Sunday, January 14, 2024

Two Hands, Two Truths

Two days ago, in a text conversation with a dear friend, I said these words: “It is so hard to be there for a child when it is taking everything in you to hold yourself together.”

Those words I wrote stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away. 

I knew what I was talking about. I had been there myself. 

And then I realized: so had my mother. 

I have wrestled since 1977 with the effects of my parents’ divorce. While I have probably been more open about the loss of my father as a presence in my life, I have been less open about my mother. 

The reality is that when I lost my father that day, I lost my mother as well. 

At 14, I was on my own, emotionally, at least. 

I’ve spent the years since trying to process the fallout of these losses and the ways I was sucked into being the emotional caretaker for a mother who was stuck in grief. Who didn’t have the tools (or use what tools were available) to understand and process her own pain, much less care for a teenager. Much, much less care for a teenager dealing with demons of her own. 

For years I blamed my mother for so much. Why wouldn’t she seek help? Why wouldn’t she take antidepressants? Why wouldn’t she ever, ever apologize? Why couldn’t she see I could never fill that void in her life? 

Fast forward a few decades and I was there myself. A mother so devastated by circumstances beyond my control.. A mother absolutely paralyzed by my apparent failure that I was afraid and totally unable to parent my own teenage children. 

I got it. And getting it crushed me. And I was angry at the teenage me for needing my own mother. And I was angry at the adult me for blaming my mother for my pain. 

Fast forward another decade. 

“It is so hard to be there for a child when it is taking everything in you to hold yourself together.”

And I realize that it can be both. 

A mother can be totally so maxed out and flattened by life that she cannot be what she needs to be for her child. 

And a child can be devastated by that loss. 

And I can have compassion for both.

This isn’t a blame game. It is just reality in this pathetically broken world of ours. 

Just because a mother can’t be all she needs or wants to be for her child does not negate the impact of this on the child. 

And just because a child suffers in this way does not mean we cannot have compassion for a mother who is totally maxed out and may have no resources to draw on. 

I used to think that having compassion for my mother would totally minimize my own pain. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ve heard over and over again that part of maturity, part of walking through grief, is being able to hold two often opposing truths at the same time. One truth does not negate the other. 

I learned a lot from my experience, and I have been dead set on doing so many things differently: taking antidepressants, engaging in therapy to heal from my own trauma, seeking honest conversations with my own children, apologizing out the wazoo for the many ways I failed them. Yet I now “get” just how hard it must have been for my mother. 

I have two hands. I can hold both her pain and mine. 

It is a strange but good place to be. 

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Whatever Is Mentionable Is Manageable

 "Whatever is mentionable is manageable."

These are the words Margaret McFarland spoke to Fred Rogers that stuck with him and served as a foundation for his work with children. She knew, he knew, that it is the secrets that eat us alive.
I know this, too.
I have been accused, over the years, of being too honest and too open. That I don't need to share everything I think or feel (I can assure you, I don't...seriously, if you only knew). I have wrestled with this. Do I share too much? I realize that in sharing uncomfortable things, I have lost the respect of many and lost the friendship of others.
Why do I share? Because whatever is mentionable is manageable. I don't always know who to share with so I just throw my words into the wind. And in this world of photoshop and aspirational lifestyle posts, I truly believe that someone else may need to see real people dealing with real issues in real life.
Somebody somewhere, but I may not know who, needs to feel so not alone. So I mention. I mention to manage the hard things in my own life. But I do so that somebody else may have the words or the camaraderie or the connection to be able to mention the hard things in theirs as well.
It is so often the silence that slays us.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Ode to 2023

 Being the more reflective type, I generally like to sit down at the end of the year and process all that has gone before. This past week was nothing short of a round robin of activity with a house full of people and I just didn’t have the quiet that I need to sit and think. So that which normally comes at the end of one year is, this time, coming at the beginning of another. This post could get long.

In some ways this past year just sucked. It was hard. Hard in so many ways. But anytime things are hard, there is a lot of learning going on. I don’t always see the learning at the time. But later, after the bleeding has stopped and the wound is starting to crust over a bit but is still oh, so tender to the touch, I catch a glimpse of understanding that I didn’t have before.
So…what did I learn this year?
I learned to see the fact that I am a Highly Sensitive Person as a strength and an asset, rather than a weakness and a liability. This was a challenge in a world (and especially a profession) that rewards the driven and ambitious. The fast-paced self promoters. Where your value is measured by the quantity of your work over your quality. This is a challenge in a world that scorns emotion and minimizes concerns. Where I am more likely to be accused of making a mountain out of a molehill than be believed, even when I warn that that chunk of ice may very well be the tip of an iceberg that can do catastrophic damage. It is a challenge in a world that doesn’t value or respect those who sit and process, ponder, and even grieve. But I am learning that we Highly Sensitive People are so important to the world. We are the nerve endings, without which communities and societies would damage themselves to no end.
I learned that the trajectory of life can change in an instant: one decision, one conversation, one diagnosis and the world is turned upside down and the future can get lost in the rubble. I learned that it can take time, sometimes a long time, to find a way forward. I learned that all plans and hopes and dreams must be held loosely. That sometimes muddling through and figuring it out as you go is the best you can do.
I learned that there is a huge difference between public pain and private pain and which one is harder.
I learned that reading 52 books in one year didn’t impress anybody, not even me, and it certainly won’t get back the education I threw away.
Most importantly of all, I learned to grieve. Early in the year I listened to a podcast by Adam Young about the importance of grieving. Then I read Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow. And I followed that Anderson Cooper’s podcast All There Is. What these people taught me is that grieving is absolutely essential for a fuller life. And that doesn’t just mean grieving the loss of someone through death. Grieving encompasses so much more. I learned that I needed to grieve.
-I grieved the loss of youth. The loss of the body I knew for years. One pleasing to the eye and free of pain.
-I grieved my vocation. The fact that for 21 years I have been in a profession that often highlights my weaknesses and disregards my strengths. It has been a struggle and the older I got, the more I looked back on what I’ve done with my life, the harder it got. What about all the areas of life where there are workers needed? Where I could make a difference? But I am here, one in several thousand all scrambling for the same pool of clients, trying to eke out a living. I struggled with this.
-I grieved the loss of dreams. I will never go back to school and get that advanced degree. I don’t have the time, the energy, the focus. I don’t have any idea how I would make use of such a thing. I can set it down and say goodbye.
-I grieved the things I never had. Relationships that didn’t exist, leaving a hole in my soul.
-I grieved for my daughter. The loss of the life she knew. The loss of energy and vitality and just being able to drink a cup of coffee without feeling sick. The loss of a future free from medical concerns and potential recurrence or secondary cancers. The loss of a normal life expectancy.
-I grieved the loss of a vision for the future and my place in it. This time last year I thought I had an idea of the near future and even further down the road. I thought I was seeing how God planned on using my gifts and all that I have learned through the years. That train derailed and went up in smoke. I’m afraid to take a peek down the road. I’m not even sure there is a road. I’m taking one tentative step at a time.
-I grieved the loss of trust…in important relationships, in community, in God. This year sent me back into a hole, like a wounded animal, just trying to survive. This year took away my words, the one way I seem able to connect to others.
All this grieving, you might think, would make me more sad. More of a Debbie Downer than I already am. But it hasn’t. It has brought relief. I’ve found that grieving actually feels like home to me. It is the one area where I don’t have to hide or pretend. For most of my life I was told to cheer up. Think positive thoughts. Be thankful for what I had. “At least you don’t….” Grieving is the one place where I can be honest about who I am and what I feel.
And yet our culture doesn’t allow it. We hardly allow it for the most public and obvious of losses, expecting the family of the dead to snap back and move on in record time. We certainly don’t allow it for all of the other, less visible, less acknowledged losses in life.
But our failure to grieve saps us of life. We spend so much time pushing it down, keeping the feral cat in the bag. We spend so much energy keeping our upper lip stiff as a steel beam and our heart as protected as Fort Knox that we don’t have anything left for being human.
Frances Weller says, “If we don’t address our grief, our hearts close. And our hearts don’t have the capacity then to register the suffering of the world.”
Grief doesn’t shut us down. It makes us more alive. Maybe now I am more alive.
I guess learning that was enough.