My dad loved cars. He loved old cars, classic cars, any car he ever owned. He loved washing and waxing them, tinkering in the engine, driving. Everything about them.
He taught me how to change the oil and air filters in my car. How to change a tire and check the air pressure and how to calculate my gas mileage. He was often disgusted at the state of the inside of my car, and he was positively purple the night I drove my car off a cliff in the pouring rain by accident.
I loved that car. It was a 1979 Datsun 210 hatchback and I could fit more people in there than you’d think. After I drove it off the cliff, he had it towed to town and ultimately to his place, 140 miles away, and even though it wasn’t worth it, he found someone who could put it back together for me. I drove it for several more years and took really good care of it.
The car I had after the Datsun finally died was maybe the worst car I’ve ever had. Do yourself a favor and don’t buy a car that was made the first year the car company ever existed. Give them time to work the kinks out. I was proud of it because it was the first car I bought all by myself, but it was a 1986 Hyundai Excel and it was a piece of junk. It only took a couple years before fifth gear didn’t work. A month or two more and fourth gear died. I still drove it to and from work because my commute on I-405 was so slow that I didn’t really need to get beyond third gear. But when the transmission dropped reverse, I started to worry. I got by for a while, parking on hills and only parallel parking in huge spots where I could go head-in.
The next car I had that I really, really loved was also the first truly brand new car I owned – my Ford Ranger King Cab. Fire engine red, four-wheel drive, five speed. My then-husband thought I was nuts. He grew up on a farm, driving combine and nothing but trucks, so when we moved to Seattle and he got a job at a tech firm, he couldn’t wait to buy himself a little Honda Civic. He turned his back on trucks forever – distancing himself from his days as a farm boy.
I loved that truck. I sat up higher than most cars on the road and driving a manual transmission was always my preference. We could use it to haul the second-hand furniture we bought for the house, or dirt for the yard. Groceries sat in the king cab, safe from rainy days. I felt powerful in that truck. And I was sad when I had to say goodbye to it because I got pregnant and the king cab was no place for a baby’s car seat. After Baby 1 and Baby 2 came a Volvo and a minivan. Sigh.
But when the minivan had outlived it’s usefulness, I got Sparky. Sparky was a 2010 Toyota Highlander Hybrid and he was such a great car. Big enough to haul six kids, or five plus the dog, and not a gas guzzler at all. Sparky became known as the Party Bus when my girls were in middle school and I drove through Woodinville, Kirkland, Bellevue and Mercer Island, picking up girls along the way to take to school in Seattle. Sparky’s glove compartment was always full of pretzels, granola bars, fruit and napkins for the long ride to and from school. I took a car load of girls to Astoria for the weekend on a field trip, sat in a ferry line for six and a half hours with my daughters and two pups, and listened to countless hours of kid music in that car.
When I bought my electric car last year, Sparky became the girls’ car – solid, cheap to insure and drive, and a bit gutless. And last Friday, Sparky took one for the team, absorbing the impact of another car t-boning him, and protecting my girl and her boyfriend. Unfortunately, he didn’t survive, and it’s time to say goodbye.
As I cleaned him out today, grabbing a blanket and a pack of gum, a coffee mug and the registration papers, I saw the old metal First Aid kit beneath the driver’s seat. Dad gave me that battered box, full of everything I might need should I get in to an accident – band-aids, gauze, alcohol wipes, scissors, flares, a space blanket, and more – when I got that Datsun 210 back in 1987. It has sat in every car I’ve ever owned and been used many times when kids cut or scratched themselves or simply needed something for their headache. I slid it out and settled it in to the rental car I’m driving for now and felt the tears come.
I am so grateful that Lola and her boyfriend are ok and that Sparky cushioned the blow. I am so sad to see him go and while it feels silly to cry over a car, it’s also true that there are so many memories that are conjured up when I think about him. So much laughter, road trips, rides with stinky dogs. I guess maybe I inherited some of Dad’s love of cars, even if I haven’t changed my own oil in a couple decades.
I am a storyteller and I have been my whole life. I carry them inside me, work on them, figure out the best way to share them. But sometimes the stories get heavy. Before I ever put anything on the page, the words and feelings chase each other around and around inside, making connections and trying to fit the puzzle pieces together. When I sit too long with the stories, they start to burn and I know it’s time to walk or go pull weeds. Somehow, being outside helps the sentences flow and combine in ways they can’t when I am indoors.
The stories of the last year and a half are heavier than many that have gone before, and I’m finding that walking takes on a new urgency for me and it also requires a focus I haven’t been forced to have before. These days, I have to walk farther away from home and immerse myself in places that are new and expansive in order to divorce myself from the circling thoughts and feelings. I have found an open space surrounded by trees where few people go and at least once a week I walk there and sit and untether the words from each other, and also from my head and heart. Sitting in this place just breathing helps to re-string it all in a way that offers clarity.
I am learning that there is a sort of chemical reaction taking place as I assimilate the stories and try to keep my heart and my head on the same level. Most days, the two are at war, fighting for supremacy, which sometimes means wild swings from sadness to anger. My brain can only witness so much grief before it burns it off with anger, like alcohol in a skillet. My heart is simultaneously relieved of its burden and seduced by the beautiful flames, but the anger is also expansive and at some point I realize it is taking up too much space in my head. The sadness dissipated, but the stories are still there and they are all about other people. I imagine a large section of my brain colonized by the stories of others, the actions of others, the words of others, and I am impatient to evict them.
When I was in college, the days I spent in the Chemistry lab were some of my favorites. The cool, cave-like room with its expanse of concrete worktops and glass beakers and pipettes and orderly rhythms gave me a stillness and a focus. There were rules, a set of steps to be taken, and all that was asked of me was to do one thing at a time and remain curious – observe and report. Even if I knew what I was supposed to be creating, somehow the cascading chemical reactions along the way were always enchanting – sometimes it was a smell or a particular color flame that I hadn’t expected. Witnessing the magic kept me from getting caught up in the story or the sequence. I had my instructions. Observe and report. Remain curious.
Part One is here.
This one’s for Birdie.
Oh, Birdie. I don’t know you, but I know you. We’ve never met, but I hear you.
Birdie left a comment on the previous post that I’ll excerpt. She wrote, in reference to seeking professional help to process the trauma she experienced as a child, “…I can’t be helped and soul destroying because it means I am really messed up. I am so afraid of opening Pandora’s box and becoming unable to deal with what lies waiting. But I am tired. Tired of never being happy. Tired of always feeling anxious. Tired of always, always being afraid.”
Talk about ‘bringing the whole house down.’ That’s what compartmentalizing does to us. It makes us feel safe for the moment, but it ultimately destroys us from the inside out. Because when we hide those things away – either for later or for what we think is forever – we deprive ourselves of community and support.
Human beings are social creatures. We are designed to live with each other. Our bodies respond on a molecular level to touch and interaction from each other – our adrenal glands activate, our neurological systems light up, we secrete hormones that make us feel safe and loved and happy when we let ourselves share experiences with other people (and animals – never underestimate the power of a soft, furry creature to snuggle up to).
But when we wall of parts of our human experience, we relegate ourselves to holding what are often the most traumatic and painful things all by ourselves. It is akin to telling everyone that we would like their help carrying the 20lb. box of papers but that they can go home after that because we’ll figure out how to lug that 200lb. desk in the corner alone. Or not at all. There are so many reasons we do that – shame, denial, overwhelm. We hate that desk. Maybe we will just leave it there and never look at the corner where it sits, heavy and ugly.
It is counterintuitive to expect ourselves to bear the heaviest weights alone. We can’t do it, no matter how much we want to or how hard we try. And we aren’t designed for it. But when we compartmentalize, that’s what we’re setting ourselves up for – isolation, solo work.
So, Birdie, if you’re reading this, know that even as you wait for a therapist who is the right one to help you work through that pile of stuff you’ve hidden in the corner, you aren’t alone. While it’s important to find skilled counselors to help us dig through the deepest traumas, in the meantime, there are people out there who will help you support the weight of what you’ve got sitting there. Let them. Don’t worry about whether they’ll get something on their clothes. Don’t think about how it smells or what it looks like. Just know that, together, we can bear so much more weight than we think we can, and that there are people out there who care for you who would like nothing more than to hoist up a corner and take some of the pressure off of you. That’s how we’re designed. That’s what we do for each other. And while it takes some practice (often, years of practice), that feeling of relief that you get when others come along to help bear the load is the beginning of healing.
Thank you for your courage.
You will get there from here. I know it. You won’t do it alone, but that’s the sweetest part of this. You’ll discover, along the way, which of your friends and family is really great at unpacking, cleaning up, and showing up. Let them. Don’t apologize. It’s how we’re designed. Embrace it and know that you were never supposed to hold all of this by yourself.
|By Creator:Giulio Bonasone – http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/392735This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons by as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.|
It is just so tempting, and it’s also something many of us are conditioned to do from the time we’re little: set aside strong emotions or difficult thoughts until later.
I can’t deal with that right now.
I can’t think about that right now.
Let me just get through this.
Compartmentalization has its purpose, to be sure. When you’re physically occupied by something else – say, driving – you really need to focus on the task at hand. But all too often, when we seek to tuck something away “for later,” what we are really doing is hoping it will stay tucked away so that we don’t ever have to see it again. And unfortunately, the kinds of things we generally hope to never have to see again are usually the kinds of things that will end up demanding our attention in one way or another at some point.
I’ve had both extreme examples of this (repressing the memories of childhood sexual assault for decades) and moderate examples (putting aside my fears and grief at the serious illness my husband struggled with so that I could get through the day raising two toddlers), and both times it came back to bite me in the ass. In the first case, I developed a severe anxiety disorder that made it hard for me to work and live the life I wanted to live for many years until I examined and explored the abuse, and in the second, I spent three years working with a therapist to overcome a depression that nearly drove me to suicide.
What I’ve learned is that while I may not have the luxury of expressing my emotions and really sitting with my grief every time it shows up, if I don’t acknowledge it to some degree in real-time, I will suffer the consequences. Because here’s the thing: if I just keep tucking it away in some box labeled “Later,” what are the odds that I will ever voluntarily choose to go back and open that box of pain and look at it? Why wouldn’t I just keep it in the corner, always finding some other thing to keep me busy. Who in their right mind would want to set aside time and energy to reopen a container of sadness and grief?
So these days, when I’m confronted with a particularly difficult situation, I do my best to fold it into my life. I cry while I’m walking the dogs or doing dishes. I call a friend during lunch and ask for support. I give myself permission to honor the struggle, even if it means I sob a little every day, because hoarding the feelings I don’t want to feel in some back room might be the thing that ultimately brings down the whole house. I know. I’ve been there, and I don’t want to do that again. Big piles of junk attract rats and disease. Dealing with the trash one day at a time means that I don’t have to dread what might jump out at me from that heap someday.
It feels surreal.
I realize that I say that so often now. That I experience things that I have a hard time accepting for one reason or another.
The fact that my mom doesn’t know who I am; that feels surreal. As though in some parallel existence my real mother exists and she is still able to take the train up to visit me, sit and talk to me at the kitchen table about how crazy it is that my oldest daughter is a senior in high school. And so every time I see her sitting in her living room, watching Bonanza reruns and asking me over and over again where I live, who I am, why I’m there, it is as though I’ve been cast in some absurd play without ever having auditioned.
The fact that my oldest child is a high school senior is also surreal. Is it possible that I’m old enough for that? That she is? Even though it feels like I’ve been a mother forever – it almost feels like I’ve never NOT been a mother – it couldn’t possibly be accurate that Eve is almost 18, that this year we will visit and apply to colleges, that next year we will move her in.
I haven’t imagined these moments, I guess. Maybe that’s what it is. I haven’t sat and wondered what it might feel like to be without a mother or to be without my daughter. Is it that, because I can’t picture myself here, because I haven’t turned these scenes around and around in my head, tried them on for size, pulled them off and tweaked them a little bit and put them back on that I am having trouble believing they’re real?
I don’t ever remember feeling like anything was surreal as a kid. I don’t really remember imagining how things would turn out, though. Maybe as a kid the world seemed so unpredictable, so full of possibility or so fully out of my control that I couldn’t begin to compare reality to what I had expected. Even as things happened that were unexpected or unwelcome, as a kid, I simply accepted what came and tried to figure out how to respond. Ignore? Run for cover? Adapt and move forward?
I wonder if it has something to do with the way the child brain works – that it is concrete and so just takes what comes. Adolescents develop the ability for abstract thought, and as we age, we also begin to believe that we can control things in our lives. Maybe “imagination” is the wrong word. Children have spectacular imaginations that are often unbounded by any sort of reality. But as we get older, the kinds of things we imagine center more around ourselves and our desires and our expectations. So maybe surrealism comes as a result of life looking significantly different than my expectations – especially when what I’m presented with is difficult emotionally or something I wouldn’t have chosen to spend time thinking about or planning for.
The seduction of the surreal is that it doesn’t beckon me to spend much time there. At least not in these two scenarios. I am not fully present when I experience these things because I don’t truly want to be there, so perhaps it’s a trick of my mind that is trying to tell me I can deny it by labeling it that way.
There have been other moments in my life that feel similarly dream-like that were exhilarating and pleasant, and while they had the same qualities, those were moments that I bathed in, savored, chose to fully experience. Several years ago, Lola and I paraglided off the top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and from the second we strapped in and started listening to the instructions, I felt as though I were outside myself. As the wind caught the parasail and lifted my feet off the side of the mountain I pulled my consciousness back inside, tethered it, and focused on each breath in an effort to capture the experience as deeply as I could. I knew it was going to be over before I was ready, and I was determined to pay attention. I will never regret doing that because it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the good fortune to do and I’m thrilled that I really took the time to be there while it was happening.
Maybe I need to do the same during other times when I feel as though I’m out of my element. As painful as it is, choosing to be fully present with my daughter and my mom during these moments that I couldn’t have imagined or prepared myself for emotionally could mean the difference between simply enduring them and finding some grace in them.
The older I get, the more complicated Mother’s Day seems to be. As a kid, it was all excitement and anticipation – making crafty gifts in class with glue and construction paper and flowers and hearts. I couldn’t wait to watch Mom open her one of a kind present and exclaim how wonderful it was.
It was about experimenting in the kitchen to make her breakfast in bed or plucking flowers from the neighbors’ yards on a walk to make a spontaneous bouquet.
In my teenage years, Mother’s Day was more of a reprieve for both of us; a day to set aside the petty frustrations and disagreements and have 16 hours of peace and appreciation. I’m sure, more often than not, by the time Monday came around, I was back to rolling my eyes in derision while the flowers stood tall in the vase on the kitchen counter.
When I became a mother, it was about excitement and anticipation again – waiting to see what my girls had made for me or chosen for me at the store with their dad. But it was also a revelation.
Motherhood is about soft snuggles in bed, the smell of a baby’s head, and it’s about bedtime routines that lasted for hours and often ended with me screaming into a pillow after tiptoeing out of my child’s room.
It is about smiling in pride when my children do something amazing and the stark fear that they are somehow in danger and it’s my job to protect them every moment of every day.
Mother’s Day is about recognizing that my mother is a human being, that she had to try and hold the tension between caring for me and preserving her Self, and that she didn’t always do it the way I wanted her to. It’s about realizing that my daughters feel the same way sometimes. It is about appreciating the evolution of my relationship with my mother – from feeling smothered and policed to feeling appreciated and honored. It is also about the evolution of my relationship with my children – from overwhelming responsibility and endless repetition of tasks to stepping back and watching as they do things I never dreamed they would do and knowing that we will always have this bond in one way or another.
Mother’s Day is about widening that circle to include every woman who ever mothered me, the teachers who took an interest, women who mentored me or listened to me or encouraged me. It is about honoring mothering in all its forms – gentle prodding and sideline cheering and bandaging wounds and holding space for my grief. It is about watching my childhood friends grow up to be mothers and realizing that we all had it in us somehow, somewhere, this ability to believe in something bigger than ourselves and the desire to protect it so that it flourishes.
Mother’s Day is the ultimate exercise in opposites, the feeling that you’re part of a tribe and that you’re in charge of it; the joy of watching your children grow up and the nostalgia of your own childhood; the gratitude of being recognized and the knowledge that you would do all of it even without that recognition. But since mothering is an exercise in opposites, that seems fitting. From the moment our babies are born, they begin moving toward independence, stretching that distance between us and them and we are tasked with helping them accomplish that while simultaneously mourning the loss of that connection.
I’m coming to realize that Mother’s Day is simply the distillation of the biggest lessons in my life. It is a day that reminds me that grief and joy live together in every moment, and that my job as my daughters’ mother is to help them figure out how to hold both of those things simultaneously, honor them both, and keep moving forward. Whether you are mothering children of your own or you are a mother-figure to other children, whether you have a mother or you’ve lost yours, may your day be restful and full of peace. May you find the strength to hold all that is present in your life today, or have others who will help you hold it. May you feel mothered.
Yesterday, Jennifer Pastiloff’s site, The Manifest-Station, featured an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress on their site. I am thrilled to have this process begin. You can find it here.
Because how do you write about the things that aren’t yours to tell? How do you begin to separate what is yours and what isn’t?
It is a tricky proposition, this. And not only because of the risk of hurting someone I love, but because of what it means to me. Sorting through the seminal memories and moments in my life means really looking hard at where my head was, where my heart was, and what I knew and wanted at the time. It would be easy to look back with the accumulation of experience and wisdom riding shotgun and nod knowingly in the direction of what should have been, but that doesn’t make for a true story. It smacks of justification or pity-partying and paints a picture of Right and Wrong that doesn’t exist in life, to be sure.
The hardest bit is in the owning of my entire, smelly backpack of crap and roses.
Own it, someone says, urging us to stand up for ourselves and not be ashamed of who we are. It sounds empowering – a battle cry for my generation. Owning it is frightening.
Owning it means I acknowledge an attachment to the story and once I’m attached to something, the idea that it could be taken away is frightening. Something owned can also be un-owned. Writing about other people’s shit is the epitome of non-attachment. It says, “That isn’t mine, but I’ll tell you all about it and together we can exchange looks expressing how happy we are that it isn’t ours.” There is a complicity inherent in telling someone else’s story. Telling my story – owning it – feels very lonely and vulnerable.
Owning it also opens me up to the risk of becoming defined by the story I tell; having it morph into a shorthand by which other people describe me or think they ‘know’ me. The complicity has shifted to include everyone else but me as soon as I own my story and tell it honestly.
I’ve discovered that it is so much easier to solve someone else’s problems than it is to deal with my own. I once told a friend. She agreed. And now, when I sense the urge to find the cracks in someone else’s armor, I am prompted to wonder whether it is because I am ignoring my own.
Ultimately, the only lens through which I can see life is my own, and that means that the only story I have the right to tell is mine. Anything else is just make-believe. And, it turns out, I’m not much of a fiction writer, so I guess I’ll just keep sifting through to find the stories that are mine.
Such a standard question, whether we meet someone on an airplane or find
ourselves at a child’s Back-to-School Night or at a dinner party for our
partner. Such a simple question
and so loaded.
answer, but it feels so inadequate.
I am a product of my upbringing, a survivor of sexual abuse, a child of
divorce. For years I looked
forward to becoming an adult so that I could free myself from my parents and
become less defined by them and their hold on me. I looked forward to exploring the world and looking at
things in a new light and making decisions that would shape my future. I wanted to fully blossom into the
person I was meant to be.
identity stories would come with me, packed snugly in whatever vessel I chose
to carry as I made my way in the world.
Any decision I made hearkened back to the lessons I had learned, the
overarching messages I had heard over and over again, and the things I told
myself in an effort to make sense of the way my life was as a child. No matter how “free” I thought I was,
making decisions I knew my parents would disapprove of or choosing things because
they were so vastly different from the choices they would have made, the fact
is that I was still shaped by my experiences with them.
found out I was going to have a baby.
I was going to be a mother. And I vowed to make good, healthy choices. I
vowed to make decisions with more self-awareness than my parents had. I vowed to be different. And still, those notions of who I was
and wanted to be stemmed from the stories I told myself about where I came
hard way. For most of my life,
they had been the levees on either side of my life path. Always present,
bounding my idea of who I was and leading me in a certain direction. I moved forward, unquestioning,
frustrated by the limitations, but never truly understanding that these
boundaries were of my own making.
of my own evolution. And I began to count the years that I have been things
other than what I grew up with.
Eighteen years married to a loving, supportive man. Twelve years as the
mother of an energetic, open-hearted daughter. Thirty years a writer.
Three years a yoga practitioner.
And for most of this time, I have been padding the scales on the other
side. Thirty-two years a survivor
of sexual abuse. Thirty years a child of divorce. Yes. But those
things are no more indicative of who I am than the things toward which I am moving
and striving. And their hold is
beginning to expire. The statute of limitations is running out.
happens to us as humans, it takes five positive experiences to counteract it.
Evolutionarily, that was important so that we would remember the harmful,
frightening things and not repeat them or put ourselves in danger. When I think about it that way, I
realize that I have had so many more positive moments in my life that I chose
to live out within the boundaries of the “Who I Am” levee than it took to
actually construct those walls in the first place. I am allowed to evolve. I am allowed to grow and add to the
list of “who I am.” I am allowed to strive for more and let those unhappy
definitions fall to the bottom where they belong. There is no forgetting or negating the impact they had on
the person I am becoming, but there is also no reason to let them limit who I
can become. Or who I am
might be.” In giving myself
permission to expand the definition of who I am, I can begin to move past the
things that I have limited myself to for so many years. When the levee walls fall away, the
possibilities are endless.