Theft

When I was 19 my grandmother began showing signs of Alzheimer’s, or dementia – I’m not sure we ever got a diagnosis. When I was 21 her sister, my great aunt, called me up and said – no joke – “You’re going to want to fix yourself a Harvey Wallbanger before I tell you this, honey.”

My mother’s sister and her husband, who had lived with my grandmother ever since their Arabian pony and lama farm venture went predictably belly up, had begun to take advantage of her. My great aunts had noticed that as their sister’s mind slipped, Anne and Lance grew more controlling.  My grandmother was coerced to write a new will in a narcotic haze that effectively shut my brother and I out of our deceased mother’s half of her estate, and took away most of my mother’s life insurance that my grandmother had set aside for us. All a reversal of her express wishes before the fog set in.

I could tell you about the months and years that followed – how members of my family urged me to speak up for her and take action, but each was too afraid of litigious action to join me (this uncle had a habit of tripping in yards and calling a lawyer). I could tell you about how I noticed my aunt and uncle seemed to be medically abusing her, sedating her during the day while they slept in or ran errands, how they didn’t take her to see her sisters and friends or to visit her church.  How they didn’t notice or clean up the plates of food she would hide in her closet. Or how it felt to find the letters I’d written her in her nightstand, with her answers heartbreakingly scrawled in the margins, “yes,” “good,” “I love you too.”

I could tell you plenty about the threats that started when I began to ask my grandmother if she really wanted them to live there, when I involved Elderly Protective Services, when I consulted a lawyer.  How my aunt accused me of stealing things every time I came to the house, blowing up my phone for days afterwards with accusations, how my uncle physically threatened me, his body hulking menacingly over mine, the edge of the kitchen counter pressing hard into my back.  I could tell you how the last few times I saw her I called the small town sheriff on the drive down to let him know where I was.  My grandmother and I were sewing a quilt together then, words having long since failed her, and I would come in the early morning hours, tiptoeing in while my aunt and uncle were still asleep, Nanny and I speaking our own language by making patterns out of brightly colored fabric squares, pins pressed between our lips.

But none of that is what I really want to tell you.  The piece that feels important to share is the revelation I had after her death that kept my heart from twisting. My mother’s sister and her husband stole a great deal from my brother and I at the end of our childhood and even more from our grandmother at the end of her life.  And I realized I had to decide to not feel resentful or bitter – not because I’m such a big person (I’m not) – but because those are precisely the emotions that probably led them to feel wronged and entitled enough to thieve in the first place.  It was a revelation to see that they must have felt stolen from to steal so much.

Don’t get me wrong, I have seethed.  I have ranted. I have obsessed. I have imagined awful and satisfying revenge.  For years I vacillated between feeling terrified and enraged (which some might argue are the same thing), watching a kind of twisted abuse pervert the notion of family, and aware there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The most painful was watching them steal from my grandmother a more loving quality of life at the end, and from me the unfettered last few years with a person I loved dearly. I was still a kid, and am ashamed to say, my fear of my aunt and uncle sometimes kept me from making that long, winding drive behind the logging trucks on Highway 84 to see her.  In these past 15 years since her death when I feel that magnetic bitter shrinking of the heart, it has been some heavy lifting internal work to reject the equating of injustice with the feeling of being owed.  Injustice can be resisted and righted, but “being owed” perpetuates a cycle I want no part of.

 The news of our nation this past week has been so bad, so hateful, so lacking in human decency that I had to embark on some serious self-care triage recently. Every hour, I stopped work when the alarm on my phone sounded, and I meditated or did a bit of yoga.  Somewhere during these little intervals, the theft of my grandmother’s last years came flooding back, and with it, its relevance today. I feel just as helpless, just as outraged, just as furious and just as scared as I did then.  There’s an added layer now, of course, with so many lives at stake.

But, for me, the same revelation applies.  I must WORK to not become embittered and resentful against a hatred that builds a wall to shut out Mexicans and shuts the door on Middle Eastern and African Muslims; that calls eight cells a life worth valuing, but not a breathing, bleeding refugee child; that seeks to undermine democratic institutions like free speech, transparent elections and the intelligence community.  We are all so overwhelmed and stymied now.  We are trying to figure out in which direction to shunt our energy. Every time I open my laptop or turn on the news, I can feel my blood pressure rising as more of who we are as Americans is undermined, more lives are excluded, more is taken away. It would be so easy to allow the feeling of being cheated boil over, in that momentary and deliciously satisfying way of throwing something heavy and precious across the room in an argument – the moment just before it breaks.

I go back to when I was 21. I go back to standing alone and afraid in the face of a destructive force, and the realization that I had in me the same destructive potential if I allowed the obsessive vengeful feelings to metastasize.  I think of where I stood then, seeing now that had I made a different decision, my heart might have hardened around the fixation I was robbed, coloring my memories of my grandmother and maybe even paying forward the pain.

I’ve been spending a little time these past couple of days mothering that girl, that 21-year-old who wanted a real grown up to step in and help, who was so ashamed that she was sometimes cowed into staying away, who felt helpless and feared she had failed her grandmother. I’ve told her it’s all right, she needed more help, and that she did so much by calling and writing and visiting.  I think it’s been helping my heart now, in a way telling myself it’s all right to feel this crazy mixed bag, it’s all right to get less done and take it slower, and it’s actually important to be BOTH strategic and focused when it comes to the world AND excessively kind when it comes to myself.

I know, for me, I can more effectively resist bigotry and unconstitutionality and chaos and global bullying if I can keep my heart intact, willfully propped open in efforts to be brave without keeping score.  Whatever we’ve been denied in our lives: time with someone we love, a manufacturing job, entry into this country, respect for race or religion or gender, our very humanity depends on being able to stand up for what we need to survive and thrive – without turning around and denying the person behind us of the same thing.

I’m thankful to that much younger me with her early 90’s Jennifer Anniston haircut, and I am trying now in these difficult and dark days to keep much of what she learned during that time in front of me.  I don’t quite have this yet, friends. But it feels like there is something here.

And I know this: My grandmother’s name was Hazel Elizabeth Strong Cooper, and the memory of her that lives in me when I blacken my fingernails with garden dirt or read with my children nested in my lap is not marred by theft – it is lit up by love.

Gentling the Spirit, Aggressive Kindness and Kitestrings

Last weekend, I packed up my ragtag crew, sippy cups and craft paper and Batman t-shirts – and some stuff for the kids too – and shoved it all in the miniature van and headed down to New Orleans to meet some dear friends converging there for the weekend.

We four were close in college, closer still in the years just following, hopping on planes and trains to go wherever another of us happened to have landed for whatever 12-18 month job made us pause – Los Angeles, Boston, Memphis, San Francisco, Houston. We cooked in galley kitchens and squeezed into Airstreams and sang at each other’s weddings with dresses crammed in duffel bags (except for when I was on bedrest with twins and the other two put a cell phone on T’s altar so I could listen in). Then the babies began to enter, stage left, and we got a bit quiet and distracted. My friend J, with the oldest child, whipped us back into connection a few years ago with a daily text thread. (This is my friend about whom when we heard of her baby’s arrival, our first among us, I remember shouting into the 3-way phone call “We’re Pregnant!”) We share the minor commentary (what we ate for lunch, whether to do highlights or a glaze or go for a semi-permanent color) and the major issues (celebrating finishing a dissertation, challenges with a child, depression rearing its foreboding head). And now, as we’ve grown from 4 to 16 people, the gatherings are every two years, if we are lucky.

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And we are – lucky, that is. It’s a lot just to be in the presence of dear friends, especially right now. Especially when the heart is banged about with the soul-crushing disappointment that maybe some of our neighbors and families might not believe in equality and justice and inclusion as much as we had thought. I showed up to our reunion with my family of five, a rattling claptrap of Transformers and stuffed beagles and stale Christmas cookies, and myself in a state I’ve self-diagnosed as “Aggressive Kindness.”

As you might imagine, it’s neither overtly aggressive, nor is it particularly kind. Presenting symptoms are:

  • Intensity
  • Trouble moderating
  • Worry lines
  • Predilection for stress eating
  • Tight pants

And of course the trouble is, when my pants are tight, I feel even angrier, which begets more stress eating. And so it goes.

The short, sharp teeth associated with this state can manifest when I: read the news, walk around in the world, talk/not talk with friends and family, am conscious. Sometimes when I am asleep. The “aggressive kindness” itself is a bit more subtle – no doubt because I am engineering it, white-knuckling it with my hot little grip as I try to be a bigger person than I am ready for (or should be, perhaps, in some cases).   To wit: After the woman behind me at Michael’s became annoyed that I was on the phone and taking too long to get a buggy, I searched for her, aisle after aisle, so I could say: “Hi, I’m glad I found you. I’m sorry. I want to offer my apologies.” Then as she edged nervously away, I quickly followed behind her with, “You see, two of the buggies had trash in them, so it took awhile to find one. That’s why I took so long. You see? …DO YOU see, actually? I hope your holidays were super nice…” She finally sent a tight two-inch smile over her shoulder and scurried away. I’m not proud in admitting that I almost took small pleasure in chasing her, thinking if she can forgive me and see me, then somehow it helps that a swastika was spray painted on the Reform Rabbinical School’s sign in Cincinnati this week. I wanted to shout after her, HEY WE ARE OKAY, RIGHT?! I INSIST THAT WE ARE OKAY AS PROXY FOR THE WORLD’S OKAYNESS. Aggressive kindness is a little bit intense.

Aggressive kindness also misses the forest for the trees. Like attending the service at the local mosque a few Fridays back to show support, tugging down my headscarf repeatedly, and also repeatedly asking the young Muslim woman who kindly guided us through, “What do you need me to do? Do you need someone to hold a sign up outside? Do you need a show of public support? Where have you heard bigoted hate speech? How can I help?” She calmly and wisely lay a hand on my arm and suggested we meet for lunch and get to know each other better.

Sigh. Obviously, the learning here is that I’ve got to gentle my spirit back within itself, to reel it back in like a gently looping kitestring, softly riding the currents overhead – not severing the jugulars of bystanders.

So in New Orleans, when I propped up against my friend T’s island and leaned in to discuss the state of the world, how to take action, how to parent for the Resistance, to unravel the intricacies of tough stuff we’d been dealing with – career self doubt, marital stagnation, general atomization from friends – with my furrowed brow of intensity, there would then appear one of our 9 children or 3 partners with a need, a question, a pot boiling over, a Lego helicopter that needed a pilot, a dispute to settle, a lime to squeeze. I watched myself feel at first some consternation around this – wasn’t this the purpose of the getting together? When could we really talk, the way we did when we were 28, amidst hours of parlor games and long hikes? When could we figure stuff out and make mutually reinforcing New Year’s resolutions and do some vision-boarding so that my soul might be soothed, restored?

…It is harder to learn to self-soothe with outside reinforcement limited to – at most – an elbow squeeze and a knowing smile from someone who’s known and loved you half your life. Far harder than the big elaborately wrought expanses of time and space we have come to think are so essential. I blame myself first for this misplaced expectation, with the whole current notion of “self care” coming in a close second. This notion is promulgated by yoga magazines and blogs and spas that say only the highest forms of self care, like sensory deprivation chambers and far flung yoga retreats, will see us through. Not many are saying: stay where you are, with all the little annoyances and gnats, and try to breathe there. For me, it took a bit to sit with my agitation at not getting the wide, open space and time for deep conversation. But then I began to ease into a slow and peaceful dawning that just being there with each other was enough. And with the issues as big and frightening and destabilizing as they are – even if we had had four lounge chairs lined up on a deserted beach – being together in loving silence might have been all we could do. I realized that the heart of it, the heart of me, needed most just the proximity of these other hearts I hold dear. And quite possibly, sitting in loving company with my minimal, distracted, flawed, agitated best is not just “enough” – but perhaps exactly what I’d been craving all along.

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I’ve never had to do this – be simultaneously Woke to socio-political current events while in deep connection with my own self.   And I am not very good at it yet. I am easily agitated, I chase people in stores to scream SORRY!!! at them, I find it far harder to sip chamomile than make NOW posters.   But thank god for friends, amirite? Thank God and Yahweh and Buddha and Allah for the ones who remind us with their presence that this is a time of holding and of sheltering just as much as it of lacing up tennis shoes and marching.

Downshifting into a place of quiet amidst the domestic chaos and coordinated movements of multiple families’ schedules helped me to gentle my spirit back. It was enough to be circling close around each other, passing avocados and corkscrews, the kitchen lights like an enveloping bowl, the sentences we couldn’t finish like touchstones, shorthand of where we’d already been or what we’d eventually come back to.   All the furnishings of comfortable old friendships.

What I am trying to say is that it is not just “okay” to accept this, it might be in fact the very stuff of healing.

Rebecca Solnit wrote, “this is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.” What I lose sight of is the emotional cost to a dual-burner engagement and perception this time requires. And how that cost might circumscribe what I think should (or can) be accomplished. In the weeks after I broke my leg two years ago, I became so frustrated with myself for being tired all the time, for not getting much done, even accounting for a hobbled pace. It took a good friend to remind me that my body was a healing factory on overdrive and overtime at the time — how could I expect my same output?

When I look at what’s making my teeth so short and sharp, what I am needing is not more from the world, but more from me. And annoyingly, it’s usually in the form of quiet and meditative attention, if not downright idleness. Preferably, idleness in connection.

Gentling the spirit back within is not weakening it or diminishing it – it’s keeping the powder dry for when you need it most.

Come and sit, my best friends say. We won’t be able to talk or plan, but what could be said or anticipated that hasn’t yet already? Sit and we’ll peel garlic and start sentences and answer the children and wink at each other over the hubbub. The maddening normalcy of it all will remind us the great underground river of love hasn’t altered course or dried up.  This too is productive. It is, in fact, communion.