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

Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash


Between the Self and the Subconscious

Every night each of us is transported to a place inside of ourselves to live out fantastic scenarios and storylines created within our own minds. We travel to a place where the rules of physics and even storytelling do not apply. The images may be in color, black and white, vivid and lively, or they may be abstract and meaningless. We all dream different thing but dreaming is universal and since the dawn of humankind we have been trying to work out the mechanism and the meaning of these alternate worlds and lives we live in nightly succession.

I never remember when my thoughts and perceptions make the leap the space from the real world outside to the inner one of fantasy but I am one of the lucky—or not so lucky—ones that dream in vivid imagery and emotion and carry the memory of these dreams into my waking life. My dreams are so real sometimes that I wake up feeling confused about who and when I am. I am shocked even to find that I have a different life than the one I just woke from. Sometimes I wake relieved. Sometimes I wake and mourn a fantasy I never wanted to wake from.

I am disturbed not just by the visceral nature of my dreams but by the content too.

I dream of old friends and lovers seeking the answers and closure I never had. I reenact my worst self sometimes the way it was and sometimes in ways that are warped or exaggerated to highlight some shame or regret. Most nights I play myself and the scenes are shot from a first-person perspective and sometimes the camera pans out and an actor is mercifully generated from my mind plays me to provide distance from pain and shame.

My rational mind cannot follow the haphazard way the dreaming mind pursues its answers. I cannot even guess at the answers it seeks by its seemingly random choice of setting, situation, and character. Some nights the old antagonists, deuteragonists, and love interests don the faces of present friends and loved ones, but most nights I do not even recognize the actors it asks me to rehearse these scenes with.

There are nights too when those I dream of from the present wear faces from long ago. They are their worst selves this way I am mine. We deceive and hurt one another with unprecedented cruelty and callousness. They say dreams can foretell the future. They say too that dreams reveal a truth we cannot see in ourselves or in others. I wake suspicious of them and of myself. I wake up hopeless that the past will always be repeated and that no matter how I try I will always be this way and the proverbial “they” will always that.

My mind and memory mix and meld the past and the future, my dream mind understanding each as who they are regardless of setting or disguise, as I play out my anxieties and desires as a loop of choices and mistakes I’ve made and will make.

Of these future tense events, I tell myself they would never come true. I could never want this or them. I could never do or think that way, but I wonder too. I am surprised by just how mistaken my unconscious mind is about what I want or what I might do, or maybe I only feign surprise? 

I honestly do not know, but where else, how else, could these images manifest if not from some black and hidden part of me? What I dream is a truth told by fiction. What that fiction provides is distance enough to accept for a time that there exists darkness in me. Some put there by others and some that is made entirely of me.

I wonder at this darkness. I try to reach it but it seems buried beyond my reach or want to plumb, buried so deep by upbringing, propriety, and self-image I cannot bear to even try. What might exist there? What other truths or predictions may arise out of that devious and lewd place? How far down does the darkness go?

Those nights I dream of old flings and future affairs, I wonder what it means. Do I still long for those I’ve left behind? Would I have betrayed the one I love now so easily? Those nights I dream of grave danger, I dream I am running, running, running away from a threat so big and so fierce I cannot see or stop to comprehend it. Does that make me a coward at heart? Would I never stand and fight?

I dream of lives so different from my own I hardly recognize myself in them. Where do these new personas originate from? I dream of places I’ve never been to and of people I have never met. I dream that the people who know me either do not exist for me or do not at all, I cannot tell. Do I wish I were someone else, somewhere else, do the people close to me in this time and life mean so little to me, really?

As if future horrors were not enough a few nights a year, and during times of stress, a few nights a week, the dream maker makes for me a nightmare of what I fail to repress, retellings so real I may wake up to real pain and wet tears. Why must the mind bring them up again and again? The emotional self has suffered enough. The rational self has accepted it all. What more can be gleaned from such terrors?

There are no answers to these questions. The parts of me that produce these dreamscapes are ancient and unknowable to me. They evolved eons ago and exist in places I cannot go. The symbols and metaphors aren’t decipherable. I dream I have lockjaw, that my clothes won’t stay on, that my hair is falling out, that I am falling down, that I can fly, that someone is chasing me, that someone is breaking in, that I cannot see my wife’s face, that no one can hear me, that I am being killed, that I am dead.

From the distance of story-telling and narration, I may be trying to say that I need to let go or to rethink. I may be afraid of being seen and I may long to be truly seen. These dreams could mean I am trying to escape or avoid some horror or desire either in me or in my past. I may be feeling unheard. I may be worried about losing my sense of power or I may just be dealing with low self-esteem and a preoccupation with my appearance. I may be trying to face my greatest fears or I may be trying to remind myself of unfinished business.

It might be nothing at all. These stories I make for myself might be made of old pieces of my life found strewn about the cutting room floor of my memory and colored by the emotion of the day. It may be nothing but a way to occupy my mind while daily maintenance is performed and upgrades are installed.

But my gut tells me otherwise. Not every dream may be the dark revelations of the subconscious, nor are they made wholly of excess emotion and dregs of the day’s thoughts. I do not think that the dream makers in us are really so far away as they feel and the meaning might be simpler to discern than we imagine.

Perhaps our dreams are only one of the many mediums we have to interact with and understand ourselves. Perhaps, we are our own best friend and worst enemy down to our subconscious and perhaps because we know ourselves best of all it is in this place, a world both of our own creation and out of our control that we conjure up the worst of ourselves and for ourselves simply because we can.

The interpretation, therefore, may not lie in the dream’s content but in the kind of dreams we choose to construct. What plays out in the course of every night may have less to do with that darkness in you, the secrets you try to keep from yourself, or your greatest fears and may have everything to do with just how you feel about yourself.

It may be that a nightmare is only a way of punishment or a bit of tough love and a dazzling illusion of peace, pleasure, or prosperity a gift or a great and merciful lie and a night of dreams so real you don’t just dream them but live them may have nothing to do with how you feel about this life you have been given and more to do with the distance between your inner life and your outer reality. It may mean signify nothing more than how rich and deep the relationship you have with yourself is.

This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 17: Distance, but in the course of exploring the concept I happened upon something else entirely. I hope it still counts.

Photo by Shot by Cerqueira on Unsplash

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What a Birthday Is

Most people I know have very different ideas about birthdays than I do. Apparently, birthdays are occasions to be ignored, forgotten, unmentioned. You should hate your own birthday, refuse any question of celebrating it, and loath to accept any gifts. If someone insists on talking about it, offering you a gift, a card, or even a hug you may accept out of politeness but you must insist they shouldn’t have.

You must at the very least refrain from mentioning or otherwise informing or reminding anyone it is your birthday. You should not plan your own birthday celebration but wait for others to prove how much they care about you by making the plans for you. You should not buy yourself a gift. That only proves you are selfish, self-centered, and, obviously, friendless. Birthday celebration should not exceed one day and night of gift-giving and glee. Anything more than that is an annoyance and a burden.

Of course, I do not follow or agree with any of this. I verbally and quite publically count down to my birthday. I make tons of plans for dinners, outings, visits, and events. I buy myself things and whole-heartedly accept any gifts others are willing to offer.

I treat every birthday as a holiday because to me that is exactly what it is and I invite anyone who wishes to come along to celebrate with me. I ask for no gifts or cash contributions, I only ask that you witness my life. Witness my growth and passing. Witness me moving from one age to another. That, after all, is the greatest gift any of us can ask for.

I make a whole month out of this day and I make sure not just that I enjoy it but all those who supported me in my journey around the sun and through the year feel celebrated too. I make sure that they know that I know that without them I certainly wouldn’t be here.

Each one of us is given one day to call our own. One day when we can treat ourselves and a day when those who care about us are welcome to treat us too. The reasons aren’t all to do with materialism or unbridled desire to be adored and adorned. It’s simply a chance to feel good about being alive for a change.

How many of you never wonder at the immense odds against you not just to have been born at all but to have lived through every year, every day up to now? Can you guess how many people weren’t and didn’t? Do you know not only the luck but the strength it takes to live and keep on living?

If you had not been conceived when you were and subsequently born on the very day down to the second that you were, this life you have might be different or might not be at all. This world, for you, might not exist and no matter how bad things get I have to believe that any life is better than no life. I have to believe each of us would really truly rather be here than not, would rather see another birthday than not. I believe it because I can see it.

I can see that though we may whine and moan and insist to the contrary that everything we do from the moment we wake up in the morning until we lay down to sleep, every breath, every lie told and love spoken, everything action and interest we take, everything we care about, dream about, own, give away, steal, everything we hate and everything we hope for, it is all nothing but proof that we are fighting to live.

And this is what I celebrate, and this is what I believe we all should celebrate, that fight. Every birthday is a win and every year we are given just one day not to fight but instead to congratulate ourselves, to take stock of the spoils, and to ready ourselves to fight once again. It’s a wondrous gift, this life, one denied to many others, and though it may not feel like it, we are wondrous creatures who do the work of living it. We deserve this day. We deserve this celebration and respite.

I’ve done my best to convince nearly everyone I know how much of a waste an unmarked birthday is. The experiences and the presents aside, the chance to face not only the void we were born out of and the void we are fated to disappear back into but this beautiful, bright, terrible, and mysterious blink of time in between. You are here, now, and only for once. You must mark it!

Yes, birthdays are a yearly reminder that time is marching on and we are marching along with it straight to our deaths. Yes, birthdays are a reminder that we are aging, that we will never be as strong, agile, or attractive as we once were. Birthdays remind us that we are growing obsolete and invisible, and that one day we won’t even exist at all.

Birthdays can be a reminder of painful pasts too, I know. They can bring back memories of loneliness and feelings of insignificance. They can bring back regret, anger, and pain, I know, but, in some ways, birthdays are a celebration of that too. After all, suffering is as much a part of this life as love and happiness are too.

A birthday is a much-needed reminder of all that we have been through and the chance, the maybe, the hope that we will get to experience more. It an acknowledgement of the awful truth, the threat, that we just as well might not. A bit of birthday cake, a couple of gifts to unwrap, and a few friends to laugh with over a few drinks make the truth go down a little easier, that’s all and if you don’t have those friends, those laughs, those gifts or drinks that’s okay too. None of that is the point.

All you really need for a real birthday celebration, the thing you should have no matter how surrounded by love you are or not, is love for yourself and the courage to face your life as it was, as it will be, and that it will no longer be one day. 

So, today, on my birthday, I wish you all a happy birthday too, whether it’s already passed or yet to come. I wish you a happy life, and all the happiness and success you can find in your fight for all that is good and, inevitably, a little of what is bad in this beautiful, bright, terrible, and mysterious thing we call life.

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Open and Be Opened

“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.”

― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

I remember feeling as a child that all the adults around were very closed off. My presence seemed to have very little effect on them, and any expression of love or need from me seemed to do little good to change that. There were not many open arms or open conversations. I was not encouraged to be open, and very little experiences were opened for me.

I could not understand why grown-ups left so little of themselves exposed to me while I felt nothing but desire to open myself to them. It left me feeling sad and lonely, though I didn’t realize it then.

I was a sensitive girl and as I got older; I retained that vulnerability far longer than most people do and like hitting any other milestone late in life, I sensed something must be wrong with me. When the other kids started to become so complicated, I stayed quite simple. It got harder to make friends and to feel close to anyone. I recognized the same walls forming in them that adults had, but I did not feel the same walls building in me. I saw them being wrapped in a kind of protection against the world. They grew independent, self-sufficient, and closed off to me too. 

I did try over the years to protect myself. I accepted my deficiencies and opted to at least emulate what I could not naturally comprehend or perceive myself. I constructed haphazard defenses and broad boundaries that were never quite right. I was always either too closed off or I was opening up too much or too quickly. My reactions to a breach were always wrong, too. I reacted too harshly, and then I forgave too easily. I was hurt again and again, but I never could manage to grow those protective calluses. I could never stop being that vulnerable girl. I still can’t. I am still soft. I am still too open.

Now that I am an adult, I can at least understand the danger, though I am no better at defending against it. The danger is other people and when you leave yourself open those other people get inside and, sometimes; they fill you up with all of their painful needs. They go for the softest parts of you, and that is where they hurt you the most. The only defense is to fortify your walls, and put bars and bolts on all the doors. You have to obscure the entrances and construct the corridors in such a way that no one can find their way inside, not even you. 

Now that I am an adult, I also understand there was never anything different or wrong about me at all. I know now that all that time I was getting it wrong everyone else was getting it wrong too. Some people are better are balancing boundaries with their need for acceptance and to be sure I am a little stunted in my emotional development, but I know now that all of us are excessively needing and loving and soft at our core. I know now that when we are closed off, we are only pretending. 

“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”

― Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts

I know too that this pretending is an awful and exhausting way to live and many of us are living it every day. We are each is living with parts of ourselves heavily booby-trapped and guarded so well no one can even get close. We leave our childhood with painful lessons so persistent we can’t imagine ourselves whole again, but like me, every human still has that longing. Two things seem to hold us back.

For one, we insist on seeing the vulnerabilities of others exposed first. None of us wants to reveal their weak spots without assurances. None of us wants to be to blame for their own pain by inviting the threat in, and everyone not open to us is a potential threat.

Two, we have lived so long hating what is soft inside of us that seeing it in others elicits acute and consuming disgust. We are repulsed by people who are too open. Something isn’t right with them. Something went wrong in their development, and we don’t want any of it to rub off on us. We don’t want to be caught defenseless along with them.

But sometimes, if we are lucky, we meet the right person, or people, that can open us back up to the world. People we never had when we were younger and the world in us had to close up to keep safe. We call these people soulmates and to us, they can be like keys but that isn’t really true. People are not keys, and should never be treated as such. Instead, people are more like places where we feel safe to finally begin picking open the locks we’ve placed on ourselves. 

It doesn’t happen all at once, this opening, and there are real keys to find. 

The first and most important key is time, time that is given for the guard to relax and time that is taken to open the locks and crack the codes the right way. Too many of us are so desperate, so afraid really, that we rush and smash our way into other people so we can find love while keeping our own walls up. We break so much in others on our way in that soon the alarms start sounding and the people we love close up and close off to us. Then the next time you try to worm your way in its harder, and the next time harder still, and for the next person near impossible. Yes, it is an awful and exhausting existence.

Another key is honestly. The doors are to guard against deception and lies, people who would breach our walls only to consume or destroy us. As you unlock the doors in others and find a way through their defenses, you must unlock parts of yourself too. You must be brave and risk yourself what you as others to risk for you.

Love is the ultimate key, and love between any two people will do. Love between spouses, between friends, between siblings and even between strangers can open us up. Love for ourselves can do it too. What I needed as a soft and vulnerable child was love. What I did instead of hiding or stifling that love was to love back even harder. I know now that what I did was more courageous, and I see now that the mere survival of my heart is a miracle. 

Sometimes I can feel myself closing up too. I get exhausted trying so hard to connect with others and I get scared too. I’m afraid of the old rejection, of seeing again that it is me who is different, exposed, and in danger. I’m afraid of being hurt again or of hurting others in my ignorance and It’s an old habit cultivated so long it’s often automatic. I try, whenever I feel that way, to remember that I only have one life to live and to live it constructing elaborate locks to keep people out is a lonely and painful way to spend it. 

Now I am lucky enough to be able to love and be loved back. I am surrounded by people who offer me space and time, who are honest with me and risk themselves right back so that I can finally be open to them, to the world, and to myself. I can be needing and loving shame. I can be that sensitive and open little girl forever.

I want that for everyone. I want us all to feel safe enough, strong enough, loved enough to be open too. It has to start with love, and it can start with any kind of love at all. If you were never given that space or time or shown trust or honesty, you can begin with yourself.

Open at least to yourself.

This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 2: Open

Photo by Echo Grid on Unsplash