Evacuating Addiction-land

It is perhaps the most painful thing to realize that we are all, actually, separate people.  Which means that I am just as separate from the ones I love the Most as I am from the cashier at Target or Sarah Sanders or Oprah. And with that notion of separateness comes the awful secondary realization that I cannot fix anyone but myself. I reject this, formally and for the record, even while I know it to be true.  It’s pretty much opposite to how I live my life most of the time, as if everything and everyone hung in the balance of me getting an email’s wording exactly right.

Eight months ago my brother began his second round of rehab, working through the decision of whether he was willing and able to save his own life. He was in a very different place than he was during the first go-round, a bottom-er bottom this time, having lost everything – his child, his home, the financial support of his family, and (for at least a time) his freedom.  Everything, pretty much, but his life.  And yet, everything was still within his grasp to win back, with a lot of commitment and even more work.  It was a particular and precarious intersection, and while he was standing, paused and alert, in the middle of it, surrounded by rush hour traffic, the rest of us were holding our breath with suspense and terror and hope.

This is an unknown land unless you have charted it. I think about Susan Sontag’s seminal work on Illness as Metaphor, her description of cancer as a country requiring a passport and citizenship, its language and customs foreign unless you live there. So too with addiction.  Outside the borders of alcoholism and drug abuse, when someone is standing in the center of a dangerous intersection, we rush towards them and yank, tug or fireman’s carry them into safety, no questions asked. But in this country, that is usually enabling and not only unhelpful, but probably also harmful. It’s a land of obsession and compulsion, where as soon as you lift your eyes to the Thing consuming your friend or beloved – the drink, the pill, the whatever, you too get sick and can’t look away. You endlessly discuss its evils with girlfriends over lunch, examine your own relationship with the vice, scan your loved ones’ pupils for signs, count drinks, read the tea leaves everywhere.  Essentially, you go crazy. It is a mountain that looms over the landscape, and so even in your earnestness to HANDLE IT and HELP – to discuss moderation, abstinence, keeping track – you too are becoming just as sick, just as myopic in your tunnel vison.

The worst part about inhabiting this land are the fun house mirrors at every turn, the dishonesty and half-honesty and omission of honesty, all designed to keep you doubting, not trusting the distorted, wavy reflection of what is right in front of you.  Outside this country, you might just ask someone, “Hey, I’m worried. What’s going on?” and expect to hear an answer and then have a conversation. Inside the boundaries to this territory, you ask questions that are often turned against you, “Why are you always on my case?”, or that try to get you to notice a squirrel instead, “You don’t really love me,” or questions that force you to doubt yourself, “This is really about you and your control issues.”

The only thing that breaks the spell and helicopters you out of there is remembering you are a separate person, responsible only and singularly for yourself.

And to be sure, this upside-down land is far, far worse for the ones in the throes of the addiction. For them, it is truly Hell and yet, perversely, they have to keep the hell intact, keep the façade propped up in order to survive. Or so the thinking goes.  The truly tragic thing is that the rest of us, who love them so, must evacuate this country on the last flight out without first knowing what their thinking is or what will happen.  We rip ourselves away, impossibly detaching and breaching our deepest belief systems like “family first” or marriage vows or what parents promise their children in order to save ourselves. We tear ourselves away with the desperate hope it might help save them too, knowing nothing else we do will. (We know that because we immigrated here by way of so much pain and denial and lies and illusions of control).  But we leave the island, with no idea of whether they might follow.

This is radical! This is totally different than the bedsides of our sick loved ones in all other countries, all other illnesses.   Can you imagine — your husband is diagnosed with ALS and you say, “I love you and I want you to get well and I know that best hope you have is for me to get out of your way. I’ll be at my sister’s in Florida.”  That would be nuts!  Criminal! And yet, with this disease, in this country, this is what we must do. Both because that statement is true, the only chance anyone has is on their own two feet – and because we have traveled to the brink and realized the only life we can save is our own.

Sometimes our being airlifted out does provide the right trigger for our loved one to get well. Sometimes it doesn’t.  Either way, we rip out our own hearts and leave, walking across parking lots, out of living rooms, down apartment staircases, through rehab hospital corridors, blind with pain and heartsick with unknowing.  For some of us, leaving looks like walking into the next room and picking up a book. We leave not just to save ourselves but because we love this person enough to get out of their way, to let them make their own decisions without trying to engineer the solutions for them, (which didn’t work the first 27 times we tried it, anyway).

Some of us have also learned that we can love a lot better when we are not our well-meaning, obsessive, list-making, eye-twitching controlling selves.

Six months ago, just after I expatriated, I only heard a quiet static coming from my brother’s country.  I was terrified. Will he or won’t he? I didn’t know and no longer had a passport to get nosy and find out. I watched the clock and the calendar and went mad with suspense and anxiety.  My dentist office called to schedule my next appointment six months out and I thought – “In six months, will he be homeless? Or dead? Or will he be in recovery?” Then I would remember my own sickness, my own obsession with his mountain and need to fix his life, and I would make my appointment and mind my own business and try to get back to work.  This happened over and over. This constant need to remind myself there is so much I can’t know, because I am, actually, a separate person.

Occasionally little messages of hope came through. He completed his program and found a place to live.  He quietly reported he was more determined than ever. He said he knows that words no longer matter, only actions.

I would breathe a little and plan a month or two out, trying to live my own life.

Back when I was 30 a good friend from college died of anorexia. While we all knew how sick Seth was, his death was shocking nonetheless because of his vibrancy, his brilliant and curious mind and expansive heart. So many of us showed up at his funeral with a mixed bag of emotion: bewilderment, pain, even anger. His sister gave his eulogy and I remember how her own anger felt like something I could touch from the pew. The priest stood up after she spoke and delivered a homily so comforting to the hurt and confusion of losing a friend to a disease that seemed controllable, something preventable and avoidable. He looked out at all our stricken faces and said, “None of us can know what Seth’s conversations with his God were about at 3am.”

I breathed through the fall and winter, aware that I knew nothing of what my brother’s 3am conversations with his God were about – nor could I presume to. I knew a bit of how bad he felt, I knew he loved his son above everything else in this world, I knew he was working hard and the grip this beast had on him called everything into question, but that he seemed to be reckoning with it. In his own way, at his own pace. I knew, slowly and with growing assurance, that it had nothing to do with me.

Steven, my husband, is nearly 6 years in recovery, after his first 7-year stint at white-knuckling sobriety. Fortunately, his Recovery Part Deux is a strong one.  Yet we live every day understanding the reality of this disease: that there is no remission, that any day could quickly mean deportation back to that country if he doesn’t walk his path, work his own program.  It would be terrifying to know I could be deported back to that place with him, with its magnetic mountain and forest of fun-house mirrors. But thank Buddha, I don’t have to be – singularly because I now know I am separate person. That as much as love my husband, I would also be okay without him, if I absolutely had to. Similarly, this time around, Steven is not investing in his sobriety and recovery for me and the kids – he is doing it for himself. We are both stronger and happier in our union for knowing where the other person ends and we each begin.

The same is true for my brother, who in the past couple of months has become my hero through his quiet persistence in reliably showing up. He offered his amends recently and said, “I don’t trust my thinking back then, I just know I’m sorry.” He shows up at my house with chicken to cook or comic books for the kids. When he leaves, I watch from the window as he walks to his car, my heart all but busting out of my chest as he puts the roasting pans or comic book box in his trunk and then turns on the ignition in the twilight.  This is love; this is trying.  He is mine; he is separate.  The realization has both saved my life and flung open wide how much more I can love.

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Remember to Remember

 

Lately, I’ve noticed some really great efforts out there to impart wisdom from women to girls, fueled by a desire to close gaps that have been stalled out, to inspire confidence, to help ensure #metoo isn’t repeated.  In some ways, I think these efforts are also born of a desire to do some internal landscaping and healing, an older woman to her younger self – worry about pleasing people less, speak up more, ask for what you want, let the dishes sit in the sink more often.

All good stuff to be sure.  But I wonder if we should only think of learning as from older-to-younger, rather than occasionally let it flow the other direction. I wonder if my 14-year-old Self might not have a few important things that she could teach ME, as in the right-here-and-now me at 41.  What did I know then that I have now forgotten? What have I learned since that is no longer serving me or clouding up my little squinty near-sighted eyes?

I got a glimpse of that girl I was when I went into the mountains two months ago to write in solitude. I brought with me into the cabin all my old journals.  ALL of them, y’all.  And it felt damn near heroic to crack open the one I wrote during high school, which began two weeks before my freshman year and two months after my mother died, and read it straight through with minimal wincing.  That girl in there broke my heart (and totally embarrassed me) with her earnestness.  As I read, I watched her wrestle and often flail with both the bottomless pain of such immense loss – as well as the quotidian tiny dramas of teenagerdom. She addressed her first entries to her mother and wrote in a careful, controlled hand, which then loosened into a wide and messy scrawl at 15 and 16 opening on to her loneliness and wild thoughts, then tightening up again into a steely resolve at 17 and 18, as she wrote through her plan to get on her own.

I wouldn’t want to re-walk that rocky path again for anything – full of all the fits and starts of adolescence combined with mother-orphaning and a cross country move. But I was struck in remembering how good I was at asking for exactly what I needed.  In between those pages with its erratic handwriting, I was talking about reaching out to aunts, using babysitting money on therapy, and lingering after class with a few favorite teachers to tell them how I was feeling, and ask for advice. Always, too, I was writing, writing, writing.

I’d do well to remember these things today when I get caught up in some struggle and immediately make my Go-To connection: “I’m all alone and it’s all hard and I have to do it all by myself.”  In those flowery notebooks (bought before our national moleskin craze), I had accidentally stumbled upon a time-machine to the brief window just after I had first faced real hardship, but before I began second guessing my needs as worthwhile and justifiable.  A place where I was willing to reach out to others and say, with a child’s lack of self-referential apology or hedging, “I need something. Can you give it?”

Last month I sat on the couch in front of a fire with my mother’s best friend from childhood, who has become my friend in the past five years or so we’ve been living in the same town.  I looked at the fire and mused, “I remember the first time I met you. I was 14 or 15.  You picked me up and we spent the day together. We sat in the cemetery near mom’s grave and the wisteria was blooming and it felt like we talked for hours.  Did that really happen? How did you come to be there – weren’t you living in Houston then?”

She turned to me.  “You wrote to me.  You don’t remember?”

“No. Tell me.”

“I couldn’t make it to your mother’s funeral, but about a month later, I got this letter from you – I don’t even know how you got my address. ‘We’ve never met,’ you wrote, ‘but you were my mother’s best friend growing up and I would really like you to come to Louisiana and meet me and talk with me. Will you come?’”

“Well, that did it,” she said.  “I found a babysitter for my 3 kids and made the trip.”

“I wrote that?  I just found someone my mother loved and said, ‘I need you to travel to meet me’?”

“Yes,” she said. “You did.”

I marveled at the audacity and resiliency of my 14-year-old self.

And then I marveled that I should marvel.  When had it become surprising to me that I was someone who asked for exactly what she wanted (much less knew exactly what she wanted)? I expected to survive. I simply expected to be okay and was matter-of-factly walking out the way in which I would be okay.  I had a clarity then that the gnawing worry over the years, the death by a thousand papercuts of adulthood, has fuzzed over in me now.

Dalia Lithwick, brilliant, heartfelt writer on legal issues, culture and politics, observed that much of the power and effectiveness of Emma Gonzales and her Parkland student colleagues lies in that they have not been cowed or made skeptical that they might not be able to affect change.  In her article, The Student Teachers, she outlines what she has learned from the students fearlessly reimagining how to affect change in the Trump era.

Lithwick writes, “The adults forgot to tell the kids at Stoneman Douglas that they can’t win against the NRA. As Alec MacGillis suggested last week, decades of demoralized fatalism have allowed progressives to persuade themselves that the NRA and Republican interests are too powerful to overcome, causing liberals to give up the fight before it begins. But no one shared this received wisdom with Emma Gonzalez. ‘If you actively do nothing, people continually end up dead, so it’s time to start doing something,’ she said last weekend. That may sound naïve to an older generation of progressives, but it’s also the only possible starting point for changing the terms of the debate. I, for one, am grateful to be reminded of its essential truth.”

I couldn’t agree more with Lithwick’s assessment of how we might learn from these young people, who are just as close to cartoons as they are their first real job.  And it feels like no coincidence that my inspiration in them is occurring at the same time I am learning from the fearless reimagining work of my younger self.

We tend to think of ourselves in this oyster way, accreting, accreting, accreting, the pearl of wisdom growing fatter and fatter on our tongues.  But I think sometimes we forget so much about ourselves that we never thought we would.  It’s still there, of course, our former selves. And in the sense that we can learn from the younger, we can go back – so long as we’re willing to do a little shucking.

My friend and I have on our respective bedside tables a little box that says, “Anytime you need to remember.” It references a line from Father Tom Weston, Anne Lamott’s best friend, who likes to say, “Remember to remember.” Inside this box are all the truths I  know and love, mostly by writers and thinkers and feelers far more evolved than me, cut out on little slips of paper and folded inside. The idea behind this is that we really already know so much of what we need to in order to be mostly content and kinda sane, to keep our teeth from being so little and razor sharp with everyone we love most, especially ourselves.  The challenge, of course, is to remember to remember what we already know.  When I am present enough, I’ll take out one of these little slips of paper, read it, and remember all over again.  And for a short time, I’ll feel a little more knitted up, a little more connected to my better Self.

We’re in an age of empowering girls, and that’s fantastic and CRITICAL – but it sometimes means we’re weighing them down with all our decades-old bricks of advice. What if empowerment meant paving the way for who they already are?

What if we could see our own work as facilitating the perfection we ourselves already are?

Early-teen Elizabeth was no spiritual Sappho. She was a hypercontrolling perfectionist who bit down her fingernails, made to-do lists even on the weekends, and harbored a “hobby eating disorder.”  I’ve learned much in the intervening 27 years that I wouldn’t trade for anything, namely how to let go, how to listen, how to yield, how to trust.  But I would be remiss if I took that accrued wisdom, often won the hard way through so many mistakes and false steps, and failed to remember that I knew a few things then too.

My 14-year-old Self still has a Lisa Frank ™ Trapper Keeper full of lessons for me.

How about you?

Spiritual Biceps

A few weeks ago I wrote an essay for Mutha Magazine about wearing frustration and rage like long underwear, or a tissue stuffed in my pocket – almost casual in its easy accessibility.  I wrote it from my perspective, but also on behalf of mothers in my generation, women of Generation X, sandwiched between leap-frogging Millennials and slow-to-retire Boomers, who have had more education and opportunities than our seniors, but are the most downwardly mobile so far; who are coming up against the big questions that mid-life begs of us at the exact same time our small children have a thousand needs and we are being told we should lean in to our careers.

The reaction was overwhelmingly (and hearteningly) positive from women in my cohort, many who said they could relate to the “pocket rage” I felt about slogging through the Press and Pace of All the Things at this stage of life. Interestingly, there was another reaction to the piece that arose, largely from women in the generation ahead, the ones who had survived the working mother (or working-inside-the-home mother) juggle, who seemed a little bit impatient with all this.  Several thoughtful readers who took the time to respond wanted to “fix” this for me – they wanted to point out that meditation apps on my phone are not enough, or that I had bought too much into mainstream notions of success, or that I was worrying far too much. Every single response like this was truly well-meaning and kind-spirited.  And every single one of them was absolutely right.  I know they came from a place of their own lived experience, a few miles down the road, and wanted very much to use that perspective to help me.  To ease this tight feeling.    I appreciate that sentiment especially because I know it all too well.  When I see someone younger than me churning through the identity and place crises of young adulthood or fertility challenges or the death of parents – or any experience or gateway that I have passed through – I am chomping at the bit to offer my story, my thoughts, my advice to them.

(If only everyone would heed my excellent, excellent advice!!)

So you can imagine how therapeutic it was for me to be on the other end of this with the well-meaning readers who wanted to cure me of my pocket rage.   But the thing is, I didn’t need a cure so much as a place to share.  I wrote the piece, not in a fit of anger, but from a measured place about what I had been noticing was true of myself and many women friends.  I wrote because I believed in the power of the shared experience and because I’ve learned to listen to what is calling me AND feels scary to reveal, because there is usually something there that needs to be said and might reverberate.  For me, the action of calling out, naming and claiming this particular brand of anger and frustration associated with working mother demands has the effect of dissipating it.  It’s the benefit of holding out a space for shared stories and experiences, even and especially, the ones hard to say aloud.  The space we hold out to each other is where all the value is.   Not so much in the words.  I need this tattooed on my forehead.

What if we thought about space as more of a solid, or even a liquid — containable, hold-able, dynamic? Something that could be created, expanded and held like a giant iridescent soap-sud bubble. I mean space as a feeling, an intentionality, our attention and presence when another is talking to us.   And what if we were powerful enough to create space within space, time-stop Superhero fashion, like a pause button hit mid-action, mid-conversation?  We, at the center of a still and calm circle, holding our palms out to create a clearing, a force field within which we are listening actively to what is being said.

It is, actually.

We can, actually.

When I am effectively doing this, I can feel it – and it feels like a room, like physical space.  It can happen over scrambled eggs when a friend says, “I just need to tell someone” or standing by my open car door when one of my kids runs out to tell me something “urgent.”  It begins with intention, the question: what is really being asked of me here?  And then ends with a major gear shift away from trying to offer my own story or solution, and towards an intention to actively listen to what is being said and hold the emotion, with biceps and ears.   I am listening without thinking about how it fits my life and the incredible, amazing advice I am always so ready and generous to give. I am not thinking of solutions or how to make it better.  I have put a force field around all that, like snow globe’s glass bowl and inside, can hear my friend opening her heart like falling snow, free and gentle.

But, y’all, seriously, it’s so rare that I’ve really been able to do that  —  it’s happened, like, twice. What I better know is what it has felt like for someone to hold out that kind of space for me.  (which has thankfully happened more than twice.)  In the safe clearing someone else has made, I am free to talk without editing myself, censoring, hedging, posturing – because I know that they will not judge nor try to fix nor be distracted with whatever lens they bring to it.  What an incredible gift to receive!

Each September for the past several years, I’ve gone to a 4-day retreat that’s silent, except for the twice a day group gatherings with the retreat leader.  Two years ago, the silent retreat was especially talkative during these gathering times, but not in an annoying way. Something about the teachings of the retreat leader and the hearts we all showed up with, combined with the intentionality to hold open a safe space, made the gathering raw and open.  People shared their shadows, their most desperate places. And then a beautiful thing happened.  Others stood up, turned and shared their own. They were speaking of themselves, but there was also a call-response to each other. And in the space created by safe sharing and active listening, a profound healing emerged.

One woman in her late sixties stood and told of her battle back from the despair that led her to attempt suicide — unsuccessful only because her husband found her and got her to the hospital in time.

Another stood and said, “I was the wife who found my husband when he took his own life. I didn’t get there in time. You are a miracle, thank you for living.”

A very young woman who had been there a couple of years before shared through tears the shame and despair she felt when she got pregnant in college and had to have the baby alone.

Another woman stood and said she, too, had gotten pregnant in college and had to drop out to become a mom far too soon, how she pushed against the confines of it in those early years, but now what a miracle her son is to her, his kindness the best kind of gift.

Another woman stood and said that her father had killed himself when she was a child and she was so pained and wounded by what felt like his abandonment and rejection of her.

A woman near her age stood and said before she was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, she was in so much emotional pain and darkness that she was sure she was harming her children by just being around them, by being who she was. “Your father loved you,” she said.

It was intense.

Two days later we broke silence after our final session together. There’s always a sort of suspense in that last moment in retreat.  No one wants to break a silence that feels like a pearl in cupped hands, so precious and hard won.

When we began to talk, the young woman who had felt such shame about her early pregnancy came up to me. I immediately did what I do – which is to quickly insert myself and launch into how I knew something of what she felt because I had had an unplanned pregnancy and struggled through ambiguous feelings, which I had actually written a blog about and did she want to read it? (I am so so helpful). She waited patiently for me to finish and then said, “Actually I wanted to ask you a question.  A couple of times this week, we’ve sat near each other while eating or looking at the river or meditating and in those times, I’ve felt like you are carrying a lot of pain. And I wanted to ask you if you would let me help hold some of your pain?”

I don’t think I’ve been asked a more beautiful, more moving question.  The startling kindness of it made me draw in my breath, sharp and sudden, and a floodgate opened within me, like a faucet turned on right at the wellhead. It was the same feeling as being held when I was a small child, when my mother would stoop down to see and hear the trouble and then hold me, encircling me in a way that demanded nothing, only that I let my full body weight fall against her.  “So yes?” she said as I hugged her.  “Yes, yes,” I said through tears.

Advice can sometimes be aggressive, sending “thoughts and prayers” dashed off in Facebook comments can be a passive pat on the head, but holding space for someone is active and intentional.  It requires manually moving yourself out of the way, and asking, “what is being said here? What is truly being asked of me?”

Very often it’s much simpler, and yet a little more effortful, than I expect.  I’d like to get better at this.  I want to get so strong in holding space for others that I have Michelle Obama’s sculpted uppers arms — in the spiritual sense.

…Although I wouldn’t mind them in the physical sense as well.

 

How to Hold Plank

First, push yourself up from the ground, shoulders under wrists, sternum reaching forward, pelvis lifted, your willing-but-weak core that’s birthed 3 babies fully activated. Quiver with effort and swear under your breath as sweat drops to the mat.  Pretend it makes total sense when your yoga teacher tells you to “reach your coccyx towards the back wall.”  Extend your heels and realize in your suffering that this is who you are now.

Conflate the intensity of the moment to your entire identity. You are no longer someone who is holding plank.  You are now Plank, itself.   Forever stuck in this horrible position, 18 inches off the floor, reaching, lifting, sweating.

Feel a tiny bit sorry for yourself as you imagine how meals will be delivered on the floor in front of your face and to reach them, you will have to attempt a controlled chattarunga yoga push up. People will have to visit you by lying flat on their backs near your trembling shoulders. Somehow you will have to find a way to sleep.  Plank is All. All is Plank.

When the 15 seconds pass and the teacher tells you to come down, forget that for a stretch of time you lost all perspective, all verb tenses but the present.  Apply this technique to all major intense periods in your life (newborn baby days, work crises, deaths, sicknesses, relationship trouble, unemployment).  Basically, anytime the car goes screeching out of its lane and towards the guardrail, and the details of the present are brought into hyperfocus while the brain lasers in telescopically on each piece of asphalt gravel — would be an applicable situation to “hold plank.” File it away as your go-to pro forma.

Do not pull the lens back to catch the background or the foreground, don’t remember a time before nor imagine any time after the one you are living.  The one where you’ve become plank.

Reduce yourself through this process to your very essence, a pinpoint of energy, living so fully in the moment that you will always remember this time, but not expansive enough to remember you are three-dimensional person with a concept of the future. You are a dog at the table, a child with a fallen ice cream cone. Nothing else matters but the here and now.   Allow yourself a small smile of satisfaction at the purity of that.

Spread the fingers and press into the base of each knuckle.  If anyone approaches you with advice on how to get out of the pose, turn your head to look at them and observe how they are not holding plank.  They are nice humans, but they do not know what they are talking about.  If they ask you whether maybe a meditation practice might help, do not turn even turn your head.

In fact, make it a rule not to turn your head at all, for any reason.   Keep the shoulders externally rotated, the triceps gripping bone and the eyes staring intensely in front of your mat, two to three feet ahead – tops.

Do not look up, or out.  Do not risk distraction by catching another’s eyes, or notice how their shoulders are shaking with some great, internal effort of their own.  Do not glance out of the window and see the pine needles move against a patch of blue, suggesting an expanse of sky, a breadth of being, the constant flux and change and bigness of It All teeming around you, widening you like a crack across a bowl, threatening to break you open, shattering you, once again, into the millions of messy, gorgeous you’s that you actually are.

Curiosity, Tweens, Ursula LeGuin

I’ve been noticing something interesting lately – something both difficult to mention and that I am trying to sort out. As my daughter reaches puberty, I am unconsciously pulling her onto my lap less, touching her less, yearning to hold her less. It is not intentional and as soon as I see it, I reach for her, overflowing with a need to be near her, to give her my love.

I’m aware – and comforted by – the fact that I can easily course-correct for this, by seeing all the Charlottes that make up this Charlotte, all the ages she’s been, from the imperious baby to the wild-haired toddler to the snaggle-toothed first grader, and of course – treasuring and loving this Charlotte, this winsome girl who composes love songs on the piano to her dog and who is constantly crafting up a concoction in the kitchen with her little bitten down painted fingernails. She is more a delight to be with and love now than ever before.  So, noticing this makes me unbearably sad, because I don’t know where it comes from, what primordial vestige in my double helix has an urge to draw back just as my daughter reaches that first facsimile of womanhood.  How strange evolutionary biology is, as much as we think our prefrontal cortexes rule the land.

This isn’t occurring with her twin brother, who still accordions himself neatly into my lap, whose little sweaty hand is right there for me to grab in a store, a parking lot.  So why my daughter? My miniature me? Perhaps what I am pulling back from is not her, but what her growth and development tell me about myself.

I think about Sharon Olds, one of my favorites, and her poem “35/10”:

Brushing out our daughter’s brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

This is not the only subtle retreat I’ve made. I think too about the ways I can unconsciously make the slightest half-turn away from other people in my world, energetically pulling away in a nearly imperceptible way, but only nearly. Whatever my unaware motive — self-protection or distraction — it’s so easy for me to scooch the heart back in, to fold my arms and recline rather than lean in. To keep my phone and all its flashing lights as a shield between me and noticing what is being said or felt within my radius. Most of all, it is so hard to stay curious – about what is happening, what someone else is feeling, what I am actually feeling.  But it’s curiosity about this strange phenomenon between my fade and Charlotte’s bloom that is keeping me close to her, connected to her.

Other energetic half-turns away are harder to see. Sometimes it’s an attrition by the child-home vortex, like the way my husband can blur into a shadowy colleague at Parenting HQ or someone who’s closet space I could really use. Other times I am triggered in ways I can’t or am unwilling to see, usually by some perceived slight or a way I am brought up against my own insecurity and turn away in what feels like adult self-protectionism.  Curiosity is the key. Without it, my heart is MIA.  With it, I am always present.

On our way back from Disney World last week, a joyous, chaotic, exhausting, fun time, Steven turned to me on the plane and laughed about something our youngest had said. That whole week of our vacation, I had been having fun, but through the veil of thinking about rides and blood sugar levels and coordinating schedules. In that moment on the plane, however, I was truly curious – thinking to myself, “how is it this person and I have produced these three other persons, who are so complicated and ridiculous and hilarious and fussy and wonderful?” Truly wondering, questioning that.  So when Steven turned just then all I saw was his laugh, his smile. I was present, briefly, for what was.

The truly curious questions bring us there, bring us to ourselves. Why is that? Why do you think that? How did that feel for you? What was that like for you? It’s so hard, isn’t it, to ask those questions when we are triggered or scared or angry.  I have recently had two difficult conversations, one where there was space and willingness for those questions to be asked, and one where there wasn’t – and the outcomes and feelings were of course totally and completely opposite.  Breathing enough space into our anger or fear to ask questions can set us free. And curiosity will break us open if we can relinquish control long enough to let it.

My daughter is trying on a lot of different sweaters right now. She’s trying out pushing away from me and then a moment later, pivoting to tell me I don’t spend enough time with her. In my more trying times (read: most of the time), it’s easy to be frustrated by both costume changes. I want to scream “I AM TRYING MY LEVEL BEST, DAMMIT!” because these reactions tend to come when there is something burning in the oven or I have a work call on mute. If I react with me in the fore, I always see it that way – why are you doing this to me? If I get curious to what might be going on with her, the whole room tilts and reorients, space and peace and light coming in from a new east-facing bay window.  In those rare times, (read: one or two), I say, “hang on, Charlotte, I want to hear more about that.  Would you give me five minutes and tell me how you are feeling?”  And usually when I manage that, the tension between our competing needs magically dissipates.

But I find I have zero capacity to ask anyone else these questions if I can’t get curious with myself.

So, okay, how I am feeling? I am unnerved by Charlotte’s developing womanhood because I feel like I am still figuring out who I want to be in the world. I still feel exactly the way I did at 14 wearing my mother’s clothes, falling off my shoulders, at the high school open house just after she died (it felt a lot less pathetic at the time than it sounds now).  I still feel like a girl myself.  Or maybe about 27, when everyone I worked with called me, “The Kid,” or 32, when I was a new mother, or 36, when my bravery and resilience was tested.  But not quite 41.

At a gathering among my in-laws, I asked all the women how old they truly felt. Twenty-eight, said one sister in law; 35 said the other; 52 said my mother in law.  Their answers came instantaneously.   I once asked the same of my great aunt, the one who was a daughter of an East Texas sharecropper, who wanted to be geologist and couldn’t, but still managed to get a college education in 1932.  We had just had oatmeal with dates and she put her bowl down, stuck out her leg and leaned back with her hands behind her head – her customary “thinking pose.”  “I feel 33,” she said without hesitation. “I look at this old woman in the mirror and I don’t know who she is.”  She was 82 then.

Ursula LeGuin, ground breaking writer, wrote much of the same in The Wave in the Mind,

“I know what worries me most when I look in the mirror and see the old woman with no waist. It’s not that I’ve lost my beauty — I never had enough to carry on about. It’s that that woman doesn’t look like me. She isn’t who I thought I was…. Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist…. But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.”

So ultimately, then, we have to get curious with our own selves. And curiosity necessarily begs compassion. I have to see and appreciate ALL of myself, ask of myself what’s going on, where am I, what am I needing, before I can then do the same for Charlotte, for anyone.  There is no reason, logically, why the waxing of our children should indicate the waning of us. But somehow, it’s there in the unasked questions. We link ourselves to each other in sometimes unhealthy ways: my hurt = your digressions; my loss = your gain, when in fact, we are responsible for our own selves, only. And once I ground myself in that fact, I have greater capacity to lean forward to ask questions, to listen deeply.

I then claim so much space and strength to pull my daughter onto my lap, folding her long legs in, kangaroo style, her full weight nearly flattening me, and for just a minute nuzzle her like the baby she still is, marveling at the person she is becoming.

 

Accepting Slow-Mo

My next door neighbor died suddenly a few weeks ago and the abrupt end to the limited portal through which I knew his life — living at an intimate enough distance to know the times of his comings and goings, his obsessive dedication to leaf blowing, his visitors — has haunted me.  It’s a strange haunting, really, because I didn’t know him in any real way.  And I don’t presume to lay claim on a grief like anyone who knew and loved him and has suffered his loss. We never really had a conversation, even. The day we moved in, I was upstairs unpacking when he came to the door and introduced himself to my husband, welcoming us to the neighborhood.  And yet, for whatever reason, the relationship never developed past a wave. As a childless, single man approaching middle age who liked to throw fabulous cocktail parties, I don’t know that we held much interest with our backyard volcanic with rowdy loud children laughing and fighting on the trampoline and playset.

All I knew, really, was the roughest outline his life made by its movements and size and shape when viewed 16 feet to the east.  But it was enough to afford the maybe illusory sense of an intimacy, a known world. As I worked from my perch at the dining room table, or the living room couch – both overlooking his house – I watched his day unfold with mine, the only thing marring our silent coexistence was the occasional tension (which he never knew existed) between the timing of his leaf blowing and my conference calls.  He was just a decade older than me and I fancied us similar in our progressive politics from little hints I gathered, a shared love of supporting local artists, a strong community of friends laughing – his from a lanai with twinkle lights, mine from a toy-strewn kitchen.  Sure, we hadn’t yet moved beyond the wave, but I imagined we eventually would — how could we not, as like-minded friendly cultural creatives, living and working and making a life in this sleepy southern neighborhood. There would be time.

And then he died suddenly, 51 years old.  And it only took 2 days for his lawn to be covered in leaves and, as added insult, 4 days for the weeds to sprout among the cedar mulch he worried over so.   I am so sad, of course, for his tragedy. I am sad we never really connected. But beneath both I am feeling a broader sadness at the speed and fragility of it all.

I’ve had this sense lately that I have been on slo-mo unloading the dishwasher for the past five years as people have been born, learned to walk and talk, scribbled their names and started school.   It’s like I’m working on finishing a sentence — losing, then finding, then losing again my train of thought and trying to be heard about the children’s din, just trying to get out to the end of this one sentence — in the same space of time as new businesses have been hatched on the backs of napkins, developed, funded, failed, reimagined and relaunched and IPO-ed.  Friends have moved and moved again; countries have renegotiated trade agreements; marriages have been born, then dissolved; books have gone from being an idea to publication, all at warp speed around me, like those time elapsed photos of traffic at night.  Meanwhile I’m still thinking the same thought about what to do with my “career” while watching the insolent leaves ride the gentle back and forth of a breeze and come to land lightly on my neighbor’s side yard.

The frenetic chaos of my domestic life with 3 children in the foreground, combined with the pace of the world in the background has me sandwiched, stuck like an insect on a pin. ( Or maybe a butterfly. I’d rather that.)

I wonder how much of this is this time in my life, mid-stride in both parenting and career building, and whether others feel the same way?

Steven and I have this little schtick about how much our lives feel like a Japanese game show, where the object of the game is to try to have a conversation about replacing the AC unit, while draining the boiling pasta, helping 4th graders with math homework and dodging a preschooler who is pretending to be a human pinball, precisely at crotch level.  There are also flashing strobe lights, a loud siren on a techno beat, flying Ginsu knives – and a timer.

Or it could be that this anxiety at being tethered in the middle, this feeling of beating my wings against the pin and the plexiglass holding me in place has more to do with being just a couple years away from the age my mother was when she died?  I think there is part of me that identifies with the warp speed because that’s how I’ve lived, leaning forward, racing to what feels like security, accomplishment, trying to get my children to be independent and resilient – because in an unconscious way I can’t imagine being older than 44.  I know that’s nuts, of course, and yet I can’t escape a sense of urgency pressing me forward. Urging me to be present for my children every day, every interaction; to be productive with each working moment, each creative moment.  There is a sense I can’t “waste” a day or a week, and that if I do pause – then even the pause must be worth something, like quality rest or producing a great epiphany.  I know!! That’s exhausting. I am exhausting.

I lived in parallel with my neighbor, feeling as though we weren’t that different in where we were with our lives, and so his abrupt death struck that old, deep chord of fear that drives me to hurry, hurry.  But you know, if I listen carefully, it struck more that.  The deeper fear is that in my hurry, in my straining against this little hemmed in place I find myself in right now, I won’t do what I really need to in time.  (Especially if what I really need to do doesn’t look anything like obvious forward motion and whizzing action lines.)

Many years back, when I was traveling in Vietnam, I stood frozen in Hanoi on the side of the busiest intersection I’d ever seen, unable to cross.  There were no lanes, no signs, no stoplights to offer order to the swarming motorcycles, mopeds and minibuses piled high with people and chicken and briefcases.  After what felt like hours of weighing whether I was willing to risk playing Frogger with my own life, I felt a small hand slip into mine. The hand belonged to a proportionally small elderly woman, who was wearing a wooden yoke across the back of her neck from which swung two buckets. She wordlessly gave me a tug and, without looking right or left, stepped into oncoming traffic. Amazingly, the chaotic, honking motorcycles parted and streamed around us as we crossed the street.

For the longest I had this story filed mentally under, “Crazy-Ass Intersections;” “Near Death Experiences;” “Kindness of Strangers when Traveling,” but now it strikes me as needing a cross reference to consider how I might should stop trying to match the speed of traffic around me and find more ease and acceptance in my own flow.

There is a reason why all I ever write about is letting go – and still have no idea how to do it. Not when it’s about my releasing my children to their own destinies, letting go my expectations of family and friends, letting go the old stories I’ve drafted for myself.  But this particular letting go — letting go of this deep internal pressing urgency, is maybe the most essential (and hardest) to get.  And right now, I’m being given the fallow time I didn’t particularly want to learn it.

I wrote to a mentor and friend recently, telling her I felt like I was slowly unloading the dishwasher while the everything was happening around me, and she said, “Yes, we always think it should be more grand than it is.”

“What is?” I asked.

“The opportunity and opening to Be more fully alive in our own lives.”

 

Dammit, I hate truths like that.

Shreveport’s Vigil for Charlottesville

I hesitated to add to so much of the noise out there right now – especially when so many experienced the terror in Charlottesville firsthand – but because it was both so healing and so humbling to be able to speak at our Shreveport rally for Charlottesville last Sunday, my second home and a place I dearly love, and because my heart has been so heavy and always feels lightened a little when I find connections with other hearts — I’m posting my remarks below. If you have time for more, listen to the incredibly talented AJ Haynes of the Seratones make you weep with her poem and singing of Strange Fruit under a tree once used for lynching at the Caddo Parish Courthouse.

I went to the University of Virginia in the mid-1990s as a Jefferson Scholar, a scholarship that brought with it expectations of not just academic excellence, but citizenship and a real contribution to the inclusiveness, equality among student life. I soon learned that this was a campus-wide religion at UVA – this religion to Jefferson and his democratized ideals of self-determination, honor and equality. I took the history of civil rights under Julian Bond and poetry with our first black female poet laureate Rita Dove. I say this to tell you what a horror and shock it was to see hundreds of torch-bearing neo Nazis walking the central lawn of this campus, my campus, on Friday night. Don’t get me wrong – Charlottesville, then and now, struggles with a racist and misogynist past with lingering aftershocks in the present– a state school that didn’t allow women in until 1970, a university built with slave labor under the design of a founding father whose repeated rape of his slave mistress has become perversely romanticized. Charlottesville is far from perfect. But Charlottesville did not bring this on itself.

I believe that Charlottesville was expressly targeted as a strategic battle site by Richard Spencer and his NeoNazi, racist colleagues BOTH because it is now a progressive city built by the leading architect of America AND because it could actually be anywhere. For outside hate groups to invade and unilaterally terrorize a city that voted over 80% blue in the last election, a college town, and UNESCO world heritage site – (a city also, by the way, surrounded by a sea of red) – is a pointed, clear message that reads: We can take Berkeley with torches and hate just as easily as we can take Shreveport.

This matters to us not just because we feel for people in Charlottesville but because the violence could happen here — and the oppression and marginalization of already vulnerable people is in fact happening daily at the policy level.

My friend Kristin Adolfson was in the crowd hit by the car Saturday that barreled into her and dozens of other peaceful protesters that were holding signs that said, “Solidarity. Unity.” Kristen had written Love Not Hate on her shoulders and carried snacks and water in her backpack. She was marching by a low-income housing complex that white supremacists had been tormenting with racial epithets and chants of “Heil, Trump”. Miraculously, Kristin was unharmed, but a woman near her, Heather Heyer, died. Kristin told the New Yorker in an interview Sunday: “This was a terrorist act. Something that happens in so many places around the world, and it happened here in our little town. And I still can’t process the hate—that someone could actively take people’s lives, that’s what their goal was.”

She wrote to us on Facebook:

“What I can’t forget: The joy we had as we were marching down Water Street. Clapping and chanting and the solidarity and the community.

Then: such a strong feeling of ***NO!!!!!*** when I realized what was happening, realizing there was a car at full speed plowing through us. If my NO could have stopped time. It felt like it should have, it was that big.
How I knew what was happening and I couldn’t stop it. The sound of the car hitting human flesh and bone, ripping into us like dominoes, a quick staccato. Bodies thrown into the air. The anger that someone would do this. So angry, so angry. NO.
NO to the car and to the driver and to why it happened.
The fear for how bad it was, how many dead? How many dead.
A woman supported by three friends screaming heart wrenching. Her scream contained all our screams.
The tear streaked face of the young man wearing gray and a black medical mask around his neck, telling me someone is dead.
His face. Grief, incomprehension, pain, tears and pain, collapsing not able to stand.
His face.”

Over the past several years, since Sandy Hook, I’ve wondered – how long until I know someone who’s killed by gun violence and unchecked hate and intolerance? Or since Lafayette – when will I need to map out the exit the next time I take my kids to see a movie? How long until it comes for me or someone central to my life? I didn’t have the opportunity and the misfortune to test my courage as Kristin did (and I know that for many the awfulness of racially motivated violence has long been in their streets.) Charlottesville is as close as it’s come for me. I won’t let my fingers write “so far” – but that of course is my fear, your fear, all our fears, right?

Here’s what I know:

  • This is not “alt-right” or far-right, this is non directional, non partisan. Non American. The actual right should be loudest group saying this.
  • This is not about First Amendment rights. Not when assembling and speaking also means toting torches and assault rifles and other actual tools of terror. Friends who teach constitutional law at UVA have been telling me and others earnestly that when both the first amendment and the second amendment are abused together – violence, terrorism, homicide are not far behind.
  • Ignoring the fact that there is a short, direct and causal line from the President’s rhetoric and permissiveness for hate to the recent shocking surge of violence and hate crimes in American towns is dangerous. Strong leaders on both sides of the aisle, CEOs and other influencers are now seeing this writing on the wall and finally being vocal. Meanwhile – David Duke, our embarrassing fellow Louisianian, himself declared that the alt-right unity fiasco “fulfills the promises of Donald Trump.”
  • Doing nothing regarding Shreveport’s own Confederate statues and totems of racism in the hopes that Charlottesville’s violence won’t come here is ostriching and wrongheaded and in fact, the surest way to greater oppression and racial violence and domestic terrorism.
  • Equivocating with so-called compromises on false equivalencies – as if monuments enshrining civil rights and slavery bear equal moral weight and significance as worthy symbols in front of a courthouse is another fast track to Charlottesville – or worse.
  • I love Charlottesville so much I named my daughter after it — and I also gave her the middle name Strong. I actually believe Charlottesville is going to be okay, largely because there is a strong and motivated population and institutions that immediately began calling the evil out by name, AirBNB owners who canceled Alt-right reservations, locals who moved their cars to make it harder for hate groups to park and have to walk miles and miles in their sad little fake military costumes, teachers and students who stood in front of their university buildings as they sought to reclaim it for tolerance and were viciously assaulted, and now residents crowd-funding for all kinds of social justice groups to strengthen their community.
  • I love Shreveport too. Can we organize like that together?
  • When and if the Nazis come to our town, or reveal themselves in our town, terrorize and threaten people, maybe even brutally mow down some young brave person, how will we respond to their chant “you can not replace us.” I think we start in the same way we have gathered here at this vigil: by standing up to say, “we are not replacing you – because you were never entitled to anything you are demanding in the first place.”

I need to say how much of an imposter I feel as a well-meaning, slightly crunchy aging liberal white woman talking about bigotry and racism. I am acutely aware of the fact that what I am speaking of is no news at all to my neighbors of color in Shreveport. In fact, I told Tamica there were people far better positioned than me to speak today. But then, I remembered what I read this Sunday morning in the New York Times:

“Now is the time for every decent white American to prove he or she loves this country by actively speaking out against the scourge this bigot-ocracy represents. If such heinous behavior is met by white silence, it will only cement the perception that as long as most white folk are not immediately at risk, then all is relatively well. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, and nothing could more clearly declare the moral bankruptcy of our country.”

My Grief, Observed

There’s a part of my heart so hermitically sealed that I only know it by its outline, the shape of the welded door, the density of its contents.  I can operate full time on a plane where I bring my mother into conversation, tell her funniest stories, hear from the people she touched, see her furniture in my home and still stay well within the anteroom, outside the sealed place.  I can know it’s there without ever going inside.

And because the grief’s anteroom seemed plenty real, it was quite something to realize recently that for all my personal development work, the therapy, the journaling, the reading and rereading C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed — that I really hadn’t crossed the threshold that mattered.  I hadn’t really, fully flung open the door of my grief over losing my mother – at least not as an adult.  Just hazarding a glance at the doorframe, taking stock of its weight and worth felt like quite enough, thank you.

I come close to it, then back away.  I think I’m diving in, I think I’ve felt what’s there  to be felt – the longing, the missing, the sadness.  But I am only talking about feeling it, intellectualizing it.   Recently, with some help, I began watching myself more closely, and what I saw was that I come up to the door, I feel around for the handle, I touch it – and then I back away. I clap my hands together with efficiency – that’s that, then! – and it can look healthy; it can look a lot like progress.  I touched the door!  I know all the right things to say! I can take care of my listener! But I’m only doing this little yo-yoing grapevine shufflestep, a little dance forth then a retreat.  It’s a pattern I’ve been doing so long, I’m hardly even aware of it. I’m hardly even aware of what drives that soft shoe retreat –  that little dark worm of fear that wonders what happens if I open the door and don’t come back out.

Do you know what’s inside the door? Grief’s real interior space? You do if you’ve lost someone — and of course you have; we all have. We sit on the couch in the grief’s anteroom and hold the loss of someone, their absence.   But inside the heart of grief is imagining your life if they were still here.

I remember one conversation I had with Mom, I was twelve in a ribbed yellow tank top with matching striped shorts and she in her customary “yardwork” terrycloth jumper, both of us leaning against the laminate counters in our kitchen as the sky pinked into purple after dinner one summer night. We were talking about the afterlife.  “I don’t know what it’s like,” she said, “I imagine there is so much love, it’s almost hard to bear. I know we get to review our lives, the kinds of people we were – maybe we’ll even see the conversation we are having now, we’ll see us standing here, talking about it. I don’t know, but I do know I am going to have a LOT of questions when I get there.” I guess because she said, “maybe because we’ll see THIS conversation”, I have lodged it in my memory as one of those crystallized moments. It’s one of the few I allow myself to touch, and I am newly aware that there are so many I withhold access to.

Where it feels the most raw is not necessarily the memories of the past, it’s imagining her here in the present tense of my life, right now. I don’t know how much I am ignoring what I am missing until I imagine the commonplace – the miracle – of being able to contact her, to hug her, to argue with her.  When I picture walking beside her, how her height and gait would precisely measure up against mine (it’s funny how the body remembers), how she’d look at me, look into me, and smile – that’s where it’s too big to hold. When I imagine being able to pick up the phone to call her, to tell her of some mundane detail of my day or bring an issue or problem to her that I alone am holding, or – the ultimate kick in the gut – imagining her with my children, that’s what feels so nearly unbearable that I’ve taken up an almost-comfortable residence in the anteroom to my real grief.

A friend recently posted on Facebook her truth about what it’s like to walk through Mother’s Day – all the marketing, all the ads and brunch specials and obligations. Of course it’s incredible to be a mother, she said, but she’s consumed with wanting to shout at every 70-year-old woman she sees, “Why do you get to be here?” (when her mother is not). It can be an exhausting holiday to push yourself through because it forces you to imagine your mother alive – and then realize over and over she’s not.

I once asked my mother in law whether the deep hole she felt for her mother got partially filled when she had children. She said it did, and later I experienced that for myself too.  But it was less of a sense of filling up for me, and more of a mooring, an anchoring again that I had come loose from.  Cheryl Strayed is right too when she says that this brand of grief is a constantly empty bowl we fill and fill and fill again.

Another friend wrote me recently about what it had felt like for her to turn the doorknob on that hermetically sealed room, allowing herself for just a minute to play the What-If game. What if her dad had met her daughter, what if the two most important humans in her life might have directly known and loved each other.  She said it felt like a sucker punch, the wind knocked out of her.   She attached Lucille Clifton’s incredible poem, “My Mama moved among the days.”

My Mama moved among the days
like a dreamwalker in a field;
seemed like what she touched was hers
seemed like what touched her couldn’t hold,
she got us almost through the high grass
then seemed like she turned around and ran
right back in
right back on in

There is a fear in speaking so candidly about the simultaneous constancy and impossibility of grief that we sound too messy, too narcissistic, too mired in our own attachment to pain. I am trying to override that fear and recognize that the ears that would hear it that way are the inner critic’s or those whose opinion I don’t value, who’d have me believe that I’m always taking up too much space.

The anteroom is my living room. It’s a part of me, like my height and laugh and propensity to overstuff the recycling can.  It’s home.  But my story of loss is limited if I freeze it all, arrest it only in her absence, and not – as painful as it might be – reach towards her, bring her through my days with me, imagining her here.

I have to create the space and don the bravery to enter the hermetically sealed door from time to time.  To hold the full weight of the loss of her, and know I can stand it – that it’s not in fact totally unbearable. And in bearing it, I am bearing the weight and beauty and pain of my own life.  What’s inside that heavy vaulted door is actually my mother.

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Python-on-the-loose

It would be so easy to make this a metaphor: A 3 and 1/2 foot python with a teenage temperament was on the loose, lurking and evil, (hush, herpetologists) in my house waiting for nightfall.

In fact, the metaphorical python on the loose is much of the reason why I’ve not written in so long. Who has time or inclination to write about navel gazing issues like parenting or relationships or joy or self doubt or grief when YOUNEEDTORUN’CAUSETHERE’SASNAKEINTHEHOUSE! That’s what the world has felt like – threats and outright harm to the rights of women, minorities, immigrants; slithering attempts to transfer wealth from the poor to the wealthy, to disempower and undermine freedom of speech, rule of law, legitimacy of governing, and basic transparency that even W. upheld; bombing other countries without due process or consulting Congress; toothy strikes at undermining our major regulatory agencies, research and science and technology agencies, our complex interconnected engine of foreign affairs and diplomacy – Christ, even Big Bird and Elmo.

Who wants to read about my tales of parenting or juggling work with life or healing old hurts in such a country?

Who would care to even write about those things in such a country?

But y’all, a g—d ball python really did get loose in my house on a recent Sunday afternoon. And ironically, it’s the tale of the real python at large that’s been a catalyst for me get over the chilling effect of the metaphorical python and write again.

I need to preface everything by saying – we have a pet ball python. We have a snake on purpose. That we have a snake on purpose is a hard thing for me to make peace with, much less explain to anyone with any real coherence. But I can tell you that my son, who I secretly think likes only the idea of owning a snake, had begged and begged for years. After an attempt at parenting a bearded dragon went tragically south, and after tears and more lobbying, I said yes in a weak spot on a Saturday afternoon, an hour before Pet Smart closed.

Life with Luna the snake had been pretty uneventful during her first year, largely because she never came out of the faux cave in her aquarium during waking hours and because I pretended to know nothing and see nothing regarding her rodent feedings. (thanks, Steven).

Until.

Until a few weeks ago when my daughter casually asked, “Why is Luna’s aquarium door open?”

Here’s another important background detail: I am not a together enough grown up to not totally lose my sh*t, when warranted, around my children. I did, however, have a pause of guilt after shouting OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD while climbing on top of a nearby table, that my first instinct was not to save my kids. Fortunately, they are just as high strung as I am, so were almost immediately right there beside me on the table chanting OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD. All except Henry, who thought this was all pretty funny. “Huh!” He mused, a hand on his hip, “I didn’t know she could do that.”

Steven found me with a glass of wine and all 3 kids on the front porch when he pulled up a few minutes later.

As he flew into the house, assuring me I must have just not seen her curled up in the corner of the aquarium, I felt that old familiar feeling of automatic pilot turn on. Do you know this calm, numb feeling of active crisis mobilization? Time slows down. Your brain begins speaking to you like you are a small, tantrumming child, who cannot process more than 3 or 4 words at a time. My brain said to me: Don’t panic. Yet.   Give it a bit. Then PACK A BAG.

I told Steven he had 60 minutes to find the snake and then the kids and I were going to a hotel. Moving robotically across the kitchen like a Stepford wife, I began to impersonate a calm person while continuing to listen to the Manual Override voice in my head. Now it was saying things like:

“For the next 56 minutes, pretend like everything is fine.

Boil water for pasta.

Slice a bell pepper.

Wait – go put on your tallest boots – then slice a bell pepper.

Slice it lengthwise.”

Occasionally, Steven would walk by, sweaty, holding the broom he was using to slide under the couches, and say something I’m sure he must have thought was helpful.  (He must have. Otherwise, why would he have said these things?) Things like: “these are docile snakes, you’re overreacting.” Or this gem: “Hey! I just found several websites that say the best way to find an escaped python in the house is to wait until night fall, cover the floor with plastic bags and turn out the lights, then wait for them to come out and make a noise.”

What kind of degenerate, post-apocalyptic world do we live in that there are entire websites telling terrified people to find snakes by putting Target bags on the floor and waiting for the dark?

With each of his helpful comments, I turned mechanically from the cutting board, large knife in hand, and with forced Stepford calm countered that the character qualities of the snake really didn’t matter. And he had 44 more minutes. Or that I would not be here for the plastic bag / darkness experiment, but would keep him updated on our kids and remember to send school pictures. 31 minutes.

Once, I allowed a break in character, and texted my best friend.

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Charlotte, meanwhile, had put Felix the dog on a leash and taken her baby brother to find high ground on the upper bunk bed.   I could tell she was riding an excited, nervous high – like when a tornado is coming through and you don’t want anything really bad to happen, but it would be kind of fun to hide in the laundry room with flashlights and maybe miss a day of school. She kept calling out from her bunker: “How many days should we pack for? Should we bring food and water? What if she’s never found, will we still live here?”

But I knew to actually answer her questions would mean to ramp up my crisis mobilization, to panic, to climb back on the table shouting OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD! So instead, I added the smoked salmon to the peppers, poured the noodles into the boiling water and replied evenly, “Daddy has 24 more minutes, sweetheart. Then we’ll decide where to live.”

At minute 55, with all major appliances pulled away from the wall and disassembled, and just 5 more minutes left on my internal freak-out clock, Henry – who had been happily bopping around beside his dad, offering his little bemused commentary, “She sure is a good hider!” hollered out that he’d found her. He’d found her by noticing the pattern of her skin in the 2 inches of space between the wall and our craft cabinet, where she’d wedged herself by curling into a ball 3 feet off the ground.

snake

Praise Be! There would be no chemical burn of the house and property that night. No divorce. No hasty fleeing to the nearest Marriott.   It was possible that life as we knew it might resume. And the pasta was only a little overcooked.

During all this, there wasn’t enough therapeutic distraction in vigorously chopping vegetables, so I’d taken to posting updates of the drama to Facebook.

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What I didn’t expect, and what was so interesting, was the reaction – the ENORMOUS, VISCERAL REACTION and DEFINITIVE OPINIONS that people have about snakes.

To be expected, there were snake-a-phobes like me, many who write and communicate for a living, but who were responding from a deep and primitive place of recoil and fear where “no” occupied most of the vocabulary:

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In fact, there were many, many snake-a-phobes — or as I like to call them, normal sensible people who we can credit for our survival and evolution as a species.

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There were some who understandably drew up new, tighter boundaries and taller border walls on our friendship as a result of this unholy breach.

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Finally there were the snake lovers, the bleeding heart herpetologists, who tried to reason with the rest of us. Some approached it with a good-natured logic and perspective that was simply not-hear-able when a python’s whereabouts were unknown mere moments ago.

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In these cases, I didn’t always handle it well.

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A subset of this group tried to offer perspective more subtly by inquiring after the snake’s well being (and thereby implying I might try to worry about something worth worrying about).

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This resulted in what I feared would become an us v. them battle, yet another polarization in our country, when the anti-snakers fired back with:

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And

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Fortunately and no doubt in part to the ADHD of social media, the online dialogue didn’t escalate. But what emerged as clear from the nearly 100 comments (and the occasional queries I still sometimes receive now, a few weeks later) is the deep and primitive nerve a python-on-the-loose touches in us all.  And why wouldn’t it?

That night I insisted we wrap tape around the aquarium. When Steven started to protest that this was unnecessary, that she had gotten out because he’d left the door slightly ajar after the last feeding, that she would never really try to escape on her own. I turned just a quarter turn, Stepford-wife style, and blinked.       Meaningfully.        He quietly wound the tape around the aquarium a second time.

If only the metaphorical python-on-the-loose were as manageable.

 

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.