From Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene
To my children. Layla. Tyler. Liam. And my grandchildren.
Breathe deep the breath of God
From Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene
To my children. Layla. Tyler. Liam. And my grandchildren.
Breathe deep the breath of God
The Mother of the Prodigal
I bore him. I housed his mind while it came into existence. I nursed him. I know his appetites, how hungry he is. He sucked my breasts dry, until the ducts seemed to cave and their interiors stuck to each other.
He’s driven by the beauty of things, by what he thinks the world owes him. I see him eye the door and the road, the end of the lane. He sits upon the gate and swings out when others open it.
He’s one foot out of the gate. His mind is down the road. He’s concocting his justifications, his plan. Where to go. Why he must. All self- delusion. What didn’t we offer him? What love did we withhold?
He collected his inheritance in a sandstorm. His father wept at the table as the boy left. I accused his father, my lover, my husband.
Fool of a father. Long-sufferer. Fool. You Hosea. You Gimpel.
I’d never cuckold you, but you’d suffer that boy though you’d put me away with one accusation against my chastity. The injustice of your love for your boys.
She cried herself to sleep. A woman of her time is caught between the men: fathers and sons, lovers and beloveds.
She swore a little oath as she heaved herself to sleep. Trust not the princes and sons of men because men respect men alone.
Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. Yet not. Beautiful and strange.
She claimed her right and named the boy before his father saw him. The midwife handed the swaddled ,squalling child to his father and said, Jacob.
To name a boy child was to take payment for the thundering contractions, the muscles and power and pain from which she brought that boy into the world. What had his father to offer? Shuddering within her, whispering sweet nothings. A serving girl to nurse her while she swelled and waddled. Later, when he came home from the fields and the boys tripped under her feet, screaming, “Daddy’s coming. Hide!”
He tickles and guffaws, gnaws his meat and potatoes then returns to the city gate, where he sat honored all night.
Here she cooks and scraps, weeds and dyes, wheels and deals. She masters the household so he can sit in the high places of respect.
She bore witness to the minutiae of her boys. The older one: honest, simmering, saving. The younger one: wily, sneaky, spending.
She mothered. “Pick up your clothes. Dust yourself off. Do your part. Do your chores. Respect your elders. Do good. All the time. Do it for love. What you do speak so loudly it speaks love or ambivalence.”
Her eldest picked up the slack. Her youngest left the work to gad about. Until the day when the foolhardy chap slapped his dad on the back, “Pops. I can’t stay here longer. I need out. Give me my portion, and I will leave you be.”
Not like he contributed much anyway. Except for the hole in their hearts, little changed after his father tied up the purse strings and heart strings. The boy trailed off, with a scarlet ribbon slowly unwinding for years before it twanged taut, so far off he’d traipsed. His father’s breath struggled, so she took her scissors and snipped. All those years of weaving and sewing taught her to anticipate a tangled knot or the weave of the garment weakened. She and his father strained with that boy. They made love tensile, ready to snap. Thus she cut him loose.
A mother houses a child’s body.
His cells remain in her veins. Shards of him, broken like glass, cut her. Can a mother see her son with eyes in the back of her head? No, she feels him in her flow, in her blood, through her lungs, her heart, her uterus. She cannot bleed him out. This is something no man can understand. She could only bend with her child. Her boy becomes the arrow, she the bow. She becomes the Nubian slave that the Pharaoh pulled backward. She might snap so he can fling himself beyond.
What else am I but womb, bosom, belly, breast, milk? I wanted this? I wanted this. I also want to be an arrow. I want out. No, I want to house other children. I want my lover who wants me.
She stays, the sheath for her husband’s sword. She who was the womb of the universe, all things to all, she wants to ask, to let fly this wish: give me a voice in the policy of things. Honor my contribution to the nature of things. Hear me.
And the reply is what men at the gate want her to know. The answer is silence.
She hears them chortle as she bleeds. “A woman is but a thing of feelings.”
Seems fitting to finish with this song:
I regretted every lie I told, every wordless deception. I was a compulsive, chronic liar in my tween and teen years. The stolen sweets. The feigned stomach aches. The raided test keys. The rolling up skirts when leaving the house. The hair bleached orange with hydrogen peroxide. The pop music taped off the radio and listened to at low volumes under my covers. The bodice rippers read in the corner of the library.
One of my most ignominious: In seventh grade, I aced my square roots test, but only because I found the answer key in the closet and copied out the answers.
We are back to the square of things. I lied my way through adolescence. I think my child lies. Is there a root I can figure? In other words, did I cause this?
I teach high school. I teach all manner of teens who brag and hear out parents who lament the deceptions of these years.
Amalgamate the teens struggling with deception: Boys who lift cash from a sibling’s tips and a mother’s purse. The girls who sneak dad’s beers into their rooms to drink alone. Homemade aluminum can bongs tossed in the weeds. Burner phones. Vape machines. Altered charging cables. Juul pod caps hidden in old shoes. (Fork you, Juul) Sneaking out a bedroom window. Sneaking in the kitchen window. Not even coming home. Threatening to move out.
I worry about my child. I worry about the intoxicating luxury of lies. Lies expanding like a roomy sweatshirt, baggy clothes within which to hide.
“When do you work this week?” The parent asks. “Not scheduled yet. I’m training and doing paperwork.” The child answers. The parent looks askance. For the third week in a row? For an hour? Where is your money coming from? Do you have sugar mama?
How’s a mom to deal with texts that say, “I’m out with this friend” but isn’t?
The evidence I’m accumulating out of this fear of lies has me flummoxed. Also angry, as in the kind of anger that covers my hurt at being treated like a sucker. I want to call these out. Instead I process it all out with trusted others: my therapist, my father confessor, and friends partied hard in these years and grew to be good. They sing in unison, “Wait it out. Be patient. Call for relationship.”
I feel like they are saying: risk being used. Suffer being made a fool for this time. Be meek.
What is meek? It’s Sit down, *****. Be humble. (Thanks, Kendrick Lamar.) It means be teachable. Endure injury. Be patient. In Les Miserables, it’s the Bishop’s candlesticks.
At fifteen, I lied to my parents about taping non-Christian songs off the radio. My mom found me listening to “The Man in the Mirror” and “La Bamba.”
My parents raided my room one Saturday while I was away. I came home to hear my father listening to “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” on on my boombox, which he’d plugged in next to the computer in the office. He acted like nothing weird was going on. Until he turned around.
Caught, I started talking fast, telling all the lies a scared kid tells:
“My friend gave the tape of New Kids on the Block. She must have taped that.” Hilarious, because I was breaking the house rules having any secular music. I equivocated that NKOTB was less evil than Great White. Once bitten by this lie, my father seemed to jump back from me. It seemed like we stopped conversing meaningfully for months. I remember it like this: Every time I saw him, I quaked. I said hi. He said hi. Other than required or polite interactions, we said nothing to each other until four months into the impasse he pulled out cassettes of Queen from under the driver’s seat and told me not to tell my mom. He played me “Bicycle” and said it had been their song, back in high school, back when he wooed her while they worked together at Atz’s Ice Cream Shoppe.
Years later, I asked my dad why didn’t talk to me for months. He didn’t remember it that way. He thought we were just ships, slipping past each other on a dark ocean, no dangerous icebergs between us.
My parents must have recognized every one of my lies. When I was very young, my father spanked us for such behaviors. When I was a teenager, lying not out of fear but to get what I wanted, he changed tact. He became meek. He didn’t act out. He just stopped speaking to me, sometimes for days, sometimes longer. Later, we’d clear the air. I’d confess, and we rebuilt rapport.
I wonder at his skill. How did he learn this meekness? How did growing up a PK, having heard over and over the right and the wrong, but having his own rebellious streak, how did he regain his conscience? How did he rebuild himself? I did it by ratting out other sinners. I became intolerant. I became anything but meek. Having once been a compulsive liar, I faced everything that reminded me of my demons.
I now punish my child vociferously. I barely speak to him. A little bell in my head rings. I think I haven’t spoken warmly to my son in months because I suspect him. I need to understand how to be meek. Because it isn’t the what of meekness that’s hard. It’s the how.
In the Beatitudes, the portion of Christ’s spoken word where he teaches the dispositions of being He says:
Blessed are the Meek for they will inherit the earth.
The thing about meekness is that it’s up against image. Give up on being perceived as good or pious. Meekness is about being made a fool.
What made me quit lying? The impetus was an accidental renege in a game of euchre (see obscure games popular among Hoosiers who went to Purdue University). I happened like this: I failed to follow suit in a hand, and my boyfriend called me out. It was a stupid mistake (see “Jack of the same color is the left bower…. Oh crap, lots of lingo for people who have never heard of euchre. Sorry.). Caught, I felt like a deer about to hit by a Subaru. I lied. I knew he knew and if he couldn’t trust me to own up to a stupid play in a game — it’s only a game– then how could he trust me in the big things? So I swore off lying, in place of owning up to that one dumb lie. But I carried that silly lie with me like buckshot stuck deep in my flesh.
I became the hammer of truth. When a friend started smoking, I told his parents. When he drank shot after shot of tequila at a New Years Party while I stayed sober, I justified ratting him out again because he was only sixteen. I called out fellow Christians for years on behavior. Being good, I thought I had the responsibility to point others towards good. This is self-righteousness. See “Not Meek” where definitions are sold. BTWs,
I know that meek is a very religious term, kinda Christianese. But when I met my husband, I met a person who is truly meek. One of the first characteristics that attracted me to him was that he never corrected my silly spoonerisms and mis-rememberings. (He corrects me now. But that’s because some mistakes are like walking around with spinach in your teeth. I’d rather have it pointed out.)
When it comes to our kids, though. He is a meek man. He will say he’s had a temper. Sure. But still he’s meek. He’ll be made a fool covering over their missteps and guarding their dignity before he says anything against them. He’ll be silent and take their stoning before he lets them be struck by the missiles of others. I am still deeply attracted to this, even if I can’t make myself be as awesome as him. If I wrote a modern novel of the prodigal child, my husband is the father in that story.
But I’m a teacher of high schoolers, aware of the cumulative negative effects of teenage immaturity. And it’s having a horrible effect on my parenting.
I’d better become meek, or I may lose my child.
The trouble is, I learned to label all things. I don’t know what it means to live without clenching onto things, without proverbial rules and disciplines. All that comes naturally to me is the opposite of meek. The long-suffering nature of the meekness though is the zinger in the second passage of the Tao Te Ching. It’s below. Don’t be fooled. At first, it’s about the changing nature of dualities, which is a good lesson in itself. It teaches the shifting nature of a thing. If a thing it is beautiful, something else is ugly. Or good. Or bad. It’s as if we are trying to name, claim, identify. The dang slippery thing changes the nature of something else, or itself is changed. But really it’s about the Sage’s meekness and humility. Who is a sage but an ascetic? A monk who owns nothing. She who has no claim can claim no loss. She didn’t start and won’t finish the work. This is what parenting a teenager needs to become for me.
Like most good poetry, the wisdom is often in the zinger, the final few lines.
He makes no claim/he suffers no loss.
My children are not my own. The Creator ordained them.
“Your children are not your own. You may give them your love but not your thoughts… You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.”On Children – Kahlil Gibran
The hidden truth of parenting is that is about the parents’ development, our slow continual maturation towards our better selves. Parenting changes us. We don’t really have as much control over our children as we should be developing over ourselves. We are learning to be long-suffering, loving, patience, kind, good, humble, MEEK. Below is the text of “On Children” published at http://www.katsandogz.com/onchildren.html
I have a pretty fantastical story to tell. But first this caveat.
When you read the story, you may want to dismiss it. After all, I was a child with an overactive imagination when it happened(I’m a writer, so what did you expect?) And, I’ve been a bit of a mystic all my life. I’m not so much a miracles type, though I believe they can happen. More so, I do believe in mystery, myth, metaphor, God. Maybe I was born this way. Maybe my parents laid the groundwork. Maybe I’m a mystic because of this little moment that happened in the middle of the night, which at first scare the bejebus out of me, then transformed me.
I woke up heart racing, like out of a nightmare I couldn’t remember. I was still papoosed beneath the quilt on the top bunk. I had this habit of asking my father to pull the sheets and quilt as tight as possible over me and tuck them deep between the mattress and the open springs that supported the mattress. BTW, this open spring system was a horror show for most of my life because if I happened to be on the bottom bunk, inevitably my long hair caught in the springs. There was no detangling. One simply had to rip that chunk of hair out of the scalp because the springs always won. It’s why, when I was little I begged for the top bunk, in spite of my fear of heights. On the other hand, the top bunk was justifiably the safest when accounting for creepy beings that lurked beneath the bed at night. That said, being shrinkwrapped between my sheets ensured no beings could infiltrate and do whatever these unknown beings did to fulfill their evil urges.
So there I laid in the dark, panicked from some dream I didn’t remember. If I cried out for my parents, I’d wake my sisters. That would result in reproach. Clearly I could not climb out of the bed because something was in the room. That something, I rolled over to see, happened to be a brilliantly lit, ginormous hand hovering in the center of the room. My heart thudded, then my head said, in some kind of audible voice: That hand is God’s hand. It’s too big to be any other kind of hand. It’s okay. You are cared for.
Do I realize now that this is anthropomorphizing the Divine, a spiritual being? Yes. But I was a little kid. I best understood God through that person of the Son, e.g. Jesus. As I mentioned my parents laid a solid foundation by being super into church. They took us Saturdays and Sundays to a church of Jesus people types who spent three hours on Saturday nights eating together, doing a lot of singing and then listening to the pastor go line-by-line through books of the Bible. Then we showed up the next morning for more clapping, hand-raising, Kumbayah moments followed by another hour plus long “sermon.”
I hadn’t seen many pictures of Jesus, aside from those in children’s books. Our church was okay with felt doves representing the Holy Ghost (we did not use the word Spirit) but not pictures of the Lord or of the Father. So actually, I had no reason to believe the huge hand was Jesus’. It would be too large for a real man. Nor would it be God the Father’s because I knew the Father didn’t have a body, yet there it hung. And I felt peace. Since I was a fearful, anxious child, this moment contrasted with my usual experience in profound ways.
So maybe it helps you understand why I became a lifelong mystic, even if my understanding of the Divine has changed over the years.
And, being a believer helps make sense of the nagging feeling I’ve had about being a small part in a profound schema. Having faith doesn’t give me all the answers, but having a relationship with the Divine, having a sense that the Divine is personal helps me. I’m not innately warm, nurturing or personal. I’ve had to train myself to get out of my head and connect with other beings as they need. Otherwise, my sense of relationship behaves in the most one-sided, self-oriented way.
If hurt people hurt others, then maybe it follows that cared-for people can care better for others. For my example, I offer my husband. He grew up in a house where he was doted on. His mother was adored. His father was loved. My husband has a reservoir of warm affection that consistently overcomes whatever aggravations he feels. My dad grew up with that kind of love and humor. My mom grew up with some of it, but also some pretty German baggage, which is like some of the Slavic stuff, where self-sacrifice, suffering and stiffness are values.
That wonderful hand in the air and the voice that assured me carried me through most of my life. It assured me of love and care by filling a void humans couldn’t. I wanted that for my siblings, my children, or pretty much anyone I’ve loved. I wanted my kids to experience the sense of love and mystery of the Divine. I think it helps to have such an experience to connect all the dots of being alive and having consciousness.
But here’s the thing. It’s not something I can conjure or control. I pray for that to happen to those I love. But others have to have their own relationship to the Divine. Since I’m clearly such an enlightened, slightly-loveable, curious and interesting person, it follows that everyone should experience life just as I have, right? Ha!
It’s the first principle of the Tao, which I realized I need to dig into after I re-read The Tao of Teaching this spring. I re- read it to lead a discussion among teachers, but as I read, I thought about how I utterly failed to apply its wisdom in my role as a mother.
I realized that I needed to dig into the Tao Te Ching from several angles. First just read the original, translated, of course. Then also, because I’m an Orthodox Christian, which is more Eastern than the flavor of Christianity I grew up with, I should read Christ the Eternal Tao (Hieromonk Damascene.) And since I want to write about this from a mother-child point of view, maybe I needed to read The Tao of Pooh. Then I could share my thoughts. So here they begin. Use or lose, as one wiser colleague of mine says.
First of all, what is the Tao Te Ching? I should not assume you know much about it because I didn’t for most of my life. It means The Way. It’s one of a few ancient ways of wisdom from China. Confucius offered another. To be sure, I’ve quote Confucius often to my students, but I’ve had the Tao distinguished from Confucianism as such:
Taoism- It focuses on nature and the mystery of all things. If one sees oneself as a small part of all, one has a better orientation towards the rest of creation. It’s easier to be at peace. Peace and humility unify us. Taoism stresses rest (verbal irony in that sentence construction?), lack of ego, humility, selflessness, and dispassion. I like this because the Eastern Christian teachers often believed that pride is one of the greatest pitfalls of humans and humility is one of the greatest virtues. When we are humble, we are not at war within ourselves or with others.
Confucianism, the other Eastern (Chinese) system of wisdom, focuses on what it means to be human, as an individual in an ordered society. It can seem more hierarchical and more about teaching social order or the social contract. It too contains wisdom, but seems less about the sacred and mystery. But I am not an expert.
I value the wisdom of both. As an Orthodox Christian, I realize that I understand them through an outsider’s lens, yet much of what is within them offers another doorway to the wisdom of my own faith. Reading the Tao gives fresh language to metaphors that have been rendered cliches or stale due to misuse or overuse or misunderstanding. Familiarity has bred this in me. If I don’t allow myself to see with new eyes, it may prove the old adage true. I may fall into contempt towards my faith.
So that said, I’m going to look at my parenting through the lens of the The Way by Lao Tzu.
Tao (The Way) that can be spoken of is not the Constant Tao’
The name that can be named is not a Constant Name. Nameless, is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The named is the Mother of all things. Thus, the constant void enables one to observe the true essence. The constant being enables one to see the outward manifestations. These two come paired from the same origin. But when the essence is manifested, It has a different name. This same origin is called “The Profound Mystery.” As profound the mystery as It can be, It is the Gate to the essence of all life.Tao Te Ching 1
It brings me back around to that aforementioned mystical experience of my childhood and my will to impose this on my children. Because the first chapter of the Tao lines right up with the ineffable, uncontrollable mystery of God. He has so many names. How he brought about origins remains cloaked in mystery. In this Way, we have Father and Mother imagery (The Mother of God fits nicely into this. She becomes the means of one person of the Godhead becoming Incarnate.) In the Ineffable, or what the Way calls the “constant void,” we get essences or whiffs of what is infinite and unknowable. The “outward manifestations” are energies, where we see God at work. In life God is at work. But these are mysteries. I don’t get to prescribe to my children, or anyone. I can only hope they perceive these.
And this really bothers me. Turns out, I am not god. I have a long way to go to being transformed by the Divine. Another reason to meditate on it, I suppose.
began his power point with chortling satisfaction
regarding well his apocryphal vision
of the dire situation facing humankind. He fished
around in words by
Lewis, Nietzsche, Tolkien, Aquinas
like the caller with bingo ball in his hand, deciphering
faded symbols for the players to put together.
BINGO! I get it.
The speaker finished his power point so they jingle applause.
Most everyone zips up laptops and ripples out into the halls
But the lingerers line up, jittering for a fix.
Chewing on his words, gnawing on their lips,
needing answers deeper in his bones, if they can dig,
they offer up their particulars, “What should I…,”
“If this… then what?” , truth
They lamb onto the podium tying the speaker to it.
They follow him, a pied piper, until the next proof and answer session.
Observing from the back is the skeptic-cynic
Dismissing the speaker who conducted his presentation to feel this gratification.
From first grade until high school, my parents expected me to memorize Bible verses. When I was eleven, my dad assigned Proverbs 8, which I found abstract and dull. I tried to persuade him to let me choose one of the later passages, one with the pithy two line sayings, but no go. Maybe he foresaw what would happen.
Invariably I read anything but chapter 8. There are plenty of easily absorbable lines to apply promptly to one’s living. I saw the need to become wise and so enjoyed verses like: “The wise in heart accepts commands but a chattering fool comes to ruin” and “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy person keeps a secret.”
Perhaps I should have re-read the bits about a loose tongue. Instead, I glommed onto one proverb, “It is better to live on the corner of a roof than in a house with a contentious woman,” and I weaponized it against my mother.
I had a penchant for self-righteousness. I used it often over the years. But as a peevish pre-teen, I perfected this. My mother made a convenient target. She was harried by raising seven kids. I could trigger easily with a churlish retort. When she rebuked me, I accused her of being angry “all the time.”
“Not angry, dear,” she responded one night after we’d discharged the tension. “I’m frustrated. Don’t confuse the two.” I had too narrow an emotional vocabulary yet. Anger, frustration. To me they were no different than yelling and having a curt tone.
“You yell all the time,” I’d say. But she hardly raised her volume, only her pitch.
In retrospect, I see how the mother I grew up with shouldered too much, trying to cover shortages of money, of time, of being good enough. I admire her now, but not then.
She stayed home but she was full partner with my father at Household, Inc. She made food stretch with clever casseroles, coupons and calculators. She managed our huge garden, sending us out in rows of tomatoes and carrots to weed and pick. She put up, which is the country term for preserving, hundreds of quarts of beans, pickles, tomatoes, peaches, and applesauce. She kept the diaper budget low by using cloth diapers. She garage-saled– yes, I just made that a verb– for our outfits. By the time I was in third grade, she’d delivered four of us, too many to afford private tuition at our church school on my father’s hourly wages. She and my dad went to the first home-schoolers meeting in Fort Wayne and she added home-educating to her daily duties. Perhaps because we constantly stomped through the house with dirty feet and left a wake of mess behind us, she maintained cleanliness as if the Bible actually said cleanliness is next to godliness. Within the next decade, she’d have three more living children and a miscarriage. She’d also live out of a small camper for nine months, trying to keep her kids from wilding while she, my father and her parents did most of the labor to build a proper house because my father had decided “no boy is going to pick up my daughters for a date in a trailer park.”
My mother managed the narrow margins with military style discipline. We learned to fold underwear and make a bed as if we had enlisted. When I skipped away from the kitchen, she usually called me back over my sloppy inattention. She knew when I didn’t dismantle the stove fully or move the sugar and flour canisters to wipe the counters beneath them. She lectured to justify why these steps were required after each meal. Mice. Ants. Varmints of all sorts. As I grew up, I resisted her. I felt the interior of our relationship and found her switches and buttons. I flipped them with a menagerie of tactics: psychological warfare against my siblings, argumentation, and sneaky behavior. I’d observe how her jaw quivered. She couldn’t cover cold anger, which I now recognize as an attempt to bridle her reactions. As her pitch rose one day, I lobbed the proverb at her.
“You know, the Bible says it is better to live on the corner of a roof than in a house with a contentious woman.”
I see her stiffen in the kitchen of that new house. She’s dismantled the stove to show me the broth that had boiled over and pooled under the electric burner pans. She shows me why smoke curled off the coils- pancake batter from breakfast had slowly charred. Her perm curls are wound tight as a black girl’s. I register the hurt and see my aim was true. One time failed tp satisfy me. I slipped it in again and again in her presence. It took a few years to niggle enough at my conscience, to grind down my gratification into guilt. It took having my own children and hearing my voice mirror hers, all grit and frustration before I knew I’d grown up like my mom.
When my daughter was three, I bargained then hollered for her to pick up her toys while I cooked dinner. It took months to realize a preschooler simply doesn’t sequester herself in her room, efficiently tossing her earthy belongings into a crate and cheerily appearing at the table on her own. I sat blockading her door for a few weeks, telling her each item to toss next into the crates while I re-assembled wooden puzzles for her. She groaned and fiddled, made up excuses about bathroom and drinks while I kept guard. As I blocked the door, my warfare against my mom came back to me as if I’d assaulted myself.
I accumulated guilt upon guilt as I tried being a stay-at-home mother (and freelance writer to save my dignity as more than a mere domescile). I raged one night when I drove my daughter to Chicago separate from my husband’s band.
“Wait for us for supper. We want to eat with the band,” I’d told him earlier (this was the pre-cell phone era). When we arrived, the event staff said the band had left thirty minutes before to grab food. I drove around Chicago, angry sobbing. I’d been reduced to domescile, I felt. My daughter pleaded with me not to be mad at Daddy. Then I despised King Solomon or whichever sage penned those words. I was contentious. I was lonely. I was impatient. I wanted more. I wasn’t supposed to want more. I was supposed to be fulfilled as a stay-at-home mother, clipping coupons, babysitting on the side, mowing, managing the bills, gardening, preserving, handcrafting gifts, having playdates with the mom across the street, home cooking all our meals, sewing my own clothes.
It would take a few more years to realize how one-sided, how man-centered, – dare I call it misogynistic?- that proverb (and many like it) is. I’d reduced my mother to “a contentious woman” without consideration of her dignity. She spent decades demonstrating such ingenuity and work ethic. I’d dismissed the causes of her frustrations. I’d reduced her to “a.short fuse.” While I never gave thought to her inner life was like. Who had tended her soul and encouraged her to become a fully creative, intellectual, actualized person? I’d sold out my own mother because I’d reduced her to a “just another woman, a homemaker.”
After I married, when I’d grown up enough to stop saying “I’m not friends with girls. They are so petty and emotional. I’m only friends with guys,” I realized I had come to despise the company of my own. It took deeper literature to teach me that a combatant sears herself when she participates with violence.
I see in my mother now as a kind of imposing woman. She had the capacity for authority, but my warfare, compounded with her generation of evangelical culture’s campaign, took her down, made her smaller than she could be. I wounded her. She might have been more. Meanwhile I reaped from the efforts of her generation. I credit her quiet work and my father’s outright encouragement for the capacity to mature into an imposing woman. I shrugged off a kind of soul-destroying imposition that the church around me fostered. And, I responded to my own nature. I never could be the nurturing model of femininity prized as the ideal of motherhood.
But also, I packed up some of my haints, the weird ideas that trouble me still. I reacted easily to the “should be” and allowed myself to grow shrill. My anger has 88 keys: pitched, shrill, throbbing,fuming, icy, irate, caustic, contrary, pissed off, inflamed, cold. I’ve skipped church to jerk the vacuum about while ranting at low volumes. My husband has shielded our kids from the tension by jumping into the circumference of my anger. He’d butts into my chores giving me no excuse but to discharge my emotional energy.
In this ecology my children had slack. They learned to slink away rather than brave my rants. They circled back to pacify me. But they’ve always sensed what I bottle inside, this tension within me. When they hit college age, they fantasized about moving out. They too preferred the corner of the roof, another roof but ours, to living with my contention.
Moving to the roof is a temporary solution, even when the roof is flat rather than pitched. It’s an isolation, not solitude. It’s far better for a person to get help resolving and repairing the tension before it becomes contention. I didn’t start getting professional therapy, or reading useful parenting books until my children were too old. And still, the tension within me is hard for me to understand. It reminds me of the story of the desert monk who approached his abbot for permission to leave his monastic community. He said the other monks drove him to rage. He asked for his own skete. Reluctantly, his abbot sent him to a cave with a bowl and basic sleeping items. Not long after, the monk lost his patience and threw his bowl against the side of the cave. It shattered. He returned in humility. It wasn’t fellow monks, but his own disposition that drove him to rage.
I have years of soul work, confession, turning away from my passion, and I’m still learning to be calmer. Meanwhile that proverb, two short lines called wisdom, incited a false narrative. It put my soul in contention with itself. With each mistake of anger, I learned to despair, and to hate myself. The story I told myself about my mother, that she was her frustration, that was the story I’ve been telling about myself. I have no idea what my mother thought when she read that proverb. I know I think the worst thoughts. I despair. I cycle into “I’ll never improve. I might as well quit trying.” The problem is, there’s no grace in those lines. No grace for my mom, no grace for myself, no “seek first to understand.” I have to give up on that proverb (and a few that I think are actually more harmful and hurtful). I’m not sure where that puts me. I have to hope for some grace. I have to forgive my mother her trespasses which are so much smaller than her achievements. If I don’t, I’ll never forgive myself.
Last Friday night, I sent my husband a text at 12 am that read “I fucking tired.” He replied, “I come home.” He’d been in Chicago since Monday. At four am, he stumbled into our bedroom, which was almost 80 degrees even though I’d attempted to reprogram the thermostat four times that night. I forgot to press “hold.” In the morning, I woke him up to do what we do on Saturday mornings and per typical we didn’t much talk for the rest of the day. We did our separate chores. Mostly he writes and edits his homily and does hours of churchy-priestly duties. I clean, shop, prep food, garden, write.
So, after a week of stressful parenting, working, training, sleeping separately and hardly talking, we earned our date last Sunday.
This week, the Winchester was Old 55 Distillery. It’s a drive into the corn fields, deep in. As we turned onto the old country by-way, dark clouds rolled up. The chlorophyll in the green things took on the florescence of storms, as if it were thundering and lightning. It wasn’t yet. We passed the radio station I disc-jockeyed weekend dead hours and the texts buzzing “A Severe Thunderstorm Warning has been issue for your region” started coming through our cell numbers and google numbers and emails. We were too far into the boonies for my “Yes” to reply and shut down the sixteen texts we would receive.
I love the taste of a good bourbon on the front center of my tongue. It’s like caramel with a zing. Old 55 Distillery makes one from sweet corn that’s clear like vodka, sweetish but not silly or sticky. All their bourbon comes from the family farm. Farm to still? To flagon or highball? What would you say? We’d just visited St. Augustine Distillery the month before, so on the first visit out, we still had the taste of sugar cane whisky on our palate. We joked as we drove through Wingate, where my husband had taken me to an old USPS Christmas party early in our vegetarian years. We’d choked down white biscuits, reconstituted mashed potatoes and buttered canned corn. How good can Indiana whisky be? (Honestly, I wasn’t wowed at Hotel Tango, an early arrival on the Hoosier scene.)
We arrived with plenty of time to sip and mellow before driving home but the owner Jason Fruits offered us a tour and tasting for ten bucks a piece. His wife was bartending behind a sleek glass tower of beautiful white labeled whiskey bottles. A cadre of locals and a gorgeous Berniedoodle meandered around the lobby’s sofas and handmade tables. It’s aesthetic- gray-blue walls, natural wood tables, steel trim catered to the tastes of urban chic. It clashed with down-home locals flannel shirts and crisp jeans.
Jason took us back to show us the corn his father and brothers grew. His hands air caressed the handcrafted, one of a kind stills that gleam. He explained the triple distillation, the milling, mashing, the exclusive “hearts only” to the bottled whisky. We dipped our fingers into heads he wouldn’t use and licked. We sniffed tails. I commented on the vintage Chevy his father had left. He showed us where the family labeled and crated the bottles.
Back in the lobby, we had thirty minutes to sip four different whiskys, including his most exclusive, then we split a handcrafted Old-fashion. We bought a couple of bottles for my birthday party and left too soon to make friends with the regulars.
Sunday, after a week of zombie non-talking, we decided on Old 55 again. This time, we needed to debrief about the troubles of the week. I’m not much more than a taster when it comes to bourbon, scotch and whisky. I go downhill fast if I have more than a thimbleful. But we needed to get out of town. A good drive and a spot of liquor will loosen stiff tongues.
We never saw the rain or thunder but the electricity was out when we stopped for crackers in Wingate and it was dark at the distillery.
Still, Jason hailed us inside. Still the room was full of farmers, laughing together. I ordered bourbon on ice. Husband ordered his old fashioned. Jason asked about us, remembering us from six months before with the startling clarity of a studied man, a good businessman.
Always carry cash. And a journal. And your husband’s CDs.
We had the journals, but not the first or last on the list. The last might have been a nice way to make up for being four bucks short of paying our full bill, since we couldn’t use plastic. Oh well. We would have to come back for a bottle before we leave for Maryland and my father’s birthday. My dad likes a good Scotch, expensive and clean. He swears he hates bourbon but we are convinced if we take him some Old 55, it’s smooth taste will delight him. We’ll just need to sharpie off “bourbon” on the bottle. If he ever met Jason and nerded over the chemistry, he’d love it like a regular. He just needs to go knee high into the corn with us a bit.
**The Winchester is the a registered trademark of Shaun of the Dead and the inspiration of my reviews of local places.
Ever does my soul bear the weight of my becoming.Michael Tharp
On the eve of my son leaving home, prematurely, his whereabouts unknown and his declarations of self-emancipation via messaging pelting like hard rain, one memory seizes my senses: the first Mother’s Day that my daughter did not come home, for whatever reason. I think she was a freshman at Depauw, on the cusp of Dead Week, as we called the week before finals when all the tomes must be written. Nevertheless, my husband determined that I should feel appreciated. He schemed with my son to treat the wood deck, to pot the planters with impatiens, petunias, pansies and to char veggies on the grill. He set my son to arrange the only dessert that generally gives me guiltless, painless pleasure: cool whip and tart jello.
We settled under the sunbrella around the table that had been my birthday gift the first year we moved home. My son barely ate. Instead he pranced about at his coup de etat. He and his father prepared a beautiful space and food I could eat without complaint. He just danced and shuddered with pride as he watched me savor the parfait.
I feel awfully stingy now. I’ve told the same stories to him, of my milk chocolate heart softening when I first looked into his brown eyes. Yes, his gray eyes turned brown within a week or two of birth. I’ve told of him falling asleep on my heart, so that I woke with a start in the hospital bed, and panicked to see his bassinet empty, his father curled in sleep on a mini-couch. Where was the baby? I cried out. My husband woke and said, “Your chest.”
I’d carried him so long, my son breathed with me. Those days are no more.
In her autobiography The Long Loneliness Dorothy Day writes that the day when a teenager first says, “I didn’t choose to be born” his rebellion has bloomed. If only I’d heard that wizened observation years ago. If I’d heeded his first signal when he lobbed those words at me several years ago.
Now we are in deadly battle for his safety. He is sure he’s had his future safely under control for years now. He’s sure even as he rolls bedding up to mimic a sleeping form, then unlocks his closet window and takes a leap off the roof. Even as his father swipe evidence and article of his chemical experimentation from the crevices of his room. While we urge him to earn his license, his diploma, and a secure job or entrance to college before packing up, he snaps up his pillow and a few clothes and disappears into a black sedan clutching his “burner” phone and texting us the story he tells, that he is the protector of others.
He will live up to his namesake: William, he thinks.
I told him stories so he’d know he’s flesh of my flesh. I told him hilarious tales of his elopements. At five he lit out while I was tangled in phone and computer wires from my at-home office. That morning, he walked a dog with the elderly lady, her dog and her grandson. I circulated most of a block weeping and angry. The woman delivered the stranger preschooler back to me with a grin. We moved to the top of the mountain on the edge of hunting country. He’d elope and try to cross the country highway where I’d high-tailed away from both bears and unleashed dogs as well as reckless drivers. He’d elope into the neighbors side of the duplex, eat their chocolate bars and watch their DVDs. I thought he was in the basement, snarfing apples and watching Arthur. He laughs those off old characterizations of him. He wants no umbilical between me and him. I know it’s the nature of things, but I hoped he’d be wiser and kinder about how he cuts the cord. I thought we’d earned a bit of grace and gratitude for doting and disciplining with love.
He tells his own history in ways that scare me. He tells stories I disbelieve, of cruelties he exacted on the playgrounds of Catholic school, of power plays. He doesn’t tell of the way the first grade teacher, a slight nun who lulled the class with her guitar, knew how to turn him into a leader. He was the most behaved (okay, second most behaved) of the altar boys at the monastery church, which is how younger boys were allowed to serve in droves. The monk who managed the altar boys thought they’d all be like my son and that other boy, Vlad. He forgets how he’d curl in my arms, fall asleep under the bishop’s chair on Pascha, play with weird kids, re-read Harry Potter and knight stories. Yes, he’d also draw and scissor cutlasses and pistols from paper because we forbade toy weapons, until we broke down and let him bring home fine wood swords from the Faire. He’d fight trees and other boys, equally armed, and crack them into bits. Then he’d curl up with cat or sneak into our room to sleep at our feet or in the doorway, rather than sleep alone.
I want him to see the good, or that I saw good, because I think he believes I only see the “could have been” or the should be,
I’ve become the mother that my mother was to me. My mother was tough and tender. She’d flash if we failed to execute the chores thoroughly, but she’d also let me operate the calculator at the store or she’d color with me. Once, when I’d been excluded from the neighborhood gang because of my over-sensitivity, she set out her childhood doll in its layette, bestowing upon me my first heirloom. As I grew older and meaner, and she more tired, she held a harder line. I wrote screeds about her in my wide-ruled notebook journal. I’d do it so much better, I swore. Foolhardy youthfulness.
I have an exoskeleton around me these days and I don’t know how to get it off to be different or softer or more nurturing.
I hold him to high expectations. I expect fewer mistakes, better grades, transparency, authenticity, honor. He doesn’t know himself well enough to be authentic.
I expect to be his friend and to be his authority. He’s deeply confused, I suppose. Meanwhile I keep fingering this hard shell of anger and hurt on me and trying to pry under it to see where it attaches, if it can be peeled off and of what it’s made. Is it part of me or a barnacle from the sea in which we swim, parents and teenagers? Am I made of this anger and fear and impossibility? Or is the pride? Is this old age pride that wants to justify myself?
See kid, I made mistake but you will turn out, if I have to put this scabbard between your shoulder blades. Remember when you put the butter knife between your sister’s shoulder blades while doing dishes with her? We snatched you off that chair and upbraided that cruelty. Now I am a pirate too, boy.
I am a piston. I am brittle, old, covered in burnt grease, waiting to snap.
I am a pirate, with a wooden sword, boy. I can fight like you.What I really need to do lose. I don’t kw how. I am afraid of losing, of taking away the safety net, of keeping it in place too long.
My soul bears the weight of becoming everything wrong for you, boy.
All I wanted was for my preschooler to be counter-cultural, cross-cultural, boho-chic and a feminist, straight outta the birth canal-ton.
Her first doll was a tiny, brown tinted baby doll for her to cuddle.
I gave in on the pink flannel nightie that made up the soft covering to her body, in exchange for a ban on Barbie that only lasted through kindergarten because her great-grandmother handmaid Barbie clothes.
We played her Moby and Lauren Hill, Public Enemy and Indigo Girls, Rich Mullins and Keith Green. We put as many people of color on our walls as white. We bought her science kits and learning toys. We bought her a toy accordion and we hid her toy accordion. We micromanaged her.
One Sunday she wanted to pick her own outfit. I refused. I had something boho chic in mind. –There’s a term for this studied un-studied look. Because I’m from Generation X, I have no idea what this word is. All I know is that my favorite outfit for my daughter was this red corduroy skirt with embroidered daisies on the hem, rainbow stripped tights, a flowered shirt and a plaid something or another. Patterns and textures. She wanted to be a truly disastrously mismatched mess. She didn’t get past the shirt before I overcame her will
I wrestled her into the tights and shirt. She fought back slippery as a cat being costumed.
In the weeks after, I saw signs everywhere. Because I knew in my nous, the seat of my soul, that I’d seeded her first and early rebellions: her stonewalling on clean up, her sudden hatred of her purple walls, her bursts of anger. One time she got so agitated in response to my “bedtime” call that she ran away from the computer game she was playing with a headset. The headset wire snapped as it popped off her head and the short fried the motherboard.
I sat down to revise a paper to discover the computer’s electrical system fried. All of my manuscripts of recent poetry and stories were on there. We paid two hundred dollars just to retrieve those, and more to fix the computer. Still I never did save them to the cloud. Gone. All of my writing, because I was a control freak.
Look at the kindergarten pictures, my tow-headed, curly haired, white daughter in her red corduroy skirt, in a Kodak pose, hand on knee conforming to the moment with a spark of rebel in her eyes, conflicted by when to do what.
Like when to carve A+ into the rear panel of our blue Honda and when to realize she should repent for trying to tell her parents how great she found her life, the world and us.
Next time, ask me about how I ruined her hair on her 16th birthday.
One of my favorite podcasts, Terrible, Thanks for Asking, put together a collection of “mom fails” for this coming Sunday’s celebration. She wanted bittersweet and funny, but I’m not funny like I used to be.
When I heard Nora McInerney’s pitch initially: we asked for your worst mom moments, I went full dark, full “internet confessional.”
I might need to revisit this in the sacrament of confession because I can’t recall if I confessed it as straight forwardly as I’m about to write it. In the sacrament of confession, I have a tendency to fall back on euphemisms when it comes to my suicidal ideation and drinking as self-medication. As a mother who has struggled with life-long depression and suicidal ideation, my worst moments should put my children in therapy for life. In my worst moments– and there are too many to recount here without you all showing up with straight jackets ready to commit me– I threw open the doors of my tortured soul and let them see how Voldemort I am. I love to damage myself. The worst memory happened sometime shortly after we came back to Indiana from seminary, while we were digging out of tens of thousands of dollars of debt and my job felt threatened so I started graduate school to save it. That’s like trying save a cheating spouse by meeting him at the door in nothing but plastic wrap. I think, but cannot recall fully, if it was after Naomi’s diagnosis, in which case, I can say for certain I was self-medicating my broken pelvic bone with sixteen ibuprofen a day and several fingers of bourbon every night. I drank to kill the fear, the anxiety and pain. I quit that until the last weeks of Naomi’s life, when again, I ended most nights in a forgettable rage. During my two hip fractures, the bourbon and vodka relieved the deep ache in my hips. But it always created a social anguish that inflicted pain on everyone nearby.
One night, when my teenage daughter had done the contemporary typical act of sneakily texting through an episode of The Office we’d asked her to share with us, –oh, how we wanted to connect– I knelt in by the refrigerator, raving about my fears, my hatred of my job, of the piles of obligations, and I showed my kids how to hurt. I slammed the door of the refrigerator against my right temple. The pain reverberated to the left side of my skull as it shuddered against wall. Then I curled into a fetal position for a few minutes until I saw the fear and horror on their faces. It wouldn’t be the last time.
If you have a mental illness and you are a mother, you have a responsibility to get help. That responsibility to take care of yourself is an act of selflessness, an act of love.
But in my next post, I want to go full McInerney. Like mistakes that might have damaged my kids, but a bit lighter. Also, I want to say, I cannot tell you stories of my mother’s failures. But I want to write a few anecdotes on how I want her remembered. Because I had some pretty pissy, petulant years as a young adult. I was horrible to my mom. I want to write about how she taught me to appreciate quality of beauty, books, aerobics and taking care of yourself, being a bit earthy-birthy, learning from your kids, having style, learning to give up ducks and old sand, and staying up late. I could write forever, in short bits, about what my parents gave me. I think I have a pedestal somewhere in my soul. I’ll dig it out and set them on it. (I’m looking at you too, Dad.)