Tag Archives: family

I Will Not Let Thee Go Except Thou Bless Me

The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. —Søren Kierkegaard

I left organized religion many years ago, but religion has not left me.

Growing up, I was taught to give thanks in all situations and to pray without ceasing, for this is the will of God through Jesus Christ.

To pray without ceasing is a difficult habit to cultivate and an even harder habit to break.

Anne Lamott says there are three prayers every person should learn: “help,” “thanks,” and “wow.”  And I agree with her that fostering interdependence, gratitude and awe is a humbling and worthwhile practice, whether or not we believe in a literal God.

But prayers are so much more than an expression of intent; prayers are a vibration, like poetry and music, and there are as many vibrations as there are art forms to express our range of human emotions. There are prayers of supplication, prayers for comfort and love, prayers for rescue and mercy and healing, both for ourselves and for others. Some prayers are like breathing, some are like listening, and some raise up your hands like a flamingo, whether or not you emit praise.

But the hardest prayers to give up are the conversational ones, the ones where we simply commune with God, about our day, about the minutiae of our microscopic participation in the world as we know it, where we unwittingly define and share our values, softly appealing to a higher perspective.

Talking to God is not the same as talking to yourself. It’s more like looking for yourself.

Giving up prayer like that is like losing your best friend.

One of the uniting principles of the upper chakras is communication, which is an act of connection. We take patterns of thought and make them specific through the process of naming. And prayer is a type of naming, focusing our consciousness by drawing limits around the context of our prayer, why it is this and it is not that. To pray is to clarify a thought, to set boundaries, to specify what we value by naming what we want or need. Praying gives structure and meaning to our thoughts, rather than random ruminating or otherwise spinning around our own manic mind-talk.

When I left the Organization, I wanted a blessing on my way out. I wanted someone from the family I grew up with to believe good things could happen to me while not wrapped in the confines of that particular subculture. I wanted someone to let me go with a handshake or a hug. Actually, even a nod or a wave would have been welcome. I wanted someone to wish that the road would rise up to meet me.

I spent years wrestling with that one, and it never came.

The sound of grief, like the sound of prayer, has a distinct force and vibration, and this vibration exists through all form of matter, energy and consciousness. In fact, the Hindus believe that vibration, working through various levels of the density of audible sound, is the basic emanation from which matter was created.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, ”I will not let thee go except thou bless me.”

When I left for college, and first heard the scientific rationale for atheism, I began to shift my belief system to accommodate these supported truths. Eventually, education would lead me to develop a new understanding of concepts like neighbors and moral responsibility, as well as community and belonging, widening my interpretation of ecumenical and congregation to center around connection rather than separation, and to privilege love over fear and guilt.  

I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in prayer. And when I think of family, I know I would still wrestle an angel for their blessing.

 

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The F Scale

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.  It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”  – Toni Morrison, Beloved

I have never understood the phrase, “just friends.” Friendship isn’t a a consolation prize. Friendships can be the most cherished, solid and enduring relationships we have, a chosen space where we can be intimate and vulnerable and seen.

Of course, it depends on how you define friendship.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes friendship as reciprocated goodwill. He suggests that in a healthy friendship, friends love each other for the sake of the other, as much as themselves, and they wish good things for each other, whether or not it directly benefits them.

I believe all my friends wish good things for me, but without a certain degree of closeness, I think it’s difficult to know how to participate in “reciprocating goodwill.”

One day, on a road trip, in an attempt to understand exactly what we were talking about when we mentioned a “friend,” my companion and I created an F-Scale,  It was a long drive and we worked on this so thoroughly, I sometimes forget that these terms aren’t a codified language. For example, sometimes I assume other people know what I’m talking about when I say, “Yesterday I had lunch with Wendy, an F2.”  

This whole idea of a scale may appear callous, but it’s astonishing to me that we don’t have more nuanced variations of the word “friend.” As someone who takes friendship seriously, I recognize that at least two of these categories would be better labeled as acquaintances–but in the interconnected era of social media, it feels necessary to use at least cop a nod to the F word. The base concept here is that anyone who actively wishes good things for another person is in the generic sense, a friend, but we might value our connections in some sort of vertical order, like this:

F 5 –  Those I know the name of, and respect details I am aware of about their lives, but this information has mostly been garnered through other people in our shared social spheres, and is really more an illusion of connection.

F4 –  Those I interact with publicly on a semi-regular basis, enjoy their presence and their stories, but our interactions are primarily through shared commitments, not specific intent.

F3 – Those with whom I share a meaningful connection, with whom I schedule to spend time and/or have multiple points of contact, but our in-person interactions are significantly limited by geography, conflicting schedules or otherwise disparate social systems.

F2 – Those with whom I have had many consistent, meaningful interactions, choose to prioritize time with, and care about the details of their lives–but we have not yet found a rhythm to our mutual interactions, so there is a degree of uncertainty, irregularity or question of sustainability.

F1 – Someone I care for deeply, with whom I have an ongoing conversation, mutual trust, respect, and honest disclosure.  I care about their hopes, dreams, opinions and goals, as well as their faults, fears and failures and can read many of their thoughts and moods. I feel free to express genuine concern, without fear of reproach, and we can count on each other’s responsiveness. We both initiate and prioritize our connection, and give deliberate time and energy to each other’s welfare.

At a Writer’s Conference, I once had lunch with a woman who had her own friendship barometer and we eagerly exchanged notes. Her view was gloriously simple:

  1. I will have coffee with you.
  2. I will have a drink with you.
  3. I would bury a body for you.
  4. I would kill for you.

I told her I thought there was a pretty large leap between categories 2 and 3 and she laughed. “Thin love ain’t love at all,” she said, “that there is the line.”

And this got me thinking. Since love is definitely something exchanged between genuine friends, what do we mean when we say we’re in an intimate relationship? Is a healthy romantic relationship significantly different from our closest friendship? With an F1, I am personally open, willing and expecting to be transformed. If that’s the case, is romance an F1 with sexual attraction? Are there quantifiable differences between a lover, a girlfriend/boyfriend, a spouse or a partner? Is there a differing degree of loyalty inherent in each term? How often do people intuitively agree on how they prioritize their connections?

For many people, a romantic relationship requires more time and attention, as well as a commitment to and integration of shared values and experiences. But I would argue there is a similar element of interdependence between the closest of friends. And both friends and lovers can break our hearts.

Most Americans define an intimate relationship as one in which they’re sexually exclusive–but certainly not everyone does. And plenty of people are in long term marriages rich in friendship, shared interests and values, in which they no longer have sex.

Perhaps people who are in intimate relationships that work for both parties don’t play within sexual boundaries, but with sexual boundaries.

I think with romance, we often lose the delicate balance between effort and air. In most of our relationships, we don’t do the proverbial slow dance. We bob around each other, mirroring each other’s movements, holding hands, spinning in and out each other’s orbit, engaging with whichever person brings us the most pleasure or meaning in the moment. We make effort, then give space, and as we find ourselves getting closer, we tend to do more of the former and less of the latter.

In romantic relationships, however, we often expend and expect effort, without the grace of air, and with a possessiveness that can feel claustrophobic. While I respect and value the idea of mutual surrender between intimate partners, we are often less genuine and generous with our romantic love than with our Filia love. And because we are less attached to the fear of loss, we are frequently more committed to a practice of honest communication with a friend than we are with someone with whom we’re sexual.

We might do well to shift our expectations, and hold our romantic relationships to the same standards we hold our deepest friendships. Perhaps when people ask us what’s up, and we find ourselves having to categorize someone we may or may not be dating, we might more effectively explain, “We’re just romantic.”

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The Bible: Part II

“I needed words because unhappy families are conspiracies of silence. The one who breaks the silence is never forgiven. He or she has to learn to forgive him or herself.” –Jeanette Winterson

I am eight years old and I lie on my back on the narrow cot at the rear of my grandparents’ Winnebago and watch the string of the pulley to the cabinet door swish back and forth like a pendulum. I gaze hypnotically and I pray rhythmically, softly, a prayer as a mantra I have come to believe will elicit a miracle.  Our Father who art in Heaven, Lord God Above, Ruler of all Things, please give me a sign.  If you are listening to me, if my life is of any significance to you, if you have a plan, please stop the swinging. Make the tassel stop.  Make it stand still, like the Red Sea, with the walls of water still like unsung statues, like the sun, how you made it stand still in the sky until the nation of Israel defeated its enemies.  Since you can make still the water, and stop the sun, and you can bring your son back from the dead, make this little string stop.  Show me you are listening.  Show me I matter.  Please still the tassel.

I pray this every day.  I am eight years old and I pray this every day in my grandfather’s Winnebago, as we traverse the southern states, performing circus acts as a pre-show before the proselytizing plays we offer for a pittance at Kampgrounds of America.  As I march in these campgrounds, hand out tracts, sing Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep in a little white nightgown every night to crowds in these KOAs, I come back nightly to the cot behind the curtain at the back of the Winnebago. I come back nightly to stare at the ceiling and pray. Please God, give me a sign.

It may be that the Lord wants to test my patience, like he did Job’s.  Maybe I’m not in tune with his words.  Maybe that’s the problem.  I’m not a precious stone, not a precious metal because I haven’t been tested.  I think of what I know of Jehovah, what my grandfather has personified for me, as he sits like a refiner and purifier of silver, burning away the dross.  So I pray, dear God, I will show my allegiance to you and read your book, every word of your book, starting now.  I will read your Holy Book cover to cover.  In the beginning there was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word became flesh.

You are the word.  I am the flesh.  Let your word become my flesh.  Let my flesh become your word.

And so I begin at the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God Said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good.  And as I begin, I know I will continue, that I will pass this test, that I won’t skip a word no matter how tired I am, no matter how much motion sickness projects vomit into the bag I keep hanging next to the plank bed that nestles against the rear of the Winnebago, where my grandparents Orrick and Ruth snore each on one side of me in their matching nightgowns.  I keep vigil.  When they sleep, I turn on the tiny pinpoint light and I read. I keep reading His words, through the iconic stories in the books of Moses, through the books of laws and judges and chronicles, on into the prophets and the Psalms and Proverbs and Solomon, who the Bible says came from Bathsheba. Her story breaks my heart, that her child died as punishment because the King commanded her presence. Bathsheba lost both her husband and her child because of David, who said he loved her. It seems to me that what he really did was worship her beauty, found her a Muse he couldn’t resist, and God punished him for coveting her, like worshipping a golden calf. The baby dies to punish David and Uriah dies for his loyalty to David. Nobody, not even God, has pity on Bathsheba.

And I read on through Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin, which I memorize and use like a chant, the writing on the wall Daniel interpreted for King Belshazzar, that moves me more than Joseph and his dreams and his colorful coat ever could.  In that year before I turned nine, I read through every he begat in the Old Testament, the lineage of Jesus our Christ, and I note any time a girl is named, because it is so seldom, and this is evident, even to my child-self.  And as I continue on into the New Testament, I wonder why the only central females are both named Mary.  I stare at the names of the sixty-six books I am reading and ask myself why only two books of this tome are named after girls, and I try to justify why these girls are named, why others aren’t, what role they play in the world of men, the only world I know, and I beat myself up for this, but I keep going back to these girls, to these two books, and even though I have to keep reading every other word chronologically,  I also go back.  I mark passages.  This is not what I have been taught.  I have been taught not to question.  I use a highlighter. I don’t write the questions because I can’t talk back to God, but Ruth makes me question.  Esther makes me question.  Hagar and Rahab and Hannah and Bathsheba all make me quiver and I have no idea why. I have been taught that they saved the Jewish nation, and I don’t question that, but it is more than that, what they do, how they do it, their grace and style and this is what I absorb:

Yes, Ruth was the great-grandmother of David and thus worthy of patriarchal mention, but the long line of he-begats informs me that most women in the line of Jesus are unnamed. Do not urge me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me. Ruth was not following tradition.  She didn’t remarry among her own family.  She followed the mother of her dead husband, and who can say why. The Bible doesn’t say why. My grandfather says Ruth is a woman of principle who is true to her husband even after death, that she is true to his spirit and he lives on because of her loyalty. But her dead husband doesn’t procreate with her and doesn’t end up in the line of Christ.  Yes, she stays loyal to his people, but what does that have to do with either him or his God? Is it loyalty to her late husband, or is her love for this woman thick with the love of self, heavy with the knowledge that women are their own people, that our people are the true outliers, the underdogs, the forgotten ones.  She sticks with Naomi and lies on the floor near the bed of Boaz because she knows she has no inherent value.  Her value lies in the comfort her body will provide for a man, and the fruit of a masterful performance can perhaps yield quality food and shelter for the offspring she will undoubtedly bear.  But her pride? Her strength? The triumph of her will is in her loyalty to her true people. And Naomi is her girl, her road-dog, with whom she will live and die.  People say these words at wedding ceremonies and I want to use my voice like a red pen and correct them for taking poetry out of context, for mixing metaphors, for misrepresenting a proclamation of independence as ordinary romance.  

I don’t trust romance.

Like Ruth, and like Esther, who knew the King forbade her questioning and yet, who knows but that she came to kingdom for such a time as this.  She says if she perishes, she perishes.  But she cooks him a meal and invites his friends and wins his heart, and this isn’t romantic, but pragmatic.  At eight, I know this.

Esther doesn’t choose the King.  The King chooses Esther because she is beautiful, and Esther manipulates the King into saving her people. He does this willingly, defensively, protectively, for her.

The King chooses Esther.  He protects her people. She is his family of choice.

I will collect a family of choice.  I will leave my people and find new ones, and my path will not be a clear one, but I don’t know this yet.

Because I know the Lord will come back like a thief in the night,  I keep reading, through Nehemiah and Lamentations, Obadiah and Habakkuk and Zephaniah and I don’t stop reading, through every single word of his book, the blessed King James Bible, my grandfather’s chosen tome.  I read the letters to the churches they call epistles and the crowning glory of Revelations, which almost chokes me with its numbers and symbols and I draw diagrams to imbibe the vitriol of the Whore of Babylon and to quell my fear of the Beast and the four horses of the Apocalypse. That year before I turn nine, I read the first book I will ever read cover to cover, and I unwittingly set the tone for my life. Every single word.  I read every single word.  

And in the end, after all those words, God did not have mercy upon me.  God did not make that tassel stand still.  We traveled through Texas and Alabama and Florida, through Virginia and Maryland and back through Michigan and into the Dakotas and I sang in my high sweet voice night after night and conducted a poodle on the piano to laughter and applause and the tassel swung side to side every day, obeying the laws of physics.  And God in his infinite wisdom did not send me a sign.

 

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are you my mother?

It will be Mother’s Day again soon. I am not scheduled to have the boys on that day, but Ryan is being more than accommodating. We will feel our way through this holiday like we have done with the past several, and we will be a little stiff but kind to one another. I have no biological mother to buy flowers for and celebrate. I have no stepmother. And though the paperwork is still unfiled, I now have no mother-in-law. The latter was the closest I ever had to a mother.

In P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother?, a confused baby bird asks one animal after the next if it is his mother.

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He naively thinks a kitten, a hen, a dog, a cow, a car, a boat, and a plane are his mother. He bumps around from one to the next, growing more and more frantic. He finally winds up on top of a seemingly dangerous, harmful-to-the-environment bulldozer-type machine. He feels panicked and trapped. He pleads for his mother. Fortunately, at the most crucial moment, he is miraculously dropped back into his nest, and they are reunited.

I was 10 when my biological mother died, but only 4 when she left me. I was raised by a stepmother who could be cruel and irrational, who hit me often. Like the baby bird, I bumped around, seeking the nurturing I lacked. I felt fortunate when I met my future mother-in-law at 15, and I eventually became part of her family when I married her son. We are both tall and brunette, with broad smiles. In public, people often mistook her for my mother, and I loved that. She told me she loved me like a daughter, and I believed her.

But circumstances change. People say parents love unconditionally, but I’m not sure I believe in that sort of love. Or maybe it’s the blood that makes the difference. I have moved from one mother to the next, but they either die, or resent, or give up on me.

I get the feeling that it would be much easier for Ryan’s parents, especially his mother, if I could somehow be erased. I understand that this is painful for them, too. Like that photo of the McFly siblings in Back to the Future, maybe they wish I could just gently fade away and disappear.

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The problem is, I am everywhere. I am in all of the family photos from the past two decades. I am at birthday parties for my nieces. Their grandchildren have my DNA. Worse, I am in their memories. I won’t fade away because I exist.

I am no baby bird. I am an adult now, and nothing will drop me into the comfort of a mother’s arms. I only wish I could kill that instinct in me that still longs for that kind of connection. Fortunately, this feeling lives in a tiny corner inside of me, and on most days I don’t notice it. I try to give my boys the unconditional love and connection no mother ever gave me. I am lucky to have plenty of people who love and support me, even if I will never have a mother. I have figured out how to fly, and most of the time I fly just fine on my own.

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Appetite

My body knew before I did. I woke every morning, for weeks, my stomach roiling and angry. I forced myself out of bed and tied my running shoes on and threw my body out into the freezing morning for my training. I ran 6 miles, 8, 10, 15, 18, on nothing to eat, only water and gels I forced down for the longer runs. I came home and stretched and took a shower and waited to be hungry. I just wasn’t. I’d make a smoothie and drink it down. I’d have a piece of toast. Or I’d just have nothing at all. I have posted before about how much I love eating, all types of food, how I would think about food when I’d first wake up, or on my commute to work, or mid-yoga class, when my mind was not supposed to be on anything at all. This was not me.

After we decided it was over, it got worse. My belts became bigger. I bought a size smaller, and then a size smaller. The pants I once spilled out of hung loosely. My sister, who hadn’t seen me in a while, told me my ass is gone, my prized bodily possession, but that I refuse to believe. It’s there still, and it is good. I did lose 20 pounds in about a month, however, and I now weigh less than what I lied about on my driver’s license. I am not an unhealthy weight, but the drastic nature of all of it is unhealthy. I know that. I had some baby carrots and a beer for dinner the other night. My dad, who has been through four divorces, told me that he lived on beer, coffee, and cigarettes for about a year when he divorced my mother. I’ve been sticking to beer and coffee, but cigarettes don’t sound half bad, either.

I wanted to make a life for my kids that was different than my life growing up. I have tried to be smart and practical and make all of the best decisions. It didn’t matter. I still somehow fucked everything up. My body knows. This probably sounds strange and irresponsible, but in some ways I can understand a little bit about eating disorders. There’s something a little intriguing and exhilarating about not caring about food anymore. I like to be in control, and I am not anymore, so I have been cleaning the house daily and not eating.

This whole experience has been like an episode of Out of This World, that terrible 80s show, when the teenaged protagonist, secretly an alien, would touch her fingers together and freeze the world around her so she could reassess the predicament in which she found herself.

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In the weeks immediately following my moving out, I feel like an outsider, removed from the world in which I once lived, and the one that everyone else still seems to be a part of.  It has given me a sad and bizarre but almost comforting sense of clarity.

In that song “Crazy,” Gnarls Barkley sings,

                          I remember when I lost my mind

                          There was something so pleasant about that place.

                          Even your emotions had an echo

                          In so much space.

I know exactly what he means.

In the past week or so, my appetite has returned. I think about food again, all of the time, and I am always hungry. Before school let out, several students gave me baked goods for Christmas, and I eyed them in their square, holiday-themed plastic containers and thought, I will never eat all of this. But then I did. I ate orange scones, ginger cookies, lemon muffins, and brownies. I ate it all.

I’m still drinking too much beer, and I don’t sleep very well, or enough. But my appetite is back. My body knows. Things will be better.

Photo credit: http://www.fourthgradenothing.com/2012/01/out-of-this-world-tv-series.html

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four times a year

I am sitting in the waiting room at my insurer’s Mental Healthcare Facility. We all sit together, on this stained and awful circular arrangement of olive green couches. Father Knows Best blares from the tv directly above and behind my head. Why did I choose this seat? What channel could this be? We all avoid eye contact, mostly via cell phone screen, except for the man in the wheelchair. He is staring directly at me, I can feel it even when I’m not looking. I can’t tell if he’s staring on purpose or because he lacks the motor control to look elsewhere. I try to avoid this place. I only come maybe 4 times per year, well under the allotted number of annual visits.

My parents have always been suspicious of educated strangers trained to help. “It goes on your record,” my stepmom used to say. She believed neighbors and employers would somehow find out, that your future could be ruined. I was raised not to tell anyone, not even close friends, my problems, my secrets, to push it down, to hold it in, to suck it up.

I heeded that advice for some time. I kept it all inside. I was very, very quiet. Eventually, something broke, and it came pouring out.

My dad asks me how my week went. I’m having one of those weeks I sometimes have when I feel low, like I am moving underwater. It only happens occasionally. When it does, it is intense, and recent external events have made things more hectic than usual. I tell him it has been a long week, and, to my surprise, he presses for more details. I begin to give them. He quickly stops me. He tells me about his girlfriend’s sister-in-law’s ALS. She can’t move her arms, he says. She can’t speak. We are still alive, he says. We can speak. I think he is trying to make me feel better. It isn’t working.

I hate myself a little when I go to therapy. It such a privileged person thing to do, to whine to someone about my problems when I have my health, enough food, good kids, a stable relationship, a warm home. I have pet turtles that swim in a 40 gallon tank, and some people don’t have water. I am not that man in the wheelchair who probably can’t move his head. I feel obnoxious for feeling like I have problems. I hate everyone in here, I hate my brain. I am sorry for the nice redhead who has to listen to me.

I come here anyway. I force myself through an awkward session of talking and, sometimes, crying. I blow my nose and wipe at my eyes with the cheap, scratchy tissue from the little blue cardboard box. I am exhausted when we are finished.

I would like to be able to sort out my head alone, to not need any help, with anything. I would like to be as strong and repressed as my parents tried to teach me to be. But I’m not. Sometimes I need help. At least four times a year.

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hiccup girl

I 8993036-smalldon’t watch the Today show very often, or ever, really, but somehow I happened to be watching it one morning in 2007 when 15-year-old Hiccup Girl was featured. For more than 5 weeks, she hiccuped 50 times per minute. I tried to imagine how horrible that might have been, a kind of torture. I was happy she found a cure, and I didn’t think about her again until a few days ago. A Facebook friend posted that Hiccup Girl, aka Jennifer Mee, now 22, was convicted this week of 1st degree murder. She was charged at 19. I can’t explain what made me so sad about this story.

Last night, my teenage niece moved in with us, at least temporarily. Her sister just moved back home and is in the early stages of rehabbing from a speed addiction. I had the pleasure of witnessing my brother, my niece’s father, through various bouts of withdrawal from addiction to the same drug when I was in high school. Once, I took a boyfriend home after a date and was greeted by my brother on the couch in the stinking, sweating, shaking throes of withdrawals. I was 17. My niece is 16. Her family lives in a small space. She is trying to do well in school and go to college and secure a different life for herself. I offered for her to stay with us for a week, just until things settle down, because I know how difficult it can be to focus on school and normal teenage life with a sibling unraveling on your living room couch. Her mother exploded with anger and kicked her out when my niece asked to stay with us. “Family first,” she said. “Your sister needs you.” “You always run away.”

Her mother is not a bad person. In fact, I like her a lot. But she is perpetuating a cycle, and it is difficult to break free from this cycle or even see it for what it is when you are in the middle of it, when that is all you know as normal. You are the crazy one if you see it. You are selfish. You are elitist, especially when you use words like “cycle” and “dysfunction.” You think you are better. You push and you struggle and you work hard to break free and, eventually, you do. But you break yourself a little in the process. The people you leave behind will never love you the same. You say, well, fuck them. You convince yourself you don’t need them. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. In any case, to survive, you stop waiting for the people you love to change, to accept you for who you are, to stop hurting you. You shut down the soft, vulnerable parts of yourself. They harden and ossify. And they stay that way. The cost of breaking free is high, but the cost of staying is higher.

What does this have to do with Jennifer Mee, Hiccup Girl? Probably not very much. I want her to remain a funny story I caught in passing one time on tv, maybe in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, or in my in-laws’ living room. I look at that broken girl in the mugshot, who is guilty of breaking someone else. She had schizophrenia, Tourette’s, and “low normal” intelligence. She admitted to setting up the murder. I don’t feel sorry for her, not exactly. I look at my own broken self and the people around me who are breaking. Like I said, I guess it all just makes me sad. Sometimes I wish things were different than they are.

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high / low

woman-bipolar-disorder-290x300I cried once during our family vacation to Austin last week. Elliott and I were locked in the “family” bathroom stall of a movie theater. He was screaming at me, threatening to throw his chew necklace onto the bathroom floor. We had been watching Monsters U in 3D. (Side note: I hate 3D for the headache it causes me and the extra expense, but it was all that was playing at that time.) During the climax of the film, Elliott accidentally bit his finger. He roared in response. I threw everything in my lap onto the floor and whisked him up into my arms, as the whole theater seemed to turn and stare at us. He was angry that he had bitten himself. He was angry that I was rushing him down the dimly lit stairs and away from the movie. We were in the last row, and it seemed to take hours. I wasn’t worried about him. I know the difference between his screams of rage and his screams of real pain. I was mortified. I was frustrated. I was exhausted. It had been a difficult day.

We burst out of the theater door, and the ushers stared at this screaming, kicking child and his mother who had forgotten she was still wearing the goddamned 3D glasses. They seemed to find us mildly amusing. In the bathroom, I put Elliott down and caught a glimpse of my ridiculous self in the mirror. “I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE I WANT MY GLASSES I HAVE BOOGERS EXCUSE ME I HAVE BOOGERS I WANT TO WATCH THE MOVIE NO THANK YOU NO THANK YOU,” he screeched. As calmly as I could, I told him he needed to stop screaming or we would not be going back. He screamed for several more minutes. I considered my haggard, pathetic face in the mirror. I wondered if the people in the hallway could hear us, the horrible things they must be thinking about my parenting abilities. I felt tears well up but I pushed them away.

He finally stopped screaming. We watched the last two minutes of the movie, which no longer made any sense. He wore my 3D glasses because I couldn’t find his, so the final scenes were blurred for me. As the credits scrolled, he said, “Did you like this movie, Mommy?” as if nothing had happened. I had to put my face against the filthy, cold theater floor to reach far enough under my seat to collect all of the items I had dropped.

We stepped out into the blinding light and overwhelming heat and humidity. He demanded his sunglasses, which I produced from my purse. We walked to the car, the boys happily chatting about the movie. Meanwhile, horrible thoughts ran through my brain. I wondered if he loves me, if he has a conscience, if he will be like this, or worse, when he gets older, when puberty hits, when he is bigger than I am. Will he still kick me and scream at me? Will he hurt me? I thought about the woman I know whose autistic son nearly drowned her. He was 22 and had a tantrum in the pool. She had bruises all over her body.

My thoughts were very bleak, and I was feeling very sorry for myself, and I am not proud. As we walked to the car, my face twisted up and tears started pouring. Ben saw me and got upset. Unlike Elliott, Ben has a surplus of empathy. One kid couldn’t care less, and the other cares too much. I know I shouldn’t have cried in front of him, but I couldn’t stop.

Most of the time, I don’t feel like this. Most of the time, being Elliott’s parent is pretty incredible. Every year, every week, every day he is doing something new, and every accomplishment feels like an occasion to celebrate. Most parents are happy when their kids are potty trained, but when Elliott finally pissed in a potty chair, we jumped around the house, giddy with excitement. I felt like shutting down the streets and throwing a parade. It had taken him nearly 3 years.

This morning, I had to wake Elliott up very early to go to an occupational therapy appointment we had been anticipating for months. Elliott has been doing this for years. The appointments are generally several hours long, and the assessors are sometimes patient and kind, and sometimes not. Elliott is asked to perform task after task, often with no breaks. Balance on one foot, skip, do this puzzle, spin, close one eye, do this with your tongue, wear this cap, go into this tube, say this, etc. During the long, traffic-filled drive, Elliott and I played word games, listened to music, looked for sight words in the billboards. I marveled at him. Most kids don’t have to do the crap he has to do, and he is generally so amazing about it. During the assessment, he listened well and tried his hardest. It was over after 2 hours, and he was allowed to play for a few minutes while the therapist discussed the results with me. As he laughed in the other room, she told me everything that is wrong with him, and there were a lot of things. My face grew warm and it became difficult to swallow, but I pushed it away.

I cried as quietly as possible in the car as Elliott sang along to the Hairspray soundtrack. Somewhere inside, I already knew the things she told me, but it didn’t make it less difficult to hear. I took him out to lunch, and as we waited for our food, we played Rock, Paper, Scissors, and he cheated, like always. Then, he grew serious and said, “I love you, Mommy.” He almost never says this unprompted. He was immediately silly again, doing crazy dances to the music playing over the restaurant speakers. I watched him and wondered if he knew that I had been sad, if he was trying to make me feel better in his own way. Who knows.

My highs are a little too high and my lows are a little too low, and that’s how I’ve always been. Maybe it has something to do with my mother’s bipolar disorder. Or maybe that’s just what it’s like being a parent of a kid with special needs. Maybe it’s a little of both. In any case, after some time alone, during which I chainsawed some vines outside and bought a cute new dress, I felt so much better.

My friend Lashawn reminded me of Elliott’s epic tantrums last summer. He would scream and rip away his shoes and clothing, throwing each item in our direction, his face angry and red and tearful. Once naked, he’d throw his body around, slap his own cheeks, writhe against the rough carpet. This would go on for 20 or 30 minutes. This was his response to our first family vacation, to Portland and San Francisco. This went on for weeks, nearly the entire summer. I had actually forgotten about it, maybe because I wanted to. This year, he whined a little and had one major tantrum (fully clothed!), and now he is back to normal. He threatened to throw the necklace, but he ultimately put it back on.

Things still need to get better, but I need to remember how things keep getting better.

Photo credit: http://www.basicspine.com/blog/bipolar-disorder-treatment/

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mother’s day

Sunday is Mother’s Day. This year, I decided to end my relationship with my stepmother, who raised me, and my biological mother is dead. Both of these women lacked the resources or capabilities to be effective parents. My mother-in-law is amazing, but she did not raise me. And so there is a bit of an empty space where a mother should be. Most of the time, this does not feel like sadness. It feels like relief. Every year, I used to try and find a neutral card to give my stepmother. There were rows and rows of cards with pictures of flowers and heartfelt, saccharine poetry. Generally, I’d find something blank and scrawl something inside.

Dear Mom (I don’t want to call you Mom, but remember how you forced me to when I was 8?):

I don’t really know you even though we lived in the same household for many years. Please accept this candle/lotion/chocolate that I felt obligated to purchase for you. I hope the weather is satisfactory today.

Regards,

Angela

That’s what I always felt like saying, anyway.

This dumb photo of Gwyneth Paltrow and her mother made me cry one time.

gwyneth_paltrow_and_mother_blythe_danner-320x425

My friend recently lost his mother. Although I wasn’t close to my mother, and I didn’t know her very well, and I have in my possession only one photograph of us together, and I rarely think about her or cry about her, I feel that absence intensely from time to time, like  pain in an amputated limb. I am so sorry for my friend, who was close to his mother. I know the pain he must feel is 1000 times more intense than what I feel, and that there is nothing anyone can do to change any of that.

I guess what I am trying to say is that Mother’s Day, like all holidays, can be complicated.

I have two lovely boys, and I hope I know I am a good mother to them and I know I can do better. Last night, I helped Ben cast his Mario Bros. toys as characters in Hairspray (again). Mario is Link. Luigi is Corny. Princess Peach is Amber. Toadette is Tracy. I was exhausted after work, and this made me laugh and laugh. This morning, Elliott insisted he didn’t need a sweater, and I told him to step outside and see. I watched as he stood alone in the backyard and felt the breeze wash over him, squinting into the sunlight. He finally agreed to the sweater. Like me, he is stubborn. It is sometimes frustrating, but I also love that he needs to decide for himself.

I want to say thank you to these little guys for teaching me what it is to be a mother even as I am still figuring it out. I want to say thank you to them for making Mother’s Day meaningful to me, something to celebrate. And I want to say that I am sorry to those of you out there for whom this holiday is painful and complicated and nothing like the cards or commercials try to convince you to believe that it should be.

Let’s make this day, and every day, our own.

Photo credit: http://jjscholl.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/i-heart-mom/

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david

David and I slide down the steepest side of a dirt and gravel hill. Our bodies rattle, plumes of dust rocket from our sneakers, we scream out in terror and joy. There is dust in our teeth, dust in our lungs. We have scraped our legs. Everything is blue sky and orange groves. Our stucco tract home is no more than a couple of miles away, but it might as well be gone. Our sister Sally is still there, neatly tucked into the sofa, reading, or playing Solitaire. She prefers to stay inside.

*

David tells me he sees visions of our dead mother all of the time. God inserts these images into his brain. God talks to him, too. He tells him to stop listening to Supergrass and Radiohead. I ask David, “If God told you to injure yourself, would you?” He hesitates before he says he doesn’t know. David was too young when she died. He doesn’t remember her.

*

David asks me if I have thought about my long distance phone service provider. I have not. He wears dark, shiny shirts now. Ties. Slacks. There is gel in his hair. He says “sweet” all of the time, like punctuation. He is a member of a pyramid scheme that has been banned in several states. I tell him I am not interested. I use very few words. I know I am hurting him.

*

David brings a Franciscan monk with him to Thanksgiving. The monk is a stereotype. He looks like Friar Tuck from that 1970s Robinhood cartoon. He wears a brown robe, tied at the waist with a rope. He is cheerful and round. He eats two slices of pie. I want to make fun of him, to shout to everyone, “There’s a monk at our table!” But he is kind and we take a photo together. I rest my arm on his shoulder and smile.

*

My friend Betony posts an Instagram of her brother on Facebook. His hair is brown, wind-whipped and frozen in place, and he wears a button-up denim shirt. He’s smiling. He looks like Betony, especially around the eyes. His fingers are curled around a tiny plastic figure. The caption says, “Love means making your brother pose with a Twilight doll.” I laugh when I realize her brother looks exactly like the miniature Robert Pattinson. They are wearing the same clothes. The hair, the complexion, it is all the same. Then, suddenly, I feel like crying.

*

David will propose to a girl this year. There will be a ceremony at the Catholic church where she lives and teaches. I am not invited. The news I receive about David never comes from David. I heard she has an extraordinary amount of siblings. 16? 17? Aren’t they all girls? That can’t be true. David holds signs outside of abortion clinics. He tells me he is praying for my children. David believes I should stay at home, but I can’t stay there. I can’t believe in God. We seldom speak, there’s too much to avoid. David will marry this girl and move back east, and there is nothing left to recover.

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