I was at a family event recently and my four-year-old nephew was asking my mom about her wedding ring. Then he started asking everyone about their wedding ring. My brother said he had lost his. Other people showed theirs. Then he asked me. “Where’s your wedding ring?” I said I didn’t have one. “But who is your husband? Is it [name of my ex]?” No one really knew what to say. First of all, I didn’t realize he remembered my ex, because it’s been over a year But I just felt so sad. Even the four-year-old is noticing that there’s something different about me. Even he is noticing that i’m the one missing something, lacking.
[written for my writing group for the subject: Permit]
My second-grade teacher and my parents were at odds over how to deal with me. They didn’t know they were giving me such mixed messages because I didn’t tell my teacher about what was going on at home (although, having taught 7-year-olds, I am sure she knew something was wrong). And my parents never received any complaints from my school, just the occasional note that I seemed sad.
One afternoon that year, my teacher had us watch Free to Be You and Me, the 70’s TV special narrated by Alan Alda and some other people I don’t remember, all about being comfortable in your own skin, not putting labels on people, and various other hippie ideals that were not quite as popular in 1982, but that my teacher firmly believed in.
I remember very little about the TV show except for two things: the radical notion that boys and girls could like the same things and the song “It’s All Right to Cry.” You see, in my family, it wasn’t all right to cry. Crying was not permitted, at least for me. It was all right for my little sister to cry, and my mom was rarely not crying. I was pretty sure that my little brother or sister on the way was going to be crying most of the time. But for me, it had never been OK.
My mom had me when she was 25 – not that young by the standards of the day, but she was completely emotionally unprepared. To this day, when someone talks about how they might be less lonely if they had a baby, or how it would be nice to have a child so there would be someone who was always there, I have to walk away. I recently ended a friendship because my former friend spent tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments, confiding to me that, without a partner, she was really lonely, so even though she was financially and emotionally unprepared to have a baby, she just “really needed someone who loved her unconditionally.”
That’s exactly what my mother intended I would be for her.
It should really be no surprise then that she couldn’t handle me. From the time I learned to walk and talk (both around nine months old, which shocked everyone), I had opinions. Actually, I probably had opinions before then. I was not the malleable precious little doll-baby she had imagined, but was strong-willed and emotional, and she had no idea what to do with me. So she made the rule that I couldn’t cry. After all, only one of us could be upset at a time, and it was usually my mother.
This rule was enforced in different ways at different times. I’m not sure what the mandatory reporter laws were like in the late 70s and early 80s, but it was probably more convenient for everyone that I didn’t talk to my teachers about this enforcement. The mildest version was to be sent to my room if I cried, and if she could hear me through the closed door, the next threat was to have to spend the night in the garage. I never had to do that because I would put the pillow over my head and hold my breath, trying to stop myself from calling out for my parents, who were clearly not going to be any help.
If my mom wasn’t feeling patient, she’d slap me across the face which would generally do the trick. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” and all that. It’s hard to blame her – that would have been an act of love compared to what she grew up with. It’s no wonder that I grew up steeped in shame and fear; she had come by those honestly and passed them on to her children in our DNA and from her behavior
One day though, everything changed. I came home from school and something happened, and I cried, and she slapped me across the face. We had just watched the last part of Free to Be You and Me and I just wasn’t taking it any more. “My teacher says it’s OK to cry!” I yelled at her. “It was on TV! You can’t punish me for crying!”
I’m not sure she had any idea what I was talking about but I kept going. “If you hit me, I’m going to tell my teacher because I’M ALLOWED TO CRY!” I screamed at her. And went in my room to do precisely that.
That ended it. There were plenty of other problems in my family, but I wasn’t punished for crying anymore and she never hit me again.
But, of course, it didn’t really end it. The shame never left. I still feel it every time tears come – I shouldn’t be doing this, I’m disappointing people, I’m not good enough.
My nieces and nephew though – they don’t have this. They know it’s OK to cry. They know feelings matter and are valid, and they don’t feel ashamed when they express their feelings. The cycle of shame seems to be ending, and maybe it’s time for the adults to learn from the kids. They didn’t even need Alan Alda.
I had a wonderful day today. I took my four-year-old nephew across the bay in the ferry into the big city, where we had lunch and “treats” (truth be told, he had way more treats than lunch, but aunties get to spoil people, right?). It was an absolutely beautiful sunny day and he had fun making up stories about his stuffed bunny, riding the ferry, passing close by bridges, seeing fire boats and police boats, eating ice cream, and much more. It was absolutely joyful.
He’s still in the cuddly stage and is a little small for his age, so he sits on my lap and holds my hand, and I have to bend way down to hear what he’s saying as he chatters along about everything. He has the adorable little-kid trait of not yet speaking in contractions. On the way back, he said, “I cannot wait to tell Mommy and Daddy how much fun we had and everything we did that was so fun.” I’m a really good auntie!
It was wonderful. Then I came home and took a nap with my dog who is freshly washed and smells good and whose fur is so soft.
I couldn’t have asked for better.
So now, of course, my brain and its messed-up chemistry is kicking in. Now instead of realizing that it’s a blessing to be able to go home from a hot, busy, noisy day with a little boy I love and be alone and quiet, I am fixating on the fact that I’m alone. That no one would know right away if I lived or died. That there’s no one who puts me first in their life. That my nephew loves me but of course, his immediate family will always come first. I’ve managed to negate everything that was so special and wonderful about today.
Instead of realizing how wonderful I am to have such a wonderful dog, I’m worried about when she’ll die. She’s seven years old, barely, so she’s in the second half of her life but may have 5+ more years. And I’m wasting them by worrying about what I’ll do when she dies.
I don’t know if this is depression or growing up in an alcoholic family and always having to be prepared for the worst, because no one else was. I’m sure it’s both. But I do not want this legacy any more. I need to find a way to change this; I am not willing to go through the rest of my life losing out on this joy.
[I wrote this for a Story Slam for my local writers group recently]
I have seen my dad cry only once in my life. He never cried when he stopped drinking, or before that, when my mom threatened to take us and leave him if he couldn’t stop. He didn’t cry when my mom went into a psychiatric hospital because she was suicidal. He showed no obvious emotion when he’d tell us about his “real mom” who died of a brain tumor when he was ten years old. There were no tears from this man at my brother’s wedding, at my sister’s elopement party, when any of his grandchildren were born, or when we threw he and my mom a surprise 40th anniversary party. He didn’t cry at his father’s funeral.
I have seen my father cry only once, and it was when the neighbor’s dog killed our bunny.
My dad was not a fan of adopting this bunny. At the time, my parents had three children that my father never seemed quite used to, sometimes looking surprised to see us there, or to be addressed as “Dad.” In addition, our family already had two dogs, two cats, four ducks, a parakeet, two guinea pigs, and an opossum. So, it’s understandable that he didn’t want one more creature to take care of, but he agreed to let us keep the bunny when a friend needed to give it up.
For some reason, I had always wanted a pet rabbit. I imagined it snuggling up in my lap while I read, which my cats never seemed to want to do (possibly because I had dressed them up in doll clothes on a fairly regular basis). Instead, the rabbit turned out to be a biter; it never got along with any person or animal in the family. It was relegated to an outdoor hutch, and was essentially forgotten. I can’t remember if it had a name, or if it was male or female; we lost all interest in it. The rabbit was probably much happier living its little bunny life outside, away from kids who wanted to hug it or shove lettuce down its throat.
This rabbit would have been the most forgettable pet I’ve ever had, were it not for the way it met its end. Our neighbor’s dog managed to find a weak spot in the chicken wire of the rabbit hutch, and then found its prey. The rabbit didn’t look like it had suffered, and in fact, its lifeless body actually just looked like it was sleeping. It was surprisingly untraumatic.
By the time I was ten, our family was already used to having pet funerals, and had a section of the garden dedicated to burying various animals. Someday in the future, an archaeologist will be greatly interested in the variety of animal skeletons in this garden. We usually took turns saying nice things about the dearly departed pet, my mom would read a Bible verse, my dad would say a prayer, and we’d bury the pet with a homemade grave marker.
This time, though, everything was different. My dad started crying as soon as he laid eyes on the rabbit. None of us knew what to do. Dads didn’t cry–at least mine didn’t.
He couldn’t stop crying either. It wasn’t loud or dramatic, and he didn’t seem to see any of us. There was no embarrassment, just silent tears. I had no idea what was going on, and we eventually all left him alone. The rabbit was buried, none of us ever mentioned the tears, and we moved on.
As an adult, I’ve learned just how many tears my father probably had stored up; how many regrets he had, and how much pain was never acknowledged. I don’t know what it was about this one rabbit that unleashed these tears, but clearly there was a reservoir of pain that was waiting inside of him.
I’ve wanted to ask my dad about this, but there’s a barrier that has always been there. He treats emotions as a joke, talking about how feelings get in the way. Somewhere in there is the man who broke down, weeping over a rabbit without a name, but I’ve never seen him again. I’m not sure I ever will.
I got in a little fender bender – and I mean that literally. The other person’s fender was bent quite a little. I was backing up at probably 2 1/2 miles an hour and did the responsible thing and took care of it. I’ve been feeling absolutely horrible about myself ever since. I realized that the level of shame I have around this would be more appropriate for a DUI with injuries, not a tiny dent in a parked car
I was thinking about why this is when I made another mistake today. This wasn’t big at all – I went to an appointment without confirming it so I ended up driving about 20 minutes one-way for something I couldn’t do, wasting time that I needed to be doing work. Then when I was driving home, the drawbridge was up so it took about 45 minutes to get home.
The whole time, I could hear one message in my head: YOU ARE SO STUPID. over and over. StupidStupidStupidStupid. I’m not totally sure whose voice it is – some of it is from my parents but that was a long time ago. And they’ve apologized and done their best to make amends. But still it’s continuing: So stupid, so stupid, so stupid. It is easier to give in than fight it and I find myself almost singing along “I am so stupid, I am so stupid.” It’s terrifying how much control this voice can have over me and how it ended up being like a chorus on the way home. StupidStupidStupidStupid.
This isn’t what I want taking up space in my brain.
There’s a lot of shame around this topic for me. There’s a lot of things that added up to me getting myself pretty deeply in debt. College expenses and parents who said they’d pay and didn’t. Poor spending/saving/all financial habits – really a pattern in my family. And depression, always depression. Never being able to think clearly, but always being in that fog where I literally couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t and didn’t make good decisions, I got so overwhelmed in stores that I would buy whatever was in front of me instead of thinking about if I needed it, or I would spend money on things that I thought would make me feel better. Then, as I started coming out of the depression, I still couldn’t think about this. It was too big and felt like dark clouds were enveloping me. I just tried not to think about it, which didn’t make anything better.
I’m finally beginning to deal with it. That’s all I can write for now, because it’s still incredibly overwhelming and feels incredibly shameful. But I’m beginning.
OK, I’m writing something for the church newspaper, and my assignment was to write about how growing up in a family of artists affected me and my faith. This is what I have so far, and if anyone feels like giving me feedback (in the next 24 hours) I’d love honest feedback! Obviously, it’s not finished, if you look at what’s in brackets! I seem to have hit a wall in writing so I’ll try again tomorrow.
“Artist” is an incredibly emotionally loaded word for me. Art does not come naturally to me like some might think it would. [I need something else here, I think]
My mother’s family is made up completely of artists. We have poets, painters, sculptors, printmakers, musicians, photographers, and dancers. There are abstract artists, portrait artists, and landscape artists. Some had formal training and others just had it come naturally to them. Emails are sent around to family members about gigs people are playing, art shows coming up, photography blogs, and poetry prizes.
I don’t fit into this mold as well as most of my family members, since I’m one of the few non-professional artists. I like words and facts. I like words to mean what they’re supposed to mean and things to be described as they are.
I spent a lot of my childhood around artists, with all the wonderful and not-so-wonderful things that come along with that. I was always around oil paint, turpentine, and wood shavings, and can vividly remember each of those odors. Art and artists had strong positive and negative effects on me. I learned to paint when I was about eight years old and my grandfather decided that one hour of art every other Wednesday at school wasn’t enough, so he took me into his oil painting studio and let me use his supplies. I learned to see beauty – in art, in nature, in faces, in colors, and even just in shapes – a gift that I think adds a great deal to my life.
The stereotype of the tormented artist has a lot of truth in it, however, and there were also many negative effects on my life. Many of these artists in my family had substance abuse issues or mental illness. Depression abounded. Art was a way to disappear – people could, for a short period of time, erase themselves and offer a beautiful creation in the place of their frenetic thoughts, sorry, and low self-worth. Even as a child, I was confused about this.
[connecting these two paragraphs]
Somehow, I have not only always believed in God, but I’ve always known that I was being taken care of. I’ve been able to use art to remind me of God’s faithfulness, and of the fact that I am redeemed. At times I have wished that I could not believe – when I’m angry or disappointed in God. For some reason, I can’t not believe
[something about experiencing God through art]