“What do you do?” 
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. 
“I’m a writer and a mother of two.” That is my standard
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.
What I neglected to realize was that all of the ingrained
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.
Never did this realization hit me harder than the day I
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
from.
Several years ago, I bumped up against these stories in a
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.
Today, as I meditated, a voice came to me that reminded me
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.
I have heard that for every traumatic or negative thing that
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
today. 

Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of who I am, I become what I
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.
*This is one of several essays that appeared in the magazine BuddhaChick Life. As the magazine is no longer available, I’ve posted these here for readers to find.

It was the freckles. I’m the only one in my house that has them – scattered all down my arms and hands, but as a kid, half of my household had them, and as far as I was concerned, they came from Grandpa. Most of his kids had freckles dotting their faces and arms and hands and many of their kids did, too – my cousins. But I don’t see that side of the family much except on Facebook, so when we flew to California for my cousin’s wedding this weekend and I walked in the door and saw people with freckles, I felt that tug of home, of connection.

There is something about going back to a place that holds so much history for me and spending time there with the people who first introduced me to it. Even though I never lived in that town, I have touchstones there – landmarks and memories that sit steadfast in my head and heart, and somehow I am able to navigate my way from the beach to the zoo to my aunt’s house and back.

Sitting in her living room on Friday night with my cousins, telling the same stories we always tell about the things we did when we saw each other once a year as kids, I felt so strongly a part of something bigger. Every once in a while I glanced at Eve and Lola and was glad they get folded in to this tradition every few years as well. Bubba has been around enough that he slips easily in to the group, trading jokes and recalling some of the same family lore.

On Saturday, when more cousins and aunts and uncles arrived, the chaos felt warm and comfortable. We met up at the beach, greeting new babies and walking in a pack, seamlessly moving between generations as we stopped to gaze at crabs and fish, use the bathroom, reapply sunscreen, talking and laughing easily. In the evening, in a crowd of more than 100 people, we continued the dance, shifting to say hello to more family with firm hugs and slipping into conversations without small talk. This is where I learned to do family – with these people who are smart and stubborn and funny and freckled. This is where I learned that you can disagree and tease and be in a bad mood and still be loved and cherished and celebrated. This is where I began to understand that, even as you display your own quirks and unique personality, you are tied to others by virtue of your similarities – like those freckles or having the gift of gab.

No matter how big this family gets, with weddings and babies born, it will always be strong and solid, cemented by the stories of childhood pranks and the sweet memories of Grandma and Grandpa. As we sat on a bench near the water one day, I looked over and saw my uncle wearing the opal ring that my grandfather used to wear and I felt a warmth, a continuity, a solid foundation behind me. He has the same freckled hands, the same long, graceful fingers, the same generous heart I remember, and when I see him holding his own grandchildren I know that the legacy of love my grandparents started will live on.

My mother loves animals, but none more than cats. There has not been a day in my 43 years that she has not lived with at least one cat, and while she doesn’t go looking for them, the strays always manage to find her and move in.

My grandmother hated cats. I don’t know precisely why, but despite the fact that almost all five of her children grew up to have cats for pets, she was disdainful of them and wanted nothing to do with them. Grandma loved baseball, teaching, reading and traveling. Cats, she had no time or love for. Until she developed Alzheimer’s.

My aunt and uncle had a house in the hills above Santa Barbara and one summer, shortly after my grandmother began really struggling with her memory, a wildfire ripped through those hills and burned their house to the ground. For an agonizing bit of time, the family looked for their beloved cat, Cecil. When they found him, hiding among the hills, safe and sound, Grandma fell in love with him. We were all astonished. This woman who, for sixty years or more, had loudly proclaimed her hatred for felines, suddenly found a companion in Cecil, an enormous orange and white tabby.

One of my favorite pictures of her is this one, proudly clutching her new friend as he barely tolerates it.

Last weekend when I was at Mom’s house, I noticed her fixation on her cats. They both enjoy being outside during the day, and when we were at home, Mom got up every five minutes or so to peek out the windows or open the garage door to check on them. I was so taken aback by the size of her favorite, Moses, that I asked her if I could take a picture to send to Eve and Lola. I swear he’s part raccoon. He must weigh 40 pounds, and part of that is because Mom feeds him over and over again all day long, forgetting that she has already done it, and he isn’t about to protest. 

First of all, let me say that I know Mom would be upset if she knew this photo was posted. I know it’s not the most flattering shot of her, but it is the only one I got before the cat got too heavy for her to hold. I was struck, later, by the similarities I saw. Even though Mom has always loved cats and Grandma hated them for most of her life, the comfort and companionship they both got from interacting with cats is the same.

For the few days I was with Mom, we were both exhausted. I could see her trying really hard to hold on to the thread of conversation, to pay attention to everything I said and it made me wonder if I ought to slow down or tell the same stories over and over again to somehow set them in her brain. (That wouldn’t have been hard – I found myself telling her the same things repeatedly simply because she asked the same questions again and again. Ironically, I wondered if she heard me doing that and thought that I was getting forgetful). By the end of the day, we were both entirely wasted from the effort. And that was when I noticed what happened when she sat with the cat. Her face relaxed, her shoulders relaxed. Her entire being settled. I don’t know if it was the tactile sense of petting the cat or the rhythmic purring, the weight (oh, the weight!) on her lap, or just the fact that she could communicate nonverbally, but she was at ease. She could just interact with him by sitting quietly and petting him without any expectation that she would remember it or make conversation.

It’s no wonder she is looking for the cats all day long. They are familiar to her and she can do exactly the things they expect of her – feed them, let them in and out of the house, and sit with them quietly. It has to be a huge relief to get moments during the day that are like this when so much else feels confusing and chaotic. I’m pleased that my grandmother had Cecil for a while, despite her mostly lifelong hatred of cats. If he knew, he never let on.