made to terminate pregnancy many many years earlier, and wondered who her child might have been. And his kindness as he said to her: “I can’t judge you. You made a decision based on what you knew, and what was available to you at the time.”  He says “I knew she was grieving, and I knew these are such personal and painful decisions in every direction, I only know it has been an honor to live with the people I have lived with and cared for, for the past 25 years.”

He spoke of the joys and sorrows and the sacred spaces that the residents had allowed him to bear witness to. He told me stories of funerals and celebrations and surprises and the love of families and liberation from them. He talked of the ways the residents grieve, and how they talk to God, and how they love and how this had made him more whole, and better man. Each story he told, his eyes welled up with the holiness of the embodied lesson he had been taught.

He spoke of regrets for things he might have done better or differently over the years, and how he should probably write those down too.

And I said: “I hope you will. I really hope you will. Next time you come, don’t just bring books to read. Bring a nice journal and a good pen and write all your stories down. They are important, and you are the only one who has born witness to them, who has seen what you have seen, and been changed by it and have found what is sacred in each event. Please do write them down.” If I had an extra empty journal with me I would hand it to him with my best pen right then and there. 

He responded:  “ I just might do that. Six months before I retire I’ll have to buy that journal and come here on my weekends and write.”

And I said:

“You should. You really should. These kinds of stories are the most important kind of stories that anyone can ever tell.”

 

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