That Discomfort You’re Feeling

Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

— Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

My Mother, Political Crisis, and Me

The world right is a scary place right now. Every week there is some new crisis, violence inflicted, some new loss or terror to contend with. The world is a changing place and from day to day both my mother and I, in that vague state of anxiety passed down from her mother, to her, and down to me, have been fighting and failing to find our footing.

In our old world, when we were both so young, before the fabric of political, economic, and social life shifted, our talks never passed the boundary of home life. I was still a child blissfully unaware and she, alone and hardly out of childhood herself, was so busy trying to keep us fed, clothed, and sheltered that she had little time for current events and politics. Even in the rare instance the problems of the world would grow too big to keep out of our home, we still viewed it from such different places in life that neither of us knew what they meant nor knew they meant anything to the other.

Looking back, I don’t remember a single instance in which my mother talked about the news, with me or with anyone else, but then again, my childhood preoccupations and wonders may have distracted me from ever noticing. The only memories I have of the news even being on is one afternoon the livingroom TV was showing the O.J. Simpson trial, and she wasn’t even in the room and another memory with no visual, only a vague mention of Matthew Shepard’s torture and death.

What I do remember of my childhood is all wrapped up in suffering and struggle. I remember being worried about money, about where we would live and whether we would have new clothes. I remember cars that never started, evictions, and arguments. I remember she was gone a lot. I remember so much was up to me: to watch my siblings, to cook dinner, to make sure everything was all right for her when she got home.

And our whole world, our relationship and our dynamic was forged in that struggle and suffering. She had her responsibilities, her resentments, and anger, and I had the work no child could accomplish: being good enough to sooth all the problems a parent has ever had.

All this is to say, even though we are decades from those old days of turmoil and strife, and I am all grown up, and she a few decades more past her own fears and bitter past, I have no idea how to talk to her about the what’s going on around us because none of that has ever mattered or even existed between us.

In the past my job has always been to listen and to comfort, not to join the yelling or argue and in my heart that all I want is what I have always wanted, to make it all okay for her, to give the right answer, to sooth the rage and make up for all the hostility and grievances but just as it was all too big for me to make right when I was a kid, it’s all too big for me to make right now that I’m an adult especially when we’ve spent so little time experiencing the world together.

Even as a teenager, when I had my first brush with community tragedy that terrible April afternoon in 1999, even then, after I’d been released from school early shortly after the Columbine High School shooting, even then we barely touched on the larger implications of how such an event came to happen, what it meant for me, or how life would, or should, change after.

I remember no one was home to greet me when I got there. I remember as soon as I got through the front door of that little one-bedroom apartment (I lived with my father that year.) the first thing I did was turn on the TV. That was the first time I remember watching, really watching the news, and I did it all alone.

I can’t remember which one of us made the call and which one answered. I hold two distinct and equally true memories in my mind, one where I needed my mom so badly I picked up the phone and called and one where she was so worried about me that the phone was already ringing when I opened the door. More than likely it was both. I probably saw there was a message on the answering machine and heard her voice asking me to do what I already longed to.

I watched images of chaos and grief, fear and disbelief splashed across the screen while we talked. I remember recounting the events of the day, of how I knew what was happening and how it was I was home so soon. I remember hearing the trembling in her voice on the other end of the line asking me how I was. I remember trying to make it all right by saying I was okay. It was all okay.

The truth was, I wasn’t okay, but before I could process that I was already making it okay for her. I’m sure that wasn’t her intention and I know that at that moment she was genuinely worried about me and trying her best to reach out, to be the parent I needed but I also know that after our conversation about that day and she never mentioned Columbine again.

There was never a conversation afterward about what happened or why. No one explained to me what those images of terror and grief meant. No one checked in on me a day later, a week later. I never got to cry, to question, or to process.

The same silence met me after 9/11, after Clinton’s impeachment, after every election, after every major political or social event.

I know times were very different back then and not every family had those talks around the dinner table at night, but I wish we had. I wish I had gotten to know the side of my mom that existed outside of our home, the side that existed as a citizen, as an American. I would like to have learned about the world from her. Instead, what I know now I’ve come to on my own by a long journey of suffering, compassion, self-education, and change.

This isn’t to say my mother and I never discussed issues, but they were always presented from her narrow perspective.

I knew about racism from the story of my birth and her parent’s reaction, not from descriptions of history or systematic structures. I learned about the one drop rule through the story of her very nearly giving me up for adoption. I knew she felt the N-word was abhorrent and disrespectful, even between Black people after she learned I’d been using it in school. It was never about what was happening at the moment outside of our home, but always about what happened to her and what she thought.

Since leaving my mother’s home, I have consumed political news and information widely and voraciously. I have grown more aware, more connected, and more radicalized year after year. I have grown to be someone who lives the identity politics my mother has only just begun to grasp. Many affect me personally or touch on some passion or trauma close to my heart.

I know that though we never discussed the greater world in our home, the seeds of my political views began with her. Whether consciously or by accident, my mother raised me to be a kind, open, and compassionate being. She’s been through a lot of hard times. She’s felt the sting of invalidation, ostracization, trauma, and abuse and she’s grown from all of that and given me the tools—both by perpetuating and shattering the cycles that shaped her life—and shaped me into an image both like and unlike her.

Our worldviews and values are as much the same as they are different. I’ve grown up in a different time and experienced more suffering in some ways, and less in others. I’ve loved differently and been loved differently.

I’ve never asked my mother about what was happening in the world when she was growing up or when she was raising us. I’ve never asked her what was changing, what she hoped would change, what captivated her, infuriated her, scared her, and she never told me either. I never knew I could.

Now I wonder, how long have these issues mattered to her? If always, why did we never talk about them? If only now, why? And how am I to travel this path with her as her daughter without dampening the painful realizations, hard work, and painful growth that comes with facing your own ignorance, biases, and complacency?

Now it seems my mother watches the news all day long. She calls me most weekends to vent and lament over the current state of the world. From the moment I answer, I am met with a barrage of updates. The latest Presidential gaff or cruel executive order. The latest school shooting, police shooting, the border wall construction and the kids in cages. She tells about gun control, protests, health care, immigration, police brutality, gay marriage, elections, the President, and the pandemic. She goes on about the failures, the antagonization, the injustice of it all!

This calls always fill me with anxiety and leave me speechless. None of the information is new to me, but the source is. My relation to her and to this news is. While she shares her outrage and her worries, I’m left unsure how I’m meant to respond or engage. She is my mother still, and unlike my friends, my coworkers, or even my wife, I can’t debate her or even share in her fury or fears.

I am not that little girl empty of experience or knowledge anymore. I’m not that little girl trying to work out who she is. And she is not the mother I knew then either. This version of her that is so aware is not one I recognize. This attempt by her to discuss her fears and fury and then to hear mine in turn is not an interaction I know how to navigate.

What am I to do when we disagree? How can I tell her that something she has said has hurt me or made me resentful or angry? How can I ever tell her when I think she is wrong? And when we agree, which, I admit, is more often than not, how am I to respond to her anger and anxiety in any other way but soothing or comforting?

I’m not writing this to blame or to rebuke. This separation between my mother and I is certainly no one’s fault. We’ve both done our best. We’ve both grown and learned and changed only we haven’t done it together and now as the world drags us both along toward dire uncertainty we’ve come together as loved one’s only to find we are not so changed after all.

She’s moved past seeing me solely as her daughter to seeing me as a person in my own right, even as a friend, but I may never be able to make the same progress past seeing her as only my mother.

My wish is not that she would pull away again. To retreat into that secretive and lonely place all mothers hold for themselves away from their children, but that she might only be patient, slow, and understanding with me. For the first time the news isn’t something that happens out there but something that happens to us, in us, between us. I’m having to adapt on every level.

For the first time it’s me and not my mother that is trying to let go, to catch up, to change, to meet her somewhere up ahead in life where I can walk with her hand in hand as a citizen of the world.

Written in response to Memoir and Personal Essay: Managing Your Relationship with the Reader: Week One

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Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

183// Something is Different

Something is different about today. Maybe it’s the new month, maybe it all the time I’ve gotten to spend reading, writing, and resting, or maybe I’m just coming out of an ugly funk I didn’t realize I was in, whatever the reason I’m lighter, more positive, and cheerful than I have in days.

Nothing interesting is going on today. More time spent at my desk, on the couch, in the kitchen, and in bed. I’m typing away, reading, cleaning, and napping profusely. There were a few phone calls and emails from work, but for the most part I have been free from any obligations since last Friday and look forward to more days like this through this time next week.

My wife and I are continuing to social distance and stay home as much as possible despite the city moving forward with reopening. Even just a week ago I was fighting the urge to venture out and enjoy being around people again but the more cases are rising across the country the more comfortable, the happier, I feel staying home.

We talked about our upcoming trip to the mountains in the coming weeks. We feel a little bad about breaking quarantine for a vacation.

It’s true we’re taking a risk but at least we are travelling to place less dense than our own neighborhood and we plan to spend our time either alone in our tent our outside hiking in the wilderness. What meals we eat will be takeout or on patios. We’ll wear masks and bring along hand sanitizer and wipes. We’ll do what we can to minimize the risk, but we very much need these days away from the city.

As the cases rise all around us, I’m looking further and further into the future and so much that we’d hoped to do and see just may not be possible for a long while to come. It sucks losing so much of your life to this virus (and to a White House administration that won’t take responsibility and guide the country through these tough times) but the change in perspective has been refreshing. Strangely, life spent in increased isolation with decreased consumption feels healthier.

182// Progress

Feeling worse today than I did yesterday, but I expected it. I ate foods I knew would be irritating to my gut and temporarily exacerbated my ulcerative colitis flare. I know I shouldn’t have, but sometimes you have to live for the moment and the moment was pistachio ice cream.

I woke up early but couldn’t make it out of the house for my morning walk. It’s actually been a few days since I’ve gotten out and around the neighborhood and I’m really missing it. I’m also grappling with feelings of failure and anger. I’m angry that I’m still feeling so cruddy I can’t even get out for a walk around the block.

On top of all that, watching my wife get up and get moving and knowing both that I am in a way being left behind and worrying how she may feel at having to move on and to do things alone because I have to rest, stay in bed, and not push myself, hurts deeply.

It’s helped to remind myself that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to do nothing. If these last few months have driven home any lesson it’s that, right? It’s helps to turn your attention from what you can’t do to doing what you can and what I can do is write, schedule some “scrapbook” posts, and read and getting to lose hours to just these three small things has turned my whole outlook around.

I made a lot of progress this evening on the lengthy and unwieldy post I’d started and lost control of and then began to avoid over these last few months. For a moment I was back in my old groove where the words and emotions flow freely, where the path to the end is clear, where I know I am doing what I was made for, even if I’m not always a very confident or competent.

I do my best work when none of that matters. I don’t mean best as in happy. Writing is almost always a purely cathartic exercise for me and I feel best when something deep, painful, and or meaningful has been pulled up, examined, expressed, and expelled. That is my measure of good for now.

Currently // June 2020: Dire Predictions and Unpleasant Truths

“Words of Emancipation didn’t arrive until the middle of June so they called it Juneteenth. So that was it, the night of Juneteenth celebration, his mind went on. The celebration of a gaudy illusion.” 

― Ralph EllisonJuneteenth

After the past three months of uncertainty, change, and fear I had hoped to settle into a new normalcy this June. Covid-19 cases seemed on the decline. I had returned to work. The precautions and the masks were quickly becoming habits. I was starting to feel safe and secure again. I was daring to feel proud that the world had grown more connected and empowered as we came together to face the pandemic and keep one another safe. Sadly, that new normal, that sense of safety, and that faith in humanity were short lived.

Covid-19 cases are back on the rise again and every day I see videos of people protesting stay at home mandates and refusing to wear masks that keep us all safe. I dealt with my own incident of indignation as a fellow employee in a CPR class I was teaching spit near me in retaliation for being asked to comply with precautions in response to the pandemic.

And as if the pandemic weren’t enough, police officers all over the country continued to brutalize protesters and murder POC in what could have been routine stops if any of them were trained in deescalation and possessed an ounce of self-awareness. They’ve learned nothing—listened to nothing!

The President continues to exacerbate every level of our problems and offers no reason for hope or words of wisdom to sooth or inspire the country he ought to be leading through these crises. The country grows further divided as the Left moves further left and the Right embraces and openly enforces old world systems of classism, racism, and sexism to hold on to power.

Instead of stability June brought only more uncertainty and anger, but none of it has been in vain. Change is happening all over the country and inside each of us and so much of that change is for the better and, slowly, slowly, I’m learning to not only accept, but to embrace and demand that change in others and in myself. This year has been a wild, frightful and wonderful ride and we are only halfway through it!

Working for a school district means July is another kind of New Year for me. This second beginning brings dire predictions and unpleasant truths, sure, but I’m committed to moving forward by focusing on one day at a time, one thing I can control at a time, one emotion at a time. I have a plan, a project, and so much to learn and say before another six months roll by. I’m excited to begin again…

but before I do, here’s what I am currently:

Writing one essay a week. With the second half of the year comes the perfect time to start a new project. This project has been a long-time dream of mine and it seems life, and work, and illness, self-doubt, and laziness keep on getting in the way, but I’m determined to start. My first piece goes up this Thursday and, unless extraordinary circumstances prohibit, every Thursday thereafter.

Making new collage pieces and poems, or at least I hope to. I have a new clean setup in my “creativity room” with a new full length self healing cutting mat and plenty of material to work with. It’s been months since I last held an X-Acto knife and lost myself in the precise cutting of words and images and remix them into something all my own.

Planning for more coronavirus surges and shut downs. The numbers are already up in many states and though Colorado is holding steady, but I have a feeling the mistakes of the Federal Government and surrounding states can’t be kept beyond the boarders. A springtime quarantine was bad enough. It’ll take emotional preparation and work to ready for one in the winter.

Reading Penguin Little Black Classics. There are 80 books in the set and each one is less than 60 pages long. There’s quite an assortment to the collection including short stories, poetry collections, essays, and excerpts. Some are fantastic, some are boring, but each is a new perspective, a piece of history, and satisfying to finish either way. In addition, I was able to find a few free books on police violence and racial inequality from Verso Books.

Watching the entire Avatar: The Last Airbender series on Netflix, followed by Legend of Korra on CBS All Access. I hate to add a new subscription service, but I could not move on without watching both. Luckily CBS comes with the new Twilight Zone series and with Jordan Peele narrating plus just the right amount of nostalgic elements, make the series is well worth the price.

Learning Spanish on Duolingo, but not much more. Going back to work meant a lot had to be put on the back burner and free courses had to be put off. I’m looking for new ways to return to the pleasure of self-education. I’ve started scheduling TV-free nights throughout the week. Some of that time is for writing, but some is for taking a few courses. I’m looking forward to finishing The Science of Well-Being and starting Race and Cultural Diversity in American Life and History.

Anticipating some time in the mountains away from the city, from the news, from social media, and as far from the pandemic as I can manage. My wife and I are celebrating our first wedding anniversary in a luxury tent enjoying gourmet farm to table meals and complimentary wine tasting. I’m looking forward to new hiking trails and breathtaking views.

Reflecting on all the things I never learned. I’m a queer woman of color, but I’m also light-skinned and I’ve had the privilege of an accepting family, workplace, and community. I was raised by a white woman and though she did her best to talk about race with us, I still inherited her innate privilege of ignorance. I’m learning how much I never learned because of what she could never really know.

Fearing the near future, still. Each month brings its own fresh horror, but each is proving worse than the last and we are but halfway through the year. I worry what I will be typing here in 30 day’s time, in 60 days? I’m terrified of the next 90 days.I’m afraid of more and more death. I’m afraid of getting sick. I’m afraid of four more years like the last.

Hating the at times muted, at times contradictory, and always damaging response from the current White House administration to every crisis this country has faced since 2016. Whenever the president speaks he only divides us further and pushes us closer to violence and self-destruction. I’ve never been the most patriotic citizen, but seeing my country in such a shameful state saddens me.

Loving the hard truth telling I see happening in the feeds of every social media platform I visit. I love the way communities have come together to speak up, protect each other, educate each other, and show love. I love the hope I feel despite all the suffering. I love the fearlessness in the demands for justice. I love the ambition and imagination I see in the calls for change.

Needing some energy! Having a chronic illness means my body is always either actively destroying itself or trying to heal itself. It means every day half or more of my energy stores are reallocated, leaving little left for loved ones and personal pursuits. I’m tired of being tired and I’m furious at the unfairness of it all. I’m low from being a burden and ashamed at how one-sided my relationships inevitably become. Just a little more energy would go such a long way…

Hoping that the side of the righteous, the compassionate, the oppressed, and the deserving gain real ground against racism, individualism, capitalism, and hatred in all its forms in the coming months. All around me I see opportunities to for real change and long overdue righting. It’s time we stop thinking in such small ways and moving so incrementally. It’s time lives are made better. It’s time lives were saved.

The world is always going to go on changing, it’s up to each of us to do our part to guide that change toward dignity and justice. I hope I see so much more change in my lifetime. Now is the time!

So, yeah, all in all, June was an enlightening month. I faced some ugly truths about the world, about people, and about myself. I saw the worst in us and I saw the best, the brightest, and the most beautiful too. I’m afraid of what July might bring, but I’m so very excited too. I’m ready to endure anything if it means changing the world toward a happier, more hopeful, and connect place.

But what about you? Have you found a sense of normalcy? Are you heading back out to work and open restaurants? Are you at least wearing a mask? Have you joined any protests, signed petitions, or contacted your state and local governments lately?

Let me know in the comments.

The inspiration for these posts comes from Andrea at Create.Share.Love

Photo by Joe Yates on Unsplash