Monthly Archives: January 2017

Breathe in, Breathe out

She died   a famous woman   denying

her wounds

denying

her wounds   came    from the same source as her power

—–Adrienne Rich

Zephyr often comes into my bedroom early in the morning to sift through my clothes, deciding what she might want to borrow.  Sometimes she asks, and sometimes she usurps. Sometimes I ask her to take them off, sometimes I say sure, go ahead, and sometimes I look the other way, pretending not to notice she has on my new t-shirt or leggings or boots.

Sometimes she just wants to use my sink, because the hot water comes out quicker. She often asks me to braid her hair in the roughly ten minutes we have left before rushing to school. I still need to choose an outfit, or I want to finish an assignment, but I look at her when she speaks. I watch her as she toys with her golden hair, a coy supplication that melts me. I love this girl.  No matter how she looks at me, no matter what words she uses to ask, no matter what time it is or what I have left to accomplish, I braid her hair.

I know this won’t last. I know the backwards-side-french-braid she requests is only a phase, and she will grow out of it.  I know she will not always live with me, that she will not always steal my clothes, that one day she will have nicer things of her own. So I ask her what style she wants today; I pause my own routine, and I braid her hair.  I haven’t once said no.

I have been told that love shouldn’t always be like this.  Sometimes we are supposed to say no. But my love for her isn’t complicated.  It isn’t fraught with compromise and worry for how she might take advantage of me or our bond.  As her mother, I have provided structure and discipline throughout her childhood, and I have set high expectations, but my love for her isn’t fraught with worry for the future. She knows who she is and how to ask for what she wants, and she freely accepts attention and praise when they are offered to her. I know eventually she will stop asking me to braid her hair, stop asking for my hot water and clothes and for sips of my morning coffee, but that won’t be the end of us.

I wish all love was as straightforward.

My friends say I don’t have high enough expectations.  They say I shouldn’t be nice to people who aren’t nice to me, or that it’s not healthy to love people who aren’t in a position to love me back.

They are undoubtedly right.

And yet.

I don’t give love in order to receive love. I love because it’s the air I want to breathe, the world I want to live in. Sometimes I love those who love me back. Sometimes I love those who hurt me. One love isn’t greater than the other. The practice of loving is the practice of loving.  Love is its own reward, regardless of the outcome.

Breathe in, breathe out.

My mother liked to quote Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. She would say, “If I try and bend that far, I’ll break.” She recited a list of things that would break her: piercing our ears, dying our hair, listening to pop music, kissing a boy before marriage. She taught me that love requires high standards, and that to give it away is a weakness. So she never gave it to me, in actions or in words. She taught me not to need it, not to crave it, not to expect it. Not even when I behaved.

The first time I broke one of her rules, I apologized. I begged for her forgiveness. She turned her head from me, as if from Sodom. And she never looked back. I got degrees and gave her grandchildren. I earned money and bought her things I knew she needed. But she couldn’t look at me, couldn’t bend.

Breathe in, breathe out.

I refuse to use love as a negotiation tool. I don’t withhold love until I get what I want, or require people to earn it or to behave in ways I want them to. If I can’t love someone exactly as they are, where they are, I’m not offering the air I want to breathe. Unlike Zephyr, I struggle to accept love, but I will continue to offer it unabashedly and completely, and I no longer see this as a source of shame. What I used to hate myself for, I no longer work to change. Yes, I love those who hurt me.  And yes, sometimes that gives them license to hurt me again. Does this sometimes cause me to suffer? Yes.

And yet.

As the Buddha says, life is suffering. (Or as Westley says to Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. And anyone who says anything else is selling something.”)  To deny suffering is to deny reality and to suffer more.  Loving someone who doesn’t love you back is painful.

But not, I think, as painful as not loving.

As you wish

Before I fell out of love with God and my grandfather, I helped my grandmother cook and serve at formal functions called Leaders’ Dinners. She would labor over meats, sauces, potatoes, vegetable medleys and custards for days, and serve them up, once a month, to 50 men on Monday nights. Grandfather was proud of her delivery, and so was I. Sometimes, she asked me to help serve, reminding me with pursed lips that I was to be seen and not heard, that this meeting was for men of God, and I was to fill glasses and transport plates, moving my body in service to our Lord, my head used only to ascertain what was needed and nod, my mouth opening only to smile.

Grandma served everything on Enoch Wedgwood Turnstall Limited China, an English Harvest pattern featuring fall-hued fruit and foliage. When she died over a decade ago, the Leaders Dinners were things of the past, and no one wanted or cared about the relics. I saw the dishes in the stack to be donated, and I paused for a moment. Then for no known reason, I scooped up the boxes, put them into my back seat of my car, took them home, and carried them down the stairs to be stored in my basement. My house was full of children, and I never served formal dinner parties, to men or anyone else. The boxes collected dust, and I let them.

As my children began growing past their childish things, we began storing their boxes in the basement. As the spaces filled up, I saw no use for Grandma’s dishes, and thought it was about time I gave up my semi-sentimental hoarding. But then I opened the first box and I was hit with a palpable thought. I don’t need these dishes, because I eat on plastic. These are the kinds of dishes men are served on.

One by one, I transported the dishes into the dishwasher, and ran load after load, until they were all clean. I stacked them in my hutch, behind glass, where I could see them. I hated what they represented, hated that they triggered anger in me from abuses of power I have struggled to forget; yet there they were, stacks and stacks of white china plates and bowls and saucers and serving trays, rimmed in gold, with delicate fall foliage. They became an art installation I viewed with indecision, contemplating daily why they were there.

And then one day, my friend came over and I spontaneously served her tea from Grandma’s Wedgwood teapot, pouring the hot liquid into a dainty cup like a proper hostess, setting a cookie on the rim of the matching saucer. I clumsily apologized for the formality, and told a story while I poured. She paused and said, “this is really quite beautiful.”

The next week, I served dinner for two on the plates. The next week, for the whole family, adding the accompanying salad plates. The next holiday, I served twenty-two people with her Wedgwood platters and saucers and butter containers, scooping sauces and pouring refills of wine into the matching coffee cups, telling stories, clinking toasts, moving through the room laughing at the endless pieces and the endless mess, a woman welcomed around and at the table.

Now I eat on her china daily. And not a single piece of her collection has exploded from the blasphemy.

Grandma spoke with the labor of her hands. I have both her dishes and her work ethic, but I also have a voice. Grandma’s china reminds me to use it.

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