Mirror, Mirror

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This morning, Mary Lou

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The story in the book “Seeing Jazz” has a quote from Mary Lou Williams (found in the third frame) about an experience she had in Kansas City. I feel like Mary Lou liberated herself from her bed with just a couple of pebbles and her fingers. And then she went on to liberate her fellow musicians from whatever all they were going through at the time, simply with her presence. I find the story of her friend throwing rocks at her window and asking her husband for permission so she could go play piano in the middle of the night deeply satisfying. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s about liberation and how liberating ourselves allows us to share that grace with others.

I feel like when you go on a journey, questioning your past and yourself to dig up all the dirt it’s like looking in a mirror, with all the criticisms and negativity and darkness staring back from the abyss, directly at you. It’s like a pile tarnished silverware or forgotten, buried treasure, covered in dirt and grime. When you take away the tarnish and you take away the dirt, you still have the essence of the object, just cleaner and more potent. I’m not saying liberating yourself from your past or current circumstances is easy. But I am saying it might worthwhile of your consideration. It might be worth giving up the safe life you live as you know it, all of the difficult, troubling, dark nights of the soul, plumbing into the depths of the nooks and crannies of trauma our loved ones and life has dealt us, in order to take that top layer of grime right off, if only to see what’s going on underneath.

I’m still plumbing my depths, on a quest leading to I’m-not-sure-where. So far, I can’t feel anger at my father, which according to the experts I need to feel in order to heal. But when I think of him, I understand that his devastating illness gave me a beautiful life, one in which he raised me himself, protected me from my mother’s barbs when he could, and gave me my most precious gifts. Grace, compassion, the desire to understand others, care-taking, reading, thinking deeply, taking in nature with awe and respect, athleticism, getting up after you fall down, forgiving yourself. I don’t feel anger about his psychiatric condition, and I didn’t when he was alive. I did, most certainly feel fear, because when he was having an episode and the wheels were completely off, there was sort of a power or energy around him that made the hair on the backs of your arms and on your neck stand completely on end. But, even that had me walking down a pathway trying to understand the psyche, the collective unconscious, and compel Jungian ideas to be my own. Particularly using all these years of martial arts and meditation, a year of therapy, working on my own internal energy. Maybe if I could understand my own energy, I could understand his. Or maybe if I could understand his energy, I could conquer my own. Two sides of the same coin.

I feel that I used my metaphorical fingers, when I became Dmitri’s mom, to untie all the knots in D that kept him in a state focused solely internally, and in doing so I untied all the knots in both of us.

This is a long winded way of stating, that after all these years of working on myself, I feel more like myself.

I’m thankful to the woman who said, “white women, please stop co-opting other cultures and investigate your own roots.” Because I did, and in the process I found myself again, and most importantly, reconnected with my muse. But first, I gazed at myself in my dark mirror, empty and alone, until she appeared and made us both whole.

There’s more I could write about anger, in myself, and my mother, but I think I’ll leave that for another muse and another time.

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the weight of water

We are made up of mainly water. Blood, sweat, tears. We all begin in water. And if you are a woman, you begin in the amniotic fluid of your grandmother, your origin, in the water that comes before you, and she began in her grandmother, and her grandmother before her and on and on. Water drives the forces of life, from lack of water, to a deluge, which destroys everything as with a tsunami. We describe our emotions in water. Boiling Mad. Cold as ice. But you can’t capture and hold onto water in your hands. You can’t save it in a paper bag or carry it on your back. The more tightly you grip your water, the less you have. It can form itself into any shape. Water flows. If you are caught up in a rip current, you have no choice but to go with water.

A formative moment of my childhood was when my Father took me down to a raging, flooding, angry river. He threw in an empty can and told me to look at how fast the current was moving. It was his warning. Men understand water, too.

I remember a special jar my mom brought back from a trip to the middle east. I spent a lot of time looking at it. It was a jar, she said, that was made to hold a woman’s tears from birth to death. I would look at the beautifully crafted tiny jar, knowing, even then, that it couldn’t possibly hold a lifetime’s worth of tears. Of my tears. I recently had a discussion at a buddhist monastery, and the woman leading the discussion started talking about a woman’s tears, how we can cry over lovers, and family and life, enough to fill an ocean. She looked at me when she said it. Even though she’s never seen me cry, yet she knew of my tears, the weight I carry.

My grandmother carried me, inside my mother, when she carried my mother. I think about my grandmother’s life often. And the weight of her water. She was forced to leave school in the third grade. She worked in a sweat shop in DC. Her parents made her marry someone twice her age when she was fifteen, and sent her back to him when she tried to escape the marriage on her wedding night. Her new husband was the older brother of the boy she actually loved. But he drowned. My grandfather was injured in World War I. And so despite his trauma he gave my Grandmother seven children. Then he left her to raise them all during the great depression. Looking back, I don’t know how she did it, but she carried her weight, the weight of life she wasn’t able to choose for herself, and the weight of seven children. Fearlessly.

Water follows my family wherever they go, religiously, relentlessly. My sister died at 45 of too much water. Pneumonia, with the weight of my brother in law’s terminal cancer diagnosis. And the weight of my Dmitri’s disabilities. Dmitri was born in too much water, ascieties, his little tummy swollen like a football with all the fluid.

I remember talking about life with my brother in law, when we were closing in on the end of his. I stood in his living room, helplessly crying over the loss of my sister, sobbing uncontrollably when he talked about the reality of a lifespan of someone with Down Syndrome. Filling up my tear jar, to overflowing.

But in so many ways I am lucky when it comes to water. My father, was a life guard. Really in two ways if you think about it. One, for the red cross, certified to protect those that are swimming, and two, as a preacher, helping those who needed it in navigating their lives. And so, when I was four, he taught me to swim. I remember it distinctly. It was his first job after his nervous breakdown, and he taught me in the company swimming pool. Just me, and him, and the chlorine. After that I took the whole series of swimming lessons at the local country club, all the way to lifeguard certification, but then quitting because the requirement was that you jump in with bricks on your feet. Anyway, a crucial component of the penultimate swimming class was that you learn a technique for treading water for up to 12 hours, say if you were submerged in the ocean, or caught up with a current, or had fallen into a large body of water but no one had missed you yet. The method is a total antithesis of what you would think when you think of treading water. You learn to rest the upper portion of your body in the water, as if you are floating on your stomach, and tread your legs beneath you. If you practice this with american crawl style breathing, you can hang on for a very long time.

I have learned to carry the weight of water. For myself. For my sister. For her husband, as he struggled with fluid in his lungs during the last months of his life. For my daughter. For my Dmitri. The past year and a half have been an ordeal of sorts. Sorting out his health concerns. It seems he has trouble carrying his water. But thankfully for now, he can carry 50% of it, and despite another doctor scaring the hell out of me with words like “Dialysis” and “kidney transplant,” the doctor in the nephrology department that gained my trust tells me you can live on 50% for a very long time.

And so, I carry this new weight of water, with me. Learning how to wait out the news, treading water in my own way, learning to rest and breathe, thoughtfully, but in ways I didn’t expect. Thankfully I have learned to carry water from the past, from those that carried it before me, and knowing that while I may fill my own tear jar, I can carry the weight of it all, and the weight of my children. Because of all the people who came before me who carried their weight in water, and without knowing it, they carried a bit of my water too, until I was strong enough to bear it on my own.

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mud soaked roots

I found myself in my garden covered in water and sunk in the mud, fresh rivulets of water streaming off of my sunglasses on to my shirt, my pants wet through, my shoes caked. As the hose continued to profusely leak at the join, I shut the water off, gathered my things, and headed to the neighbor’s plot to water for her while she was abroad. Hoping her waterfall sprayer wouldn’t spray me like my own did. (It didn’t.)

A few months ago I read a truthful, harried, fed-up missive asking white people to stop trying to appropriate the Hamsa and to instead focus on our own cultural roots. I took that advice seriously. It was fair advice, as was the frustration with middle class white women searching for themselves in cultures that were not their own. Because you won’t find yourself until you’re ready to look deeply into the mirror.

I found myself living on a farm, as a young child of three years old, after a considerable family-related traumatic experience that was so horrible I’ve only spoken a few sentences about it in the decades since. We were there as a kindness bestowed upon us by my aunt and uncle, who owned a cattle farm in the wilderness and an electric supply store in the country. The initial months were tough and I don’t know if anyone outside my immediate family put words to what we were experiencing in that little trailer where we cohabitated, regrouping from the events from the year before. Both of my siblings fled the family home, and my brother fled the country.

My parents and I huddled around the tiny wood stove at night during that first winter, returning home to Virginia from Alabama and unused to the cold, and the constant stream of fire wood necessary to keep us from freezing to death in the darkness.

The youngest of three, separated by nineteen and eleven years across that divide, and the smallest kid, I was just a set of wide eyes and satellite dishes for ears, soaking in all the things happening in the darkness among my parents. Nobody gave much thought to what I thought or what I had to say. They were too busy surviving. I was punished for expressing disappointment or sadness. So I mainly tried to keep to myself. Trust was not something I was capable of, once I learned what adults were capable of.

During that year I was too young to go to school and I don’t think my parents could afford childcare. I remember going down the aisles of the safeway with my mom, crying in the store because we shopped in the poor section, with the cans with the black and white labels, separated from all the other food and produce with big black and white letters proclaiming what you were buying. Peas. Corn. Carrots. Our family poorhouse shame broadcast in large, plain letters on the cans we put on the conveyor belt. I don’t know how I knew that meant we were broke, but somehow I knew to feel that shame.

My mom got a job as cashier at the local caverns while my dad convalesced in various local psychiatric units around the countryside. There were large blocks of time where she was unable to watch me so that time was spent with my aunt, my uncle, my grandmother, and my cousin.

Although I am starting to forget what his shoes looked like, and what was in the corner of his mouth instead of champing on a cigar after he had his cancerous lung removed, I remember how he’d look at me, with a nod of his head and a tip of his always black stetson hat, and a grunt. His acknowledgment of my presence on his farm and in his life. He never asked me what happened with my parents in Alabama that day our lives changed forever. He never asked me how it affected me. Was I okay. In fact I don’t recall him saying too much in his deep gravely voice at all.

I remember his beautifully embroidered cowboy shirts. His leather black vest and bolo ties. His series of white contractor trucks. The rows and rows of electrical conduit at his electrical supply business. How he let me ride with him on his enclosed and air conditioned tractor while he farmed the hay that would feed his beautiful charolais cattle in those bucolic rolling pastures. We would take drives into town up 340 and I’d look through the trees at the south fork of the Shenandoah River as we sped by. He would give me bananas and take me for breakfast at the diner with the red spinning stools at the counter beside the bridges he and his wife outfitted with oblong frosted lights on the walkways.

I think I began to trust him somewhere around the time where he let me come in the barn pasture, holding a galvanized steel bucket with a nipple on the end as he supervised me feeding a calf with a lost mother. Kind of like me. I remember that sensation of wonder and awe and complete and utter joy as the little calf’s tongue reached out for more powdered milk. Can I touch him? I asked? Uncle Johnny grunted in response.

Uncle Johnny

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Somewhere after that words started coming out of me like a flood. I doubt I ever talked about what happened, or could trust the veracity of what escaped my mouth, but up until that point not a single adult in my life listened or gave a damn about what I had to say. And the adults in my life sure didn’t listen and let me talk without interrupting, judgment, or corrections to how I should actually be feeling. But he did all those things, with ease and more. Even though I would talk his poor ear off from the early morning hours until it was time for me to fall exhausted into sleep. I remember just how he’d adjust that hat over his eyes with his non-cigar peeking out of the corners of his clenched teeth. Just a tip of the hat. Somehow we were two people as different as night and day, but he did something that meant something to me. It meant everything to me.

His favorite food was lima beans. I remember the smell of my Aunt’s canning, the mixed spicy smell of their pantry. I remember standing on a chair to cut potatoes to do my bit to help with dinner. I remember in their farm house sitting in front of the petrified wood coffee table and breaking bread with them at dinner. Steak and potatoes, while we listened to the Everly brothers and I practiced my four step, admiring his black hat and boots. Wanting to please my Uncle but unable to pass the time in silence that he lived in.

Sometimes the love of one adult can make a difference in the life of a broken kid. I remember him standing in the pasture beside the barn, with his arms outstretched. How he wouldn’t let me mow the grass by myself but he’d let me ride along with him and then chase the moths and butterflies and gaze upon the orb weavers weaving their endless web on his endless bales of home grown hay. I remember standing in the blistering hot sun, bent over on their property off of 522, carefully picking the limas off the bushes with my tiny fingers, nestled under the high tower electrical lines running above. He was a man of few words but anyone who knew him well knew of his love for limas. Butter beans. Cooked all day with a stick of butter. And I would do anything to please this man who had done so much for me. So I picked and picked and picked, happy to be doing something that would make him happy.

Fordhook 242 Lima beans

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And now after numerous years and decades have gone by I plant my own garden with his Fordhook 242 Limas, holding a broken kid of my own next to my heart.

I can’t wait to grow and harvest and cook these beans, just how you’d like, Uncle Johnny. I may be a little seed that went through scarification, but I am alive.

I am alive.

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Fickleknitter Closing March 1, 2018

I’ll be closing my business on March 1, 2018. It’s been such a huge and impactful time in my life and I’m extremely grateful for all the experiences and people that the business has brought to me but the reality is my life has changed and it’s time for me to start a new chapter. Thank you to all.

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An exchange

When my sister died, one of the professors she was close to told me at her funeral that Miriam didn’t leave us, she simply went into another room. I had a hard time. And I had a hard time knowing what in the hell this professor meant by that. Now, tempered by time, it has become a bit easier to see that even when someone leaves us, and leaves all of the unanswered questions, the dark nights of the soul, that they may be gone, but still, they are here.

Temple chimes, then reading the names of Buddha

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I had a moment this weekend, in my taichi class when I looked around, and I saw all the things that the master had taught us. I watched my classmates move their bodies and I thought “that’s just how the master did it.” I was struck by the beauty of how he has gone to another room, but we still have what he taught us.

10 year anniversary and 100 days for our Master #taiji

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And what a beautiful gift to have given. I think about him, when I’m doing my tai chi, when my knees hurt, when it feels great, when I want to finish the form, and when I don’t. I see him in the movements he generously taught us and shared with us, I miss his voice, yelling, (and how did I never know I would miss the sound of someone yelling at me!?), I miss the way he mimicked our forms, perfectly. The few times I saw him laugh. The lessons I learned when I asked him about a movement in one of the forms and he hit me, with the movement, to show me why. And how I stood there and let him hit me a second time.

And this got me thinking, I can see him and his influence in his students. About those lovely memories, carved into us and into time, although he is gone.

Still listening to Superbad #waitingroommusic

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Then I looked at my reflection and saw my dad in the lines in my face. Looking back, I saw my sister in the way that Dmitri carries his shoulders, if only briefly. I think about these gifts from those that I’ve lost, and work on remembering the happy times, along with my sorrow. Traveling back, in time, to those moments that impacted my heart. I tell myself, even though you are no longer with me, you are still here.

Tuesdays are for bow ties

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I look at my children, my biggest teachers, and I am thankful of how they show me the past, and what is to come. I may have lost those that I love, but the sorrow I feel now is worth the love I had then. It is an even exchange.

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Shambhala Pocket Classics, Thich Nhat Hanh

As we sit down next to a stream, we can listen to its laughter and watch its sparkling waters, noticing the pebbles and fresh green plants nearby, and we may be overcome with happiness. We are one with the stream’s freshness, purity, and clarity. But in just an instant we may find we’ve had enough. Our heart is troubled, and we think of other things. We are no longer one with the stream.

Port Ludlow in Puget Sound

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Finnriver Farm

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Mid flight

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What's inside the old wood

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Nearly every surface has barnacles on it. Barnacles.

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I feel like Puget Sound is an alright place to be

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Good totem for taichi #strungalong #portludlow #latergram

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It is of no use to sit in a peaceful forest if our mind is lost in the city. When we live with a child or a friend, their freshness and warmth can relax us. But if our heart is not with them, their precious presence is neglected, and they no longer exist. We must be aware of them to appreciate their value, to allow them to be our happiness. If through carelessness and forgetfulness we become dissatisfied with them, and begin asking too much of them or reprimanding them, we will lose them. Only after they are gone will we realize their preciousness and feel regret. But once they are gone, all our regrets are in vain.
“The Pocket Thich That Hanh”

Here is to creating a life full of love, value, and living without regret.

My mermaid

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We're not much into traditional family portraits

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Forgiveness is a two-step

If you read the article I posted earlier this year with my dad talking about his struggle with mental illness you’ll see that it’s where my desire to share my struggle to forgive my mother (and likely some of my other struggles over the years) originates, an unfettered fearlessness about sharing something that has cut me so deeply, because there are people who read my writing and know us both. I take this risk because I know that I’m not alone in this situation of struggling with a loved one. I do this constant dance between the strong urge to forgive my mom and forget the past so I can enjoy the last years of her life with her, and feeling the anger over her behavior, actions and consequences throughout my life and the lives of my siblings and my father.

I’ve also been contemplating some of our oldest stories, like the Odyssey and the Iliad and the Aeniad and how I really think these stories are allegory and metaphor for how we have to conquer ourselves and our inner demons to live a full life. How we fight Cyclops and Minotaur and Harpy and Siren but in reality we fight the seven deadly sins and incomplete child rearing and fucked up societal ideals and unspoken traumas that we pass down generation by generation. If you look deeply at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and some of the tenets of Buddhism you can find the key to unlocking those dark, hidden and ugly parts of yourself and revel in forgiveness and acceptance and self love, even if only for two-steps.

Yesterday I gave my kid a new medication and it made him feel weird and not himself. And as a consequence of the new medication and a long wait time at the doctor’s we experienced one of the most challenging behavioral days we’ve ever had together. It made me think about a few things.

1. How very far he has come since all the events of 2011 leading to the loss of both his parents, and the move from cross country to my home.
2. How his behavior triggered me because he was doing shit that could hurt himself or damage expensive equipment at the doctor’s office and I didn’t sit well with either of those options.
3. But that letting him see that his negative attention-seeking behavior get my negative attention falls solely on me. I let him get under my skin.
4. When I am stressed and tired I become scatterbrained and easier to inflame.
5. Ultimately my emotions about an event are up to me.
6. I like to over analyze EVERY emotional event.
7. Sometimes I get stuck analyzing shit that’s long over and not happening in my present and not likely to ever happen again. It’s like back to the future only it’s my past and my brain won’t shut up.
8. I want my mind to be a clear blue sky like Andy Puddicombe describes in Headspace.
9. I like lists.
10. I enjoy central coast wines.
11. I am flying to SEATAC tomorrow for a knitting retreat I haven’t attended since 2010 when I was still married, I still had my sister, her husband, they still had Dmitri, and I possessed a totally different life.
12. But still the most important thing to me is the love of my children, which I earn in part by caring for myself in a way that allows me to provide them with love, stability and security.
13. We say that love should be unconditional but that ideal is not practical or a reflection of reality.
14. In all my reading on pop psychology, meditation, buddhism, and self help, somewhere I read that our first thoughts in reaction to something in our environment come from the programming of our mothers, but that the second thoughts are up to us.
15. I’m really focusing on those second thoughts.
16. That I can trust myself and my decision making.
17. That I can jettison what doesn’t work for me.
18. In general I make the claim that I want to be present in the present moment but I really enjoy daydreaming and lint picking with my head in the clouds.
19. I can meditate the eastern way, but I LOVE to meditate laying down and finding relaxation enough so that I can fall asleep even if only briefly.
20. I don’t like to attempt things I’m not good at yet, but I can attempt them.
21. If something is making me uncomfortable I should lean into what ever it is that I don’t want to do so that the feeling will go the fuck away.
22. I can hold two types of feelings in my heart about a single event and or person.
23. Sometimes I give my kids convenience foods and I’m not perfect (or even close).
24. I think dysfunction that leads to a false self and a need to please is a lot like the Trojan Horse of Troy.
25. Polydorus died from the spears we inflict on ourselves.
26. Odysseus’ greatest sin with the cyclops was pride (ego), and it came back to haunt him.
27. Never try to interfere with fate or destiny.
28. This is a really long list.
29. And I’m not sorry at all.
30. Coffee after 5:30pm is probably a bad idea.
31. But I have to pack for tomorrow.
32. I try to call my Mom every day but sometimes I take a couple days or week off and that makes me feel guilty as hell.
33. I feel sad when she thinks Thursday is Saturday.
34. I feel sad that we’re both in a difficult set of circumstances.
35. My main responsibility is to my two kids and sometimes that hurts like hell.
36. I’m trying to shut out reliving the past again and again so that I can enjoy the wisdom and funny things she says now.
37. I’m glad she embraced humor after a lifetime of being so serious.
38. I’ve seen her change, even just a little.
39. Perfectionism is a dirty rotten liar and will try to ruin your life.
40. So is anxiety.
41. Ultimately it is all up to us. No one else.

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I’m here to learn

This past year since August almost everything in my life has been a teachable moment. In many ways I overcame growing up in a chaotic and unstable, unloving environment and experienced all the trappings of success as a functional member of society. But in some ways I still had to experience growth. Ultimately, if I embrace the concept of love the way I was taught, loving my mom will upend my life and turn it into a maelstrom of churning chaos. Last summer, I sat in my rental car, after working very hard to get her out of a hell of situation of her own making and she turned to me and said “Finally, for the first time I can see that you really do love me.”

I paused a moment, felt my anger well up inside of me like a fountain, and I yelled at her. I asked her, why on earth did she feel the need to put both of our lives in the grips of total chaos in order to feel loved. She sat for a moment, stunned, and said that wasn’t the case. But the reality is, it is the case. Loving her the way she wants means showering her with time, affection, praise, spending money, taking her to lunch, buying her whatever she wants, flying out at great personal expense time and time again, having to stay in a hotel since she won’t get rid of a cat that you’re allergic to, and in the end all you’re going to feel is a lighter wallet and a sense of bewilderment, loss, and confusion about what just happened. Ultimately this is how I’ve witnessed all of her relationships end. With her, you never really know where you stand or what she needs because she can never trust anyone enough to tell the truth of what she wants. In many ways I believe this is because she can’t tell herself the truth of what she wants.

I’ve thought a lot about my obligations as child to the woman that gave me life. But in the end I can’t help her the way she wants. I can only help her the way I’m able. And that means not opening myself up to an endless cycle of drama and exhaustive toll on my personal and financial resources. I’m not saying her position has been easy. She really wants to stay in her home, with her friends and her church. She knows that my obligation is to my children. She knows that she is alone, and she lives with that every day.

When my brother in law was dying, I was living in his home, ferrying him to the oncologist for chemo and the er and taking Dmitri to his own therapy appointments and carrying him up and down the stairs, and learning to mother him. While this was ongoing my mom was dealing with a very complex medical issue, requiring multiple surgeries and wound vacs because she had an out of control staph infection raging in her abdomen. It was very difficult and painful for me not to be there for her when she was going through it. Luckily she did have friends. They worked to not make me feel guilty or worry about her condition when I had so much responsibility of my own. This continued up until her best friend died last August. My mom called me once at 4am, sounding upset. “Is everything okay?” I asked? “No.” she said. “It’s not okay, I am not okay.” “Well if something is the matter you need to press the nurses button, okay Mom? It’s four o’clock in the morning here and I have to get up and start my day soon. Can we talk during regular hours?” Hearing her pain over the phone, a literal continent away was a painful reality in my life. But it was authentic and palpable.

Sometimes avoiding the truth causes more suffering and sometimes by trying to protect someone from the truth without their knowledge, you’re causing them even more hurt. I feel like I always tried, even at my own peril to get my mom to love me in the way that I wanted. But really nothing is ever going to cause that to happen. Sometimes I even spent my time trying to convince unlovable people that these are the reasons why they should love me in search of that maternal love that I lacked. But ultimately that leaves everyone unsatisfied and unsated and me contorted and twisted up inside, still lacking that for which I was searching. Eventually I began feel that if I could just accept the fact that people don’t or can’t or won’t love me in the way that I know I need, that things would get easier. And they did get easier. I learned that it is a beautiful thing to just let people go. It is a loving thing to do to cleanly let someone go. Maybe it is the ultimate loving act. I can’t say for sure. Sometimes you can show love by not doing what people want or being the person that they need. By setting limits. By deciding that you won’t show up for them if they won’t show up for you. Because in the end, we are the gatekeepers of what we allow in our lives and the guarders of our precious energy.

My daughter flew on an airplane without her father or myself today for the first time on her fourth grade school trip to Sacramento. Her dad dropped her off, and there was a small issue and she was crying at the airport. I wasn’t there to see it first hand, but I’ve been thinking about it all day. I’m making a list of important life things I want to tell her when she gets home. I want to tell her that she is capable of getting her needs met. She already does. That sometimes crying is one really helpful way to get your needs met. I want her to look internally and see that she has the strength to get what she needs, to not be afraid to ask for help directly. To tell people what is okay and is not okay with her. I want to tell her that sometimes things don’t go as planned, but those few moments or minutes of uncertainty or fear shouldn’t taint the whole day. And that in the end, we decide how we feel, others don’t make us feel that way. How we interpret events and slights and hard times, that’s on us. I want her to show kindness to people who are sometimes mean, controlling, hard hearted or angry, and to use grace to know when those same people have used up all their goodwill with her.

I want to teach my daughter how to hold onto the bad feelings so that she can appreciate the good. I want her to see that she can affect the outcome and happiness in her life. That she can choose her own way and find her happiness. Childhood is such a beautiful, fleeting, precious time, where someone else can meet all your needs while you spend your time learning and growing. I want her to enjoy these moments, and give her the tools to enjoy her life and to be a strong woman. Like me. This is why I let her see me cry and I talk about losing loved ones, and that the hardest part is they can’t talk to us anymore, but they are still here. I want her to learn to gracefully let go, with her whole heart, so that she can see the beauty in that too. That life is made up of the lightness and the darkness and wouldn’t be the same if it lacked either part. I hope she will see that the beauty of art comes from some things being left unsaid, how silences hold a beauty all of their own. I hope my beautiful daughter will be fearless, even if she has to cry while being fearless. I want her to accept the bad feelings and then set them aside so that she can enjoy the good. If I can just teach her these few things, I will feel like I’ve done an adequate job. And then maybe I can learn to let go with my whole heart too.

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Listening to yourself

One of the most difficult things for me having grown up in a chaotic atmosphere was learning to listen to myself. I mean, I have always been able to sense and utilize my intuition which is a powerful force not to be ignored. But having had the pivotal adults in my life constantly tell me I wasn’t feeling how I was feeling, it’s been hard for me to know what I think and feel at times.

The other day an old post of mine popped up on facebook, and it was about the fear and love I felt regarding adopting my disabled nephew. Truly, at this point he is my son although my sister bore him. And he’s been my son for a while. He lives in my heart. Through his growth and maturation I have discovered myself.

Back to fear. It used to be an emotion I avoided, like anger. But when you avoid something, it grows. Most of my life, even now, I felt paralyzing fear. Over the most mundane things. Granted I was able to leave my parent’s home at a young age. I got a degree. Two degrees. Had a baby. I started a business. Adopted a child. Got divorced. Became a single mother. Flying through a fear of flying. Bungee Jumping. Dissent. Disagreeing. Feeling Anger. Handling my business. Confronting people. I learned to do it all on my own, even the things I ( sometimes unfairly) would ask others to do because I was too afraid to do them myself. I do these things now because there is no one else to do those things anymore.

But eventually I learned that shielding myself from fear wasn’t good for me and it certainly wasn’t good for anyone around me. I serve myself by leaning into my fear. I’m not afraid to feel anymore. I seek out ways to access how I’m feeling. If you listen to yourself in the quiet, you can find out how you feel. Meditation. Exercise. Being in nature. These aren’t tired old tropes people just throw around for no reason. There are ways to connect to yourself inside, even after experiencing the most terrible of circumstances. I listen a lot to Nina Simone, the one artist who truly could represent the pain and joy of being alive in her work. Of course my beloved martial arts. I watch movies. Film. Look at art. Drink tequila. Cry in front of my children. Fuck up in front of my children. Apologize to my children. Talk to my children. Listen to my children. And they bring me so much joy. Looking into their smiling faces makes me feel like that’s why I’ve made the sacrifices I’ve made.

Sometimes I find myself discovering what I really think when people ask me questions. Sometimes I hear myself answering and wonder, so that’s it is it? That’s really what I think? Because it’s completely in opposition with what I’m saying to myself otherwise. The most powerful lies are the ones we tell ourselves. And we can’t lie forever. Eventually the truth comes out and inauthenticity becomes authenticity, for the luckiest of us. Prayer and silence aren’t the only ways to get an answer, sometimes. Sometimes you find out the truth by putting yourself out there, where the fear lives, and royally fucking it all up to hell. Sometimes you find out the truth when you burn and salt the earth behind you. And that’s totally okay.

I like being connected to myself. Even when it hurts. After all I’ve done and been through I know that even when I make a mistake, and it hurts like hell that that pain is impermanent. And I can tell myself the painful truth of my life over and over, and eventually I’ll be on the other side of that pain. I control the things I can, look deeply at the things I can not control, and when I can, I set myself free. And once you taste that type of freedom, you aren’t likely to give it up again.

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When my dad had his first nervous breakdown he was stationed in Fairfield Alabama, a predominantly African American community during the late 1970s. Me and my family were the “other.” We were the odd ones out. I remember my parents talking about advocating for the kids in the neighborhood, how they called Coppertone to get cases of sunscreen for the kids so they didn’t get sunburnt at the summer camp pool. I remember, vaguely, the women who cared for me when my parents were busy. I remember that time it snowed. I remember my best friend, a little boy down the street. My parents were always part of the other. Both coming from dysfunctional families with either mental illness, alcoholism, gambling problems or a combination thereof leading to poverty in their formative years. My father took care of a sibling who died very young of what I believe was epilepsy. My mom recounted a time when she was but a small child, hiding under the table while her five of her six brothers overturned it, arguing, food flying everywhere. So they decided to live a different life than that of their progenitors. They joined the salvation army as teenagers, and got married at 16 and 18. My dad was funneled into leadership, and was a preacher for 20 years. Of course, the preacher’s wife has a job even if it’s not listed on tax forms. The Salvation Army provided a car, a place to live, food, clothing, but minimal money. My parents devoted themselves to charitable works.

After my dad was ousted from the Salvation Army due to his nervous breakdown my parents still sought out similar feeling situations–authoritarianism being a prerequisite because you go with what you know. A group with a clear leader to tell everyone what to do. Being young and dependent on my parents I was thrust into these situations too. As a young adult, I remember the dispassionate feeling inside when my sister told me at least two of these groups my parents associated with were investigated for being cults. I saw firsthand. I pretended I was like them, swept unhappily along, suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Once, at 17, after an ugly fight with my mom where she forced me to go to one of these places, I was totally broken, emotionally unarmed, so I just pretended to be like them, pretended to speak in tongues, pretended to be “saved” again and again, loathing myself for every ugly moment of falsehood, it felt like torture. One of the men, presumably leadership, looked at me at that moment, and told me “you may be wearing a dress with flowers on it, but you are a warrior.”

I am a fighter. A brawler. I like using my swords when I’m working out on the mat. I like swinging them around slowly, in control. I like trying to punch the crap out of other martial artists. Sometimes I don’t miss. They don’t mind. While going through my sisters belongings I came across a cache of photos, of myself, so many photos of my teenaged years, me looking angry. I was angry. I felt living religion was a lie. My mom felt parenting meant breaking children like they were animals. So she tried to break me, and I pretended to be broken. Until I fled at 17, with angry words, her physical threats, full of pain, I left that lie. I don’t want to live in the framework of authoritarianism. Misogyny. Racism. It’s not a comfort to me to relive the painful tropes of my childhood. It’s not a comfort to know that the only way your mom knows to show love is pain.

Last week was tough. I had to attend the funeral of my tai chi teacher. A classmate that I thought a lot of passed away at 42. I nearly broke my ankle April 24, and I’ve been really limited in getting around while it heals. At night, I have a wracking cough. My mom. Jesus. I call her to make sure she remembers to turn on the AC, to help her take care of the daily needs she has, to send her water so she doesn’t get dehydrated again, all the trips last year when she was vulnerable, writing her checks, paying her bills. I swing between wanting to help her and wanting to hate her for all that she did during my vulnerable time as a child. But nevertheless.

She said some things last weekend that were really hard to hear. I was already wounded, physically, spiritually, and mentally from the losses and injuries of the past few weeks. When she was saying them aloud, I felt myself pull away from the conversation, I guess I was hoping to protect myself from hurt. But after I told someone else the things she said, and seeing the horror on that person’s face, I thought “maybe I ought to process this.” And man, it felt like hell. I had a lot of thoughts. I would think about how in the end, I didn’t want to be petty. Yes it was not okay or normal for her to not fit the trope of maternalism. Could I help her although she would forget my birthday after I turned 17? That she couldn’t even offer me a graduation card? A sweet 16 birthday card? So many badges representing what society called caring, and accepting what I never received, the embarrassment I felt when people would ask me why my parents didn’t even get me a birthday gift. Seeing other kids open a pile of presents and feeling shame because no one bothered with that in my house, and if they did, my mom would threaten to return all the gifts, transforming the joy of receiving sour. All the insults, and accusations. All the times the only emotion she showed me was rage? Ultimately I don’t want to be petty. I don’t want to live with regrets. She is 77 today, and nearing the last chapter of her life. I took a moment, during my suffering over what she had said, and tried to put myself in her position. I thought, “She is saying this to me right now because she is angry.” So I decided to give her the space to feel angry. She lashed out, and instead of carrying that emotional burden I decided to let it the fuck go. And so I did, and I felt freedom.

Somehow, despite all that I had been through, I was able to change my framework. Through therapy. Meditation. Music. Martial Arts. Self Care. Motherhood. Wine. I was reluctant to go to therapy, but I also didn’t want to continue repeating the same mistakes for the remainder of my life. Therapy helped me maintain focus on my children as my number one priority with all the other responsibilities of adulthood and divorce swirling around us. It helped me see the pain and suffering of my parents during my fraught childhood. It made a tiny space, for empathy. Most importantly for me, therapy taught me the skills of how to appropriately mother myself, because I didn’t learn those skills previously. The Gottman Institute has been a tremendous help to me. John Gottman’s research taught me so much about emotional intelligence, and about myself. I think it’s really unfair that parents expect their children to act with restraint and behavioral standards that the parents aren’t held to. In my childhood this disconnect was one of the major ideologies I struggled with. Fundamentally it wasn’t right that my mom could rage and rage, yet I couldn’t have any feelings at all or “she’d give me something to cry about,” how she’d regulate my behavior with physical violence when she couldn’t regulate herself and would put our family into chaos, instability, and throw our safety into question. She still can’t regulate herself and in her advanced age she’s less able to hide this fact. The two parts of me, the part that was taught I deserved to be treated like an animal because that’s how my mom treated me and she was perfect, and the part that thought it was wrong for me to have to act a certain way when there were no sanctions or limitations on her expressions of rage eventually settled into quiet acceptance. Motherhood helped a lot. I love myself through loving my children. They teach me every day with their hard work and tireless pursuit of excellence. I don’t keep it secret that Dmitri’s struggle to attain what we take for granted taught me to love myself. Maya’s passion, resilience, empathy, and emotional intuition inspire me to strive to be a loving, helpful mother. And to give them room to feel distress sometimes, and let them solve problems, although I dislike watching them struggle, I want them to work on the skills they need to be functional adults. So that they don’t need me when they are adults, and can choose my company.

Late last week I saw a quote from the Gottman Institute that really struck me, deep down.

“Thinking of your child as behaving badly disposes you to think of punishment. Thinking of your child as struggling to handle something difficult encourages you to help them through their distress.”

And I had a startling thought, I thought, if I stop thinking of my children as behaving badly when they are struggling, maybe I can apply that courtesy to other people too? Including myself.

Recently I had an experience where someone advised me to take the spot in me that has a deep and abiding supply of courage, and send that courage to the other parts of me that need it. And, I think that’s just what I’ll do. I don’t have to be a prisoner of my past, of present circumstance, or to be devastated by what other people say. That’s freedom, and that’s how I want to live my life. Writing is the balm that soothes my soul, and I’m so thankful for this space I’ve created for myself. I’m thankful for the family I’ve created, both genetic and my martial family. I’m grateful for my life and the livelihood of my children. In the end, when I’m nearing the final chapters of my life, as my mother is now, I hope that I’ll remember that.

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