Tag Archives: writing as therapy

Do No Harm.

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My previous post, written mostly as a way to share a voice to those of us who grew up or are in relationships with people existing in tremendous dysfunction, was not difficult to write (although I was taxed heavily by writing it). It was difficult to share. I have tried to maintain a “code” of sorts in my heart, along with my appeals to Archangel Gabriel, that what I write “do no harm” — at least not intentionally.

I feel as though I did not honor that code as effectively as I would have liked. I was filled with regret, an urge to take down the post, and a feeling of shame after writing it. Those feelings were deeply similar to those I would experience after an argument with someone, as though I’d said something horrible, unforgivable to a person, to my mother.

Those feelings were again familiar. I recalled, and have recalled, numerous times when Mom and I would disagree about the course of things, and how I would suffer emotionally for telling her exactly how I felt.

Regarding that post, my greatest wish, to forgive — to actively forgive! — eludes. It’s like some prison I’m in, but it’s not all day, it’s not a life sentence and it’s open. It’s as though the prison gate is ajar and unlocked; there is no key. Yet I go in. I sit there, with my back to the window, avoiding the light. I do not understand it. I have a great life: a loving marriage; beautiful, healthy children; hobbies I thrive in; activities which fulfill my heart … yet … it eludes.

Like she did. She eluded.

Do you know how tired I am of thinking about this?

“Then don’t. Think about something else,” someone I used to know would say all the time about me or other people whose activities or looping thoughts drove her mad. It’s not that simple, or maybe it is. I used to be like that: super black & white. I could flip a switch and move on.

But then I had kids. It all changed after the kids were born. It’s like the DNA was activated: I joke now, but suddenly I cared about China. Like how an addict’s dopamine response to a certain pleasure-giving stimulus was heretofore asleep. I was always hard on Mom, but I could flip the switch when I was younger: lash out and move on.

But once I became a mother, I had a narrower window of forgiveness. It went suddenly from a case of “I don’t know what it’s like” (and to a degree, I will never actually know her life’s depth, so it still applies) to “I know what this is like, and I choose X.”

So back to my premise: do no harm. I feel like I hurt her again. I feel like I was mean to her again and that the shame and the hairshirt of regret I wore was there, cold, stiff and waiting for me to put on again.

I went to sleep that night, fitfully. I woke around 2:30 with a thought based on a quote from Rumi that I read the night before during yoga:

Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.

I woke with the thought:

Regrets are like bricks that we use to build walls around ourselves to keep love out.

That works. Right? If I stay regretful, then I don’t forgive my behavior which was a reaction to the first behavior. Up goes a brick.

So then I come back to this place of “do no harm” because I am filled with regret about the previous post. Another brick.

But then the comments from readers, and the amount of traffic the post garnered, and I know that people “clicked” to “read” it (about 300 actually) but a few people commented to me privately or on the site (2). Basically, if anyone disagreed with me, they didn’t bother to tell me. Those that were grateful for sharing what I did were extremely supportive and candid and they have my thanks.

So it begs the question: did I do harm? Make no mistake: I loved my mother. Make no mistake, I hated what she became. My dad is largely supportive of me; he’s not driving the bus, but he hasn’t come down on me and that’s just so nice.

It’s like I was still 18. I knew that was kooky, so to do what I could to move forward or investigate my allegations, I decided to open a box I had stored under nondescript stuff and wrapped in tape to supposedly protect it from little peepers since I moved out.

paranoid much?

paranoid much? When you have a situation like I did, with a parent who clearly had self-esteem issues and who mishandled a lot of parenting due to the management of those issues, there is going to be a lot of espionage. She wanted my assessments of things, but she didn’t REALLY want my assessments of things, y’dig?

On top of it all was my diary. Which inside it, was another diary.

Many of the items were from high school and college friends. In some moment of haste, I removed most potentially scandalous content. I discovered a letter from an old beau, telling me he didn’t know what to say about the direction of our relationship, and I found the letter to be a perfect example of what I would want my sons to send to a girl should they find themselves in that predicament. It was heartfelt, written in pen without one mistake, and encouraging.

I found some school papers I wrote and was thrilled to see some comments from my teachers: “Tremendous! Your voice is strong, but the run-ons and fragments made what could have been an ‘A’ paper a ‘B-‘…” (run-ons? P’shaw.) and “Deep characterization, such imagery… this would be better as a novella…” Me again: “run-ons?”   (I’ll write more about that box later, it was interesting!)

I was hopeful that I would find a warm letter from my brother written the month before my marriage but I couldn’t. I remember several years ago my mother citing that letter from him to me (it was about both our possessions of sharpened steel tongues and that we were both blessed to be marrying people who were soft and kind and “normal”), she paid particular attention to my tendency for verbal evisceration. The letter was not there, she took it. I will likely never see it again.

I looked for evidence of my tumult with Mom. There wasn’t much in the way of play-by-play. This both confused and delighted me. I don’t think I gave her much mind then. Well, there was evidence of her tampering: she’d scrawled a phone number on the corner of that old beau’s letter I mentioned, so that broke my heart a little, again. There was a comment from her in my diary, which was a very hard for me to reconcile. She was who she was. The time with that box went very quickly; it was fun, most of it.

I wrote immediately upon closing it all back up:

I read most of the content in here. The diary is full of ramblings, some funny and insightful but mostly just the neurotic, insecure blather of an American, single, young woman. Ennui, strife, doom — it’s how I got through it all. … The sum is that I had a lot of energy and was a lot of work for my parents. [My license was suspended at least twice for speeding and while I commuted to my university, I lived at home as though I were on campus, coming in at all hours.] There isn’t much of anything about Mom or from her [cards, drawings — likely because I actively disliked her during those years … brick] in here. I’m surprised by that — but I’m also relieved because despite the drama I was pretty resilient and self-absorbed. That, or it was all so ‘par for the course’ with her that I didn’t find much of it remarkable; or that I knew she would read everything, why give her an audience? … I feel lighter, not mad at all about Mom now. I saw my college work and I feel as though I’ve been rinsed delicately but completely, like an old garment. … It’s all OK now, I can let it just be…

And then the next day, that stupid regret came back. Brick… About that “actively disliking her” then, hey: that’s OK. That was part of my gig our dynamic then. I crossed that “my gig” out because I have to allow that I wasn’t formed in a vacuum; I was a product of an environment, just as we all are, just as my kids are. That as much as the 47-year-old me wants to understand that we are 1) connected, we are still 2) all our own people with our own choices, she has to allow the 16-20 -year-old me some rebellion, separation, and defense.

What I’m realizing as I write is that this “do no harm” code is foolishly not applied to myself. How much of this do we put upon ourselves? I’m guessing about 90% of it.

My mother had won the affections of SO many people from SO many generations and places in life that it made me wonder if I was the crazy one: she was like this silk scarf; a light and fun Daisy Buchanan butterfly to them and it was so different when we were alone. I compare myself to her as a heavy armored beetle.

I wondered, “Didn’t people see something?” It was the 70s. Who knows. The recurring baseline fear was that my memories were just … hijacked and rewritten. I actually considered calling a cousin for back-up, but I asked her to read the post. She did. She validated me. She saw a lot of it.

To properly understand my mom a little more, I watched Gray Gardens from 1976, and it helped so much. I gleaned from it a comment from Big Edie during one of Little Edie’s wide-ranging rants about how she could have made it on Broadway (something I heard a lot of) and her blame at her parents for her failure. Big Edie said something like this, “That’s the problem with the past. If it were right at the time, she would’ve done it. But something in her didn’t do it; I didn’t stop her… but the fact is that if it were right at that time it would’ve happened. You can’t stop fate…” Now, in all honesty, those women were a tangled mess, but I liked what Big Edie said about perception and timing — if it all was aligned and Little Edie wanted to do “it” then, she would’ve. You can’t blame other people for crap you [don’t] do. And I think that’s where I need to Work on me: I screwed up a lot then, but I was also ‘supposed’ to… the thing is though: I don’t know how much room there was in our household for more than one ‘spirited’ female.   

But the regret comes back and looms. It’s born of biblical guilt: Honor thy Mother and Father (or whatever it’s supposed to say) and I don’t know of many who did when they were teenagers. Probably Jesus was the only one.

That regret is born of my fear of other peoples’ perceptions because I was such an untamed mare then. I worry so much about how I’m perceived, that I either hold things back or I don’t admit them to myself. When I was younger, I didn’t care… I miss part of that spirit, just not the recklessness.

One of my readers suggested I read Anne Lammot’s Small Victories and the chapter on Anne’s struggle to forgive her mother after her death. In typical fashion I downloaded the book, but I will admit this: I am afraid to read it. I don’t know why. No, wait. I do: because something in me only knows Mom one way, in this one-dimensional way, that refuses to let her evolve and refused to allow her other aspects. That is not “do no harm” to anyone. I know it’s a knee-jerk reaction: you hurt me, I’ll hurt you. But I’m supposed to be evolving. And Mom’s gone… so what the what? It’s like that open prison…

Brick, please.

So it’s a lot. I’m tired of this wall building.

It’s nearing the end of the first month of the year. I need to make a change I think, in my writing, if just for a little while. I’m thinking mostly fiction for February. I think I’ll read some of those old stories I wrote and share some, updated and cleaned up. See where that goes.

I bought a new set of technical pens, based on the one I found in the box. I started doodling immediately last night. Here’s my first mandala for the year.

mandala_1

I would like to do one a day. I would like to run out of ink doing them.

I say things like that “would like to” because I fear I won’t keep the commitment. But how hard is it to doodle every day? I guess I will find out.

One of the writing people I subscribe to is Jill Jepson. She has a blog, “Writing a Sacred Path” and she got me thinking about this “do no harm” thing most of all, or rather as I believe, it came to me right on time. I needed something to bring me back to center. I was flinging around so much blame that I was leery of becoming toxic. For the month’s final post on January 26 (it’s not up yet today), she wrote about the concept of writing generously and what it meant. And smack in the middle of the post was this:

boom. thank you, Fate.

boom. thank you, Fate. I don’t if I’ve told secrets that weren’t mine to tell. I’ve certainly been harsh. I don’t know about cruel, but I know I’ve been angry enough to be vindictive, but I don’t know. It’s a delicate balance: where does one story end and the other begin?

To be fair, she also wrote that we don’t have to write sweetly and kindly all the time either or else there’d be no satire or horror. But that’s where my bricks are lately: in that “do no harm” concept. It’s been such a whirly 18 months for me that I guess I can see how I’ve both wanted to dodge some bullets while fire some at the same time.

So there is an in-between; and maybe I’ve struck it, in a lot of what I write. Maybe I struck it in the previous post — maybe I can just move on and stop it already. I think I’ve figured it out (I took an hour away to make chili): I regret the way it all went down. I think I just really have the saddest heart about how my mother and I treated each other and how our family had to cope. That’s a big brick, but I hope it’s the keystone. So I need to let it drop so the wall comes down…

So that’s it… I have to get off this bus, and start something new. The only way to do something different is to do something different. Start some fiction writing again or at least less posts about Mom and anger and shitty experiences. Air out my feathers and have some fun. Fiction or bust. Fiction and mandalas are from the land of Do No Harm. Right?

Thank you.

Grief: Observing “A Grief Observed”; ‘Think Pleasantly’

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I just finished CS Lewis’ A Grief Observed on the advice of my brother, and some friends. It took about four days for me. I’m a slow reader and I scribble in my books.

It has been five weeks and a few days since Mom died and I think I’m ready to begin a new chapter in my life. The chapter that begins with the words, “We are not betraying the memory of loved ones when we laugh or smile so close after their passing. We are honoring the life we have left to live ourselves and taking them along for the ride.”

Those are my words. Lewis says similar things in his 76-page gem. “H.” is his deceased wife. I have underlined, annotated, starred and bracketed many passages in his book. Every chapter page had something fantastic in it. The thing that’s great about this book is that grief needn’t follow a death. There are plenty of things to grieve over: an unexpected turn in life; a job loss; divorce; bankruptcy; health issues. Grief, and its stages, are universal and omnipresent.

Perhaps the most poignant excerpts of all, for me, at this phase in my grief are these:

Still, there’s no denying that in some sense I ‘feel better,’ and with that comes at once a sort of shame, and a feeling that one is under a sort of obligation to cherish and foment and prolong one’s unhappiness. I’ve read about that in books, but I never dreamed I should feel it myself. I am sure H. wouldn’t approve of it. She’d tell me not to be a fool. So, I’m pretty certain, would God. What is behind it? Partly, no doubt, vanity. We want to prove to ourselves that we are lovers on the grand scale, tragic heroes … (p. 53)

… Passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. (p. 54)

… All that (sometimes lifelong) ritual of sorrow—visiting graves, keeping anniversaries, leaving the empty bedroom exactly as ‘the departed’ used to keep it … was like mummification. It made the dead far more dead. (p. 55)

The less I mourn her the nearer I seem to her. (p. 56)

And so I recall the phrase that a matronly, motherly woman I met Sunday, while apple-picking with the team (our first real, happy outing as a family since the funeral), said when we took in the grand vista of the Blue Ridge mountains. She and her husband were a dapper couple, befitting an Orvis catalog and they immediately struck me as familiar. We chatted, they asked about our boys and in 10 minutes, we got to know each other quite well. She and I shared our stories of our mothers’ passing.

Think of her pleasantly and she will come to you.

It was enough of a phrase to jar me, ‘pleasantly‘? Why not ‘lovingly‘? Why not ‘longingly‘? I barely knew this woman and I had not yet read those excerpts from the book. How did she know that pleasantly was probably the most I could muster right now? Even more of a surprise is that her name was “Mary Jo” which is what lots of people thought my mother’s name was when she said her formal name, “Mary Joan,” quickly and being so polite and kind, my mother seldom corrected them. When this woman said her name, I almost passed out.

And it’s true. When I think ‘pleasantly‘ of Mom, I feel her and of course I mourn her, which likely sends the feeling of her away; it becomes about me, not about her. She is free! She is done with this crazy planet! I should be jealous! I know in my heart, she wants me to think pleasantly of her (she probably did all her life…things were difficult between us for years) but not just about her, about life. Afterall, who wants to be around a boo-hooer and Debbie Downer all day? Yikes, not me. Mom lost her parents and her loved ones and I remember her ready smiles not long afterward.

As much as I should feel grief and sadness when I consider her and the psychic state I was in (ready to accept her warts and all) just before God took her from me, I can’t wallow in it. I have three boys who need me and they lift me up. I have a husband I love dearly and he needs me too. My friends understand when I hole up but they don’t let it last long and sheesh, life is for living, right?

I asked my friend about the seeming coincidence of the chance meeting with the Orvis couple. First, this couple lives in the same town of my friend who checked in on me the next day. I called it a lightning bolt and a sign that my sadness, while noble, was doing no one any good, least of all me. My friend (a woman of tremendous faith and Biblical literacy) said,

You were struck by lighting….remind me to tell you the story of the Horse Named I Am.   God does these things for us…they are his gentle reminders to trust Him, walk with Him….He is walking you through the shadow of death right now, but his rod (used for guidance and to point you in The right direction) and his staff, (used for pulling you back from the precipice) will comfort you.  Now go read the rest of it….Psalm 23.  God’s word is complete, and we will find all His answers there…He says, call on me and I will tell you great and unmeasurable things that you do not know….book of Jeremiah.

And so one of these days, I will get on that 23rd psalm. And I’ll peek at the book of Jeremiah. I am a dolt actually — considering myself a writer and not having much familiarity with the best-selling book of all time… I know what Mom would say, “just let it go…” and “be happy…” 

At the beginning of Chapter 4, Lewis basically says he’s out of paper and he’s going to stop,

I resolve to let this limit my jottings. I will not start buying books for the purpose. … I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state, but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop. There is something new to be chronicled every day. (p. 59)

That is what has occurred to me. I have had my first birthday since Mom died. Then there will be the first Columbus Day and the first day after Columbus Day… Christmas, then Boxing Day and then the day after Boxing Day… eventually, and I can hear Mom say this because I believe it myself, it gets to be a little pathetic, a little maudlin, and not a little uncomfortable. Death is universal. It’s the living who make it macabre.

“Cool it, Mimsy!” I can hear her now, smirking. She had a wonderful wit too. One time, when I was upset with her, I had to head out to an event. I was in a long wool red coat that my father gave me and a red felt hat my brother gave me to match. She and I had bickered over something and I couldn’t stay any longer to debate it. As I was leaving the house she said something to the effect of, “Fine! Leave… you … raging pimento!” and those are the moments I want to keep in my head. Not the sadnesses.

Staying in a cycle of sadness also creates more ugh in my life, frankly. I also see some old habits rearing their heads here while I’ve been in my cave. Drama feels lonely so she comes out to stir up shit. Because it’s an old friend, I let her. The hangover is not worthy of my time though. That energy is the vestige of my lifelong concern and decades-long vigilance of Mom. She was a lot of work, but she made me and I am glad to be here and the lessons I’ve learned and likely the most important one she taught me, to soften myself to people, to allow them warts and all has finally been taught. The test, her death, has been passed. The path now is to be gentler to myself and to do the things that bring me joy and value. Thus, I have effectively cleared my slate of unnecessary obligations and duties so that I can focus on the things I like. If I didn’t have a head cold and the sun were out, I’d be on the water today. But it’s 56˚ and cloudy and I feel like crap, so I’m here wrapping things up.

I have no doubt I shall think of her wistfully. I am certain I will catch my breath, and weep and perhaps heave some tears. But I am more eager to think of her joyfully pleasantly. This picture, perhaps my most favorite ever of her because it captures her so completely as I remember her, is the way I will remember her:

This is typical of my parents' in their shots of just them. He's likely talking about politics and she's not.

This is typical of my parents in their shots of just them. He’s likely talking about politics and she’s … not. (winter 1978-79)

I will write next about the faceless chicken, how we selected her gravesite and other gallows humor. I will miss my mother. Yet it is time for me to move on a bit, pleasantly. Otherwise, it could go on and on.

Thank you.

Protected: Grief: Self-Compassion

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Grief: Out of the Mouths of Babes

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My wee son, Thing 3 who is nine, finally collapsed in my arms last night heaving tender loving sobs for his grandmother.

“I will miss the way she spoke so softly to me.”

“I will miss the way she liked what I did for her.”

My heart expanded and contracted. His love and grief for her, in his own little kid way, is finally being expressed. We cried together for about three minutes and comforted each other.

“Does your body get sick if you don’t let it cry?” He asked, his voice weak from sadness and thick with pain.

“Well, I know mine does. I know my body feels pain if I don’t let myself cry,” I said as I stroked his back.

“Like my throat,” he said. “It hurts really bad when I try not to cry. Like a throat ache, it hurts. Can that happen to our bodies, our legs or our hearts too?”

“I think it can. Crying is a natural function. When we hold that stuff in, it can burst when we least expect it. Sometimes the ‘time’ doesn’t feel right, like when you’re talking to your teacher about something completely different. A tear will pool in your eyes and all of a sudden, poof: the crying can begin.”

“Is that what happened to Mimi’s heart? She didn’t cry enough?” he asked quite seriously.

Hmm.

He had me there. This is a tough one. He’s bright, but he’s also a child, so I needed to be careful with the analogies here.

“I think that Mimi had lived a long time with lots of sadnesses but also lots of joys too. I think that she did her best, as she knew how, to say how she felt and to share her feelings, but maybe she felt afraid to do it too,” I said.

“Afraid that people might judge her?” he asked.

“Sure. She had worries like that. She didn’t like change much, you know, like how you don’t like change. She liked her things the way they were. She liked her life the way she wanted it and when it changed, she had sadnesses and fears about it.”

He thought.

“Do you know what ‘constant’ means?” I asked him.

“No.”

“It means never-changing, always the same. Like how a clock ticks constantly, you can depend on it. Or how the sun rises, you can depend on it. It’s constantly there.”

“Ok. Like waves, they are constant,” he said, clearly wondering where this was going as his periwinkle irises slowly wandered to the left corners and his lips pursed.

“Yes, they are, but are they always the same waves?” I asked.

“No, they’re little or big or sometimes lots of little waves become one big wave,” he said, his hands making wave motions and his sniffles slowing. I could see the dots connecting now.

“Here’s something that’s going to be like a riddle. Are you ready?” I asked.

“Yes,” he sighed.

“The only constant — the only thing you can know will happen all the time — is change. ‘Change,’ which is the opposite of ‘constant’ is forever, it’s always happening.”

He was in. He loves riddles and deep chats like this. I think that’s why he loved talking to Mimi when he did. She was deep like that.

“Here,” I said. “Think of a tree. It changes constantly in ways you can see, especially right now. The angle of the sun makes the earth cooler here. The rains stop falling as much as they did this summer and the leaves begin to … what…?”

“Fall,” he said.

“Right. So when the leaves fall they do what…?”

“They de- …. de-… something that happens to a dead cat… and mushrooms … they de-….” he said, searching for the word, his hand now planted on his forehead.

“De-com-pose… ” I helped.

“Right. They decompose. And they turn into dirt.”

“And what grows in dirt?”

“Plants? Mushrooms?” he asked.

“Well, yes, they do too, but I’m talking about something big. What is big that grows in the dirt?”

“Tree. A tree grows in the dirt,” he said proudly.

And then we went through the cycles of the tree and the seasons a few times. I kindly drilled it into him. Despite his tendencies for abstract concepts, he also likes that kind of linear thinking. We talked about how when trees die, people can use them to build houses, boats, tables, keep warm, all sorts of things. Like The Giving Tree book.

So he gets quiet and he gives me a kiss and tells me, “I love you, mama. Thank you for helping me.”

And then he came back 10 minutes later with this:

"True Fact about Life:" What life is like most of all is a tree. Because a tree has its own seasons. One season is full of death and sadness. When leaves fall, the tree it came from is crying because leaves are tree's tears. The other season is filled with [sic] happyness, which is when the leaves grow back.

“True Fact about Life:”
“What life is like most of all is a tree. Because a tree has its own seasons. One season is full of death and sadness. When leaves fall, the tree it came from is crying because leaves are tree’s tears. The other season is filled with happyness [sic], which is when the leaves grow back.

EPSON scanner image

We are trees but don’t look like them.
Trees have emotions. Just like we do. Let your leaves fall.”

I am humbled. I am grateful. My wee son is helping me heal.

Thank you.